Tag Archives: connection

An Invocation of Connection

Invocation: the act or process of petitioning for help or support; specificallyoften capitalized a prayer of entreaty (as at the beginning of a service of worship)
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

After a quick introduction, almost every military ceremony officially begins with the National Anthem (plus the anthem of the host nation when stationed overseas), followed immediately by an invocation or prayer, usually offered by a chaplain.

“Let us pray.”

Though we gather, often in the same uniforms, adhering to the same standards, sworn to the same commitment of service to the same nation, these three well-intentioned words can sometimes create a divide when we should be united in celebration.

The religious will bow their heads in reverence, and no doubt a good many people with no particular faith will go along with what they deem a harmless gesture. However, more and more, there are a group of servicemembers who hold no faith or spiritual belief and find themselves staring ahead, waiting for the actual content of the ceremony to begin. They stand in silence, ignoring what feels like a strong nudge of “official” religion… perhaps making furtive eye contact with and recognizing like-minded individuals.

Look at this amazing, lifelike image of an invocation in progress which I totally didn’t make in five minutes in MS Paint!








When the purpose of a ceremony is to honor an individual, such as retirement from military service, that person has a huge say in how their event will take place… including whether or not to begin with an invocation. Over the last few years, I’ve seen a few ceremonies begin without one. Some people feel no need for a religious gesture, and that’s understandable. After all…

What would a non-believer “pray” for? 

Religion or no, we have a shared humanity–a connection of experience and interdependence. By definition, no one gathers by themselves. Honoring and celebrating achievements is best done by others, not oneself.

With all the bustle and distraction of modern life, an invocation doesn’t have to be a call to worship or a prayer for help from the Divine. Instead, it can be a means of reminding all present of the meaning behind the moment, the sense of community within our diversity, the shared purpose represented by the proceedings.

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of delivering an invocation for the retirement of a dear colleague and friend. As a believer, prayer seems pretty normal… but I haven’t offered a non-religious invocation before, nor do I recall ever hearing one given.

Figuring out what to say without suggesting that everyone bow their heads or close their eyes took a few moments, but when I thought of my friend and his impact on our unit, the words flowed freely.

I later discovered that there are in fact some secular invocations online. (That middle link even has some invocations given by a David Williamson. That’s not me! How unexpected!)

Even so, I offer a modified version here that can be easily adapted to a retirement ceremony:

(UNIT or ORGANIZATION) family and friends, let us pause for reflection.

On this momentous occasion, in this beautiful location, we gather to honor the service, dedication, and bond of friendship we share with (RANK NAME).

We take this moment to reflect with gratitude on our time spent with (NAME)  – for a constant smile that softened the frustrations of difficult days, for a wise voice that offered rational perspective to challenging issues we faced, for a bright light of joy in spite of the myriad stresses and struggles to which aircrew life is prone. (1)

We take this time to honor (NAME’S) sacrifices and steadfast devotion, and we celebrate the impact of his career on so many present and distant in our community. We draw inspiration from his example spurring us toward better action and deeper passion for excellence in our own service, in all the varied capacities to which we are called.

We rejoice at the blessing of companionship we’ve enjoyed, and cheer as (RANK NAME) now crosses this finish line. It turns out that things will, in fact, ease up. (2) 

As he moves forward to a much more relaxed pace – probably set to a Jimmy Buffett tune (3) – we express our shared hope that he and (NAME OF SPOUSE / PARTNER)  will enjoy the rewards and satisfaction so deserved for all their effort to advance the cause of the Air Force, and his contributions to the grand endeavor of manned reconnaissance. (4)

Family and friends, thank you for sharing this moment.

Naturally, you’ll have to change pronouns and such. (Seriously though… people forget this all the time in drafts for awards and citations.)

1 – Be specific about a few qualities for which the individual is known and appreciated. We’re a flying unit with dynamic needs and a demanding schedule, so my friend’s great personality helped ease that stress.

