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Military funerals are difficult.  The age of the veteran doesn’t really matter.  Each time family members gather to mourn the loss of a loved one there is incredible sorrow.  Battle buddies, friends, and military leaders show up to share stories and give comfort.  At the conclusion, rifles fire, taps play, Soldiers salute, and a family member receives a flag to remember the sacrifice and devotion of the departed veteran.  These military customs and ceremonies honor the life and service of people in the armed forces, but they can also remind us of a difficult loss.

For many who attend a military funeral, death seems cruel, harsh, and final.  That is how the disciples felt when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross.  They were devastated.  Death crushed them.  There was nothing left for them.  The last three years of following Jesus seemed to be for nothing.  They huddled together in darkness, but then came the morning.

An empty tomb was discovered.  The rock had been rolled away.  Even the death shroud and linen wrappings were laying perfectly in place.  Something miraculous had happened – Jesus was no longer there.  He had risen from the grave!

In John 11:25 Jesus shares, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.”

Jesus not only is life, but conveys life to the believer so that death will never triumph over him or her.  What once seemed final and devastating is now transformed into new life.  Death is no longer the end.  Death should instead be viewed as the gateway to our heavenly home.  Since Jesus rose on the third day, we have the promise of life beyond the grave.  The promise of eternal life through Jesus, the Son of God.

If you are hurting and suffering from a recent loss, allow the words of Jesus to strengthen and comfort you.  A cemetery is where we remember lives lost, but it is not our final home.  For those who have put their faith in Christ, Easter means that we will live in the presence of God forever.

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As a pastor and a military chaplain I am asked to perform a flurry of weddings each year.  It is absolutely wonderful when a couple wants to tie the knot.  I want them to have a strong and beneficial marriage.  That is why I require a minimum of four marriage counseling sessions before the big day.

Some couples fall into the trap of spending more time planning the wedding than their married life together.  A wedding ceremony can last 20-45 minutes, but the marriage is intended to last for the rest of their lives.  In an age when 50% of marriages end in divorce, couples need to build a solid foundation for their marriage to succeed.  Making time to strengthen your relationship before you tie the knot, will help it stay tied.

Pre-marital counseling has some distinct benefits for couples.  Here are a few reasons you should get marriage counseling before the wedding bells chime:

1.  Strengthen communication skills

You can learn how to listen to your spouse and speak effectively with each other.  This does not happen by accident.  It will take time, effort, and practice.  While better communication skills may seem like a catch phrase, couples who learn the skills can resolve issues more quickly and avoid serious fights.

2.  Discuss roles and expectations

What will married life look like after the ceremony?  Don’t expect this to take care of itself down the road.  Now is the best time to discuss expectations.  Topics should cover a wide range of issues to give transparency and depth.  Who will make the morning coffee?  Will you have a joint checking account?  Will you be a one or two income household?  Does your spouse plan to go back to school?  Where will you worship?  Marriage counseling is a great place to start or continue the conversation.

3.  Identify past relationship problems

We can learn from our past.  Discussing past relationships can allow a couple to eliminate destructive behaviors.    This time of discovery can show why a past relationship failed and help you build strategies on staying together.  It is also important to discuss the role of your family.  How and what did you learn about marriage from your parents?  There are likely good and bad examples, but this is the time and place to share those lessons.  No one is doomed to repeat past mistakes if we identify what went wrong and make a plan for success.

4.  Learn how to fight fair

Couples get into arguments.  That is a given fact of life.  We live in an imperfect world with imperfect people.  Verbal fights, arguments, and conflict will happen.  I can’t prevent you from fighting, but you can learn to fight fair with each other.  Take the time to educate yourself on these skills.  Learn what to avoid, how to cool down, and move toward solving the problem as a team.

5.  Strengthen your faith

Ecclesiastes 4:12 shares, “a rope of three strands is not quickly broken.”  There is incredible wisdom in having God as the third strand in your marriage.  Allow His love to surround you, teach you, and draw you closer to your mate.  Learn to follow God’s plan for yourself and your marriage.  Live within the covenant of marriage.  Make faith a priority in your marriage.  Worship together and reach new highs through Christ.

6.  Build a marriage map

Marriage is a life long commitment.  So it is important to discuss where you are going and where you want to be as husband and wife.  What should your marriage look like?  Marriage counseling allows you to discuss a plan for now and much later in life.  Do you want to have children?  How many children seem like the right fit for your family?  Will someone stay home during that time?  Will you continue to have a date night after the baby arrives?  Make time to discuss your goals and plans.  This is an exciting time to chart out a direction for your future together.

