Marriage Teaches Service

Most people at one time or another reflect on their lives and the lessons gained from them. This is especially the case with married life. Being married and having children provides endless fodder for sermons, books, and articles about the meaning of life. One of the recent lessons that occurred to me is the importance of marriage in teaching people about service, not only service to others but service to God. Indeed, by serving others, we become more like God.

Most marriages begin with the bridegroom trying to please his bride in whatever way he can. He opens doors for her, gets her glasses of water or snacks during the night, and paints the walls of her new home the colors she wants or moves the furniture where she prefers. The bride seeks to please her husband by making a home, cooking pleasing food, and taking care of him. Some people come by this attitude naturally. Their love language is service, and the first thing they think of to demonstrate their love is to wash dishes or the car or to plant flowers in the yard. Others struggle more and have to work extra-hard to please while they are wooing the one they love. They buy each other nice things or take each other out to eat, and they are extra careful to wait on each other, fix nice dinners, and do little chores. Even the most self-centered person knows they have to do these little chores to interest their lovers. Sometimes efforts to serve the ones we love lessen over time, but major events such as moving to a new house or having children causes lovers to resume doing little things for their spouse or a mother-to-be.

My situation was always a little different. Because I had known my wife for nearly seven years when we wed, we had come to a state of understanding by the time we were married where we didn’t need to demonstrate our love for each other. The wooing was already over. Nevertheless, I continued to serve her. She had terrible allergies, so we made a natural division of labor in which I took care of “outside” work and kept the yard nice, and she did most of the “inside” work and made sure the house was in order. Once we had children, we divided the chores even more. Even so, we showed each other the normal forms of affection. I was usually up early, made the coffee, and helped her get ready for work. She usually took care of the children in the morning, but I often took care of them at night – after a long day teaching kindergarten the last thing she wanted to do was deal with little children. The problem was that I was often gone for military service, and she had to learn how to do things on her own. Each time I returned, I basically had to relearn the need for serving her, even when I don’t always feel like it.

Ultimately, all love relationships teach us service. The Bible uses different words in Greek to describe what we in English generically call love. Eros is the love we hold for our spouses and includes both romantic and sexual love. Storge is the love that we hold for our children or parents. Phileo is the brotherly love we have for siblings and friends. Agape is the highest love, which is self-sacrificing. Yet all of the loves are pathways to experience agape. When we serve our spouses and put their needs ahead of our own, we elevate eros to agape. When we are willing to sacrifice our children for the greater good, for example by sending them to war, we elevate storge to agape. When we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our friends instead of abandoning them, we elevate phileo to agape. In all of these cases, we learn self-sacrificing love through these lesser loves. Yet sacrificing ourselves is the height of love because it is who God is. God is described as agape love. This is why learning to serve others is so important. It helps us to become more like God whenever we set aside our own needs to provide for others. This is also the case when we serve God, for it is in serving Him and sacrificing our lives that we show what love is.

Serving others is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from our earthly relationships, whether with family, friends, or our spouse. It is how we become more like God, for God is self-sacrificing love. Whatever we do, let us learn to love others and to love God with this highest love through service to them and to the community.

© 2023 J.D. Manders


Do Atheists Really Exist?

Social critic and author G.K. Chesterton famously said, “It there were not God, there would be no atheists.” The quote observes the great irony that what most marks atheist thought is a strenuous objection to God, and that there would be nothing to distinguish them if there was nothing to oppose. Yet a recent article I read suggests that in fact atheist claims not to believe in God are mostly a pretense. Deep down, everyone believes in God.

In 2011, Oxford University completed a three-year international study that incorporated 40 different studies by 57 researchers across 20 countries with wide-ranging belief systems, including Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, and atheist. It found a universal predisposition to believe in God, in divine purpose for life, and in an afterlife, even among atheists. This was revealed by the fact that most atheists have prayed at least once when faced with death or illness, and many believe in some kind of continued existence of the mind after death even while denying the existence of God or the soul. For example, Mark Twain, who was openly skeptical about faith and Christianity in particular, once admitted that he had prayed when a loved one was ill: “I prayed like a coward; I prayed like a dog.” Sigmund Freud argued that religion is a coping mechanism we create as a response to the harsh realities of life, but the study suggests that if most people already believe in something, these harsh realities reveal rather than cause belief. If there exists an overwhelming urge to believe in a higher power or plane of living, the study concludes, suppression of the religious instinct is futile and will always be short-lived.

