Sunday, April 20, 2014

Faith in the Military: Friends for Life

In the middle of the picture above is Sgt. Abel Lopez.  This shot was taken in the Bravo Company, 70th Armor, motor pool in 1977.  We wore gas masks two hours at a random time every week. While we were masked we continued normal activity.  On this rainy day in Germany, normal activity included a Can-Can Dance.

And they are good.  I believe it is Gene Pierce on the left and Donnie Spears on the right of Abel, but I am not sure.

I listened to dozens of sermons and read books the base chaplain suggested.  Abel and I talked about everything we both were learning.  We were both trying to figure out what it meant to be a believer and what we should do to follow the Lord.  

C.S. Lewis said in his book The Four Loves that friends separated by time and distance will, when reunited pick up the conversation where they left it.  All through 1977 in the motor pool or in the field, when we had down time, Abel and I would start talking about prophecy, worship, versions of the Bible, books about the Bible, a sermon one or both of us heard, or a thousand other topics.  

In 1978, when I got assigned to Brigade HQ, the conversation had more interruptions, but it kept going.  In 1979, Abel finished his tour and went home.  Ever since we have talked about once a month, though sometimes circumstances keep us from talking for a few months at a time.  Thirty-five years later, we are discussing what we each read, where we go to Church, who we fellowship with, and should a Christian be involved in politics.  Less than a week ago, prophecy came up again when Abel and I talked.

One of the things that led me to re-enlist in 2007 was the hope of finding really serious believers to talk with.  I never met civilians who talk about faith the same way soldiers do.  

This series is clearly going past Holy Week.  I want to get to Iraq and I have not yet said how Jerry Falwell made me a Democrat.  I will get to that later this week.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Faith in the Military: Looking for the True Church in a Tank in Germany

The picture above is the commander's machine gun mount in an M60A1 tank.  Once I stopped looking for all the signs of the Tribulation, I started trying to figure out which Church I should belong to.  

When I went to a Baptist Church, they taught me the elect were only those who were saved by Jesus, but they strongly suggested that unless you knew how to ask correctly, you were not among the true elect.  When I joined a Charismatic fellowship, they said the same thing in a different way.  If you did not have the "Full Gospel" then you probably were not among the elect.  They were nicer, but also pretty much believed the Narrow Way to Heaven was through them.

I was uncomfortable thinking how many billions of people were going to Hell and I also thought some people who were sure they were going to Heaven were overconfident.  C.S. Lewis turned my thinking around with Mere Christianity.  Lewis said the elect were in every Church.  Those in every Church who were looking for the Lord and striving to do what He wanted were in every Church.  So the "True Church" was wherever believers gathered.  The false Church was right there in the same place because there were always going to be people in the Church for reasons having nothing to do with loving God and enjoying Him forever.

That was so liberating.  So the Church on the human level was just like every other organization including the Army.  In the Army we all knew who was a real soldier, who was a real tanker, and we very much knew who was not.  Every sports team is the same.  The real players and the posers are obvious to everyone.  

At this time I got a cassette player and headphones.  I started listening to sermons.  In particular, I listened to dozens of sermons by the evangelist James Robison and teaching tapes by Robert Mumford.  These two guys disagreed on a lot, but both gave me a lot of insight into the Church.  Robison was a stirring preacher, filling stadiums.  Listening to him, I got the fundamentalist culture in an entertaining way.  Mumford focused on the Holy Spirit in history and gave me a sweeping view of how the Church could begin in unity on Pentecost and become the crazy quilt of beliefs it is today.

At the end of 1977, my future career became clear.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

Faith in the Military: In Heidelberg Faith Goes to My Head

In 1977 I climbed into an Army tour bus for a free trip to Heidelberg, West Germany, to see the annual fireworks.

But I missed half of the event.  From the time we arrived, I sat on the bus reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  The base chaplain gave me a copy just saying he thought I would like it.  I was entranced.  I started reading the book on the bus and couldn't stop.  I stayed on the bus and kept reading while the other soldiers wandered around Heidelberg waiting for nightfall.

