I’m going to take a blog session off from my series on alignment to share some thoughts from my recent week of serving as a mentor for West Point cadets in the collegiate peaks of Colorado though an organization called Officers’ Christian Fellowship. The purpose of OCF and specifically the Rocky Mountain High Program in which I participated is to provide young cadets beginning their military careers with seasoned advice from an experienced (old) and retired (washed-up) senior officer (me) on how to operate and live as Christians in today’s military.
As I wracked my brain thinking and praying about the topics I’d wished I had known in my early military years, it came down to a couple key thoughts, around which I structured all of my lessons.
I used the book of Daniel to set the stage for living in a culture without succumbing to the culture. The key passage was Daniel 1:8; “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself …” That phrase, “purposed in his heart,” translated from the original Hebrew really means that Daniel “decided in advance.” He had thought through the areas of his life that were red lines he would not cross, and he did that thinking well in advance of being called to compromise. It was part of his upbringing in the synagogue and in his family life.
If there was ever an Old Testament story that reflected the verse “being in the world and not of the world,” it is the book of Daniel. Christ has called us to live a counter cultural life in a culture that is not our own. First Peter 2:9-10 tells us “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
I pointed out the necessity of my young cadets purposing in their hearts where the red lines would be for them, based on God’s Word and factoring in their personal areas of weakness. In his article “How Christians Relate to Culture” (Barna Trends 2017, p. 174-175), Barna researcher Cory Maxwell-Coghlan posits four responses Christians can have toward culture: retreat, accommodate, transform, or wage war. While he would assert that our reformed perspective places us resoundingly in the” transform” camp, it would do us well to help our students discern the strengths and weaknesses of each of these positions and our biblical responses to culture, and to “purpose in their hearts.”
Authority and responsibility are foundational cornerstones of the military structure. We are rightfully taught that you can delegate your authority, but you can never delegate responsibility. The responsibility always remains with you. In the same way, understanding where you fit within the structures of authority that God has ordained is critical for your success.
We are prone to rebel against authority, which is part and parcel of our fallen human nature. Sometimes that rebellion manifests itself in our youth with our parents (family structure), sometimes in our adulthood with submitting to God’s authority or to political authority (governmental authority as established by God) or, in many cases, against the authority of church leadership. We all operate at differing levels within those four structures, and to navigate them in a godly manner requires us to understand them, but to also submit to those established authorities. During one of the prolonged solo devotional times while in the mountains of Colorado, I posed this question to the cadets: “What aspects of your life have you not submitted to the authority of God?” Of course, and as always, I came away from that reflection bruised and convicted in so many ways.
This Christian life is NOT designed to function individually. While we are called to solitude for a time, we live in a cycle of noise and quiet, of community and solitude. While quiet and solitude recharge us and allow us to hear God’s voice through his Word, we must return to community to operate as he intended. This concept became crystal clear to me as we hiked to the summit and back of Mount Antero. Mount Antero is the highest summit of the southern Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains of North America, with a summit at 14,290’ elevation. The hike to the summit is almost entirely uphill. Starting at 9600’, the 7 ½ mile route to the summit was grueling with a 40+ pound pack and, from my flatlander perspective, very little air to breathe. Even though we camped at a lower and upper base camp, the final push was a 5 ½ hour ascent that tested me to my limits. Once we summited, I told my cadets that the only reason I was there was because of them. Alone, I would have quit. Even if purely to save face, I pushed on because we were in community and we would accomplish this together.
The journey of our Christian walk is much the same. Eugene Peterson captures that thought in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Peterson uses Psalms 120-134 as the framework. These psalms were sung by pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three great festivals (Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles or Booths), with each of the psalms describing a characteristic of discipleship: repentance, providence, worship, service, help, security, joy, work, happiness, perseverance, hope, humility, obedience, community, and blessing. The Christian walk is accomplished much like my climb up Antero: obediently putting one foot in front of the other with eyes fixed on the prize (or in my case, the dirt at my feet as I trudged forward). After catching our breath and enjoying the amazing view, we celebrated communion on the summit. While staggeringly beautiful, nothing but rocks surrounded us. I reminded the cadets that real growth happens below in the valley, and while mountaintop experiences are refreshing, they are fleeting. We must return to the valley below to grow.
I believe our students are starving for the challenge of living a truly counter cultural life. I also believe that their life lived under the authority of God and his Word provides them the best chance to impact this world for Christ. It isn’t easy to shoulder the pack and do this, but as a community of schools called to produce world changers for Christ, we must ensure our students are equipped to thrive as aliens in this strange culture.
– Joel Westa