This tendency to believe in something outside ourselves is nothing new. It is well known and documented in ancient literature and philosophy. It’s what Jean Calvin called the sensus divinitatis or sense of the divine. Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, and Pythagoras all taught a belief in God, but for different reasons, whether the need for a perfect being, a cause for all motion, the source of reason, or mathematical certainty. The Apostle Paul wrote, “the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” In other words, everyone has a sense of the divine simply by observing the universe, which not only inspires awe and wonder but also implies a plan or purpose. This is the thesis of Perry Marshall’s Evolution 2.0, which argues for intelligent design based on the complexity of genetic coding. It is impossible that the instructions in our DNA could have evolved any more than a computer with its thousands of components and millions of lines of code could have appeared by chance. Everyone senses that the complexity of life makes the existence of a Creator even more likely.

Why, then, do so many atheists deny the existence of God if it is self-evident? With the vast majority of atheists I have known, it was the result of a great trauma that made them doubt the goodness of God or a purpose for the universe. For example, they lost loved ones in a tragic and seemingly random accident. They prayed for a sick relative not to die, and they believed their prayers were not answered. They were mistreated, raped, or racially persecuted and afterwards associated belief in God with their oppressors. It was then they fell prey to other atheists, who evangelize as heartily as any Bible-thumper their belief in scientism and a random and hostile nature. Others are taught by their relatives not to believe – there is atheist indoctrination just as there is Christian. In any case, very few atheists start off as skeptics. They have to convince themselves not to believe in God against their better judgment.

The study concluded that the sense of the divine does not prove the existence of God. Or, as pastor Tim Keller argued, “That involuntary reflex is not evidence for skeptics of the existence of God. It’s actually evidence from God against the existence of skeptics.” Yet the existence of a drive within all of us to turn to God is exactly what we would expect from a God who is constantly calling us to a deeper relationship. If we are honest, we will recognize this call within ourselves. It is why so many turn to religion when things are going badly, no matter what they happen to believe. This does not resolve all of the theological issues that atheists often raise, such as when prayers are not answered, when bad things happen to good people, or when faith and science seem in conflict. Even believers struggle with these issues, but that does not keep them from returning to belief. The call within us to believe remains strong.

One of my favorite sayings is that an atheist is just a proud agnostic. In other words, there are no atheists in the end. People claim not to believe in God when really they only doubt His existence, which they cannot prove one way or the other. All of us have doubts, but that doesn’t keep us from believing in God at some level. It’s why we turn to God when there is no other hope, whatever we may claim to believe. Sensing this call is the first step in recognizing that maybe there is a God, and that deep down this is something we all want to believe.

© 2023 J.D. Manders

The Value of Service Members

A leader I admire recently spoke of the value that the nation places on service members. While I’ve never thought about it that way, I can see the amount of time and money that the military invests in service members. There is a monetary value on the recruiting, training, and equipping of personnel. Yet more than that, the military is valuable because of the services it performs. We continue to treasure those who serve the greater good.

There can be no doubt that the U.S. invests heavily in its military. For decades, defense budgets have numbered in the billions. This is because of the tremendous costs of recruiting and maintaining the force. It requires thousands of dollars to maintain the readiness of each Soldier – funds for initial training, funds for annual training, funds for medical readiness, funds to feed and equip personnel. The average cost to recruit and prepare personnel for service is $16,000 for each one. The average annual cost of keeping that person in the military is more than $135,000 per year, above and beyond annual pay. Spending on training is approximately the same for Active Duty and Reserve Component personnel, but it is concentrated in a smaller amount of time. Spending on room and board is naturally less for reservists, but it is still substantial because unit dispersion creates the necessity for contracting hotels and meals. When you talk about the value of service members, these are the numbers that most logisticians calculate.

For leadership, there is another value placed on service members – their value as members of a team. Whatever leaders may say, when personnel are not present, they are missed. Especially with smaller units and teams, vacancies and absences can have an enormous impact on operations. Everyone has a job, and everyone brings experiences and skillsets that others may not have. While it’s generally true that no Soldier is irreplaceable, it takes time to backfill people, during which time a unit has to go without. Better not to lose people to begin with. Some people have legitimate reasons to leave the service, but many leave because of being underappreciated or unconnected. This is why it is so important to maintain personal connections with service members, above and beyond their personal value as human beings. Leaders know the value these people have and make efforts to ensure that they are healthy, happy, appreciated, and supported by the unit.