Reading this book I came to understand that learning and Christianity were not mutually exclusive.  I entered Christianity through the anti-intellectual door of the Baptist Church and started to wonder if being stupid was the best path to faith.  Taking the Bible literally makes many people suspicious of all learning:  science, philosophy, economics, literature, history.  And here was Lewis bringing every branch of learning together in service of the faith.

By the end of the Heidelberg trip, I was thinking of leaving the Army to go to college full time.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Faith in the Military: Pumped About Prophecy on the East-West German Border

The year of America's bicentennial, I was a proud member of Brigade '76, a combat brigade sent to reinforce the East-West border at Fulda, West Germany:  right where the experts thought World War 3 would begin.  We flew to Germany from Fort Carson, Colorado, at the beginning of October.  Within two days we were in our tanks and on the border rolling past Soviet tanks on the other side of the fence.

While we drove past the fence, the Soviet tanks tracked us with their main guns.  We were not allowed to be provocative, so our guns were pointed away from the border.  Our mission was to hold the advancing 250,000 soldiers for 10 minutes to give tactical aircraft time to fly to our position and destroy the advancing enemy.  At one of the briefings when this was explained to us, a young soldier asked the Colonel on stage, "What do we do next?"  

The answer, "Nothin' son.  You'll be dead."

One the plane over to Germany I read Hal Lindsey's book "The Late Great Planet Earth."  I became one of those prophecy nuts.  I and many other believers in our unit were convinced World War 3 would happen before our three-year tour in Germany ended.  And in any case, the world was going to end by 1988.  In the field and in the barracks, many of us had long discussions about the significance of every sort of symbol in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  

It was very exciting to have this kind of inside knowledge about world events.  At that time, as now, the people who took Revelation literally also took Genesis literally.  If you thought the world was ending in 1988, you also thought it was created at about 4,000 B.C.

And it was this fact that eventually got me out of the swirling world of prophecy and back into fellowship with believers who were trying to live in faith in the present, not fixate on the future.  Over that first year in Germany, I came to see that those who took the ends of the Bible literally were not naive literalists, but very sophisticated in their literalism.  The same people preachers who push literal interpretations of Genesis and Revelation have very sophisticated reasons ready to hand about why the difficult teachings of Jesus need not be taken literally.  The same person who insists he takes the Bible literally will dodge in a nuanced way the story of the rich, young ruler in the Gospel of Luke, Ch. 18.

"That is for a specific person in a specific time," is the standard answer.  Really?  If literal is your claim, wouldn't it be better to do as Jesus says and risk suffering?  By diving in the deep end of the literal reading pool, I got to see just how incredibly selective literal reading was.  I never found anyone who would or could take the Bible completely literally.  And the rule turned out to be, the less the literal reading interfered with your life, the more literal you were likely to read that passage.    

The following year at annual tank gunnery, I read the Bible through in two weeks waiting for fog to clear on the tank gunnery range at Grafenwohr, West Germany.  This time I read the Living Bible.  The vast difference between the King James Bible and the Living Bible led me to ask about the original.  Where did the Bible come from.  I knew that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek.  But I did not know that the all of the New Testament except Luke and Acts were written by men who spoke Aramaic.  They spoke and wrote Greek as a second language.  

So the people who were so crazed about taking the Bible literally, were trying to be literal with words that were spoken in Aramaic and written in Greek by Aramaic speakers, then translated into English 1600 years later.  

It was at this point that Abel Lopez and I started talking Scripture rather than prophecy.  Abel was the commander of the tank next to mine.  We switched from literalism to the splits within the Church.  On post was both a Charismatic fellowship and a Bible Baptist fellowship.  The Baptists were sure the Charismatics were going to Hell.  The Charismatics just thought the Baptists were wrong.  Both sides wanted Abel and I to take sides.

We learned a lot over the next two years.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Faith in the Military: I Switched to the Army, and Believed in my Tank

By re-enlisting in the Army, I was running away from God, or at least running away from the people who said they knew Jesus loved them.