Books and Manuals

While no one likes to talk about homework, I encourage couples to read a book after our first session.  It will be the topic of discussion for our second session.  My personal favorite is Gary Chapman’s, The Five Love Languages.  There are several different marriage workbooks and programs out there.  Pastors and counselors may use another device, but take the time to strengthen your faith and your relationship before you say, “I do.”

What homework did you have for marriage counseling?  Are there additional books that have helped your military marriage?  What books would you recommend to a couple before they tie the knot?  Feel free to list your books and suggestions in the comment section.

May God continue to bless you and your marriage.

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I am often amused at the alphabet soup people place behind their names.  Most folks will visit a MD, CPA, CFP, and perhaps even an Esq. with a JD.  Clergy are not immune from the soup spilling on them.  Does your pastor have a MACE, M.Div., Th.M., D.Min. or Ph.D.?

Alphabet soup seems to be everywhere.  It touches every profession and career.  The growing level of certifications, licenses, and degrees seem to have no limit.  It has gotten to the point that I cannot recognize what all the abbreviations stand for.

The Army has several different levels of its own alphabet soup:  rank, military occupational specialty codes or MOS, and additional skill identifiers or ASI.

I believe that two factors are influencing the trend; greater levels of specialization and human pride.

People like the notoriety and uniqueness that the alphabet soup provides.  It makes you stand out.  It shows your determination and hard work.  It makes you different from everyone else.  Consider the pride folks have in hearing people shout, “doctor” or “pastor” before your name.

Jesus addressed this issue in Matthew 23:1-11.

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus encouraged his followers to live differently.  Don’t do what they do.  Don’t act like you are high and mighty.  Don’t make a scene.  Don’t draw attention merely for the glory of self.  The disciples were even told to avoid the title of rabbi or teacher in their fellowship.  They were to consider each other as brothers.

Jesus wants us to live and act in a humble manner.  Don’t get caught up in the game of alphabet soup.  While certain professions will require designations behind your name, be sure to honor God with a servant’s heart.  The praise of man is cheap and fleeting.  Instead, seek to be exalted by our Heavenly Father.

 

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It was reported this week that Jennifer Aniston’s beauty routine costs an estimated $12,000 a month.

Her beauty habits, which include hair-care, skin-care, eyebrow-care, makeup, spray tans, nutrition, and exercise training — run a steep $11,933.97 per month.  That totals $141,037.97 each year.

It was interesting to read how many people lavished approval and praise on the story.  They affirmed her determination and stamina in pursuing a youthful figure.  As a Hollywood actress, she has to stay fit, look young, and eat right.  That is the only way that one can ultimately get the right role in a million dollar movie.  Many compared it to a gym membership for a firefighter.  It’s the price of doing business.  It’s necessary for this line of work.  You expect a firefighter to be strong in order to rescue people from burning buildings.  So, you should expect a movie star to look her best for a role.

As a Christian, I’d like to suggest another way to view the story.  God does not care what you look like on the outside.  It doesn’t matter one little bit.  God places greater priority on our heart, our thoughts, and our actions.  Beauty is determined on the inside.

Jesus directly addresses the issue with a group of Pharisees in Matthew 23:25-28.  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Jesus knew that the Pharisees were playing a game.  On the outside, they appeared pretty good to the crowds of people.  But in reality, their hearts and actions showed a very different person.  Jesus exposed the truth about this group.  You can wash the outside of a dish, but the inside is still dirty.  The same is true today.

While our society and Hollywood may only focus on the external appearance of a person, beauty is truly from within.  In a world where teenagers are getting plastic surgery to improve their looks, we have a responsibility to teach people where beauty truly resides.  God wants us to focus on the inside.  We need to share a different perspective on beauty, one that honors God.

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I am often reminded of my mother in the spring.  She loves to be outdoors gardening and tending to the fruit trees on our family farm.  Each March she would take the kids out to the orchard as she pruned the apple trees.  Our job was to pick up the fallen branches and move them to the burn pile.

As a child, part of this was concerning.  Doesn’t this process hurt the tree?  Why would you snip off branches if you want to get more apples?  Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?  Surely more branches would equal more apples.  It turns out that mother did know best, at least when it comes to apple trees.