For the nation, service members have an even more important value, which is the cost of their sacrifices for the rest of us. I believe that everyone has a function in society, whether it’s a calling to a specific occupation or a place in a family or clan. However, those who sacrifice their time, money, families, and lives for our society ought to be honored above all. At one time, people dishonored those who served in the military by jeering at them and even assaulting them. The result was that fewer people volunteered to serve, and this endangers us all. As I have written repeatedly, we ought to recognize those who take our place in service, for if they did not go, the government might call on us to go instead. Seen in this way, the value of those who serve is equal to my own. My time is valuable, and so is anyone who serves in my place. Today, it is common for our culture to honor service members by paying for meals, giving them priority on flights, or recognizing them. This is the least that we can do to recognize those who serve. While service members are often embarrassed by such treatment, we ought to see these actions not so much because of anything special about us but because of the value of our service. When we are through serving, we can then honor those who serve after. There is always someone serving the nation, and their service is always of great value.

When people talk about the value of service members, most refer to the time and money it takes to train and equip them. There is a monetary value associated with each Soldier. Yet their value goes beyond mere money. Each service member has value to the team and value to the nation. Let us recognize their value and honor them according to this worth. If we do, more will seek to serve.

© 2023 J.D. Manders

Love and Denial

The saying is true, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It has been my habit to write about love in the weeks before Valentine’s Day because of the important role it plays in resiliency for military families. All romantic love at times includes self-denial and suppression of passion for a greater good. Although it’s unpopular to discuss abstinence and chastity, lovers have often undergone denial as a means of protecting the purity of the beloved, especially before marriage. For the service member, it can also mean separation and self-denial to serve the needs of the nation.

I was recently re-reading The Silver Stair, which was the first published work of Charles Williams in 1912. Williams was a member of the Inklings, the Oxford University literary group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Many have called Williams the poet of the Inklings. Although other members of the group wrote and published poetry, Williams was the only one who at one time was known mainly for writing poetry and drama. His later cycle of modern poems about the Matter of Britain – Taliessin through Logres – was considered by Lewis, W.H. Auden, and many others as Williams at his best. As a cycle of sonnets written in traditional verse and antiquated language, The Silver Stair was not particularly innovative or popular at the time, yet it shows a brilliance of imagery and delivers a powerful conceptual framework for an idea that Williams considered central to his theology – the Ways of Negation and Affirmation.

Williams believed these were two ways of approaching God. In the Way of Negation, people draw close to God by withdrawing from the world and denying worldly pleasures. In the Way of Affirmation, people experience God through interaction with the world, at weddings, parties, and funerals, by connecting with other people. Both, he argued, are legitimate approaches to theology, as Jesus Himself attended weddings and was called a wine-bibber yet also sacrificed Himself for others. In this early imagery, Williams presented these two ways with regards to women as the silver stair and the golden stair. In the past, engagement rings were traditionally of silver representing purity, the cold light of the moon, and lovers making promises yet unfulfilled. Wedding rings were golden, representing joy, the warmth of the sun, and the consummation of love. The Silver Stair was thus a perfect metaphor of a life of faith according to the Way of Negation by denying pleasure before marriage. Williams presented these poems to his fiancée at the beginning of their engagement, so it also served as a statement of his intent to honor her and maintain purity until they wedded.

Although the book contains traditional love poems, it also includes many examples of William’s views of the importance of self-denial. He praises he “who lays life by, in search of greater things” (27:14). He hears the echo of the voice of Love singing, “Through me, by losing shall a man find love” (44:12). He praises renunciation of pleasure and her company, saying, “There shall be lost no thought of her, except / All love of God and of this world depart” (48:13-14). He praises those who “put off love for love’s sake” (57:14). He praises virginity under the name of Artemis: “Hands clear from touch and lips of any kiss / Hail her beneath the stars, upon the hills, / Vestal and Queen, celestial Artemis!” (69:12-14). He likewise compares his fiancée with the Virgin Mary, praising her as a “Queen, in a distant and forgotten land,” that they “In holy fear and mighty love toward thee / That they may follow thy virginity” (73:1, 6-7). In other words, he believed their holding out for their wedding day would help he and his fiancée draw closer to God and to each other.

