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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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The headline was small and muted this month, but the Army reported 278 suicides for 2011.  That figure represents Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve components.  While that number may not immediately seem like good news, it is nearly a ten percent drop from 2010.  It is also the first time that number has declined in four years.

I understand why no one wanted to herald the news, but this should still be seen as a victory.  We are making an incredible difference in the lives of people.  Suicide prevention training has taken hold in the force and continues to grow.  Soldiers and families understand that it is okay to talk about deployment issues and concerns.  Stigma and fear continues to decline.  Counselors, medics, chaplains and battle buddies at every level are teaching service members how to address suicidal thoughts.  That being said, there is still more work to be done.

Broken relationships are still the number one reason that Soldiers commit suicide.  It is important that first line leaders sit down with service members at the first hint of marital conflict.  Make time to listen and discover how your Soldiers are dealing with the hardships of life.

Practice ACE:  Ask, Care, Escort.  Ask people how they are doing.  Care about their situation through listening.  Escort people to a community resource when they need help.

Military One Source is available 24/7.  You can call and immediately speak with a counselor or ask for a referral.  The operator will give you several local counseling options and assist you in making an appointment.  Service members can receive 12 free counseling sessions each year.  Military One Source can be reached at 1.800.342.9647.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to help those contemplating suicide.  You can call 1.800.273.TALK (8255) and be connected to a counselor.  Once you are on the lifeline, a person can decide to speak with a veteran or a civilian.

Army suicides are starting to decline.  Our efforts are bearing fruit in multiple arenas.  One year will may not establish a pattern, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

 

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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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No one can deny that Valentine’s Day is almost here.  You can glance at the calendar, hear a commercial on the radio, or you could just walk through any store for a reminder.  The chocolates, Valentine Day cards, cupid figurines, plush animals, and fragrances are everywhere.

I am often conflicted by Valentine’s Day and the message that it sends.  Perhaps you are in the same boat.

A part of me wants to believe that it is a great reminder for couples to show love and affection toward each other.  Husbands and wives will separate themselves from busy schedules and spend time to reconnect as a couple.  Soldiers and spouses will find a way to share their love and devotion even though they are several time zones apart.  Or that our society will look at the calendar and try to improve the day by practicing compassion to family, friends, and neighbors.

The other part of me feels that love is much more than flowers and a box of chocolates.  Unfortunately, the commercial nature of February 14th does more to cheapen true love than to enhance it.  Do our actions and expectations say that mandatory gifts equal affection?  If so, then we turn love into some kind of transaction or mathematical formula.

Love is certainly bigger than Valentine’s Day.  Love is larger than one day on the calendar.  In fact, it is best found in the Bible.

Jesus loved the rich young ruler even though he walked away in disappointment.  Jesus loved the woman at the well.  A lady so ostracized, she wasn’t allowed to gather water in the cool of the day.  Jesus loved tax collectors, cheats, and swindlers.  He loved children, lepers, and blind men.  In short, Jesus loved the unlovable.  He showed compassion to people who didn’t “deserve” His attention.  He demonstrated a perfect love where no gifts or dinners were required.  This love cannot be bought, only accepted as a free gift of grace.

No matter how you view Valentine’s Day, let us remember that love is much more than flowers and a box of chocolates.  Let us also remember how perfect love has been demonstrated by our Lord Jesus.  May His example guide us to show the perfect love of heaven here on earth.

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Military families and military couples frequently ask how they should reconnect once a deployment is finished.  Families and veterans should keep these five stages in mind.

Preparation.  Service members and families make plans for the return home.  Service members are still deployed, but folks begin to talk about their expectations and wants when they are reunited.  What do you want to eat at home?  Do you want a family get together in the back yard?  Can we take a cruise or take the kids to Disneyland?  Discussions focus on your return home and immediate plans.

Honeymoon.  This is just after the homecoming ceremony when your commander yells, “dismissed”.  The beautiful beginning starts when you get to hug and smooch on your loved ones who were waving signs and flags just minutes earlier.  This is the period when everything is right and perfect in the world.  Service members will go home, kick their feet up, and get some rest.  Relatives and friends are just happy to have their veteran home.  Couples frequently ask family to watch the kids so that they can have a romantic get away the first or second week home.  The honeymoon period can last days, weeks, and hopefully even longer.

