Reflecting on the service of our soldiers this weekend I was struck that our spiritual journey is akin to that of a military recruit. We are all stripped to a level of sameness. We start learning the rules and obeying our Commander. I spent four years in Middle and High School living in base housing on the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. My father was a Chaplain for the cadets there. We hosted the doolies (freshmen—and they were all men when we lived there) at our house for dinner and I heard stories I could not believe. They could be subjected to a room inspection without notice. Their bed had to be made with perfectly square corners. The bedding had to be pulled so taut and tucked in so well that the inspecting officer could bounce a quarter off of it! Looking down on their cement campus you see a grid pattern etched into the pavement. For their entire first year, doolies had to walk straight lines and make square corners. They were mandated to salute any higher-ranking officer (pretty much anyone else) and infractions meant punishment. The most common disciplinary measure for simple errors was a certain number of “tours” that needed to be marched. Each tour was one hour. So, if you thought staying after school for an hour of detention was cruel, try marching in a uniform in either the blazing Colorado sun or in a freakish July snowstorm (yup, it happened once!). You’re concentrating on making square corners and walking long stretches of concrete while your classmates cast a knowing glance your way.
Another way you give up your power when you join a branch of the military is with your personal appearance. As soon as a recruit arrives their outer presentation is homogenized. They submit to a one-size-fits-all hair cut. You have no “civies” left in your perfectly arranged closet, just variations on the uniform. No sweat determining what outfit to wear each day. Every unique element to your personhood is removed or diminished and your instinctual response changes very quickly to “Yes, sir!” (Is there a “Yes, ma’am!” now as well? Or is there a more androgynous response?)
The first year at any of the military academies is brutal. I could see the weight lift as first-year cadets moved out of the ranks of the lowly (the term “doolie” comes from the Greek word doulos meaning “slave” or “servant”) and gained just a few more privileges. They made it! They succeeded! They felt proud of mastering the rules and began to have an attitude of “I’ve got this!” We know what that feels like. With some maturity, however, we recognize that highpoints are a gift and the topography to our life can change in an instant. One moment a cadet might be aloft in a glider, looking down on the Rocky Mountains on a crystal clear Sunday afternoon. But the next day the quarter doesn’t bounce off their sheets and they failed to salute an officer in the mess hall. Punishment is meted out.
Like a military recruit, we think we’ve got it all figured out and that’s when we begin to relax the rules. At some point, we hit up against a challenge and realize how little we know. Our bubble pops. We are stripped bare all over again. This time it’s not our civilian clothing or hairstyle that we lose. It’s our ego. Just as we had begun to put our shoulders back and look others confidently in the eye, we get shot down. Suddenly we’re walking straight lines and making square corners once again. There’s nothing natural about that!
There’s a plea Jesus’ disciples cry out in one of those humbling moments: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” I love that. I get that. I am reassured by that! If they were traveling, eating, theologically wrangling with Jesus but still couldn’t learn the lesson, I feel better about my own idiocy. Living our faith is called “spiritual discipline” for a reason. We’ve never learned the last lesson. We’ve discovered in the past 9 weeks that a whole new set of challenges confront us even when we’re simply staying home! “How hard can that be,” we might have thought in early March. Now we know. We’ve never got life figured out and our instinctual responses to our surroundings need to be continually reformed.
So we continue with a faith that God is with us. We are relieved when we find out that God doesn’t expect us to ace the course. In fact, we will never earn a pass on the dreaded room inspection. Jesus’ disciples were humbled repeatedly and that’s our place as pilgrims. Even as we march a tour on unyielding cement, silently derided by our peers who are grateful their sins go undetected, we discover that God will build us up with grace. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. But the supply will never run out. There’s enough for our lifetime.