2 – Make the speech personal to the organization as well. Our unit has an old joke from the Vietnam War era, where someone in charge promised that “Things will ease up.” Now we’re working harder than ever.

3 – My friend is a huge Jimmy Buffett fan, and I totally see his retirement plan as a lounge chair on a beach with a margarita in hand. This invocation is about connection;  personal touches and laughs will help.

4 – Capture the broad overview of what the individual has done. It should feel like breaking the tape at the Boston Marathon.

Numbering Days

This month, I turned 40. While that number itself doesn’t seem like some monumental change or drastic milestone worthy of a mid-life crisis, I do find myself thinking of a familiar passage from Psalm 90.

“The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
‭Psalms‬ ‭90:10, 12‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Well, that’s bad news. At best, I’m at the half-way point… and I’ve never been super fit or strong, so let’s be honest about those odds!

Obviously, this is biblical poetry and not some literal maxim about the extent of human aging. Thanks to modern medicine and the progress of civilization, we have folks who live much longer. Sadly, we all know people who never reach 70 years of age.

I can’t find the source of the quote, but there’s a phrase that comes to mind: 

To be clear, I post this without any morbid contemplations of aging or death, without any fear of a life wasted, or opportunities missed. It’s just the thought that comes to mind as I considered my birthday and the significance of turning 40. 

Going back to Psalms, the only day that’s guaranteed in life is your last, and there’s no telling when it comes. Like a game of Russian Roulette played with years or decades, sooner or later, that final day arrives, whether you’re 17 or 70 or 107.

I focus on verse 12–its reminder that there is an impending finality, its encouragement that wisdom is found by living in light of that truth. Not that I believe I can number my days, at least not with any fidelity… but I can remember that, however many there may be, that number is ticking down.

This forces a refocusing onto what I believe matters. My faith; my relationships; those I love; the sharing of good times and fellowship; ministering love and kindness and connection; sparking laughter in a heavy heart; simply being present in a hard time. 

I’ve spent more time lately planning out tabletop games than writing fiction, because to me and several friends of my family, that connection and shared enjoyment around the table is something magical and exciting. Planning a role-playing game also scratches the creative itch of the writer in me… except I’m writing for an audience of 5 or 8 players instead of blog or book readers.

The pragmatic in me says “Yes, but isn’t this a grand waste of time?” (At least, what little pragmatism hasn’t been defeated by perpetual procrastination and my playful, lazy nature.) 

But it’s not about the game; it’s about the people. Shared humanity and my faith both lead me to see lasting value where others might not.

For now, I still need to learn to number my days so I can live wisely. But I know that 80 > 70. So I’m off to the gym to hop on a bike, plot out some interesting stories for the next gaming session, and work on that “by reason of strength” thing.
What do you do to “number your days” or invest in what matters? Let me know in a comment – maybe it’s an idea I could use too!

Top Ten Posts

I’ve been making an effort to reach out to more people online, and as a result (no surprise) I’ve had more visitors.

With an eclectic mix of topics, I fear people will show up and discover that a blog isn’t what they expected. It’d be better perhaps if a viewer could get a quick idea of what content they’ll find.

So here’s the (slightly revised) Top Ten blog posts on my site, part based on views and part based on interaction, with a little explanation for each.

1. D&D Next: Character Creation – I play RPGs, and a friend and I started testing the rules for the new system of Dungeons & Dragons. I posted my experience creating a character, and it receives attention every week. <em>But those rules are out of date!</em> I’ve posted a new synopsis of my experience with 5th Edition rules at this link. If you’re familiar with D&D, and curious about 5E, check it out. If you’re not familiar, maybe take a look and see why this game is the most popular RPG of all time.

2. Yes You Can – This post’s success, I think, is a fluke based on the title. It also gets views every week. I wrote it during a Democratic National Convention, so the “Yes We Can” slogan was constantly in my ears. But this is only an inspirational post about determination in achieving goals. Hey, if you need a little encouraging pick-me-up, there you go.

