On a lovely November afternoon nine years ago, at the glorious age of 46, I stood in the chapel on Camp Rapid in Rapid City, raised my right hand in front of Chaplain Lynn Wilson and swore an oath. In that moment, I joined the South Dakota Army National Guard and, even more important, I became an American Soldier.
Those words are the first and last words of the “Soldier’s Creed,” a creed every soldier is challenged to live by, and it begins and ends with the same noble pronouncement: “I am an American Soldier.” I am still awed by the experiences I have had, the places I have visited, the opportunities for growth that have radically changed my understanding of myself and my ministry; all of this because, for eight years, I could say: “I am an American Soldier.”
A year ago this month, I ended my time serving with the SD Army National Guard. So, this past year has been spent reflecting on what it all meant. I grew a big bushy beard, because that seems to be a requirement when you leave the military, and I have tried to remain connected to my soldiers (funny…they are still “my soldiers” in my mind), I even got a haircut every month right before my unit would have a drill weekend.
I have also been asked many times, “Do you miss it?” That is a complicated question because I’m not entirely sure what “it” is. I certainly appreciate a level of freedom in schedule that I did not have for the last eight years. It is also nice not having to sit in a long line waiting to have my hearing checked or some such thing.
But the answer to the question is, absolutely I miss it.
What I miss most is the people I served with; some of the best people I have had the privilege to meet. They are focused, professional, funny, sometimes cynical, and always honorable. They see the reality around them, which can be frustrating to the extreme, and yet never lose sight of the larger purpose, the mission, what they are doing, who they are.
Another line from the Soldier’s Creed says: “I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.” There are seven Army Values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage (they are easy to remember, they spell out LDRSHIP).
Those words are, of course, just words; and they remain just words until someone begins to live them, embody them. The men and women I served with, each in their own unique and meaningful way, lived the meaning of those words.
I thought I understood what each of those words meant when I put on my uniform for the first time and stood in formation with them. I was wrong. I understood the definition of the words, but I did not learn what they truly mean until I was taught, slowly and patiently, by those with whom I stood.
I thought I knew what it meant to live those words, but I was wrong. I had to see them lived by those around me to understand what it truly means to allow those values to guide my life. That is how I learned, by being around those who understood the words and who lived the words; and that is how they learned, the exact same way.
Each of us swore an oath and each of us had to memorize the Soldier’s Creed, vowing to live a life of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. In living that life, we taught one another what those values truly mean. This is incarnation, this is taking ideals and making them a reality through our lives; we embody them.
During the holy seasons of Advent and Christmas we celebrate and rejoice in the gift of the Incarnation by pondering the great mystery of God’s abiding love, compassion and mercy made flesh, made a human being, in Jesus.
The incarnation of God in Jesus reminds us that we too took a vow in Baptism, we too have a creed by which we live, we too have been called to embrace the ideals which Christ embodies: love, compassion, mercy. Those words, those beautiful words; what makes them more than words is our ability to become those words made flesh.
Those around us might know the words, but they will never know what they truly mean unless they see them lived in us.
Those around us might think they know how to live, but will only know fully when they see them lived in us.
That is how we first learned, by seeing the Word made flesh in Jesus; that is how they learn, by seeing the words made flesh in us.