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Finding Peace in Persecution

2 Corinthians 12:9-10But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

It was on November 28, 1965, that fighter pilot Howard Rutledge’s plane was shot down right into the hands of the North Vietnam Army. Quickly he was shuttled to the “Heartbreak Hotel,” one of the notorious prisons in Hanoi. These are his own words describing the experience:

When the door slammed and the key turned in that rusty, iron lock, a feeling of utter loneliness swept over me. I lay down on that cold cement slab in my 6×6 prison. The smell of human excrement burned my nostrils. A rat, large as a small cat, scampered across the slab beside me. The walls and floors and ceiling were caked with filth. Bars covered a tiny window high above the door. I was cold and hungry; my body ached from the swollen joints and sprained muscles…

It’s hard to decide what solitary confinement can do to uneven and defeat a man. You quickly tire of standing up or sitting down, sleeping or being awake. There are no books, no paper or pencils, no magazines or newspapers. The only colors you see are drab gray and dirty brown. Months or years may go by when you don’t see the sunrise or the moon, green grass or flowers. You are locked in, alone and silent in your filthy little cell breathing stale, rotten air and trying to keep your sanity.

During those long periods of enforced reflection, it became so much easier to separate the important from the trivial, the worth-while from the waste…  My hunger for spiritual food soon outdid my hunger for steak…I wanted to know about the part of me that will never die…I wanted to talk about God and Christ and the church…It took prison to show me how empty life is without God…

On August 31. After twenty-eight days of torture, I could remember I had children but not how many. I said Phyllis’ name over and over again so I would not forget. I prayed for strength. It was on that twenty-eighth night I made God a promise. If I survived this ordeal, the first Sunday back in freedom I would take Phyllis and my family to their church and…confess my faith and join the church. This wasn’t a deal with God to get me through that last miserable night, it was a promise made after months of thought. It took prison and hours of painful reflection to realize how much I needed God and the community of believers. After I made God that promise, again I prayed for strength to make it through the night. 

When the morning dawned through the crack in the bottom of that solid prison door, I thanked God for His mercy.  (Howard and Phyllis Rutledge with Mel White and Lyla White, In the Presence of Mine Enemies-1965-1973: A Prisoner of War).