Ready, Fire, Aim
Perhaps you have experienced military honors at a graveside: The American Legion members standing stiffly at attention. The cold wind snapping the flags. The commander of the detail ordering, “Firing Squad. Ready. Aim. Fire.” The crash of gunfire. “Fire.” Crash. “Fire.” Crash. The bugle playing taps. The flag being presented to a widow struggling to keep her composure. The tramp of feet fading away.
At “Aim” I invariable find myself curling my toys in anticipation as I steel myself not to jump at the gunfire, especially when I have my back to the firing squad. It is a moment of absolute silence and stillness as we honor the deceased. When it happens that I am facing the firing squad I can see them at the command making a quarter turn and lifting their rifles into a forty-five degree angle in the air. The brass cartridges arc out behind them, but we all know that they are blanks. No bullet flies into the air to land in some distant spot, possibly causing injury or harm.
The aiming is symbolic and ceremonial. The commander could just as easily say, “Ready. Fire.” and the firing squad could aim their rifles any which way, even right into the crowd of mourners. No physical harm would come to anyone. (Well, maybe someone would have a coronary at the psychological shock of it all!) But no soldier would ever do that. Every soldier, and anyone who practices gun safety, knows that you NEVER point your gun at anything that you do not want to shoot. Even if the gun has blanks. Even if it is empty. NEVER!
Except at church.
Somehow we have never learned that lesson. All too often it is “Ready-Fire-Aim,” or even “Fire-Aim-Ready.” Or simply, “Fire.”
There are many things that the church wants to kill: Lies, deceptions, evil. Hate, violence, wickedness. Doubt, despair, disbelief. Ignorance, immaturity, illness. All too often we see what needs destroyed and rush off to combat it and kill it, without waiting for orders from our Commander in Chief. The military has lessons the church needs to learn.
Orders are always directed to a specific person or group of persons. That person or group—squad, regiment, platoon—are always named first in the orders so that they, and only they, will obey that specific order. The officer—sergeants to generals—always keep the larger mission in view so that, even if orders seem contradictory or illogical to the soldiers receiving the orders, the soldiers know that the orders are significant and important. Of course, it is not always true. Officers can be confused or ignorant, but in the church our Commander in Chief is never uninformed or unaware. Every time he calls our name to give us orders it is because he has a mission for us that only we can do.
Not that we think that way. We call him “Lord” but we do not really mean it. Rare is the morning that we present ourselves before the Lord God and say, “Reporting for duty, sir. What are your orders?” Usually we give him orders, “Today I am going to do such and such. Bless, fix, and let me win.” Even rarer is the individual whose ears are so attentive when the Holy Spirit whispers our name in the midst of the busyness that we stop everything to listen for orders.
This is the moment of attentiveness. Orders are coming, and the soldier needs to be ready to instantly obey. Through training we have learned a variety of skills and practices. For a soldier it might be to “Advance. Take cover. Aim.” For us it might be “Forgive. Listen. Repent.” To be ready is to wait attentively for orders. Attentive waiting is hard. Soldiers joke about it, “The army’s slogan is ‘Hurry up and wait!’” Yet there is always a critical moment. For soldiers a whole battle can be lost if a regiment delays even two minutes from advancing. Likewise for us, when we delay forgiving (or listening or repenting or loving or serving or whatever) at the moment the command is given, hearts—including our own—can harden and build a wall that becomes extremely difficult to breach.
My favorite boot camp story comes from a soldier who, upon graduation from boot camp, was asked, “What did you learn in boot camp?” His reply, “I learned what the word ‘now’ means.”
The importance of taking careful and good aim cannot be overstated. Otherwise the target is missed and that which you never intended to hit can be destroyed. While this is fairly obvious in a military context, it is not so obvious in the kingdom of God because our weapons work the opposite of guns and military weapons.
An example from the life of Jesus, comes the simple command God gives, “Rest and worship.” We know it as the third commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” In order to make sure that they fully obeyed this command, the Jews of Jesus’ day made up a whole list of rules to define what resting and worship meant. As a result, when Jesus healed a woman who had been bent over and crippled for 18 years on the Sabbath day, the religious leaders immediately began planning on how to kill Jesus. Their aim was wrong. And eventually they pulled the trigger and killed the Son of God.
