This week in Annapolis, Md., almost 4,000 young Americans will gather on Worden Field, where the United States Naval Academy’s Brigade of Midshipmen will, in Navy parlance, “reform.”
After a summer of training aboard various naval vessels, these young men and women will return to this place of beauty to prepare for a lifetime of service in the United States Navy. From their very first moments when their head is shaved and they are given their copy of “Reef Points” (the book they must memorize from cover to cover as Midshipmen), their lives are on a course of transformation whereby they are no longer simply citizens, but servants to those who now manage every moment of their lives. On “induction day,” when the soon-to-be midshipmen say good-bye to their families, tears flow in abundance, because after they walk over the threshold of Alumni Hall, they will never be the same again. When their parents first see them again after Plebe summer, many can hardly recognize them as they look, walk and talk differently than when they first arrived.
They learn the songs of the Navy, quickly acclimate themselves to the “Go Navy, Beat Army” mantra all must learn and recite often and bend their behavior to the discipline of the Navy. For some, it doesn’t go down easily. Some chafe under the brutal regimen. Others find the place a second home as they settle into the ways of the Academy.
Death is put forward in stark and ceremonial terms. Across the water on Hospital Point is the Naval Academy cemetery. Each year, the entering class is taken there to view the headstones of some of the Navy’s most decorated heroes. Admiral James Stockdale is buried there, as is Admiral Arleigh Burke—both notable naval officers. Erik Kristensen, a young Navy seal who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005, is buried near the road. Midshipmen grow accustomed to the sound of the drum beating a cadence as mourners follow a coffin down the roads from the Academy chapel to the cemetery.
Memorial Hall, located on the second floor of Bancroft Hall, is a beautiful room where Captain Hazard Perry’s flag hangs which says, “Don’t Give up the Ship.” Memorial stones are hung all around the room according to class year honoring those who died in battle. The class of 2003 lists a young Marine, J.P. Blecksmith, who was killed in the battle of Fallujah in 2004—a solemn reminder that America remains at war.
The Naval Academy is not without its problems. Scandals dominate its halls from time to time, and the idea of the “drunken sailor” did not spring ex nihilo. What is unmistakable at the Naval Academy, however, is the level of awareness that death—their own death—is not simply a possibility, but a probability for those who serve in combat. Little is done to mitigate the reality that theirs is the profession of arms where their lives become the price of freedom for others. Their orders are to prepare for what will surely come their way.
The unmistakable analogy to military life employed by the Apostle Paul seems fitting for the realities which will be experienced by every Christian. Repeatedly, he employs the use of military language to describe the plight of Christians as they face opposition in this world. Unlike the soldier or the sailor, however, the certainty of spiritual combat in this fallen world often does not result in the rigorous preparation like that experienced by the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy “to share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (II Tim. 2:3). Unlike those who face a mere political enemy, the disciple of Jesus should expect far more opposition launched against them than the threat of mere physical death. So powerful are the weapons and tactics of the Evil One that to be unprepared is to be defeated.
Those in the profession of arms have one goal: to please their commanding officer. All other concerns, though important, are relegated to a secondary status. In like manner, “no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (II Tim. 2:4). The pleasure of the officer becomes the passion of the soldier, who prepares for the day of battle when, in obedience to the one who called him, engages his enemy with “the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17). For in that moment all that will matter is the pleasure of the Lord in the defeat of the enemy. How they prepared will make all the difference.
“Fight the good fight of the faith.” I Tim. 6:12a