Veterans Day is a special day. I was born one week before Veterans Day into the Air Force on a military base in Japan. I have always liked Air Force blue. My dad was an enlisted man who worked hard through the Air Force ROTC program at USC (that's South Carolina..the first USC) and became an officer in the mid-fifties. He served in many different roles in and out of the military, but I knew him best as "Dad." A humble man who loved our country and loved serving in the military...most days. None of us liked it when he flew off to Vietnam, but we prayed more and longed for his return. By God's grace, a rocket missed him one morning but destroyed his hut. We missed him at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we trusted that he would return to us, and he did. I respected him and wanted to please him. He was my father - a role which defined him as a role-model for his three sons. He loved the freedom we have in America, and I dutifully watched the news with him many nights. He told me one day that he thought it would be a good thing for me to apply to the Air Force Academy. "Yes Tom, you want to go to college, Well, they will pay you to go to college there. And you can serve your country." Or something like that. I admired him and took his advice. And God had a plan for me. I used to dream about going all over the world, as I sat in my room wondering what to do with my life.
The Air Force was certainly a ticket to get out of my little country town with three stop signs and two gas stations. One was run by a buddy's family from church, and it had a huge ditch beside it that I tried to jump on a mini-bike one Sunday afternoon. That same Sunday afternoon I was supposed to be baptized at another Baptist church that evening. Ours didn't have a baptistry...what kind of Baptist church doesn't have a baptistry? The church WITH the baptistry was off Half-Hell road. I'm not kidding. As a prideful, sinful kid I was more than halfway there until God got my attention! (I am thankful for the World War II veteran preacher...Pastor Greear from Philadelphia who came to our tiny church and preached the Gospel faithfully when I was 11.) Well, back to the ditch. I tried to jump the ditch with the small mini-bike and well, landed a bit short and flipped over the handlebars. I was baptized that night...as I hobbled down into the baptistry with a badly bruised knee. At least my soul was healed a few weeks earlier, but it would take a bit longer for my knee to be healed. I didn't learn my lesson about dirt bikes, though...and later my collar bone would suffer a worse fate than my knee. God allowed me to to feel both the pain of my bad decisions and the horror of my sin early in life. Too many to list here. Praise God for his saving grace!
So, I left my idyllic rural upbringing and headed to Colorado in 1982. I was nervous, but I knew my mom and dad were praying for me daily, and I actually felt God answer their prayers often. Mom said that “I could do all things THROUGH CHRIST who strengthens me.” I believed mom, dad, and God. My hair almost disappeared, my jeans became a uniform, and I soon became a man. I actually liked the discipline. I loved saluting the flag. Marching was cool, most days. I didn’t like the yelling, but I prayed more. Now MY uniform, not just my dad’s, had “U.S. Air Force” stitched on it. I was where I was meant to be.
And I took an oath that was stitched in my heart. It went like this, “I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.” At 18 years old, I realized that my initial joy of being a cadet was a serious joy. A Commitment. I had joined a new team. Was I ready to give my life for my country? I took the oath, but I never dreamed that I may really have to give my life. This was the 80s. Ronald Reagan was President. No one would mess with America!
Well, the last stanza of the Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct goes like this, “I will never forget that I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.” When I first spoke those words, I never dreamed that the Code would never leave my heart.
I did see the world. I did see the horror of war. And through it all, I trusted God. I knew that He was in control of my days and my future. I also discovered that a lot of people who curse God when all is well, seek Him when the bombs are falling and shots are flying by their heads. I knew that life was short for some, and I wondered how many really trusted God. Seemed to me that it was a vital question to get right, if indeed life was short and eternity was long.
My obsession with eternity (and God) led me to honorably resign from the Air Force in 1991. I still loved the Air Force, but God had called me on another mission, and I had to trust Him….again. And again. My father, whom I loved, was not happy with me for resigning my commission to go to seminary. I respected my father, but I had to joyfully obey my Father in heaven. For three years I had prayed and sought counsel and fought many battles trying to know God’s will. Pastor Dale had told me “Tom, if you can be satisfied doing anything other than being a pastor, you should do it.” I love Dale to this day. He was right. Pastor John later confirmed this truth by saying to me "God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him." Nothing and No one satisfied me more than God and His promises. I knew my calling. Life. And eternal life. With Him. Wow!
I have many passions in life…but none compare to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus and His will for my life. Being a shepherd has been the most trying “vocation” I have ever had, and most satisfying. Going and making disciples as a soldier in Christ’s kingdom demands one to embrace suffering souls, yet always rejoicing in the midst of the trials. That’s not just my calling, however. It is yours. Every Christ-follower is called to “Go and make disciples”…here, there, and everywhere.
Yes, I believe that life is war. Disciple-making requires a wartime mentality…spiritual battles are raging every day, people are wounded, faith wanes, and yet, God calls us to faithfulness. “Fight the good fight of faith.” “Do not be anxious about life” “Do not fear.” “Blessed are you who are persecuted for my Name’s sake.” “The Lord is our Helper.” “Walk by faith.” “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” “Come Lord Jesus.” And we press on in the trenches. Onward Christian soldiers!
Do you know a Veteran? Thank him or her. I thank my father, my father-in-law, as well as my grandfather and my great-grandfather for their service to our country. Thank God for all those who are willing to lay down their lives that others may live! Sounds like a Christian to me.
For His Glory and OUR JOY in Christ our Lord...forever,
PS I did not want this "Veterans Day Letter" to be all about me, but I know I shared some of my story with you. Please forgive me if this appears to be too much about me. As a laymen, I always wanted to know more about my pastors…but they usually talked and preached about God more than themselves – PRAISE GOD! So, I write a few tidbits from time to time to help you know your shepherd a bit better. We pastors are people too – with a real history. And my history is a huge testimony to the grace of God. And by the way, my dad is now very glad that I am a pastor! He is my dad...and also a brother in Christ.
I am grateful for all who have served our country and our Lord. Please remember, we church members wear the “uniform” every day…we are identified as being on His team…we are His church. We all have a story, some scars, and have experienced oceans of His grace. Thanks for reading this short story today, and remember…God shed His grace on thee! Trust in Him.