Journey to the Air Force


Forty years ago today, I began my enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. I don’t remember many details of the day I arrived at the Los Angeles MEPS (Military Enlistment Processing Station), but getting there was an interesting and unexpected journey….

As a teen, I had the privilege of living in Bonn, [West] Germany, the postwar capital, where I attended Bonn American High School. My fellow students were the kids of American Embassy staff, military, and, like me, civilian expats; as well as international diplomats and a few local Germans—overall, the upper crust of the international diplomatic community.

I played on the school’s football and soccer teams, wrestled for a year, and was the basketball team’s manager one season. Those teams traveled to countless American and international schools for games—Hahn Air Base, Bremerhaven, three different schools in Brussels, AFCENT in the Netherlands, and more—where I got glimpses of a different life: the enlisted men and women who make up the bulk of the military.

As much as I loved my experience in Bonn, nothing I saw on those bases attracted me. The buildings were boxy and lifeless; the airmen and soldiers no less so. The marching, the olive drab “pickle suits” … nothing called my name and said, “join us.” And nowhere in my family history was I aware of a military heritage. (Only years later would I learn of the Revolutionary War-era Fort Ehl in New York’s Mohawk Valley, or a great uncle(?) who had served in the Army.)

Memories of those bases were in my mind when, during my freshman year of college at Seattle Pacific University, I swore to my roommate that I would never enlist in the military.

But that year at college was hard for me. I loved the experiences and friendships I made on the crew team and I had fun working for the Seattle Repertory Theatre; but I was still lonely and disengaged both academically and spiritually. I had to leave.

After a second summer working at Forest Home, a family camp in the San Bernardino mountains, I decided to stay in Los Angeles to work. I found a job working nights in the photo processing plant of a grocery store chain: I spent eight hours putting stickers over the flaps of self-sealing envelopes with newly-developed photos. Not exactly a career track. (Funny thing, though: when I left after four months, my coworkers gave me a gold Cross pen and pencil set worth probably $50 at the time and over $100 now.)

That fall I rented a room in a house in La Puente. It was in my budget, but that’s about the only good thing about it. The owner’s husband (whom she’d married when she was 15) was a truck driver who’d been in a major accident and was in a rehab facility in Bakersfield. Just to survive, she rented out two of the three bedrooms in the house, forcing her 16-year-old kleptomaniac son to live in the garage. She lived in the master suite … and I mean lived: it was her bedroom, bath, living room, and kitchen. She kept nothing in the kitchen itself, saying that her son had stolen and sold most of the pots and pans for drugs. Her 19-year-old daughter lived elsewhere with her boyfriend.

I think I’d lived and worked there for just a couple months before the loneliness and longing for home got the best of me and I found myself walking into the Air Force recruiter’s office. My experiences during high school had made it easy to choose between the branches, my scores on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) guaranteed me one of any five career fields I chose, and I would be able to leave for Basic Training not too soon and not too late … forty years ago today. January 27, 1984.

Lessons from Six Decades


I’ve tried to personalize most of these as ongoing reminders to myself. A few, however, are lessons I wish I had learned earlier.

Be less sure of myself … without losing self-confidence. I don’t have to be right all the time. If I’m always right, I don’t need to learn anything more, and learning is half the fun and half the journey.

Explore … places, people, ideas, myself. In the exploring, look for what brings joy and what doesn’t; what gives life and what sucks it out; what is a fountain and what is a drain. Think deeply; find others who can help me.

Ask a lot of questions. Learn to ask better questions. Be curious about people, places, ideas. Learn without judgment. Keep an open mind.

Look for ways to unite rather than divide. Look for common ground; seek out the similarities between dissimilar things and people.

Be thoughtful and wise about who I listen to … whether news or social media, politicians or pastors. Don’t abdicate my responsibility to think; check out for myself what I hear. Listen to people who think differently; I can learn from their perspective, even if I don’t agree with their conclusions.

Listen to people younger than me … they have fresher and different perspectives, which will help keep my own thinking fresh. Besides, eventually almost everyone will be younger than me, so I might as well start early!

Invest more in the marriage than you spend on the wedding. Work hard to make it last … because any other option will be even harder.

Control of anything or anyone outside myself is a myth. (Thanks to M., who helped me think this through very practically one day when I was the substitute teacher in high school detention!) Some corollaries:

  • You, and only you, are in control of yourself.
  • If you’re not in control of yourself, you’ve either voluntarily given up some measure of control by, for example, enlisting in the military; or there’s a significant problem:
    • your capacity for self-control is limited by some developmental issue; or,
    • you’re a prisoner … most likely because you didn’t practice self-control; or,
    • you’re a slave.
  • When it comes to other people, circumstances, and even pets, I need to shift my thinking from control to influence.