Wild trees have strange branch angles that cause limb breaks.  This in turn reduces the number of apples and ultimately reduces the life of the tree.  If apple trees are left fallow, you may only get a bushel of apples every ten years.  And that is bad news if you enjoy apple pie like my family.  If you prune apple trees, they yield more apples, provide apples at an earlier age, and live longer.  It turns out that pruning allows the tree to develop a strong branch framework that will support fruit production.

I fell into the same trap of wrong thinking after my deployment to Iraq.  It was difficult to find the off button and relax.  More time with my friends would help my transition home.  More time at work would help my military career.  More hobbies would help me relax.  More somehow looked better than taking time to prune away the unnecessary distractions in my life and in turn be more fruitful.

Many people fall into the same way of thinking.  “I need to have more.”  “More is better.”  “Bigger is better.”  Perhaps a little pruning will do the trick.  Just make sure that God has the pruning shears.

John 15 reminds us that, Jesus is “the true vine” and His followers are the branches.  These branches are already productive, but God occasionally prunes them back so that they can “bear more fruit.”  While pruning may seem wrong to our earthly eyes, it is the best thing that could ever happen.

Remember that more branches will not equal more apples.  Allow God to shape you into a better fruit producing machine.  Continue to abide in Christ and enjoy the season of life that He brings.

 

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Is lying free speech?  Veterans and civilians should have an answer this year.  The US Supreme Court will soon take up the Stolen Valor Act and determine if people can lie about military service.

The Stolen Valor Act was passed to address people who falsely claim military medals and awards.  Since September 11, 2001, the number of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines grew to meet the need of protecting our nation.  Unfortunately, the number of charlatans and swindlers also increased as warriors went off to defend America.  Military service regained much of the popularity and prestige that was lost in prior conflicts.  As veterans came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more people would make false claims about missions, medals, or just being in the military.  In short, it was popular to lie.  You could easily exploit the actions of America’s warriors for your own personal gain.  It made you look good.  It made you stand out in a job interview.  It made you look courageous and full of integrity.  You could immediately become a valiant war veteran with little to no cost.

After the passage of the law, several people were arrested for making false claims about military service.  As appeals and court battles ensued, attorneys claimed that the law needed to be struck down to protect and guarantee “pure free speech” for every citizen.

No matter where you stand on the issue, we should all take time to reflect on the basic claim of the law and the current court case.  Is it okay to lie?

The Bible is pretty clear on the matter.  In fact, the issue was so important that God handed it down to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments.  It’s number nine if you were counting from home.  Exodus 20:1-17 spells out an important code for God’s people.  This would be the fundamental way that they should be set apart from the world and obey God.  While it may not be as popular as jazzing up a resume or getting a pat on the back, pleasing God carries a far greater reward.

As the court battle ebbs and flows, take time to understand the importance of being honest in every aspect of your life.

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My last deployment was very unique.  The mission was conducted by a combined joint task force.  That title may seem complicated on the surface, but it’s easy to explain.  Everyone worked together.  And when I say everyone, I mean everyone.  Every Army Soldier.  Every Navy Sailor.  Every Air Force Airman.  And every Marine.  Everyone also included multiple armies from across the globe.  Allies like the British, the French, the Germans, the Japanese, the South Koreans, and several others comprised the task force.

There were several ways to tell that the task force was different.  You could walk into the mess hall for lunch and see a rainbow of different uniforms.  You could separate the green Army uniforms from the blue Navy uniforms pretty easily.  You could also separate the white dress uniforms of the Japanese Navy from the green French Navy uniforms.  Conversations were another way to show our differences.  The Navy chief from Alabama or the Army Sergeant from Missouri, they each spoke in a different way.  So did our allies.

The book of Revelation shares an interesting phrase when it refers to heaven.  The phrase is repeated in several areas like 5:9, 7:9-10, 11:9, 13:7, and 14:6.  We hear that the assembly is comprised of “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.”  A message like this is repeated several times to get our attention, but also for the simple fact that it is true.

Anyone and everyone can be saved.  That was the radical message of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah.  It was also the loving message of Jesus Christ.  The promise is found in Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”  That is an incredible promise.  It says that no one is beyond redemption in Christ.  It says that God cares for me and the African orphan.  It says that everyone is welcome through Jesus.

A mess hall full of people who wear different uniforms and speak different languages can be a great reminder of heaven.  But the real take away is that God loves everyone and they are all invited to make heaven their home.

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