Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Greatest Gift

I know it's long after Christmas now, but I feel like I would dishonor an experience I had if I didn’t tell the story. Having said that, I don’t know if I will blog for a few days after this post. All of the things I wanted to say in my other recent posts have sort of led up to this one, and I don’t know if I will want to say much for a while afterward. The reason is that the experience I am about to describe is one I will compare to a moving piece of music or an amazing film. It’s one of those that no one claps after and there is just respectful silence. I wouldn't want to lessen this experience or detract from it by moving on to another topic so soon without giving proper attention and time to the subject. This post is about the greatest gift I got this year.

***

Bombs were falling instead of snowflakes on Christmas Eve for me this year. Thankfully it wasn’t an attack or anything, but just the regular runs on our aerial gunnery range where the pilots do their practice runs. The familiar hollow sounding explosions of the bombs could be heard as we played Christmas music on my iPod in our team’s office. We were talking about watching a Christmas movie that evening and planning some small festivities in honor of the season and trying to decide what would be the best way to celebrate Christmas in a war zone.

***

As we chatted, laughed, and ate treats we’d gotten in care packages, we were interrupted by the base loudspeaker. The announcement was that there would be a fallen comrade ceremony that evening. We stopped laughing and just kind of looked at each other for a minute before we quietly went on about our work. “Today of all days”, I thought to myself. Couldn’t we get a break from this for just one evening? I felt bad for thinking it, but I admit that I wondered why they decided to push it for that evening and didn’t wait until a day or two had passed so that everyone could more fully enjoy the holiday.

***

The day wore on and the time came for the ceremony. We silently went out to the main road where the vehicle carrying the fallen soldier would come by on its way to the airstrip. It was an especially cold evening, which made the mood all the more somber.

***

As I stood there in the cold, I took a deep breath and thought about my family. I missed home. It’s was my son’s first Christmas and I wouldn’t be there. It would also be the first Christmas that my daughter has been able to really talk and I was missing it. Most of all, I wouldn’t be able to be near my dearest loved one, my sweet wife.

***

I stamped my foot and shivered until the vehicle carrying the fallen soldier finally came into view. As usual, the crowd silently went to a position of attention. As the vehicle neared each person, they raised a salute and held it until the vehicle was out of their sight. From my vantage point I could see the vehicle come around the last bend and go all the way up to the flight line before it was out of sight, so I had more time to take the whole scene in.

***

Once the fallen soldier was out of sight, I swallowed hard with a little bit of emotion, dropped my salute, and turned to leave with the rest of the crowd. As I turned to leave, I glanced up and met the gaze of one of the New Zealand soldiers. We held gazes for a moment and then he pursed his lips and nodded in respect, as if to offer his condolences for our fallen countryman. I nodded back in appreciation and went my way, walking past many of our coalition brothers and sisters who also gave friendly nods and Christmas greetings. Even some of my comrades who are Muslim gave me a warm Christmas greeting that evening in respect for our celebration of Christmas.

***

On a little side note, I’m sure you already know, but Christ wasn’t born in December. No shepherds watch their flocks by night out in the fields in the winter. Christ was born in the spring, which is also when He died. What a symbolic thing that was. The two greatest life-giving events that ever occurred, and ever will occur, both happened in the season where life begins: Spring.

***

Since its beginning, the celebration of Christmas has become many things. Sadly, only a portion of those many things is the celebration of Christ’s birth. With so many other things going on, like the stresses of getting people presents, old guys running around in fuzzy red suits, busy schedules, parties, etc., it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christmas to certain degrees. That meaning was once again refreshed to me on that cold Christmas Eve.

***

The true celebration of Christmas is not even just a celebration of Christ’s birth, but His whole life. In John 15:13 it says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Many people think this verse is just about dying for others. I think that more than that, this verse is about living for others. Another name for this is service. That is what service is: laying down your own life, your own wants, your own needs, your own time, for others. Missionaries lay down their own lives for two years to serve others, which is why a mission is called a labor of love. Any time we serve others, we show the greatest love of all, which is charity, or the pure love of Christ.

***

I think the best part of Christmas time, even in spite of all of the business and chaos (or even war), is that it’s a time when we actually practice what we preach more than any other time of the year. We show brotherly kindness, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and preach peace on earth and goodwill toward man.

***

A wonderful example of this is the Christmas Truce (click to read about it) of 1914, during World War I. The unofficial truce was called on Christmas Eve and continued on through Christmas day and even escalated into games and gift exchanges. A beautiful song called “Belleau Wood” was written about this event (I encourage you to look up the lyrics or the song if you have never heard it). Coincidentally American Forces Network Radio was turned on and was playing that song as I sat and pondered over the events of the evening.

***

The scene of the fallen comrade ceremony stuck with me the rest of the evening, through all of our other little festivities, and up until the time that I was alone in my little section of our living quarters, getting ready to go to sleep. I thought about the soldier and how his family must be feeling to get such a call on Christmas Eve. Did he have a wife and kids? Who did he leave behind? Tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes as I thought about how grateful I was for my family and for my safety so far during my time in the two war zones I’ve passed through.

***

It was then as I was pondering in the darkness that I finally realized what the greatest gift was that I had received this year, or any year: Life. I was so grateful and all of a sudden realized how appropriate it was to have the fallen comrade ceremony on Christmas Eve. That soldier gave us all the greatest gift he could. He gave his life so that others may live, and even more than that be free, which is the same thing that Christ did for us. Now and forever, that reminder of what Christmas is really about will be etched into my memory. It’s about selflessness, service, freedom, and most of all, the precious gift of life.

***

As you remember back on your holidays, or reflect upon your blessings, I encourage you to also think about our fallen brother that made the ultimate sacrifice on a cold Christmas Eve in Afghanistan. He gave up his greatest gift so that we could keep ours, and we can sleep in our beds tonight safe and warm because of those like him that gave all to serve and protect us. May we honor them by remembering, and may we remember them by honoring our greatest gift and investing that gift in others… just like they did.

6 comments:

Mike and Michelle and family said...

Thank you, Scott, for sharing your experiences with us. I know that we don't know each other well, but I miss you more than you can know. My family prays for you (and all those in the military who are far from their homes and families) many times a day. I was looking forward to the time you would be home, and was sad when I found out that you will move away when you get back. Maybe sometime we will be in the same place long enough to get to know each other.
Thank you for being such an inspiration and an example to me and my family-especially my kids.
I love you!
-Michelle

Megan said...

Thank you Scott.

Craig & Carla said...

Thank you for sharing.

Camille said...

I really enjoyed that. Thanks for sharing. I am glad to know that you are still safe and well. I appreciate you and your courage and example.

CJ Armstrong said...

Thank you Soctt so so much. It was very touching.

Clark & Chelsie said...

Thank you Scott