I volunteered for Armor and became the platoon guide (student leader) at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  From the first day at Fort Knox, I liked the Army so much better than the Air
Force.  I was finally in the military.  We marched, we ran the obstacle course, and we had classes in tanks in the sun in July and August. 

Since I came to faith in America, not in a Muslim or Communist country, I did not know that suffering is one of the definite promises of Scripture. The Lord and the Apostles said suffering is a mark of faith.  And their example is one of intense suffering. 

It would be another year before I would find out there was a “health and wealth Gospel” and a few more years before I understood this was a perverse twist on real faith.  But the Army and leadership in the Army were teaching me the lessons I missed by not playing sports in high school. 

I never stopped believing during the year that followed, but I stopped learning about the faith.  I started learning about tanks.  The first year I believed, in 1974, I read through the King James Bible.  My first year as a tank commander I read through entire operators manual for the M60A1 main battle tank.  As far as I know, I was the only tank commander in the battalion who read the entire 800-page manual.  It worked out well for me.  At annual gunnery my first year as a tank commander we fired in the top 10% of the battalion.  It’s like shooting Expert with a rifle or a pistol.

In September of 1976, then entire 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division relocated from Fort Carson, Colorado, to Wiesbaden, West Germany.  In Germany, my tank became my job and my faith became vivid again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Faith in the Military: Which Church to Attend?

First I was blind.  Then I believed.  Then I got my sight back.  I should have quit smoking right at that moment.  It was soooooo hard to light cigarettes when the slightest flash was blinding.  I had to flick the lighter and look out of the corner of my eye to get the cigarettes lit.

As my sight and use of my fingers returned, I had to get to the practical matter of going to Church.  I knew enough about faith from Collin that Christianity was not a solitary faith.  I had to commit to a Church, or at least start attending one.  The base chapel was not an option.  Then as now, whatever the military blesses as faith is what the old soldiers believe.  In the 1970s, the military chapel system was run mostly by priests and pastors from Catholic and Mainline Protestant denominations.

In a later post, I will talk about today's chapel system, but for now, I was not going to the base chapel.

Since I was in Utah, the biggest Church was the Mormon Church.  I went to a Baptist Church just off post.  It was founded by non-Mormons who worked at Hill Air Force Base.  In fact, the pastor of this Church believed his main mission beyond leading the Church was to convert Mormons to Christianity.

This may seem strange, but before 1980, most Churches, especially those that were theologically conservative, had a statement of faith that was central to their mission and membership.  Christians actually believed doctrine was a matter of life and death, at least spiritually.  After I read the Bible (King James, of course) the next book the pastor gave me was Walter Martin's The Kingdom of the Cults.

This book was an encyclopedia of the beliefs of religions other than conservative protestantism and was clear that most of these religions were heretical.  Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Bahai Faith, anything that used the name of Jesus, but departed from orthodox Christianity was a pathway to Hell.  Liberal Protestantism was also condemned as was Catholicism.  With this view of the world, more than 99% of the planet was a mission field.  Because pretty much everyone in the world was wrong.

Wow!!!  Being a Baptist was like walking down a slightly cone-shaped cave.  With every step the cave gets smaller.  By the time I finished The Kingdom of the Cults the number of believers in the world was huge, but the number of believers who knew the truth was tiny.  I, of course, was in the elect.  I was in a Baptist Church.

I could have settled in for a comfortable life of knowing I was one of the elect and most everyone else was not.  But then the cave got too narrow.  The pastor said Collin and all of his kind, Pentacostals and Charismatic believers were wrong too.  At that point, I did not know a lot, but if Collin my old roommate was not a Christian nobody was.

At that point I got out of the Air Force and my luminous faith went rather dim.

So I re-enlisted in the Army.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Faith in the Military: Having a Blast, Finding God

November 9, 1973, just after 9 a.m., I was connecting wires to detonators at a U.S. Air Force missile test site in Utah.  Someone turned on the power, and my world turned bright blue and white.  Several minutes later I was strapped in an all-terrain ambulance headed for the first of six eye operations that would eventually restore my sight.  Along with the eye operations, I had surgery to reattach two fingers on my right hand and to remove wires, screws and various pieces of metal from my face, arms and chest.
It was Friday.  I had planned to ride my motorcycle up into the mountains for the weekend.  My plans changed. On November 9, 1973, I woke up an agnostic.  