We find a similar attitude among those who are deployed, who undergo a similar experience as Williams. Although the choice is not theirs to be away from home, they make the same sacrifice – they become separated from their spouse and deny themselves marital relations for a year for the purpose of serving nation and God. Seen in the same way, they walk the “silver stair” for a year. They lay life by to achieve a greater purpose. They lose their life to find love on their return. They put off love for love’s sake. As with Artemis and the Virgin Mary, their spouse appears no more beautiful or powerful as during that year of separation.

In the final sonnets of the sequence, Williams compares love to Christ, a theme he later expanded in his book Romantic Theology. Thus, he spoke of love being like Christ’s suffering: “Anguish of body…Wherein the holy flesh is perfected” (75:9-12); and he compares their separation with His death: “Keep yourselves yet for three days purified / With fasting: watch beside his sepulchre” (77:11-12). In short, “His Beloved so to gain, denied / His strength, Who could have won her with a nod. / He hath renounced—How else to win?—His bride” (81:11-14). Yet as the suffering of the lovers “to its end draws on the bridal night” (80, 1), they will be united with love in the end, as they will also be united with Christ in resurrection:

There was a light about us suddenly,

There was a Voice commanding us, which said:

“Why seek ye still the living with the dead?

He goes before you into Galilee.”

O dear land of green hills and breaking sea

In our far journeys well rememberéd

Thy fields once more our stumbling feet shall tread,

Our wandering ways have brought us back to thee!

Charles Williams, The Silver Stair, 78:1-8

All of those who love must sometimes tread the silver stair. That is, we must sometimes deny our passions to achieve a greater purpose, whether protecting the purity of the bride, serving the nation, or because a higher calling separates us. Yet we should all remember that, like Christ, though we all undergo suffering and death of love during periods of separation, we will be reunited in the end.

© 2023 J.D. Manders

The Flag Still Moves Me

It amazes me that after all of these years, I still get goosebumps when I see the flag and hear the national anthem played. Although some people despise the U.S. flag and all that it stands for, most veterans, including myself, are still moved by the flag. It reminds us, not only of all that we’ve sacrificed and fought for, but all that is worth preserving.

A few weekends ago, I was standing in formation during a change-of-command ceremony. We went through the introduction of the official party and the invocation, then came the order to “present arms,” as the national anthem played, and we rendered honor to the flag. As I stood saluting, images came to my mind of all the people I’ve deployed and served with, and I remembered the great trials we went through in three deployments. It nearly brought me to tears. I was surprised by the feelings, both pride in our accomplishments, but also pride in what the flag stands for. It is a feeling that some may never fully understand. For those that do, it is easy to see why we feel that way.

For many veterans, the flag is a reminder of our sacrifices. We remember being away from home for months at a time. Many watched their families disintegrate as a result of their absence. We remember the labor and hours of sweating in the desert sun. We came back perpetually tired and broken, with weak knees, heat sickness, and all kinds of strange diseases. Some remember the many friends lost and the injuries sustained. Many of these injuries are not visible – a huge percent of returning veterans now struggle with post-traumatic stress or derivative stress syndromes, which have led to anger, depression, substance abuse, joblessness, and homelessness. Even many who returned without PTSD lost their jobs – although laws protect service members from being fired or reduced in pay, they don’t apply to those self-employed, and there are many businesses that find ways around the law. Many of us gave up cushy jobs to deploy and made far less in the Army. I’ve personally known many Soldiers who literally gave up all they had to serve – family, businesses, wealth, and health.

Other service members remember the comradeship the flag represents. We remember both good times and bad. We remember the trips to foreign countries and going on the town. We remember shopping at local markets or eating out at local restaurants. Some remember parties in hotels when on pass or going to local bars and restaurants. We also remember helping people. We remember handing out candy to local children, helping to build schools, or wiring buildings. We remember responding to tornadoes and hurricanes, directing traffic, and delivering food and water to help broken communities. Some remember being shot at, having IEDs go off down the road, or getting into accidents. These are what make us a band of brothers. Most of all, we remember lying in hasty fighting positions, driving around getting lost, getting stuck in the mud, sleeping in tents, pulling guard duty, conducting patrols, getting in trouble, pulling KP, and the dozens of other experiences that are the stuff of friendship.

