My friend Tom is one of the great thinkers in the military. You probably don't
know it, but if you're American -- and probably even if you're not -- you and
your family have been safer and will continue to be safer because Tom was on
He spent his military career building networks of brilliant young officers who
questioned everything and bounced new ideas off each other. They wrote, they
published, and the whole U.S. military got smarter and more effective because
of him and the community of thinkers he sustained.
I said young officers, and to me they're still young, even the ones who have
gone on to become generals. Tom reached the rank of colonel -- which is
where most military innovation comes from. But a couple of weeks ago, he
reached retirement age.
That doesn't mean he's through contributing -- but it does mean he's through
taking orders. Most important, he can't be tossed here and there on
assignments. So he's moving into his dream house, in his favorite place, and
there he and his still-young family can finally settle down.
I flew up to witness his retirement ceremony. Having never served in the
military myself, I didn't know what to expect. It was a wonderful mix of
ceremony and informality, dignity and humor. He was honored; he was teased;
and both came from people who understood his contribution and valued it.
As part of the ceremonies, his wife Laura was called forward to receive a
certificate of gratitude from the military.
Now, I'm a fiction writer -- I compose dialogue for people all the time. Cynic
that I am, I imagined her thinking: "All these years of moving my family around
while my husband went into war zones, and all I get is this certificate."
But then I told my inner cynic to shut up, because the military didn't have to
give her any kind of recognition. The thing is, most of the men and women in
uniform had spouses who had made similar sacrifices. Just as everyone there
knew what Tom had accomplished, they also knew what Laura had done for
her country, for her family. And that certificate was their way of publicly
acknowledging that Tom's great career had not been walked alone.
It's easy to misvalue such rites of passage and public recognitions. "Just a
piece of paper"? Hardly.
They could have simply given Tom written orders dismissing him from the
service. They could have sent him home from a day at the office and that was
that. How empty and hollow that would have felt.
Those rites and ceremonies are far from empty. We need them. They are not
cheap. People have to care enough to take the time to make them happen.
And I thought: What do we do in the Church to mark such passages?
The answer is: Quite a lot.
Baptism and confirmation mark our entry into the Church. But there's also
that raising of hands when the congregation welcomes you as a member. Easy,
isn't it? You just raise your hand. You may not even have caught the name.
But your hand was up. The passage was marked.
Moving into a new ward? Hands are raised in welcome. Given a new calling?
Again, the raised hands -- this time with a chance for opposition, so it weighs
more. And then hands are laid on your head and you are set apart.
Released from a calling? No certificates and other physical honors like the
ones they gave Tom and Laura. But if it's being done right, there's a solid
release interview where your accomplishments are recognized and spoken
aloud. And then, once more, the raised hands.
Our lives as Latter-day Saints are filled with markers of our passage through
the Church. Clear lines of demarcation: We affirm that this is who you are in
our ward or stake, and then, when your service is complete, we affirm our
thanks and give a clear marker that you are no longer in that office.
But these are small markers compared to the big one. When Tom and Laura
left the military, they could (and do!) look forward to years of life together, more
accomplishments, more family time, peace and perhaps prosperity.
But faithful Latter-day Saints don't get to retire. Our service ends when the
Lord calls us home.
There is no raising of hands then, to thank you as you're released. You're just
gone. We mark your passing with a funeral, but you aren't there to see it -- or
at least I imagine you have better things to do.
Wait a minute. What am I saying? That's the ritual of good-bye -- but except
for the dedication of the gravesite and whatever gospel doctrines are preached
at your funeral, this isn't really the marker of your passing.
The real ceremony takes place over and over again in the temple, during your
lifetime. Think of what the endowment ceremony is: Once for ourselves, and
then many times by proxy, we rehearse the passage from this mortal life,
through the veil of death, and on to the presence of the Lord.
Unlike a funeral, though, the Church's sacred marker of this passage is not a
farewell. It's a ritual of greeting. It's a handshake and a welcome.
We're leaving behind this mortal life, which loomed so large for all the years we
spent within it. But from the Lord's perspective, it's only a moment or two.
Like when we send missionaries away. We turn around and they're back.
What, it's been two years already? Welcome home! Can't wait to see what you
Those who love you most, and who missed you most -- your parents, your
family -- give you the warmest welcome. The embrace. The whispered words
Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.
Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's
Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and
younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.
Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary
fantasy (Magic Street,Enchantment,Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables,Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker
(beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and
Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and
Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s.
Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs
plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.
Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife,
Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.