As a young man, my Army chaplain father told me a true story about 672 men who perished in the middle of the night during World War II. On Jan. 23, 1943, the SS Dorchester departed New York City Harbor, heading east across the icy North Atlantic with over 900 servicemen on board. Most were newly trained American soldiers on their way to Europe to serve in the war. Four of them—Methodist minister Rev. George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Reformed Church minister Rev. Clark Poling, and Roman Catholic priest Rev. John Washington—were recently commissioned Army chaplains, who worked hard to keep up the morale of the troops in a ship claustrophobically packed to capacity.
Close to 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, a German submarine spotted the Dorchester 150 miles from the coast of Greenland and fired three torpedoes at it. One struck the starboard side far below the water line, causing irreparable damage and immediately killing scores of men. The entire vessel would sink to the bottom of the Atlantic within 30 minutes. The captain gave the order to abandon ship. Men searched for life jackets and rafts in the dark, desperately trying to save their lives.
The four chaplains quickly went into action, quietly and calmly guiding men in the blackened ship. They led their fellow soldiers to where they could evacuate the vessel, opened a deck locker filled with extra life jackets, and distributed them to the panicked soldiers. They gave up their gloves and hats; eventually, when there were no more life jackets, the four chaplains took off their own vests and made others put them on. Witnesses such as Sgt. Kenzel Linaweaver of the 304th Infantry and Robert C. Williams recounted that it was the most astonishing act of courage they ever saw. Two men already floating in the oily water, Sgt. Thomas Myers and PFC John O’Brien, remembered hearing screams of panic from the men still on board, followed by words of courage and hope from the chaplains. At last glimpse, the four chaplains were seen arm-in-arm, singing and praying together as the Dorchester slipped underwater.
My father, Calvin Causey, knew Clark’s father, Dan Poling, personally. Once, on a walk together, Poling explained to my father that he had spoken to Clark a few days before the Dorchester set sail. The young army lieutenant told his father, “Please do not pray for my safe return; that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray that I shall be adequate.”
My own father choked up before he could finish the story. “The four chaplains were more than adequate,” he said softly. “They did their duty.”
What would inspire men to take off their life jackets, give them to other men, and go down with the ship? It is obvious that, in a very short time, the four chaplains had developed a robust identity as servants of God. That identity and their calling to serve shaped them more than the very natural instinct of self-preservation. No doubt, not all four men had the same courage that night, but witnessing each other’s bravery and fortitude bound them together in a united mission to serve their fellow soldiers.
As men, our main purpose in life radiates around taking care of other people: Our immediate families, our work associates, the communities we are part of, our aging parents. Like the four Army chaplains, we are called to serve others and lead by example, to occupy our space and not shrink back from it. Trust comes from delivering on our promises and commitments. When men speak encouraging words to others and perform deeds of valor, they become everything the Master made them to be, and they encourage other men to do the same.
The words we say as men are very important.
The deeds we do as men are equally vital.
Aligning our words and deeds is crucial for an impactful life.
Most men fundamentally comprehend that deeds are important. A deed is an intentional action. In the context of this book, a deed is something beneficial, a good work, a kind act, an aid rendered. It is a deed that accomplishes something in life. There is an entire nursery rhyme denigrating words that are not complemented by deeds.
“A Man of Words and Not of Deeds”
A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds
And when the weeds begin to grow
It’s like a garden full of snow
And when the snow begins to fall
It’s like a bird upon the wall
And when the bird away does fly
It’s like an eagle in the sky
And when the sky begins to roar
It’s like a lion at the door
And when the door begins to crack
It’s like a stick across your back
And when your back begins to smart
It’s like a penknife in your heart
And when your heart begins to bleed
You’re dead, and dead, and dead indeed.
In order to live a good life, it is necessary to do good deeds for others. The reason many men—Moses, King David, Constantine, Charlemagne, Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Mozart, George Washington, and Thomas Edison, to name a few—are called “great” is because they accomplished great deeds. These men did more than the average man; they put their lives to work for other people.
I often think about the four chaplains from the opening story. These men positively impacted other human lives with their words, deeds and examples. It did not take an entire lifetime for them to accomplish something great; they took a step of faith in a harrowing moment and are now enshrined in the annals of brave deeds. Though many of us may never know the extent of our actions while living here on earth, we must realize that simple steps of faith and courage on a daily basis can echo in eternity and impact people we will never meet.
In a speech titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” President Theodore Roosevelt said:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Do you ever feel like the man in the arena? With a face marred by dust and sweat and blood? Do you sometimes feel alone, fighting a battle no one else can see? So many people remain outside the arena, easily able to point out how the strong man stumbles and where he could have performed better. It is much more comfortable there. It is safer where there is no sacrifice. However, men outside the arena will never fully experience victory or defeat. They will not know the deepest joys and pains in life.
Has anyone ever asked you to “put in a good word” for them? What they mean is to elevate them somehow in another person’s eyes. A good word is speech or writing that is desirable, approving, or morally right. It is normally used to encourage someone or to motivate them to action. When Abraham Lincoln warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” he was not only offering his own good words—he was drawing on good words from the Bible to mark a moment and direct the course of history. When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” he invested a simple phrase—four syllables in four words—with the weight of history and the force of moral courage.