Beyond all of this, the flag reminds us of home. It reminds us of Memorial Days and visits to the graves of the fallen near statues of heroes long past who died for us; Independence Days watching fireworks with spouses, children, and parents; picnics in green parks with hamburgers, corn on the cob, and apple pie; swimming or boating in pools, rivers, or the ocean or lying on the beach; school days studying, marching in the band, or playing and watching football; autumn days of orange and yellow leaves, crisp air, and oblique sunlight; Thanksgivings full of family and friends sharing a grateful meal; and Christmases, sometimes snowy, but always full of love, gift-giving, and the happiness of children. Most of all, it reminds us of the beautiful homeland and freedoms that make these blessed scenes possible. Of course, none of these things erases the injustices of the world, of economic struggle, pain, and ugly urban blight. Yet for most people the flag represents the hope of moving past all of that and grasping hope for the future. If these scenes don’t give you goosebumps, there is something wrong with you.

There will always be people who focus on the negative. Those who have never served will never know or understand the depth of emotion with which veterans view the flag. Let the haters hate. For the rest of us, let us always be moved by the star-spangled banner that will ever wave “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

© 2023 J.D. Manders

Faith, Family, and Faithful Service (and Fiction)

This year marks the sixth anniversary of when I started my blog. Since the beginning, I have re-posted my first blog explaining the purpose of this forum from time to time in case new readers have joined. As it’s been nearly two years since the last time I did so because of COVID and other trials, it is high time I did so again. At the time I started writing, many military families had requested more information about how to instruct, reach out to, and inspire children during the absence of their parents. The initial purpose of my blog was to provide thoughts related to public service, its impact on families, and how to maintain strong faith and resiliency, especially through the use of imaginative writing. I repeat and expand here on my first article detailing the focus and purpose of my blog.

For those who are unfamiliar with my work, I am a thirty-year veteran of the Army National Guard who has deployed three times to the Middle East in 2004, 2012, and 2017. During my deployments, I wrote my children stories and poetry to connect with them at a time they were dealing with separation anxiety. My intent was to distract them from my absence using fiction while providing inspiration and instruction to make good decisions. I later published some of these works as The Fairy Child, The Mermaid’s Quest, The Unicorn Eternal, and the Christmas Letters (which are all available online on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and other outlets). Since my return from my third deployment, I have had the opportunity to speak publicly about my experiences and encourage military families in particular to maintain family connections and readiness. My blog, which I started in January 2017, addressed these same views, and I wrote more than half of them while I was deployed the last time.

As a military service member, I understand the trials that families have to deal with during the absence of public servants. In addition to deploying three times, I have often been absent for training or emergency response missions. Of course, military personnel are not the only ones who struggle with these issues. Most first responders do, and so do occupations ranging from military civilians and contractors to truck drivers who frequently travel. I believe that service is important to our society. These are the people who make our economy work and protect us from harm. Therefore, these articles address the unique needs and challenges of faithful service.

My primary focus has been to assist families in dealing with the absence of service members. While we all agree that those who faithfully serve our nation are deserving of special thanks, most seem to overlook the sacrifices made by families, which are often as great as or even greater than those of the service member. Most adults know what they are getting into when they volunteer for service. Spouses and children often do not, and they usually have no choice in the matter. As a result, they often have to deal with issues such as single parenting for long periods of time, separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, constant relocation, and discipline. These can impact behavior, education, and cohesion of families, especially over time. It is not always clear how to handle such circumstances. As a writer, I believe literature, imagination, and creativity are tools that can help families and children especially cope with stress and separation. These articles provide both service members and their families thoughts and resources about how to address these problems.

Third, as part of discussions about family, it is only natural that I talk about faith. By this, I do not mean that the articles are “preachy.” However, faith is an important part of resiliency – faith in a higher power, faith in our nation and society, faith in our culture, faith in family, and (yes, sometimes) faith in ourselves. Resiliency is the process through which service members “snap back” from the stress and challenges of service, and resiliency training is a requirement in the military. I try to introduce ideas about faith or philosophy that can help others deal with all of life’s problems, including deployment and family separation. I mostly keep these fairly general so as to be applicable to people of all faiths, but my views as one who follows Christ are often apparent. By this, I mean no disrespect and only wish to inspire all people to find something in which they believe as a step on the path to resiliency.

To this list, I would add fiction. I have explained over the past year that literature and imagination bring certain benefits. These benefits include temporary escape from reality into a magical world, awareness of supernatural powers, and a happy ending. These stories can provide healing to those dealing with separation and anxiety about life. Like all stories, they can also provide inspiration and instruction to children who emulate characters in stories with which they relate. Thus, I believe that literature and imagination can help people overcome problems related to deployment.