Before the day ended, I believed in God and a few months later, I went the whole way to become a Christian.  I would have preferred a smoother path to faith, but at 20 years old, I test-fired missiles for a day job and rode a motorcycle in mountains of Utah for recreation.  I was not inclined to listen to a still, small voice—blindness was the right size megaphone for God to announce His existence to me.

It would be a week before I could see again with one eye.  A month before both eyes could see again.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Faith in the Military: Belief Begins with Missiles

With Holy Week beginning in a couple of days, I decided to write about faith in the military.

In general, the military makes more clear the muddy world of faith most people live with in America.

I joined the Air Force in 1972 an agnostic, not because I had any informed idea of faith, but because I did not know or care if I believed in anything.  Neither of my parents practiced religion in any form.  My Dad was Jewish.  My Mom was Protestant.

Early in our childhoods, somewhere around three years old, both my sister and I got about a month of religion.  My sister went to Church.  I went to Temple.  Then we dropped out.  My main religious instruction was the puppet show "Davey and Goliath" which aired on Sunday morning.  I watched that show pretty much every Sunday morning while my parents slept in when I was four and five years old.

Although I knew a lot of kids who went to Catholic School growing up, I never met an overtly religious person.  In the fifth grade, I got beaten up by Catholic boys who said I killed Christ.  I did not know the story of the Crucifixion at the time, but the Gospels seem pretty clear that Roman Soldiers nailed The Lord to the Cross, not a skinny, 11-year-old Jewish kid.

On my 12th birthday, my Dad started talking about getting me a Bar Mitzvah.  The rabbi in the local synagogue would not allow boys to read a phonetic Torah, so I learned enough Hebrew to recite my Torah passage reading from the Hebrew.

Then religion was over for another seven years.

I enlisted at 18.  After Basic Training and an eight-month technical school, I went to my first permanent duty station at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.  My roommate, Collin, was a 20-year-old who did not drink, smoke or smoke dope and professed no interest in sex before marriage.  He read the Bible every day, prayed on his knees and was really a great roommate--clean, quiet and gone a lot.

Not only was Collin religious, he was Pentacostal.  One Wednesday evening I went to his Church.  Wow!  For a barely believing, barely Jewish Bostonian, Pentacostalism was a circus.  I wanted no part of Collin's faith, but I continued to admire him as a person.  He took a lot of shit from everyone else in the barracks.  But I did not want to be him.  Faith was for old people.

Then November 9, 1973, I rode my 750 Honda to the missile test range at Hill Air Force for work.  We were live-fire testing interstage detonators for the Minuteman Missile that day.  At 9:30 a.m. I started my journey of faith in the blast room where we connected the detonators to our test equipment.

Friday, April 11, 2014

And Just That Fast the Adoption is Over


I wrote earlier this week there was one final chance to adopt Xavier.  That hope fell through.

Here is the story well told by Miser Mom.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Homework After 10 p.m.

I am sitting between my sons at 10:35 p.m.  They are doing their math homework.  They are doing algebra now and will be studying for a social studies test after that.  J is demonstrably yawning.  But earlier in the day, I allowed J to go to they gym for an hour while N had squash. In a further indulgence, we all watched an episode of "Alias" the show our family is currently watching together when we can.

The boys are currently in 8th grade.  Next year the work will get harder.  I don't know how often we will be up this late, but they really don't like doing their school work.  

When I am home every night next school year, I will be able to sit with them and make sure the homework.  I suppose if they had more "normal" parents they would have an more sympathy.  But with a Dad who loads his iPhone with language apps to parse French verbs and study Greek vocabulary, they don't get much slack on studying.  And Mom stays up at night writing papers that advance the field of projective geometry.  They can't even whine about math or Mom might break into a five-minute explanation of how beautiful math is.