Wednesday, May 28, 2014

After Memorial Day, a Tough Life Goes On


Every Memorial Day since I left active duty, I think about the soldiers and airmen I have known who survived their service, but were injured for life.

My first crew chief in the Air Force was a short, quiet guy named Randy with very thick glasses.  They weren't quite as bad as the ones in the picture, but so thick his blue eyes sort of swam if you looked straight into the lenses.

Randy retired less than a year after I enlisted.  He came to Hill Air Force Base after the "final tour" before 20 years, the rotten assignment most servicemen get just before 20 when there is now way they will turn it down.  Randy's rotten assignment was a listening post near Mount Ararat in Turkey.  Randy worked 12 hours on 12 off keeping the listening equipment operational so we could listen to Soviet radio traffic across the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine and Crimea.
Twelve months in the middle of nowhere had Randy ready to leave the Air Force.

His thick glasses were not the result of eyestrain from fixing listening equipment on top of Mount Ararat.  He joined the Air Force in the early 50s with normal eyesight and a lot of confidence.  In the mid-50s he volunteered for a program that would test the limits of the G-Force a human could withstand.  Randy volunteered to ride a rocket sled that hit 7 Gs accelerating and 8 Gs slowing down.


Randy told us they had an eye doctor among several doctors at the test site during sled runs.  Randy's eyes popped out of their sockets.  Randy said the doctor popped his eyes back in--with some considerable pain--but Randy's eyesight was never the same.

Randy retired.  He was not blind, or an amputee.  His service in the Viet Nam War was uneventful.  But he gave up a lot for his country.  It may not have been the ultimate sacrifice, but he helped to make the space program possible.  By the way, one G is a change in speed of 20 mph in one second.  That rocket sled accelerated to nearly 400 mph in about 3 seconds and slowed a little faster than that.  Thanks Randy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Recruiting Souls and Soldiers, Sadly Similar: Faith in the Military, Part 15



In His brief ministry on Earth, Our Lord was a lousy recruiter and an utter failure at marketing.  In all of the Gospel accounts, Jesus gathers huge crowds then, just when he should be signing them up for The Lord's Army, he sends them away.

The crowds were attracted by healing, by food, by His words.  He had them.  Then he told them that following Him would lead to suffering and loss and the crowds left.  Jesus was the opposite of a recruiter or a marketer.  The Lord wanted committed people willing to suffer and die, people who knew what they were facing before they decided to follow Him.

Inside the military, becoming a believer actually meant some suffering.  Believers serving in the military back in the 70s were sure to be hassled.  And tempted.  A believer who was living his faith in the Army had to take a lot of shit from fellow soldiers.  While his friends were getting high and getting laid, he (there were no women in combat units in the 70s) had to live in some semblance of Biblical morality:  certainly no drugs, no booze, no women.  the other five men in the typical six-man room were sure to be making fun of the guy who was reading his Bible, praying and not partying.

When I got back to the civilian world, Church recruiting was a lot more like marketing than Jesus telling followers to "count the cost."  Mega Churches became "Seeker Friendly."  Instead of presenting a life of denying this world to gain the Kingdom of God, preachers are following marketers, finding out what people want in a Church and modifying the Church to suit the converts.

So standards for entering the Church became more flexible.  Divorce, drinking, dancing and other devilish Ds became acceptable.  Not encouraged, but some former sins clearly became less sinful than others.

The Army did this during the worst days of the Iraq War.  I would not be serving in the Army now if Congress did not raise the enlistment age by seven years in 2006.  The Army took back a 54-year-old after 23 years as a civilian because they needed bodies.  Two years into the recession with the Iraq War winding down, the enlistment age dropped back again and recruitment standards went up.

All of the military is now in the process of cutting its numbers of troops.  As in the 1990s, the cuts will be aimed at mid-career NCOs and Officers, both the save money and to make room for new younger leaders in a smaller Army.  The way this will happen, as in the 1990s, is primarily through tightening fitness standards.  In the 1990s a marketing firm determined that mid-career technically competent soldiers dislike the PT standards above everything else in the military.

