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Mercy at 5,000 Feet

You get ’em and I get ’em.

They are almost unavoidable these days.

Internet chain letters.

Andy Rooney (a professing atheist) calling America to pray.

George Carlin (a hard leftist) offering observations about what’s wrong with America that sound like an episode of  Rush Limbaugh.

And then the most delightful part of all – They usually promise death, financial ruin, or at least prickly heat for those who don’t send the message along to at least 25 of their closest friends they would like to alienate.

But every now and then a rose is found among those thorns.

Hence the picture you see above.

Here’s the story:

Charlie Brown was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th Bomber Group at

Kimbolton , England . His B-17 was called ‘Ye Old Pub’ and was in a terrible

state, having been hit by flak and fighters. The compass was damaged and they

were flying deeper over enemy territory instead of heading home to Kimbolton.

Look carefully at the B-17 and note how shot up it is – one engine dead, tail,

horizontal stabilizer and nose shot up.. It was ready to fall out of the sky. (This is

a painting done by an artist from the description of both pilots many years later.)

Then realize that there is a German ME-109 fighter flying next to it.

After flying the B-17 over an enemy airfield, a German pilot named Franz Steigler

was ordered to take off and shoot down the B-17. When he got near the B-17, he

could not believe his eyes. In his words, he ‘had never seen a plane in such a bad

state’. The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner

wounded. The top gunner was all over the top of the fuselage.  The nose was

smashed and there were holes everywhere.

Despite having ammunition, Franz flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at

Charlie Brown, the pilot. Brown was scared and struggling to control his

damaged and blood-stained plane.

Franz Steigler  (above)                  Charles Brown

Aware that they had no idea where they were going, Franz waved at Charlie to

turn 180 degrees. Franz escorted and guided the stricken plane to, and slightly

over, the North Sea towards  England . He then saluted Charlie Brown and

turned away, back to  Europe .  When Franz landed he told the CO that the plane

had been shot down over the sea, and never told the truth to anybody. Charlie

Brown and the remains of his crew told all at their briefing, but were ordered

never to talk about it.

More than 40 years later, Charlie Brown wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who

saved the crew. After years of research, Franz was found. He had never talked

about the incident, not even at post-war reunions.

When asked why he didn’t shoot them down, Stigler later said, “I didn’t have the

heart to finish those brave men.  I flew beside them for a long time.  They were

trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that.  I could not

have shot at them.  It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a


Both men died in 2008.

Lots of spiritual applications could be drawn from this amazing story, but I’d like to leave you with just one to consider.

What does it mean to do the right thing?

The legalist will tell you to follow the book.

And the book would have told Franz Steigler to shoot down that plane.

The pragmatist would say, “He fights and flies away, lives to fight another day.”

Better destroy that plane before its crew can get another and do more damage.

But mercy would say, help the hurting.

Jesus told a story that reveals that same choice.

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’

And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.

So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’

So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Legalism said, “I can’t touch that man. It will defile me!”

Pragmatism said, “I can’t stop. I’ve got a job to do for God.”

Mercy said, “Take care of him.”

Seems we are often faced with similar decisions in dealing with people.

Legalism, pragmatism and mercy will all make their case.

I wonder what I would have done if I had been in Franz Steigler’s place.

How about you?

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