As I continue to publish articles I think will help others, please feel free to contribute ideas or ask questions, including directly through my FB page – I continue to ask for forbearance of any errors, as I do not have an editor and often do not have time to do more than a cursory proofread. As I am still a serving member of the U.S. military, my time is rather constrained. I would add that I try to avoid being political, other than dealing as a family with politics, but it is sometimes difficult to avoid controversial topics. Any opinions I present are my own and not that of the U.S. Army or of any professional organization. Thanks for tuning in.

© 2023 J.D. Manders

Do More Than Make a Resolution

Every year on New Year’s Day, people make resolutions about how to improve themselves. They promise to lose weight or spend time with their families or read more. Sadly, most of these resolutions end up unfulfilled. As with self-help in general, we are not lacking in a desire to improve ourselves, only the willpower to do so.

Many people I know make resolutions or promises to themselves each New Year. They resolve to lose weight, go to the gym, eat healthier, or drink less. They promise to spend more time with their spouses, children, outdoors, or away from work. They say they are going to read more, be a better person, or give to charity. Some people write them down and then burn them as prayers or make lists and schedules. Others pray over them or take oaths. Most people simply make promises to themselves, which are the most easily broken of all. Now, there is nothing wrong with making promises to improve ourselves. The problem is we break most of these promises. If we were to actually keep all of these resolutions for self-improvement, it would be life changing. Indeed, it would result in major changes in our culture, which remains self-centered, gluttonous, and angry. If only we could keep our resolutions!

It is the same problem that we find with the vast majority of self-help programs, most of which are unhelpful for most people. I’ve always had a problem with self-help gurus who make most of their money off of helping people, which reminds me of a Ponzi scheme. Of course, many self-help programs do try to help people. Many describe how to live a good life, yet most people know what they need to do to become better. Others try to help people organize to do all of the things they want to do or to calculate tradeoffs and let go of parts of their lives. While people who have trouble with organization certainly benefit from such programs, the real issue with self-improvement for most people is a lack of willpower. They know what is right or what is best, but they simply prefer to do what they have always done. They know they should lose weight to be healthy, but they enjoy eating and don’t want to change their diet or exercise more. They know that overwork is harmful to their relationships with family members, but they think that money will make them happier. In many cases, they are simply too weak-willed to follow through with the changes they envision. It is just too much effort.

Part of the problem is a broad misunderstanding of the nature of people, which tends to be resistant to change, prone to take the easier path, focused on the short-term, and prefers doing what feels good. Especially when it comes to giving up vice, our human natures are nearly always resistant. By this, I don’t mean merely that some people have an addictive personality, but that most people are driven to seek their own benefit first. It takes a strength of will to give up most pleasures. For most people, it takes a radical change of attitude, which for most people usually results from a life-changing experience, such as a health crisis or a divorce. In other words, true change comes not from external laws, knowledge, or standards but from an internal change of heart. It is this area where faith becomes critical – most who face these experiences learn that only God has the ability to change us from the inside. If we are seeking to change, even if only to lose weight, we will often only be successful when we are willing to ask for help to change.

There is nothing wrong with making New Year’s resolutions. We all should have goals and ambitions and be aware of what we need to do to become better people. Nevertheless, we should also recognize the limitations of self-help. Truly changing ourselves takes more than trying harder to meet an external goal. It takes a change of heart and thinking. If we really want to change, we must do more than make a resolution. Truly changing often requires help. Fortunately, help will always be given when we seek it with all our hearts.

© 2023 J.D. Manders

When God Came Near

The most deeply sublime element of Christmas, the great irony that moves so many to faith, is the appearance of God as a baby in a manger. There is something incongruous about the omnipotent Creator appearing as a helpless child. It seems so odd, many immediately doubt that it could be so, yet it is precisely this element that draws so many to Christmas. It reminds us of when God came near.

Most religions present their God or gods as great conquerors or all-powerful beings who help their followers to achieve victory. This is as true in modern religions as it is the ancient mythology of the Norse or Greeks. People shout “God is great” because they cannot see Him as anything other than a conqueror. Christianity has always been different. While Christians recognize God is Almighty, they believe that God became Incarnate to save us from our sins. He was born as a frail human being (Jesus Christ), who, though divine, appeared in a shell that was mortal, weak, limited to time and space, and even a little sad at times. This was the Emmanuel mentioned by the prophet Isaiah – Emmanuel means “God came near.”  It is this and not merely the birth of a holy prophet or wise teacher that Christmas originally celebrated.