These are a few lessons that came to mind this week as I reflected back on 60 years of life. There are certainly more but I’ll turn it over to you no matter how long you’ve lived: what have you learned about yourself, about life, about others…?

Joy, Trust, and Middle School Mary

Annunciation, John Collier.

Take a few moments to drink in the picture above. What do you see? Look at each part of the painting. Work your way from the large, primary elements—a young girl, an angel, a suburban neighborhood—down to the details. Let loose your imagination. What does each detail suggest to you? What does it mean?

I love the untied saddle shoes and the girl’s focus on the book in her hands. She reminds me of a middle school girl in one of the classes I substitute taught. The artist, John Collier, calls his painting Annunciation; I call it “Middle School Mary.”

A few weeks before Christmas I was invited to preach on the Advent theme of joy. As I read the Bible passages assigned for the week (Isaiah 35:1–10, Psalm 146:5, Luke 1:46b–55, James 5:7–10, and Matthew 11:2–11), I looked for indications of joy. The word showed up once or twice, but the contexts of the passages seemed grounds for anything but joy: Isaiah 35 speaks of desert, wilderness, and parched land; James speaks of patience in suffering; in Matthew 11, Jesus’ cousin John is in prison. And then there’s Mary’s song (Luke 1) which, admittedly, I’ve usually skipped over.

A few days before I was to preach, a friend had posted the image above on his social media pages, along with a couple other non-traditional artistic interpretations of Christmas. Collier’s painting hung in my mind as I read and re-read Mary’s song. At first, it was hard to reconcile the faith and joy of her words with the earth-shattering news this unmarried teenage girl had just received. I imagined that 7th-grade girl in my class who always had her nose in a book. How would her world change with the discovery that she was pregnant? What if one of my own daughters had come to me as a teen and told me she was to have a baby? All the impacts you can imagine for a young, unmarried girl would certainly be true of Mary: Whispers, rumors, sideways glances. Embarrassment, shame, social rejection.

Of course, none of these (except for Joseph’s intent to quietly end his relationship with her) are recorded in scripture. Clearly, God wants us to see Mary’s ready and humble acceptance of the incredible purpose and mission he has for her. But her response should shock us. We should be jolted out of our comfortable complacency by the very fact of this young girl’s unquestioning obedience.

What is her response? Joy. Abject joy! She praises God. She sees herself as part of a bigger plan, a movement toward God’s work of restoration and redemption. Instead of shame, she feels blessed. In place of rejection, she trusts in God’s acceptance and control. Where others condemn, she receives God’s mercy. Joy.

But how? And what can we learn from Mary’s response? For me, the lesson was found in rethinking joy. In spite of hearing (and preaching) countless messages explaining the difference between happiness and joy, I still confuse the two. I want happiness; I need joy. Calvin Miller writes:

Happiness is a buoyant emotion that results from the momentary plateaus of well-being that characterize our lives. Joy is bedrock stuff. Joy is a confidence that operates irrespective of our moods. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel.

Calvin Miller, The Taste of Joy, 11. Emphasis added.

When I confuse the two, when I settle for happiness, I doom myself to an unsettled life of emotional highs and lows, like a small boat on a windswept sea.

Mary’s joyful acceptance and obedience is rooted in a lifetime of expectant relationship with God. Though as a girl she would not have had formal training in a Hebrew school, her joy-filled song in response to Elizabeth’s greeting clearly shows a deep awareness and understanding of the history of her Jewish ancestors, God’s work among them throughout that history, and their anticipation of a Savior.

It is this disciplined and expectant faith that prepared Mary to receive with joy the disruptive, indeed world-shattering, report that she, an unmarried teenager, is pregnant. Mary didn’t need to find joy; she knew joy in the middle of the disruption because her faith was built on the bedrock of God’s goodness.

What about you? What about me? Am I looking for joy, or do I know joy because I know God and his goodness? Have I practiced the discipline of knowing God and his Word so that I can trust his goodness? Do I trust that he is at work for good in the world even as I am bombarded with news of wars and famines? Do I trust in his good plan even as I hear yet another diagnosis of cancer, a father’s death, a child’s struggle with addiction?

It is easy to see pain and death and destruction in the world around me. It is easy to recognize the masks of that pain on social media. Seeing the goodness of God takes discipline and work and trust. And in this disciplined trust in God’s goodness is a joy I can know.

(For John Collier’s own commentary about his painting, noting both the traditional symbolism and the modern interpretation, watch this video.)

Financial Feelings


What are your feelings about money? When you think about your finances, what emotions course through your veins?

