Friday, February 15, 2013

These Things Shall Give Thee Experience

We stand in awe at the challenges military life impresses on families and individuals here at Naval Station Mayport. Hardships and trials seem to roll in and cover them like the waves pounding our nearby beach. Even though these Navy and Marine Corps souls, like the broken coral revealed at low tide, are tossed and buffeted by life and buried in the surf of affliction, they manage to survive, and in the process are worn smooth and polished by the sea of adversity.

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Married to an Army soldier for 37 years, this writer is no stranger to the vagaries of commanders’ dictums and Pentagon orders that often sent Elder Draper to the back of beyond and whose fine print read something like “if the Army wanted you to have a family, it would have issued you one.” We have endured the anxiety of separations where Elder Draper’s safe return was uncertain. We have muddled through life apart only to face the even greater challenge of life reunited. Learning how to live together has often been more difficult than the separation. But we have not experienced the crucible, the refiner’s fire that engulfs these Navy families we’ve been sent here to serve.

Come take a look at a tableau of individuals we’ve come to love through our service as Military Relations Specialists. Allow me to introduce a few of them to you and describe their unique circumstances as they take their places in this peculiar diorama. I’ve changed their names out of respect for their privacy. 

Darla and Robert married young and started their family right away. Robert was just beginning a career in the Navy when evidence of broken ribs was discovered in his infant son during an emergency room visit. Robert was immediately arrested. His constitutional rights were violated when Navy criminal investigators refused to let him contact an attorney and threatened to detain him until he confessed. Frightened and na├»ve, Robert, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, admitted to rough handling his child. He was released to his ship but the State of Florida barred Robert from living at home. He could only be with his son during supervised visits.

For more than a year Robert lived on his ship at port, within walking distance of his on-base home, but could not go home to his wife and son unless the court supervisor was also there. Tender marital intimacy withered; familial normalcy faded. Both the State and the Navy urged Darla to divorce her husband. The young couple saw some of their friends, both in and out of their Mormon congregation, turn away from them. But Darla loved Robert and would not accept he could harm their son. Robert vacillated between proclaiming his innocence and believing he really might be the monster the State and Navy said he was. 

Suspecting a valid medical reason might exist for their son’s injuries, a geneticist was called in to examine Darla and the baby. Evidence seemed to point to a rare hereditary condition of brittle bones. What might be harmless rough playing with some children could cause fractures in a child like Darla and Robert’s son. The tests were inconclusive. 

Meanwhile, the Navy was preparing to court martial Robert and perhaps send him to prison. Lacking sufficient evidence to prosecute in a civilian court, the State closed the case but neglected to terminate the supervisory order. Robert plea-bargained with the military court and accepted a lesser charge, two weeks in the brig, and a less-than-honorable discharge. The court martial never materialized. 

The couple are still contesting Florida’s supervision order while they prepare to start over in another state, far away from military life. 

Throughout this bizarre ordeal their faith in God and strength in each other has been sorely tested. Both felt many times that they stood naked and vulnerable, facing the teeth of the storm utterly alone. The experience has been excruciating but remarkably, instead of breaking them, they are noticeably stronger, wiser, and more determined than ever to hold their family together.

Stepping into the tableau next is Elaine, a Navy hospital corpsman. When she found herself struggling with depression and plagued with thoughts of suicide she sought counseling from a Navy chaplain. The chaplain’s advice made such an impression on her she inquired about his religion. He told her he belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). She wanted to know more about this strange Mormon faith whose tenets brought such peace to her fragile soul. Elaine met with the Mormon missionaries and was later baptized into the church. 

Life was good for a while. Then she deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Away from the influence of her chaplain friend and a family-oriented church congregation, Elaine stopped praying, stopped reading her scriptures, and stopped attending worship services. She slipped into a downward spiral of bad decisions, depression, and isolation, which led to more bad decisions, deeper depression, and a more destructive isolation. By the time she returned to her assignment in Jacksonville, Florida, she was in a dark, frightening place in her mind. 

When Elder Draper and I met her, she was being medically discharged from the Navy and struggling to regain some semblance of normalcy in her life. Elaine became another daughter to us and a regular presence in our home. We laughed and cried with her, visited her in the hospital when life and despair became interchangeable, and loved her fiercely and unrelentingly. 

Slowly and tentatively Elaine returned to church, began reading her scriptures again, praying, and keeping a gratitude journal. She also returned to dating and recently married a God-fearing Mormon man who treats her fragile spirit with tender care and plans to take her to a Mormon temple to participate in the sacred ceremony that seals families together forever, extending their marriage bonds beyond the grave and into the eternities. 

Life is again good for Elaine. Even though her mental illness will be a cross she will have to bear throughout her life, she is more prepared to live life abundantly than she has ever been before.

There are many more people with stories just as compelling who take their places in the tableau of our mission service. The one thing they each have in common is the experience they are gaining through their custom-tailored trials – trials uniquely designed to refine, perfect, and humble the soul. 

Experience instructs. It suggests life is a passage, it tests the enduring human personality.[1]

Through the lens of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s unlawful and horrific incarceration in Liberty Jail (Missouri) in 1839 we view his ordeal as necessary for personal growth and experience.

…If fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? [2]

Richard Bushman, in his biography of the Mormon prophet observes that all the “abuse, the injustice, the horror—all were for experience” and that “Christ had gone through worse and so Joseph must submit too. The voice of God told him to ‘endure it well.’”[3]

As Joseph discovered, and the individuals in our tableau continue to discover, experience is a “strange word to answer the problem of evil…Life [is] not just a place to shed one’s sins but a place to deepen comprehension by descending below them all.”[4]

Life is a training field. But a training field for what? If, as I believe, we have been sent here to Earth by a wise Father who wants us to become like Him, what could we be in training for if not as preparation for something greater, some nobler condition in the future? To become more like Christ, our elder Brother, to be where He is, we should not be surprised when we find ourselves experiencing our own personal Gethsemane.[5] 

And so we are witness to the painful, testing experience these military families are called upon to endure. As service missionaries our calling is to help them have hope and to know we stand with them as they pass through their crucibles of experience.

[1] Bushman, Richard Lyman (2007-12-18). Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Kindle Locations 8314-8322). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[2] Doctrine and Covenants, Section 122, vs. 7-8. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
[3] Bushman. (2007).
[4] Bushman. (2007).
[5] Bushman. (2007).

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