This morning's reading from Romans invariably evokes, for me, memories of Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School, where I was the chaplain for almost two years in the early 1980s. The Marine Corps relies upon the Navy to provide both healthcare professionals and chaplains. I don't want to bore you with sea stories about the military, but realized this week that I have spent approximately 40% of my life and almost 60% of my adult years on active duty in the Navy.
Unlike OCS for the other armed services that train officers, Marine OCS screens and evaluates candidates to determine if they possess the requisite physical, academic, and leadership qualities to become Marine officers. Only about half of the candidates who begin the course earn a second lieutenant's commission.
Many candidates' most difficult physical challenge was the endurance course. The endurance course begins with a standard Marine Corps obstacle course – about two minutes of total physical exertion, presuming you know how to overcome obstacles that include running along an elevated log then vaulting a wall, climbing an eight foot high sheer wooden wall, and climbing a rope. Next is a four-mile run through woods and fields in combat boots that requires traversing thirty combat obstacles such as a low crawl under barbed wire. The final obstacle, located near the end of the course, was a stagnant pool of muddy, chest high water. In winter, the first person through the water sometimes had to break the ice; in the summer, candidates occasionally spotted a cottonmouth moccasin swimming alongside.
I, along with the drill instructors and officers in charge of the candidates, routinely ran the endurance course with the candidates. I'm not athletic and doubt that I had ever run a mile before joining the Navy at age 29. In the beginning, just finishing the endurance course was a personal challenge. With practice, I became comfortable with the course and sometimes even enjoyed a feeling of personal achievement at finishing the entire course in less than 35 minutes.
Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, which does not disappoint us because of God's love. On more than one occasion, especially in my early days at OCS, I lived those words. Everything about the obstacle course, the four-mile run in boots, and the thirty combat obstacles seemed designed to make me suffer. But, in time, I developed endurance. I became friends with a Gunnery Sergeant, one of our drill instructors. We got into the habit of running five miles at noon on those workdays when I did not join the candidates in a run or forced march. He loved to discuss theology and our conversations helped to make our runs bearable.
And as I developed endurance, I realized that endurance produces character. Very few of the candidates lacked the physical ability to complete OCS. The greatest number of candidates failed because they lacked the personal grit and determination to succeed. Marine OCS, in other words, is primarily a moral or spiritual challenge designed to measure a person's character.
Life is a lot like Marine OCS. No, if you succeed in life God will not commission you an officer in God's Marine Corps. And unlike the 50% attrition rate at OCS, life has a 100% attrition rate, because everyone eventually dies.
Nevertheless, life is a lot like Marine OCS. Suffering is unavoidable, though thankfully it is rarely constant. Illness, disease, and advancing age all cause physical suffering. We experience emotional suffering when a loved one dies, our beloved fails to share that love, or we fall short of personal expectations or the expectations that others have for us. Everything from unfair treatment, being burglarized, or sexually assaulted to facing famine, war, or plague, and much more – all forms of personal and systemic injustice – cause suffering. As hard as anyone might try, nobody can indefinitely avoid all suffering.
We can allow suffering to wear us down and ultimately to defeat us.
Alternatively, suffering can produce endurance. Developing endurance requires hard work and is not always enjoyable.
At Marine OCS, the other staff members and I participated in physical training events for two reasons. First, we believed in the OCS motto of Ductus Exemplo, leadership by example. That motto is profoundly Christian, far more than most Marines realized. The incarnation represents God's leadership by example, Jesus suffering that we, through his endurance and character, might begin to discern the depth of God's love for us.
Second, and much more importantly, I learned that my presence symbolized hope and encouragement. The purpose of hardship was not simply proving one's endurance but to develop character. OCS was ultimately a moral or spiritual test. Will a prospective second lieutenant soon to be responsible for the welfare of about 30 young Marines, and perhaps tasked to lead them into harm's way, have the character – the courage, the integrity, and the endurance – to be worthy of her or his nation's trust?
The Church is in the character formation business. The Bible is not a rulebook. Instead, the Bible is a collection of stories, proverbs, and other materials by which, with the help of God's Spirit, we can become the persons of high moral and spiritual character whom God created us to be.
Suffering is inescapable. God does not cause our suffering – there is already too much suffering. However, with God's help, suffering can produce endurance. And endurance, with God's help, produces character.
No shortcuts exist for becoming a person of great character in whom hope lives because one is so aware of the indwelling of God's Spirit. Neither Christianity in general nor Holy Nativity in particular has a single set of exercises or courses guaranteed to transform suffering into endurance and then into character.Spiritual growth is an individual endeavor and each person must run his or her own race. But we run confidently, enduring the suffering, knowing that the pioneer of our salvation has gone before us and that we do not run alone, for the Holy Spirit runs with us.