3. So Help Me God – The interplay between faith and politics is of interest to me, because sometimes it leads to amazing frustration on both sides. Case in point: the Air Force recently tried to prevent an atheist from reenlisting to defend our country because he would not say “so help me God” at the end of his oath. This caused a big stir among my atheist friends, and it also garnered some emotional responses from “patriotic” believers out there in the Web. I made a case in this post that requiring this phrase in the oath was an absolute waste of time.

4. 40th Anniversary Poem – My parents recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, and I was asked to write a poem for the occasion since the military was going to move me overseas months prior to the event. I struggled for a bit, but all the Sunday School stories in my youth paid off. I was blessed to be able to deliver the poem in person.

5. Pride – This is a short story I wrote–completely fictional as an event, but something I’d hope I’d actually be able to live out. Certain songs reminded me that Christians are too often known for what we’re against than what we’re for, and this was my response to those thoughts. It starts off with a bit of stereotype that would have been best left out. But that’s what I wrote. As-is, it’s the post that has garnered the most comments & interaction on my site.

6. Who is My Neighbor – This was born out of discussion about illegal immigration, when proud patriots were stopping buses full of people shouting “We don’t want you!” and when people heard about some of these poor immigrants being given money to acquire food at Wal-Mart. Immigration reform is a difficult, multi-faceted issue. But there’s something to be said for mercy, and I hope I said it well.

7. Song: My Savior’s Love – I modernized a favorite hymn and added a bit of a chorus to it. Lyrics are provided, along with a link to SoundCloud where I have an amateurish recording of the song.

8. Elements of Critique: Appearance – This post started my 2014 A-Z blog challenge, covering topics related to critiquing writing. My favorite experience of my recent 2.5 years in the States was the special Critique Group I joined. I learned so much from each member, and my writing improved drastically.

9. D&D Next: Skills – If you still aren’t sold on the kind of fun and creativity that D&D and other RPGs can inspire, here’s the second-highest-viewed post on my D&D playtest experiment, covering how a character’s skills can get them out of (or into) trouble in the game.

10. Free Critique Group Guide – As I said before, I loved my experience in Critique Group… so much so that I made it the focus of 30 posts for an A-Z Blog Challenge this year. These were well received by my writer friends, so I compiled them into one 64-page PDF and put it on my site as a free gift. Why? Because nothing–no seminar, no discussion, no online article, no book–<em>nothing</em> has made the difference in my skill and passion as an aspiring writer so much as being in a good Critique Group. If you’re in one, this may give you new ideas on what to look for, what sort of feedback to give, and what pitfalls to avoid. If you’re not in a group but wish you were, the last three chapters are all about how to run your own. Free gift. Enjoy. Because I know I have.

Thanks for visiting, and I hope you find something you like. Let me know if you do, because I’ll be visiting your site looking for something fresh and new for my blog reader as well.




Everyone Has a Story

There’s a story of a man watching a kid finding starfish trapped and doomed to die on the beach. One by one, the kid tosses them into the waves, saving their lives. “Kid, what are you doing?” the man asks. “There’s miles of beach, with hundreds, maybe thousands of starfish. You can’t save them all, so what does it even matter?”
The kid picks up another starfish, tosses it into the water, and says, “It mattered to that one.”

When General Welsh became the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force, an official letter went out to the troops: the typical “Proud to serve, excited about the future” letter new leaders always write. This one seemed particularly chipper and upbeat in tone. I looked at it with suspicion. “We’ll see.”

Then a friend posted a video of General Welsh speaking to the Air Force Academy. His message was simple: “Everyone has a story.” He walked through several scenes of various Air Force members’ lives, taking time to paint them as the heroes worthy of attention. Deeds of valor were proclaimed, followed by ‘mundane’ details about each individual.

General Welsh turned to the soon-to-be Officers and declared, “Everyone you lead has their own story, and you better get to know it.”

