Honor

When I was eighteen and three weeks out of high school, I went to the Air Force Academy. A bedrock of Academy life was the Honor Code: We will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.

The Academy spent many hours teaching us about the Honor Code. We had regular honor discussions. A typical question might be: “Cadet Smith is in a store and starts to steal something, but at that moment, a clerk walks by, and Cadet Smith never commits the crime. Is Cadet Smith honorable?”

“No, he’s not honorable,” someone would say. “He intended to steal.” About half of my classmates would agree. But the other half would say, “Cadet Smith is honorable. He never stole anything.”

We were all eighteen and hadn’t yet learned the finer points of diplomacy. Our discussions soon turned to shouting matches. After a few “discussions,” we realized no one’s mind was going to change, so we would sit in stony silence, polarized, when questions of honor came up.

Looking back, I wish I had understood the Gospel. The Gospel is the only worldview that doesn’t divide between right and wrong, good and bad, us and them. 

Jesus was in the home of a Pharisee, a religious conservative, when an uninvited guest, a woman of ill repute, crashed the party. She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

Everyone knew her scandalous life, but only she knew Jesus’ forgiveness.

And so she wept.

This was the reason for her extravagant act of love, which included anointing Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume.

The Gospel worldview says that every single one of us is more evil than we know, yet, at the same time, we are more loved by God than we dare hope.

Jesus knows us right down to the bottom of our hearts; every dishonorable thought and deed. And, at the same time, he loves us to the heavens.

And he’s already forgiven us. All we need to do is accept it.

Here’s what I wish I knew back then: Only the Gospel worldview allows us to look at those with whom we disagree, those who seem totally different from us, and say, “There is someone who’s been forgiven much…like me.”

My classmates all went on to serve their country with honor. Today, we love and respect each other. When we get together, we hug each other, and sometimes we weep.

Coach

Did you have a favorite teacher?

Did you have someone who saw something special in you, challenged you, and encouraged you to be your best? You’d do anything for a teacher like that. You wanted to do well, not to get their approval, you already had that; but because they genuinely shared in your delight.

For me, that teacher was Captain David Whitlock, the speech and debate coach at the Air Force Academy when I was a cadet. “Coach” put together one of the top programs nationally, even though all his students attended the Academy for reasons other than debate. Coach took us to tournaments all over the country, usually via antiquated T-29 trainer airplanes. Coach was our mentor and guide, showing us a bit of what life was like outside a military college.  

I’d looked for Coach many times over the years to tell him how much he meant to me, but without luck. Then recently, a friend from the debate team found me online and we started checking in. Soon there was a group of us exchanging emails. We all wanted to know, “Has anyone heard from Coach?”

Coach had had the same impact on all of us.

And then, lo and behold, Coach was found! At 84, he was still teaching speech to undergrads near Dayton. He even sent us a selfie. There was that same smile, surrounded by a new batch of students.

One by one, my old teammates started checking in. They all said what I had wanted to say all those years. I hesitated as I tried to come up with just the right words. Then last Sunday, I came home from church and there was an email from Coach to us all.

And there was this: “Tom Hall, we knew you’d do something very special with your life, but I was a little surprised that you jumped ahead of the rest of us in that waiting line to heaven. Nice move. One distinguished career just wasn’t enough for you, was it?”

I lost it. And even as I write this, it’s hard to see the screen. Before I could say “thank you,” the words of approval had been on my teacher’s lips.

This is how God is with us. God is waiting to tell us what we long to hear. Before the words of thanks are on our lips, he says to us, “There’s something special about you.”