We can aim just as badly as they. We hear the Holy Spirit command “Rest and worship” and we do quit working at our job, but fill our day with so much leisure, fun, and even church activities that we are exhausted. We aim badly. Rather than taking our attention off of ourselves and putting it on God, rather than slowing down and disengaging from all that clamors for our attention, rather than simply enjoying being in the presence of a companionable God who loves a good laugh and finds contentment in just being together, we instead kill the very peace, quietness, and simplicity that would heal our soul.
This is the moment of engagement, and this is where the military analogy breaks down, and this is where the church most gets it wrong. A gun accomplishes its mission by bringing death to the living. The church accomplishes its mission by bringing the living to death. It is the upside down, backward work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus killed death and defeated the evil one by being the one killed. He took his life, presented it to death, and was killed. God, however, used that death to bring resurrection and life first to Jesus and then to us all.
Likewise, when we are attentive (firing squad), poised (ready), and directed (aim) the mission will be accomplished.
For example, the target is ignorance and prejudice. Phillip hears God call him and direct him to travel down a desert road where he is in danger of bandits, injury in a place far from help, and death by thirst. Phillip is ready for whatever God wants and so is directed to join a man reading the Scriptures in a chariot. The man is of a different race (black), country (Ethiopian), station (treasury official), knowledge (unaware of Jesus) and, the biggest difference, gender (eunuch). Phillip risks being injured by the soldiers guarding the Ethiopian Eunuch when he approaches him and engages him in a discussion about a passage from Isaiah. Furthermore, when the eunuch desires to be baptized, Phillip risks alienation and rejection by his community for including one who is clearly—by all standards of the time—outside of the kingdom of God.
For example, the target is hatred and vengeance. Corrie Ten Boom was arrested by the Germans for working with the Dutch Resistance and aiding Jews to escape. She and her sister Betsy suffered greatly in the concentration camps, but they continued to witness to their faith in Jesus Christ and brought hope to the other inmates. Betsy died in the concentration camp, but Corrie was released by “mistake.” After the war Corrie worked tirelessly to bring healing to the wounded and urging forgiveness as one of the necessary steps to healing. It all became personal for her when one of her former guards approached her after her talk. He said, “You probably do not recognize me, but I was one of your guards. I cannot believe that I can be forgiven unless I hear it from your own lips. Will you forgive me?” And he stuck out his hand. Corrie said that at that moment she remembered vividly how he was one of the guards who took delight in mocking the women as they marched naked to the showers. An overpowering feeling of hatred and vengeance came roaring up out of her. Her hand was frozen at her side. She could not forgive. But she felt that gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit who said, “Jesus died for him too that he might experience forgiveness. I will give you the strength to forgive.” And she willed her hand to move a millimeter and it came rushing up, clasped his hand, and she said with heartfelt sincerity, “I forgive you brother. You are forgiven.”
This story has been a benchmark story for me ever since I read it in high school. I pray that I might never have to extend that level of forgiveness, but if God ever calls me to do so, I strive to practice forgiveness whenever I find vengeance or anger inside of me. More than I wish to admit to you, I take aim and miss, sometimes deliberately. The story, however, reminds me of the freedom that comes from extending to others the same grace extended to me.
Firing Squad. Ready. Aim. Fire.
Any general can tell you that an army made up of disciplined, trained, obedient soldiers can defeat an undisciplined, unskilled, unruly enemy mob ten times its size.
Children of God. Ready. Aim. Engage.
Four of the struggles that I encounter as a pastor are that individuals or groups that:
- See a need, a problem or a challenge and immediately want to engage in action. These are the folks who engage in Fire. Aim. Ready.
- See someone else fighting effectively and immediately copy that person(s) actions. Orders were given, but not to them. They were never quiet enough to hear God calling their own name.
- Never even identify that there is an enemy seeking to destroy them and so allow unforgiveness or lies or fears or doubts or … attack and defeat them.
- Use the weapons of the enemy, shame or blame or violence or …, instead of the weapons of the Spirit, which are the Word of God, imitating the cross of Jesus, and love.