So the new smaller force will literally be smaller.

Will the Church ever tighten its standards the way the military did?  Yes, but not from the inside.  The Church will gets smaller and stronger when it is persecuted.  People who want to be a success in this world want to be members of popular Churches where the Lord is promising riches to the faithful.

Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Pat Robertson and the dozens of televangelists promising health and wealth to their flock will disappear when their bank accounts are at risk as will their followers.





The Church will become smaller the same way.  In every Church through history that has come under persecution, the faithful stay with the Church, even becoming martyrs.  Those who were brought in under Seeker Friendly conditions will melt away like butter in the Mojave Desert.






Friday, May 9, 2014

Faith in the Military: Continuing with C.S. Lewis


While I learned about the true, the good and the beautiful in a secular university and the weird, the bad and the ugly in Christian pop culture, I kept reading and re-reading C.S. Lewis.  Here was the one person I knew for sure that had his feet planted firmly in that tiny part of the world where Christianity and culture and history were at peace.  

Mere Christianity made clear that every Church put the same roof over believers and people who had some other reason to be inside the building.  But that was just the beginning of a life-long habit or obsession with reading Lewis.  

Once Lewis showed me that a believer could have a brain, he started showing me the intellectual world is much more vast than the material world.  

Then I went underground, or at least into the underworld.  Next of Lewis' 39 books was The Screwtape Letters.  In each of the 31 missives, Uncle Screwtape, a mid-level bureaucrat in Hell writes a letter of advice to his nephew who is a field agent trying to tempt a patient into Hell.  

Letter #4 changed my life.  It defined humor from Hell's perspective.  I decided after reading this letter to never watch a sitcom again after M*A*S*H went of the air.  Since 1983, I have not watched a sitcom or a comedy movie.  

MY DEAR WORMWOOD...I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy.
You will see the [Joy] among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday...
Fun is closely related to Joy—a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us....it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.
The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field...The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction...it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame...
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.
Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.
If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.
It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.
Your affectionate uncle, SCREWTAPE



Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Faith in the Military: Civilian Life is a Feast of Learning and a Spiritual Famine


Recently I read an article about the explosive growth in Christian colleges recently.  For many Christian kids, the choice they have is Christian college or no college.  Inside the Christian community, the secular college and university is supposed to be a place where the kids will lose their faith, led astray by unbelieving professors.  

But my first year after the military was just the opposite.  My college courses at Penn State were opening new vistas of faith and beauty beyond anything I could have imagined.  In the same course that introduced me to Dante and Machiavelli, I read Utopia by Sir Thomas More in the Norton Critical Edition. We were assigned several critical essays in addition to the text.  One was by C.S. Lewis.  It was the first time I read Lewis in his "Day Job" as a Cambridge professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature.  Lewis' essay made sense of Utopia.  Many other commenters simply wanted to claim More for their position.  

The following summer, I had a Russian literature course taught by a chain-smoking Serbian, who had escaped communism.  He taught us Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Lermontov and Gogol.  I have read an re-read Russian works ever since, particularly Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych which I have read five times and just bought in a new translation.  More on the Russians later.  


At the same time Dostoevsky showed me how central suffering is to the living the Gospel, I was trying to navigate a Christian culture that went out of its collective mind during my time in Germany.  In my first year back, I fell for an Amway pitch from a very nice couple at Church.  I went to one of the big meetings with a thousand people cheering success.  The main guy on stage had made millions.  He was wearing what I would later learn was a $3,000 suit.  He was driving a 7 Series BMW.  He lived in mansion that, as he was describing it, I could only imagine had "one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere just for show. . ."

My Christian brother was telling me that what I should do was forget college, go into business, make a fortune and then I could bless many people.  Wow!!!

He really believed that.  And he thought it was the best thing for me.

But then I thought of Cliff entering the monastery in Darmstadt, Abel fasting for two weeks to find his ministry, and the life of The Lord Himself which did end in health and wealth.

The Liberals were showing me eternity.  The Conservatives were showing me self interest and greed.  Life was weird.