How Being a Soldier Helped Me Become a Better Follower of Jesus

My dear readers,

I’m thinking that I’ll start a 3-part series next week on “How To Begin Again”, focusing on the three challenges of faith, hope and love. But, as we had our Independence Day a few days ago, I thought that I’d take the time to reminisce on my own service, and how it continues to affect my faith journey.

Before I begin, I’ll make clear my present thinking on military service: while I honor the sacrificial thinking that accompanies the decision to enlist in the service, I do not support the military as an institution or an idea. I am a dyed in the wool pacifist, and I hope to maintain that conviction until the day I die. War taught me that lesson, which I will explain more fully in this post.

So, this post won’t seek to glorify military service, or combat, or any form of violence. Again, I respect the soldier for his commitment, even as I think that commitment is terribly misplaced. I write this post because I have become more and more convinced that my own service, fraught as it was with heartache and grief, made me into the (hopefully) radical Follower of Jesus that I am seeking to become every day.

So, let’s get into some actual points:

1) Service taught me to serve.

There is very little in the Army that is glamorous. No matter what rank you attain in the enlisted world, you will always find yourself picking up trash or doing push-ups at someone else’s command by the end of the day. At the time of my service, I truly resented having to do so much at someone else’s behest. I hated the long hours, spent perfecting a briefing or task that your superior was bound to find wanting. I hated getting up at 4:30 in the morning to go and run 3-5 miles. I hated having to constantly deal with the personal and professional trouble that my soldiers always managed to get themselves into. I hated being stepped on and over while people who were half as committed got promoted up the ranks twice as quickly.

But, as I sit here a year after my honorable discharge from the service, I realize that one of the most important lessons I learned was the ability to sacrifice time and energy in tasks that wouldn’t bring me personal glory or acclaim. It taught me how to willingly be least and last, to praise my subordinates for successes and take all the blame for failures. It taught me to cherish the moments of victory, while standing strong in the face of temporary defeats. It taught me that, sometimes, the most important thing that you can do for someone is sacrifice for them, stay late so that they can go home early, or pick up a task that you’re really too busy for, just to lighten their load.

That lesson continues to guide me as I minister the Gospel. Jesus teaches us that whoever is last shall be first in the Kingdom. So now, I serve and sacrifice with a smile, knowing that I’m following the greatest Servant in history. And no servant is greater than his Master.

2) Being a soldier taught me the real value of life.

There are many people who cherish life, and I count myself fortunate to be in their company. However, no matter how much I thought I cherished life before, I cherished it far more after I was trained and prepared to take it. There is something life changing about pointing a weapon at someone, looking down the sights, and putting your finger on the trigger. When you make that decision to kill, a couple of things can happen. Either you numb yourself to it, and do what you feel you have to; or, you recoil at the thought and vow never to exercise that power ever again. For me, the second option was the only choice I could ever have made. For other men, they chose the first. And of all the lives that were lost that I grieve for, a huge portion of my grief is reserved for the men and women who left a piece of themselves, spiritually or emotionally, in the war zone. You cannot even contemplate taking a life without being drastically changed; to actually take the life that you’re contemplating is far worse.

I will not argue the necessity of it, nor will I cast blame and judgement on those who kill in war. No matter your ideals, when faced with their own survival, 9 out of 10 people will protect themselves at any cost. And the men I served with in combat were fighting for their survival (and mine) every single day. So, I will not judge them for protecting themselves and me; I can only say that I left Ramadi, Iraq with a much clearer understanding of how senseless death could be, and how valuable every life was as a result.

3) It taught me about true poverty.

There are places in America where you can see dramatic poverty, but I never saw poverty at its worst until I went to Iraq. Many of these people had lost their homes, fortunes and families to a brutal dictator. Many more of them were displaced during our operations. There were widows and orphans in abundance. Many children went without shoes, proper clothing or adequate nutrition. There were places where clean water was not abundant. There are diseases in Iraq that the Western world has all but eradicated.

Seeing the destitution that is so widespread in Iraq brought home both the scope of the problem of poverty and hunger and the drastic, immediate need for corrective action. As a Follower of Jesus, I have maintained that passion for drastic, immediate action when faced with poverty or hunger. I cannot solve the problem on my own, but I remember the old joke about how you eat a hippo (piece by piece.) I’m willing to help one poverty-stricken individual at a time, and encourage others to do so, until the whole world is fed and clothed. I believe that’s what discipleship demands of me.