The theological term for what Jesus went through to be born on earth is kenosis, a Greek word meaning literally “to empty self.” This was the word Paul used in Philippians 2:7 to describe how Jesus “made himself nothing” or emptied himself of divinity to become a man. In short, although Jesus was divine, He shed divinity to become mortal. Although immortal, He shed eternal life to die as a man. Although the ruler of the heavens, He shed being a king to become a peasant. Although worthy of all honor, He shed majesty to become ordinary. Although all-powerful, He shed omnipotence to become obedient. He did this, not because He was unable to access His power, which He did to work miracles or speak truth, but because He humbled Himself to live and learn as a man that He might be near to us. He submitted Himself to humanity and death that He might die to save us.

Nothing better represents the transition of kenosis than the baby in the manger. It is as far from a powerful God as you can get. A baby is wholly dependent on others, soft, weak, and easily injured. A baby has no personality, no majesty, no wisdom, no power to influence or to change. A baby cannot be a teacher, lead armies, or work miracles. Despite this, the shepherds and wise men still came to worship Christ as a baby. The reason is clear – before Christ did a thing, they recognized the divinity in Him, a veiled power and majesty, a vibrant life that seemed out of place in a baby. Long before Jesus taught wisdom, worked miracles, or led people to believe, they were worshipping Him. It was not because of anything that Jesus did that they praised Him, but only because of He was the Immanuel. Though Christ emptied Himself of divinity to become a man, He remained the incarnate Son, who would grow and become wise, powerful, and majestic, even in death.

At the same time, Christianity also teaches that believers also go through a kenosis. This is when we empty ourselves of selfishness and sin to assume a holy and divine life. Jesus described this process as carrying our cross daily – a phrase that implies a slow death. Paul likewise spoke of dying to self that Christ might live in us. He emptied Himself of heaven and came to earth that we might empty ourselves of earth to go to heaven. Thus, we empty ourselves of death to assume His life. We empty ourselves of foolishness to gain His wisdom. We empty ourselves of independence to become dependent on Him. We empty ourselves of ordinariness to become precious to Him. Then we will become as a little babe that we might draw near to Him.

The magic of Christmas is that God drew near to us. He emptied Himself of divinity that He might dwell among us and help us. In return, we empty ourselves of sinful mortality to partake of His life. He drew near to us that we might draw near to Him. As we draw near to Him, He promises to draw near to us, like an eternal cycle. It all started with the wonder of Christmas, when God came near.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Christmas Anywhere

For most people, Christmas is a magical season when we gather with family and friends, receive gifts, and worship together. Yet sometimes the season doesn’t work out the way that we plan. It is times like these when we must decide what’s really important. If deploying with the Army has taught me anything, it is that we can celebrate Christmas anywhere.

Everyone I know who celebrates the Christmas season does so in slightly different ways. Most decorate trees, some go without. Some put up their trees on Christmas Eve and leave them up until January, some put them up after Thanksgiving and take them down the week after Christmas. Some get large trees, some small. Some decorate with lights or ornaments, some don’t. Some put up holly or evergreen branches, some don’t. Some go to church services or caroling, and some just drive around and look at Christmas lights. Some sing traditional carols, and some listen to more modern music. Some send Christmas cards, and many don’t. Some give many gifts, and some give just one. Everyone has their own traditions and rituals for how they celebrate the Christmas season.

The problem comes when you don’t get to celebrate Christmas the way that you normally do or go where you normally go. Maybe they don’t have the kind of tree you normally have, or your favorite ornaments break. Maybe your job or personal life interferes with your plans. You don’t have time to send cards or go to the service you normally do. Maybe you’re out of work and can’t buy the same level or types of gifts that you usually do. Maybe weather intervenes and keeps you from looking at lights or signing carols, or you are unable to visit family because of work conflicts. We never know what is going to happen to wreck our plans. Do we get angry when this happens? Or are we disappointed? It may not seem like Christmas because we’ve been unable to do what we normally do, and we get upset.