Disruption.  This is when challenges starts to appear for families.  Arguments take place and voices start to get louder around the house.  Kids may challenge the order and rules that existed during the deployment because your warrior is back.  They may attempt to divide parents and get what they want instead of following the rules.  Arguments take place over new roles in the home.  The niceness and special attention that couples gave each other during the honeymoon period is now in short supply.  The veteran may be asked to perform an increasing amount of chores and tasks that weren’t important two weeks ago.  There is little or no tolerance in allowing your service member to sleep in each morning.  It’s time to get back to business.

Adjustment.  This is the time when you establish new roles, responsibilities, and goals.  Dad may not know about Friday evening walks at the lake, because this tradition started during the deployment.  Who will pick up the kids from school now that Mom is back?  The kids didn’t help fix dinner before the deployment, but it has been the norm for a year.  Will they continue to prepare meals?  Who will make sure that the kids finished their homework?  Who will tuck the children in bed?  All of these tasks were known during the deployment, but veterans may need to relearn, share, or change some household roles.

New Normal.  This is when changes are still being negotiated and are slowly becoming patterns.  The roles may not be the same as before the separation, but the military family is back in action.  Remember that every deployment is different and the time to adjust will vary also.  Your first deployment was different from your second.  Try not to compare the reunions with each other.

Again, every military couple and family will adjust to reunions in a different way.  But keep these stages in mind when warriors come home.  Soldiers should take the time to rest and relax from that long combat tour.  Don’t sell your leave.  Take it and enjoy the down time at home.  Couples should rekindle the romance that stood the test of time.  Try to catch a Strong Bonds marriage retreat.  And kids deserve some quality time with their warrior as well.  Make each moment count now that your warrior is home.

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I want to share some veteran resources that continue to strengthen both soldier and spouse.

The Combat Trauma Healing Manual is a great book for individual reading or a small group setting.  The author, Chris Adsit, brings out Christ-centered solutions for combat trauma.  He is practical and telling in his approach. While many authors may simplify PTSD solutions to coping strategies, changing behaviors, and cognitive therapy, Adsit shares that more is available.  God wants to bring about restoration, stability, and healing.

I feel that this book is written with an attitude of gratefulness for veterans and a desire to bring peace to military homes.  It gives an appropriate spiritual approach that veterans need to hear.

This is the companion book for military spouses.  It is written with the same amount of care and concern.  Each time that a warrior comes home, the time and type of reunion is different.  One constant is the spiritual comfort that God can provide to military families.

PTSD will complicate how couples reintegrate at home, but military spouses will find stories, suggestions, and learn how to deal with new situations.  The book is also wrapped with advice from the medical and counseling community that is extremely helpful.  The personal stories and recommendations make this book worthwhile for both veterans and spouses.

You can find both books and additional information at http://www.militaryministry.org/.

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At first glance, prison doesn’t seem like a good place for a Christian.  But Martin Luther King Day should be a reminder of what we find in Scripture.  Disciples, prophets, pastors, preachers, ministers, and missionaries are frequently arrested and thrown in jail.

John the Baptist was arrested for sharing the law with King Herod Antipas.  Simon Peter was jailed for being a bold messenger of Jesus Christ.  Paul and Silas were arrested for preaching the gospel.  Eventually, they wound up saving the guard and his household.  Today, we find missionaries and ministers being placed behind bars as they perform Kingdom work across the globe.

It’s important to realize that Christians are persecuted for their faith, their beliefs, and their actions.

Martin Luther King was arrested several times in his pursuit of establishing greater equality in America.  While in prison, he penned what is frequently called the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.  His letter outlines a theological belief where slow progress should not be viewed as success, but people should instead be insistent about fixing injustice.  And he is also clear that while the church has at times been a vehicle for change, it has also been a slow or obstructing vehicle.

It was in this letter that he wrote that “In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the church.  But be assured that my tears have been tears of love.  There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes, I love the church; I love her sacred walls.  How could I do otherwise?  I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers.  Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.  But oh! how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being non-conformists.”

John 15:18 shares, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”  Being arrested, beaten, tormented, and paraded through a kangaroo court was also part of Christ’s ministry on earth.  Prophets, priests, and pastors will continue to be imprisoned for the cause of Christ because He went to the cross for us.  It is important for us to be faithful and responsive to the call of God above governments, regimes, despots, and dictators.

Let us view MLK Day as a reminder to serve God and be true to His commands.  Let us remember that boldness is often required instead of compromise.  And let us demonstrate that churches can be a place where Christians stand up for what is right and just.

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