4) It taught me to stop fearing death.

The human desire to survive is our oldest and strongest instinct. It has helped humankind evolve (I said it) from primitive hunters into a species that has sent people into space. Anyone who has ever been faced with death knows how powerful that desire is.

On October 21st, 2006, I came face-to-face with death for the first time. I was in a large Iraqi house, listening to rocket-propelled grenades explode against the wall that I was crouching next to. The radio reported that dozens of insurgents were trying to come across our perimeter, to kill us all in as painful a way as they could. As I knelt by that wall, knowing that I would either meet my end under a pile of rubble or at the end of an enemy knife, I made peace with my own death.

Of course, I survived that night and many nights like it. But that peace about death has stayed with me. In some cases, this can be a bad thing: my lack of fear of death nearly drove me into suicide when I was at my lowest, and it was only a stronger love of family that kept me here. But, most of time, it has proven to be a good thing.

See, when you no longer fear death, you find that it’s difficult to be afraid of anything else. I confess that I have not always held up to that ideal: there have been many times where the disapproval of others silenced me when I should have continued speaking, or when my fear of disappointment kept me from acting according to my convictions. But, a majority of the time, when I find myself toe-to-toe with adversity or danger, I think, “What are they going to do? Kill me?”

The truest statement I’ve ever heard about discipleship comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German minister: “The call to discipleship is always a call to die.” My mentor, Charles Martin, says, “When you follow Jesus, the Way always leads to the cross.” None of us wishes to die, and yet that’s what Jesus calls us to do. If we’re fortunate, we’re only asked to die to ourselves, our desires, our ambitions. But, it has never left my mind that I might one day be asked to give my life for my faith, my convictions, my dedication to following Jesus to the end. It might be in another country, where Christians are killed often. It might be in service to my conviction to non-violence. But, even though my wife looked at me funny when I said this, I would prefer to die before my time for something I believe in strongly, instead of dying before my time to accident or sickness. Don’t misunderstand: most of me would still really appreciate living to a ripe old age. But, my service taught me that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person, and that it’s always better to die for something, instead of dying for nothing.

5) Finally, it forced me to look at the Other.

Most of us will never come across someone who is completely different than we are. Granted, there are people of many colors, national origins and creeds in the United States, but they are mostly still American citizens. Any American will have at least a marginally similar experience to any other, and so the “otherness” that most Americans will encounter in their lifetimes is almost superficial.

When I went to Iraq, I was suddenly submerged in a culture that was completely foreign. I was truly a “stranger in a strange land”. I listened to their call to salat (prayer) 5 times a day. I watched them fast for a month on end. I heard them speak a language that I was not at all familiar with. I participated in cultural rituals that I was lost in. These people were as different from me as they could possibly be…

… and yet, I met men who were so much the same. There were men who had answered a call to service, just like I had; men who were dedicated to protecting their homes and families from religious extremists and senselessly violent men. I saw pictures of children, saw them playing in the streets, smiled at them as they waved at me from the side of the road. And, suddenly, it was as if I could see through their eyes. I saw their home as they saw it. I experienced their faith as they experienced it. In Iraq, I was the migrant, I was the stranger, I was the exile. And, for every man who took a shot at me, there were 3 families who invited me in for bread and chai. These were families that treated me as an honored guest, even though I carried a gun, and looked and sounded strange to them. The hospitality and graciousness of many of the Iraqi people shaped the way that I view the world to this day.

When you’re faced with that kind of empathy, it can be a frightening experience. Because, the ability to view the Other as your own doesn’t stop with friends – you begin to see your enemies in a different light. Suddenly, it’s impossible to hate the men that are trying to kill you, because you know them. I understand better, because of those experiences, why Jesus taught that loving our enemies is far more powerful than fighting them. Loving our enemies may not change them, but it certainly changes us.

**********************

Those are only a few of the lessons that I learned, but I doubt that any of you are interested in a step-by-step guide to disassembling and cleaning an M-4 rifle.

I hope that my experience helps and teaches someone. That is, after all, what our best and worst experiences are good for.

What experiences have you had that shaped you? What experiences from other times in life helped you become a more dedicated (and radical) Follower of Christ? Even if you don’t follow Jesus, I’d be very interested to hear what experiences have made you a better, and more conscientious person.

Grace and peace to you all, until we meet again.

Michael Brian Woywood

 

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