It burned a bit. My friend is a former subordinate against whom I committed a glaring faux pas. It was a simple question: Are you working on your degree? I should have known before our first performance feedback session. The information was available but I failed to prepare and showed I didn’t know him as well as I ought.

But that’s not the worst part.

The next feedback session, I asked the same question again.

He hasn’t let me live it down. Rightly so. That’s a chapter in his story I should have known.

I’d like to think I’m getting better at looking past my smartphone-induced ego-bubble.

I’m in the drive-through at Sonic when I run into Jack. He looks too old to be slinging burgers and blending up shakes. “Whataya think about that snow they’re forecasting?” I don’t know. I just want my wife’s sweet tea. But I have a choice to make: ignore him, because who’s this guy anyway, just some fry cook. Or look past myself for a minute and take an interest in someone else.

One day I show up in uniform. He notes my aircrew wings. “Well those look important! Do ya fly ’em and break ’em, or catch ’em and fix ’em?” Turns out he wanted to be a Air Force flyer once. Jack even scored 95 on the ASVAB–no easy feat.
“I wanted to play football through college and skip the Academy,” he tells me while I wait for a sandwich for my kids. “Had a plan to join the Air Force, become a Navigator, maybe fly for 25 years, then go to work as a meteorologist. Yeah, I went to Michigan State to play. Broke my neck in freshman year and spent two years in recovery. None of the services were willing to touch me when they saw that stack of medical records!”
Here’s a guy who’s just as willing to go put his life on the line for his country as I ever was, a guy who takes pride in his work even if it’s passing burgers and shakes out a drive-through window. Everyone has a story.

There’s Mike at Midas. I show up for a quick look under the hood since the minivan is running rough. I find a perfect gentleman in a car repair garage. Mike goes out of his way to make sure my wife and I are comfortable. He engages in small talk, gets us water and coffee, and carefully updates us on the expected wait time.
We go to pay the bill, and I tell him our address. Turns out almost 20 years ago, he lived down the street from my house on base. He’s retired enlisted Air Force; he served twenty-plus years. And he’s taking time to thank me instead of the other way around. I suppose he could’ve been “just a grease monkey” I ignored so I could get back to mindless Facebook browsing. But everyone has a story.

On a couple of recent visits to my wife’s favorite restaurant, we had the same waitress, Jessica. She doesn’t just serve food or wait tables, she connects with customers.
“Looking at the Carmelicious? Oh man, for a week or so I had to go on strike and stop getting Carmelicious every day. They’re that good.”
“Which muffin would you like? Oh, those are good. I have to be careful when I bring those home. My puppy sees the bag and as soon as my back is turned, she steals it.”
“No whipped cream for your coffee? But that’s the best part!”
Jessica could bring food out and fake a smile, then collect her check and tip. She could be just a waitress, easily ignored. But instead she shares her stories with us.

And that speaks to me. Because, to her, we could be just customers, one more table to deal with in the way of punching the clock and going home. But she chooses to treat us differently. Maybe she thinks we have a story worth hearing.

People all around us have experiences similar enough that we could connect, different enough that we might be surprised.

Hearing a story takes humility – we have to think less of ourselves so we think enough of the other to give them attention. When we know or perceive ourselves to be above the other party in whatever social ladder or pecking order, research shows we decrease our focused attention. Daniel Goldberg’s recent book, Focus, has a great chapter explaining how this social mechanism works. It’s our cultural tendency to express empathy and compassion only when it might benefit us, and to withhold it when we see someone as beneath us.

Sure, we live in a teeming swarm of bodies, each one with their own stories, hopes and dreams. We often encounter those who can do little for us, those we might easily ignore or look down on. After all, we’re busy people with important lives.
The cynic in me shouts, “Give me a break. Look at all those people. You can’t possibly have meaningful interaction with all of them. What good is it to try? It doesn’t matter.”

The little kid in me reaches out to connect to someone else and answers, “It mattered to that one.”