Words are incredibly powerful and can be a force for good or for harm. As many of us men realize, the old preschool saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not true. Words can hurt people deeply and have a lasting effect.
We live in a society where a man’s word doesn’t have much value anymore. A friend of mine told me that when her grandfather was a young man purchasing part of a neighbor’s farm, the two only shook hands and the farmer said, “Your word is better than a piece of paper.” Now, a simple handshake will not do.
When we make promises to one another, we often “give them my word” and offer assurances that “my word is my bond.” The other person decides whether to “take us at our word.” We might reinforce our position by offering, “Don’t take my word for it” and refer the listener to some independent source of verification. In each case, “my word” is an allusion to “my character,” an implicit acknowledgment that the words we say have real meaning; our character can in fact be judged by them.
But the sad flow of history has meant that one person’s word—a simple yes or no—is no longer supported by confidence in his character. Instead of “my word,” we resort to pages and pages of words—not our words but the words of our lawyers—densely written, highly technical legal language packed with caveats and conditions and exit clauses. This is what happens when we fail to follow through on what we say.
Societal promises are broken repeatedly, even when a man gives his word. Marriage vows are an example of this duplicity: On average, they are only kept half the time. Political promises are kept even less often than that. According to research conducted by the Barna Group, there are 114 million men in America who have nothing to do with church, yet 41 percent—46 million—of them say their religious faith is very important in their life today. How is this possible?
The words we say as men are paramount. I could even argue they are critical to sustaining life. Sometimes, merely by the act of saying words has a beneficial result. Take, for instance, President Franklin Roosevelt’s assurance to the nation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This is an example of words strengthening an entire society—not a preamble to a policy but a moral, rhetorical declaration. Words are more important than we can ever imagine: Good words can help win wars, help conquer racism, allocate life-saving funds, and strengthen churches, marriages, friendships, communities, and human lives.
In warfare, words are used not merely as persuasive pre-battle speeches; they are used throughout the day, in every battle, for the entire war. Battle plans are communicated to subordinate commanders ahead of time in an operations order; fragmentary orders are given by military leaders to provide a change of plans at decisive points during the battle; speeches are given by commanders after the battle; and combat experiences are retold by soldiers when they return home. Words of strategy are written in regulations, field manuals and the magazines soldiers read in order to learn their military occupational specialty. Written war plans are encoded via secret messages, the Internet, walkie-talkies, and military radios. All these methods effectively utilize words to help win a battle.
In marriage, words are used to win a mate, commit to her in the marriage ceremony, and support and encourage her throughout the relationship. As the years progress, words are used to continually woo a wife and make her feel like the girl from that first date.
In a family, words are used to teach children manners, coax them to eat their vegetables, do their homework or mow the lawn. Words are also used to speak truth into people’s lives, expressing their worth to you and to God. Encouraging words give elderly parents satisfaction in their parenting and sometimes hope for a future. Words also encourage siblings who are down on their luck to continue to run the race and fight the good fight.
Conversely, the lack of good words can influence a society negatively: Adolf Hitler’s speeches and writings implicated an entire country in racist, imperialist, genocidal practices; Marie Antoinette’s dismissive “Let them eat cake” fueled the fires of revolution in France; cult leader Jim Jones’s self-promoting words induced nearly a thousand followers to drink poison.
Good words are absolutely vital to function in society. We cannot merely be men of deeds and not words. Words are necessary. Words can be used for great good. Our words can protect someone from tripping over an obstacle, save a marriage, shield a child from an accident, or save a life by giving someone words of hope.
In my work as an army chaplain, sometimes a soldier I’ve never met will come into my office with tear-filled eyes, and the words I communicate to him or her in the next moments are critical. The words we men say to our spouses, our bosses, our work colleagues, our friends and our neighbors are imperative to sustain our relationships here on earth. Therefore, even though there may not be nursery rhymes elevating words over deeds, words are also crucial for a successful life.
A Presbyterian preacher by the name of Nathaniel Randolph Snowden captured an event in his diary of remembrances, and it remains a testament of history to this day. In the document, Rev. Snowden describes meeting a man by the name of Isaac Potts, who lived and worked at Valley Forge in the late 1770s. They shared a carriage together and Potts told Snowden about running into George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
Isaac Potts, a British sympathizer who owned and operated a gristmill at Valley Forge during the time of the Continental Army encampment, told Snowden that on a snowy day in 1777, he was walking through the woods and heard someone deep in prayer, beseeching God for the success of the Continental Army and the American cause. When he walked closer, he noticed a lone man: Gen. George Washington. When Potts returned home, he told his wife the British were sure to lose. Then he immediately changed his loyalties, became a patriot, and did whatever he could to support the colonists.
Think of the impact Washington’s prayer had at Valley Forge. It not only caused Isaac Potts to shift from British Loyalist to American Patriot, it might have also influenced his neighbors, family, church, town—and thus the entire war. Reflect also on Washington’s heroic actions during the Revolutionary War. His prayers and letters to Congress urging them for more resources are testaments of his words; his leadership and involvement in battles against the British are testaments of his deeds.
Words and deeds are absolutely indispensable to life. And the two must be aligned.
And whatever you do in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. —Colossians 3:17 (NIV)
Taken from Words and Deeds by Charles Causey. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Originally published in the June/July 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.