It was a soldier’s worst nightmare. Enemy fire was heavy when the fighter plane of Howard Rutledge was hit. His plane exploded in fiery hot metal and began spinning wildly out of control, plummeting to the earth. By the grace of God Howard was able to eject himself from his plane and deploy his parachute. He thanked the Lord profusely as he descended to the earth. It was one of the first times in years that he had done so.
Upon landing he knew he had to try to hide but it was not to be. Immediately he was surrounded by hostile villagers as he was attacked, stripped naked, and carried off to prison. It would turn into seven years of torture. But in this darkest of hour Howard discovered the most precious truth.
“The sights and sounds and smells of death were all around me. My hunger for spiritual food soon outdid my hunger for a steak. Now I wanted to know about that part of me that will never die. Now I wanted to talk about God and Christ and the church. But in Heartbreak solitary confinement there was no pastor, no Sunday-school teacher, no Bible, no hymnbook, no community of believers to guide and sustain me. I had completely neglected the spiritual dimension of my life. It took prison to show me how empty life is without God, and so I had to go back in my memory to those Sunday-school days in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If I couldn’t have a Bible and hymnbook, I would try to rebuild them in my mind…I tried desperately to recall snatches of Scripture, sermons, gospel choruses from childhood, and hymns we sang in church.
The hunger for spiritual things was not just a yearning of his own. In those brief seconds where other prisoners passed each other, they would rapidly exchange verses or parts of hymns. One day a fellow prisoner remembered the story of Ruth and Naomi. Howard and the others fed off that story for days, meditating on those precious words.
“How I struggled to recall those Scriptures and hymns! I had spent my first eighteen years in a Southern Baptist Sunday school, and I was amazed at how much I could recall. Regrettably, I had not seen then the importance of memorizing verses from the Bible, or learning gospel songs. Now, when I needed them, it was too late. I never dreamed that I would spend almost seven years (five of them in solitary confinement) in a prison in North Vietnam or that thinking about one memorized verse could have made the whole day bearable.
“One portion of a verse I did remember was, ‘Thy word have I hid in my heart.’ How often I wished I had really worked to hide God’s Word in my heart. I put my mind to work. Every day I planned to accomplish certain tasks. I woke early, did my physical exercises, cleaned up as best I could, then began a period of devotional prayer and meditation. I would pray, hum hymns silently, quote Scripture, and think about what the verse meant to me.
“Remember, we weren’t playing games. The enemy knew that the best way to break a man’s resistance was to crush his spirit in a lonely cell… All this talk of Scripture and hymns may seem boring to some, but it was the way we conquered our enemy and overcame the power of death around us.”