If there’s one thing that deployments have taught me, it’s that you can celebrate Christmas anywhere. Many people were upset because of being away from home during the holidays, and even the most experienced were a little sad. Family members try to cheer you up by sending wrapped gifts, cards, or decorations. It was not the same, but I was able to make my hooch seem a little festive. My mother always sent brandy-soaked homemade fruitcake, which we shared around to those who had a taste for it. My units always tried to cheer people by decorating, putting up a tree, and doing a gift exchange. The bases we were only always decorated the dining facility and put on a holiday meal, and the chapels had Christmas services, which all but the most hardened atheists attended. And there was always the hour-long ubiquitous phone call home (usually late at night because of the time difference) to talk to everyone for at least a few minutes.

Despite the hardships of not being at home and getting to do the things I wanted, I always seemed to have a good Christmas. The few gifts and cards we received were more precious, the meals better tasting, the voices of loved ones more appreciated, and the songs we sang more moving because they were all we had. When your horizons are limited, it’s then that you most enjoy the view. It was at those times that I realized that Christmas isn’t about the traditions, the decorations, or even being with family. It’s about celebrating the coming of Christ, and He is as present in foreign lands as He is at home. While the traditions, decorations, and family help us with this celebration, ultimately none of these are necessary to remember the reason for the season. In fact, you need not do anything or go anywhere specific because you can celebrate Christmas anywhere you happen to be.

Things may not be going exactly as planned this Christmas. You may be struggling with working or not working. Or maybe circumstances are keeping you from being where you want to be. Remember that Christmas is about more than traditions and decorations. You still have time to prioritize what’s important – the reason for the season. You can celebrate Christmas anywhere.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

The Guard Is Family

Many service members feel alone. This is especially the case in the reserve components, where people often see their brothers and sisters and arms once a month and struggle more with daily life. At the same time, reservists and guardsmen have bonds that that often surpass those experienced by other service members. We should always remember that the Guard is family.

This past month, our unit held a suicide standdown, where we took a knee and reminded personnel that they are valuable members of the team, that they need to keep an eye on and help each other, and that people who are struggling have many resources available. Most people are aware of the extremely high suicide rates in the military, which are among the highest in the U.S. Service-wide, suicide rates have declined slightly over the past year by about 15 percent, but there has been no similar decline in the National Guard. The reason becomes quickly evident. People whose full-time job is the military are with their brothers and sisters daily, and many of their problems are related to dealing with service. Not so in the reserves, where people struggle with other jobs, with family, and with life outside of service. They deal with the same problems with the rest of the population, but these are compounded by service. Further, since they see their units only occasionally, there are many months between when their issues become noticeable to others.

Yet National Guard units offer other benefits that can help people struggling with behavioral issues. Unlike other services and components, where people are constantly being reassigned and come and go, most enlisted personnel spend their entire careers in only one or two units. This is the case even though most people no longer drill at armories that are down the street – the downsizing of the Guard in most states has largely ended the feeling of a hometown Guard. Nevertheless, though you drive several hours to drill, you are part of a small group of coworkers. You see the same people consistently over several years, even if you only see them a few times per year. You get to know people closer and can see their progress through life as they finish college, enter the workforce, have families, age, and then retire. You go to religious services together, celebrate holidays together, and you hang out after work. Many people maintain these relationships even after they leave the military as they attend luncheons and reunions.

Why, then, has suicide remained so high in the Guard? Part of it is that people are becoming less and less involved in each other’s lives. There is a tendency not to interfere with people, not to meddle, not to be nosy. People embraced “don’t ask, don’t tell” in more ways than one. Part of the reason is how busy everyone has become, not only with work, but with modern media. Everyone is working like a dog, and then you spend your spare time on phones and computers. The cure is to become more involved in each other’s lives. We must get to know each other again. We must know about our coworkers and employees. We must ask them questions about their lives and help to celebrate their milestones. We must make ourselves available even between the one weekend a month. We must check up on each other. Some are reluctant to do so because of not being reimbursed or not having the time, but this is a matter of life or death. It only takes a few minutes to send an email or make call, but these touchpoints mean the world to those who are struggling.

If the Guard is family, this is the least we can do. If these people are our brothers and sisters, we must show a little interest in them, ask questions, get to know them, and reach out to them. It could save their lives. There are enormous advantages to being in a military family, from extensive resources to help people, to having stability outside our often chaotic lives. If you are in trouble, turn to your family. We are ready to help.

© 2022 J.D. Manders