I stepped back into the financial industry at an interesting time: the stock market is down more than 20% this year, inflation is soaring to a forty-year high, and talk of a recession—are we in one? How long will it last? How bad will it be?—is dominating the business news almost as much as the war in Ukraine dominates the global news. Ironically, when I left the financial industry in 2008, the economy was just entering its last major recession.

In between—from 2009 through January of this year—I was a pastor. Much of my work then, and much of my work now as a financial advisor, is the same: walking with people through their fears and insecurities … and their beliefs. What I’ve found is that what we DO is rooted in what we BELIEVE.

Between what we do and what we believe are our attitudes and emotions, which tend to lie along a spectrum with fear and anxiety on one end and happiness and contentment on the other.

So, where are you? Take some time to ponder your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about money. Use this feelings wheel if you need help to think of emotions words (like I do). “Fearful” may not be the first word that comes to mind, but words like overwhelmed, worried, or anxious fit, all of which are “fear” words.

If you are or ever have been married, think about conversations you’ve had with your spouse about finances: were they good, easy, hopeful discussions? Or were they filled with dread, fear, stress, and conflict?

Think about your upbringing, as well. What did you hear from your parents and grandparents? Not just the explicit things they tried to teach you, like saving or giving, but also the whispered conversations you may have overheard. (We can hear reminders like “don’t waste food” or “turn off the lights” as messages of scarcity rather than responsibility, no matter how they were intended.)

If you have children, think about the words you hear yourself using with them. What messages might they be hearing. Maybe even ask them what those messages are … if you’re brave!

Spend some time writing down the thoughts, feelings, and messages that come to mind. Then try to identify the underlying beliefs behind those.

In the coming days I’ll write more on this topic. As we come to a greater understanding of ourselves, I hope we can also begin a journey toward greater financial health and freedom … which, by the way, is not found simply in having more money!

Letter to America


A letter to my homeland, on the occasion of her 246th birthday.

As extended family gathered to celebrate my grandpa’s 80th birthday, with stories and much laughter around the table, my aunt made some snarky comment. I don’t remember what she said, and it doesn’t really matter because of what came after: Grandma, then 83 and quiet, looked over at her daughter and with a demure smile said very softly, “Careful, Barbara Jean. I can still take you out behind the woodshed.” Everyone roared … and everybody believed she would!

On a very different occasion—far more private and far more serious—my dad verbally took me out behind the woodshed with no more words than his mom had used. (Ironically, as I think about it now, it was around his own 80th birthday.) I’d been complaining about the challenges of a drawn-out job search and had casually suggested he could pull some strings to get me a one-time teaching opportunity. He was quiet for a moment, then said, “Randy, you’ve got a pride problem.” The words were so unexpected and cut so deeply that it was months before I could consider honestly what truth they might hold. (They still hurt, and it’s still hard to search for the truth in them.)

Why do I start this letter to my homeland with these two stories? Because America, it’s about time someone took you out behind the woodshed. It’s about time someone told you the truth about yourself—the truth you’ve stopped seeing, stopped believing, stopped wanting to believe.

Politicians won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend more on being popular than truthful.

The media won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend more on being first, fantastic, or sensational than on being truthful.

Your opponents won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend on you not knowing the truth.

So who can you count on to tell you the truth? A friend. And a friend will speak the truth—even when the truth is hard—precisely because she is a friend.

There is an ancient proverb that says, “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” That is truth. But it doesn’t feel like it. No one likes to hear a friend say, “you messed up there,” or “you were wrong.” It doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it can even break the relationship. But sometimes the truth is so important that it’s worth risking that break. Sometimes it takes that hard truth and that risk to wake a friend to the painful reality they needed to hear.

And that is why I am writing you this letter: to speak the truth, as from a friend. For friend I am.

America, you are not living your best … not for yourself, and not for others. On all sides, voices clamor to preserve democracy and the “American way.” Yet many of those voices, on all sides, are using decidedly undemocratic means, behaving like children and bullies: children who pout and stomp their feet and throw a fit when they don’t get their way, bullies who rely on brute force to subdue any who would oppose them.

This is not the way of democracy, it is not living under the rule of law that has been the bedrock of that democracy, and the preservation of your life for two-and-a-half centuries.

America, you are better than this; it is time to show your better self. Grow up. Learn anew to disagree without division, the art of civil discourse. Learn again the laws and freedoms—and constraints—embedded in your constitution. Learn what it means to adapt centuries-old laws and language to 21st century society, what it is and can be and should be to live under the two jurisdictions of state and nation. Learn the strength and power of living not for yourself, but for others. For only when individuals and nations live for others will our own lives be truly preserved.

A nation divided against itself cannot stand. If the United States of America is to thrive, the states of America must be united against all enemies, foreign and domestic, without and within. Today, as we celebrate our independence, the greatest enemy may be the enemy within.