The True Spirit of Christmas
“For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luk 2:11
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him
should not perish but have everlasting life.” Joh 3:16
God’s Giving Defined by Grace
It is fashionable around Christmas-time to speak of the “spirit of giving.” We hear people say that they “feel better” because they put some change in the Salvation Army bucket, or included a charity for children in their holiday giving. We have so lowered the bar on the standard of biblical giving that we are not even aware what a shame we bring on ourselves and our nation with such paltry gifts.
When God gave, He gave in the spirit of what the Bible calls grace. Grace is often defined as “the unmerited favor of God.” However, we cannot fully comprehend what grace involves until we see it in both its unlimited scope and its sacrificial depth. When God sent His Son into this world, it was to offer the gift of forgiveness and eternal life to every member of the human race. In other words, the gift was of universal scope. Furthermore, the provision of that gift would cost Jesus Christ everything. To save mankind, He must step down from His heavenly throne, live a holy life among men who did not understand Him, and therefore, continually maligned and accused Him—from His childhood to His grave (Heb 12:3). Then came the ultimate sacrifice—being condemned as a criminal and crucified with thieves.
Our world likes to keep Jesus in the manger, if noticed at all. But we should never review the Christmas story without also being mindful of how and why He came, and how He departed this earth. Only then can we begin to faintly comprehend what is contained in that glorious word, “grace.”
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God …” Eph 2:8
Theologians remind us that when we consider the riches of God’s grace, we must bear in mind that God’s sacrificial giving is not based on human merit in any way, but that the greatness of the gift and the benefits of receiving it cannot be diminished or lost by any human demerit. We may choose to receive the gift of eternal life, but we cannot earn it. We may reject the gift, but we cannot diminish its value in any way. And once having received life, no sin on our part will ever cause us to forfeit its possession. It remains a permanent, personal possession.
“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God,
that you may know that you have eternal life …” 1Jo 5:13
To try to penetrate into the glory of God’s grace, and to comprehend the greatness of His gift, I ask you to read the following story. Bear in mind that it is being related by a father who, because of his military career, along with all members of our Armed Forces, have been often misunderstood and maligned, but who continue to face the horrors of war, and the great personal risk of combat. Consider also that he had recently lost his own son, who died for the freedom and liberty of Americans who continue to live, for the most part, self-absorbed lives. Note that in telling the story, he does not even mention his own loss.
Six Seconds to Live
On Nov 13, 2010, USMC Lt General John Kelly gave a speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis, MO. This was 4 days after his son, USMC Lt Robert Kelly, was killed by an IED while on his 3rd combat tour. During his speech, General Kelly spoke about the dedication and valor of the young men and women who step forward each and every day to protect us. During the speech, he never mentioned the loss of his own son. He closed the speech with the moving account of the last 6 seconds in the lives of 2 young Marines who died with rifles blazing to protect their brother Marines.
"I will leave you with a story about the kind of people they are. About the quality of the steel in their backs. About the kind of dedication they bring to our country while they serve in uniform and forever after as veterans.
Two years ago when I was the Commander of all U.S. and Iraqi forces, in fact, the 22nd of April 2008, two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 "The Walking Dead," and 2/8 were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion in the closing days of their deployment going home very soon, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour. Two Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 years old respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch together at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines. The same broken down ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, also my men and our allies in the fight against the terrorists in Ramadi, a city until recently the most dangerous city on earth and owned by Al Qaeda.
Yale was a dirt poor mixed-race kid from Virginia with a wife and daughter, and a mother and sister who lived with him and he supported as well. He did this on a yearly salary of less than ,000. Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle class white kid from Long Island. They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple Americas exist simultaneously depending on one’s race, education level, economic status, and where you might have been born.
But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible of Marine training, and because of this bond they were brothers as close, or closer, than if they were born of the same woman.
The mission orders they received from the sergeant squad leader I am sure went something like: "Okay you two clowns, stand this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass." "You clear?" I am also sure Yale and Haerter then rolled their eyes and said in unison something like: "Yes, Sergeant," with just enough attitude that made the point without saying the words, "No kidding, sweetheart, we know what we’re doing."
They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, Al Anbar, Iraq .
A few minutes later, a large blue truck turned down the alley way-perhaps 60-70 yards in length-and sped its way through the serpentine of concrete jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both catastrophically.
Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck’s engine came to rest two hundred yards away knocking most of a house down before it stopped. Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was made of 2,000 pounds of explosives. Two died, and because these two young infantrymen didn’t have it in their DNA to run from danger, they saved 150 of their Iraqi and American brothers-in-arms.
