In 2002, Rear Admiral Lawrence Chambers was reunited with a Vietnamese family he had last seen in 1975 in the South China Sea.
After the United States withdrew from the Vietnam War, Communists forces in the North began their descent on Saigon. By April 1975, South Vietnamese were scrambling to get out any way they could. One of the most reprinted images after the war was that of people trying to get into a helicopter above the U.S. embassy as it left Saigon. Major Bung-Ly and his family weren’t able to get out that way.
With no good options left, he crammed himself, his wife and their five children into a single-seat Cessna O-1 Bird Dog to escape. As Ly flew through dense fog, he came under Viet Cong fire and found himself heading out to sea without knowing what was ahead of him. Miles from shore and running low on fuel, he spotted the USS Midway in the South China Sea. He flew toward it with hopes of landing on the carrier’s large deck. As he got closer, however, he saw that the flight deck was filled with helicopters that had been used to evacuate Saigon.
Ly had no radio, and he didn’t want to fly too low because he was afraid the crew might think he was attacking them and shoot down his plane. So he decided to fly close enough to drop a note onto the deck asking for permission to land. He tied the note to a knife and threw it out of the plane. As he watched it fall, however, a gust of wind caught it and kept it from hitting its target. He tried again with a boot and then a key chain but missed with those as well.
Finally, the crew of the USS Midway saw a survival pistol land on the deck with a note attached that read, “Can you move these helicopters to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly one hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me, Major Bung-Ly, wife and 5 children.”
Admiral Chambers got the message, and his heart went out to the family. He wanted to help them. The problem was these weren’t just any old helicopters. They were UH-1 Hueys — large transport helicopters that were also very expensive. Chambers knew there really wasn’t enough room to move them and decided there was only one thing he could do. Not wanting to miss this opportunity to help, he ordered his men to clear the decks. And they did — pushing $10 million worth of helicopters overboard into the sea.
Once the decks were clear, the Cessna prepared to land, touched down once, bounced and rolled to a stop. All seven members of Major Bung-Ly’s family crawled out of the small plane safe and unharmed.
This story reminds me of Dr. Hubert Morken, one of my favorite professors in graduate school. He also barely got out of an Asian country as Communists took over. In 1950, at the age of 6, he and his missionary family had to evacuate China as the Red Army advanced — taking one of the last boats out.
But more than his story, it’s the phrase “clear the decks” that makes me think of Dr. Morken. It’s the metaphor he used as a way to encourage his students to be prepared for action and opportunity.
During a recent visit I asked him where he got that phrase. “It’s an ancient term that told sailors to get ready for action,” he explained. When the captain told them to clear the decks, they would stow their hammocks, put away any tables, chairs or other loose items and make sure there was nothing cluttering the deck. He made the connection to the need to clear out any clutter in his personal life that might keep him from being ready for action.
It was something that C.S. Lewis said that challenged him to apply “clear decks” to his use of time. “Lewis encourages us to do an inventory of our time. He says there are things we have to do — like working a job or parenting kids, things we ought to do like exercise or care for the needy and things we want to do like read or explore a hobby. The problem, however, is that when we look closely it’s astonishing how much we do that doesn’t fit any of those categories.” This motivated Dr. Morken to attack wasted time — to keep his decks clear for important things.
After the writer of Hebrews goes through the faith hall of fame, he sums up by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hindrances and entanglements are just as much a drag for sailors as they are for runners. Loose cords and gears can turn harmful when conditions change quickly. Peak performance goes hand in hand with clear decks.
What my wife and I took away from Dr. Morken’s comments in graduate school was, “Don’t let your life get cluttered.” But what does an uncluttered life look like?
We started first by applying the principle to our schedule — cutting out time wasters and being very careful about taking on new commitments. We also attempted to fight clutter in our home by not letting things accumulate — by trying to get projects done quickly and to keep our house in shape. As much as possible, we try to handle, file or toss paperwork that comes through to keep it from piling up. We also make frequent runs to Goodwill to drop off clothes, toys and other things we no longer need.
We’ve even tried to keep clear decks financially — by tackling the clutter of debt and trying to keep our possessions from possessing us. We’ll admit, however, that this area can be a tough deck to clear.
We’ve come to see the benefits of clear decks in many areas of our lives — anywhere that removing clutter and keeping things clear can make a difference.
But I didn’t realize until recently that I’d only seen the half of it.
“There are two aspects to this principle,” Dr. Morken reminded me in our conversation. “There’s the idea of keeping your decks clear for action — of maintaining an uncluttered life in preparation for opportunity. But then there’s what you do when opportunities appear.”
Going back to naval history, he explained that sailors before the 20th century would keep basically clear decks so that they would be ready for action. But when action came and the captain yelled, “Clear the decks!” the sailors really got to work. “They did whatever it took to get clutter out of the way so that they could fight a battle,” Morken said. “Often they’d take tables and chairs and anything else that was in the way and just throw them right overboard. These were things that had been useful in the past, but were holding them back now.”
“This is the tough part,” Morken explained. “The Bible talks about pruning away branches so that the tree will be more fruitful. Cutting hurts, but it brings growth.” He told me about a friend who had accumulated a lot of commitments to good things, but no longer had room in his life for new opportunities from God. “I told him, ‘You have to routinely evaluate your commitments to make sure your life isn’t cluttered with activities that are no longer fruitful.’ You have to be willing to cut those things off so that you can grow in other areas.”
Our problem is that we get comfortable in the security of what has worked in the past. But Paul says, “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
When God sends opportunities our way, it often requires us to leave the security of things behind us in order to act on what is ahead of us. The UH-1 Hueys were the perfect tool for transporting people out of Saigon. But by the time the Bung-Ly family was looking for a place to land, they had become obstacles.
In the same way that the crew of the USS Midway dumped those expensive helicopters, when the right opportunity comes along God might call us to leave behind possessions and commitments that once were perfectly in line with His will, but are not anymore.
Morken points to the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl in Matthew 13:44-46 as examples of bold responses to opportunities that come our way:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
“This is consistent with something you often hear from financial advisors: If you want to prosper, the first thing you need to do is get rid of your clutter,” Morken shared. “Go through everything you have and clean out whatever you are not using or no longer need — sell it or give it away.”
Ultimately, all we have — our money, possessions, time and talents — belong to God. He has the right at anytime to call on us to use those for His purposes or even to leave them behind in order to do a new thing.
When the tiny Cessna that Bung-Ly piloted was put on display in the Air and Space Museum at Wright/Patterson, Marji Hazen read the story in the local paper and wrote a song called “Clear the Decks.” The chorus goes, “Clear the deck! Shove ’em over. Never mind the millions.”
As you think about your own life, look for every opportunity to get rid of clutter — and perhaps even big, important things that have become obstacles — in order to be available for action and opportunity in God’s kingdom. Whatever it is that might be holding you back, be willing to trust God’s commands as the captain of your ship. You never know what adventures are ahead when He calls out to you, “Clear the decks!”
Copyright 2004 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.