When I read the situation report about the incident a few hours after it happened I called the regimental commander for details as something about this struck me as different. Marines dying or being seriously wounded is commonplace in combat. We expect Marines regardless of rank or MOS to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different. The regimental commander had just returned from the site and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event-just Iraqi police. I figured if there was any chance of finding out what actually happened and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, I’d have to do it as a combat award that requires two eye-witnesses and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements. If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer.
I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police, all of whom told the same story. The blue truck turned down into the alley and immediately sped up as it made its way through the serpentine. They all said, "We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing." The Iraqi police then related that some of them also fired, and then to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion. All survived. Many were injured, some seriously. One of the Iraqis elaborated and with tears welling up said, "They’d run like any normal man would to save his life." "What he didn’t know until then," he said, "and what he learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal." Choking past the emotion he said, "Sir, in the name of God no sane man would have stood there and done what they did." "No sane man." "They saved us all."
What we didn’t know at the time, and only learned a couple of days later after I wrote a summary and submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras, damaged initially in the blast, recorded some of the suicide attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis had described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated.
You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. Putting myself in their heads I supposed it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. Exactly no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: "let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass." The two Marines had about five seconds left to live.
It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was half-way through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. Here, the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were-some running right past the Marines.
They had three seconds left to live.
For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing non-stop—the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the SOB who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers—American and Iraqi—bedded down in the barracks, totally unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. If they had been aware, they would have known they were safe because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber. The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence, Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left to live.
The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty into eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight—for you.
We Marines believe that God gave America the greatest gift he could bestow to man while he lived on this earth—freedom. We also believe He gave us another gift nearly as precious—our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines—to safeguard that gift and guarantee no force on this earth can ever steal it away. It has been my distinct honor to have been with you here today. Rest assured, our America, this experiment in democracy started over two centuries ago, will forever remain the "land of the free and home of the brave" so long as we never run out of tough young Americans who are willing to look beyond their own self-interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who would do us harm.
God Bless America, and … SEMPER FIDELIS!"
A Call to Courage
“Dear God, where do we get such men? What loving God has provided, that each generation, afresh, there should arise new giants in the land? Were we to go but a single generation without such men, we should surely be both damned and doomed.”
– Anonymous U.S. military leader, quoted in “On Combat,” Lt Col. Dave Grossman, pg. xxii
The example of the above story goes far beyond the concept of giving held by most of us. And yet, it truly pales in comparison to the spirit of giving displayed by God at the cross. But we would do well to take time to ponder deeply on such examples as those two young Marines and ask the inevitable question, “What have I truly given to my world?” We, who are called on by the very One who died for us to “take up your cross daily” (Luk 9:23), ought to consider what is the true spirit of Christmas, not only at this time of year, but every day of our lives.
We are now entering into a dark time in American history. What our future holds will largely depend on what we choose to do with the questions of our time. The two greatest questions we will ever face are, “What is the foundation for my faith,” and “What is the outcome of my faith.” If we can claim faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and sit idly by while our nation dies, we have betrayed our own trust. If we do not see ourselves as personally responsible to take a stand for the truth of the Gospel in our generation, how will we answer in the presence of Him who gave Himself for us? These will indeed be “times that try men’s souls.” We must rouse ourselves from our self-indulgent slumber, and begin to live heroic lives. The true test of the hero is that he first faces the evil deep within himself. He must then enter into daily, relentless, combat with that evil in the armor of God. In so doing, he will begin to lay himself down daily for the blessing and benefit of others. And it will not be what, or how much, he is giving that will occupy his thoughts, any more than it was on the minds of Corporal Jonathan Yale’s or Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter’s minds as they “do their duty into eternity.” What will always be foremost in the mind of the true hero is this: that in the mundane or the magnificent undertakings of life, the question of personal accountability in the conflict of good and evil is ever present. We do not choose the day of our death. But each one of us, every day we live, makes countless choices that determine the value of our lives, the value of our giving, and how we will face that day. And the truest heroes of all know that in eternity, beyond the horizon of this life, we will give an account to Him who will judge the living and the dead.
“In life’s small things be resolute and great
To keep thy muscle trained; know’st thou when Fate
Thy measure takes, or when she’ll say to thee
I find thee worthy; do this for me?"
– James Russell Lowell, “Epigram”
“Whatever you would make habitual, practice it; and whatever you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it, but habituate yourself to something else.”
– Epictetus (first century, A.D.)
May each of you know in spirit, and come to know in practice and truth, the true spirit of Christmas—that our lives may be one continual act of sacrificial giving, by His matchless grace.
With love and gratitude for you all,
Gene and Nan
My special thanks to Col. Ken Curcio for passing on the story of those two brave Marines. Pray daily for our troops!