Suicide Stand Down

Army, Chaplaincy, Peace

“Essentially, we know what leads people to suicide — it’s stress,” Varney said. “What we don’t know is who has the ability to relieve that stress.”

This quote from an article about how Ft. Campbell, KY is actually gaining in the Army’s fight against suicide highlights the essential quandary facing our force today – how do you help a population who is living out the most stress and danger in society? It’s stress leading to the action and stress is a part of the job.

It’s tough being a chaplain in this Army sometimes. Its hard to spend great amounts of your day working with at risk individuals and then still feel like your losing the battle.

It takes prayer. Lots of it. I ask for it for our Army.

Today was suicide stand down day. Across the Army Chaplains, Commanders and other care givers stopped what operations they could (mission still needs to be done) and talked about suicide. I’m certain there are many reasons for what we are going through as an Army today not the least of which is the cost of being at war for so long. I believe that we are moving in the right direction though and have great hope that as we continue to face the dark side of problems, we’ll save even more lives.

Peace be with you.

SES = CPE Supervisor Training

Army, Chaplaincy, Theology

I’m finishing up my packet for SES training.

If that sentence sounded too Army to be understood, then hooah. (to be interpreted, I get it) What that means is this – any time a person is making a move in the Army, wanting to advance their career by getting some further education or “going to school” etc – they “put in a packet.” Every packet is different, mostly it’s a compilation of your military record, sometimes it’ll include your civilian school records and whatever else the board might be looking for.

SES is the school for CPE Supervisors. If you want to become a CPE Supervisor in the Army, you need to put together a packet, go before a board made up of Army CPE Supervisors, get invited into the program and then later go through a board of civilian CPE supervisors who *might* declare you ready to become a candidate. Then, over the course of several years, you continue going before committees of civilian supervisors who will evaluate your learning and decide if you are ready for the Associate Supervisor Board. If they deem you ready, then you are in. You are Made. You become an ACPE Associate Supervisor and are able to run a CPE center. After this, you have one more board and you become a Full Supervisor. (Click here if you are wondering just what Clinical Pastoral Education is all about)

This packet I am doing is literally the gateway to a gateway.

At this point, I have the three papers done and just need to finish my Verbatim and it’ll be presentable. At least, I hope so…

Why do this? Why go through all this pain just to be told (I am certain) that I am an interesting candidate and to keep trying, there might be a place for me in the future? I have asked myself that question many times in the last couple months as I’ve worked through my personal biography, my understanding of the CPE process, my theology, and educational viewpoint as well as my strengths/weaknesses and motivation to enter SES training.

I believe I’m called. I believe that a calling is where my talents/gifting/desire meet a need that exists in the world. I love teaching. I miss the classroom. I really enjoy the groups I’ve been able to facilitate in the Prison. I am using the metaphor of the “Wilderness Guide” as my educational model. The guide knows the terrain. They are familiar with how to survive in the wilderness. They know the safeties to use and the way back should the group get lost. They can read the compass. They are also a teacher, delighted in experiencing new things. They love it when the group discovers what they have seen for the first time.

In the context of leading a group, I came to this while working through grief and loss with some inmates: I am familiar with the terrain of suffering. I know pain. I know loss and am “acquainted with grief.” I also know safety and can identify when someone needs a break or might be about to share something inappropriate for the setting. I am learning when to “come up for air” and when to “dig deeper.” Moreover, I delight in learning. I love to experience when someone discovers something new about themselves for the first time. When the room goes from being a classroom filled with suffering, struggling humans to a sacred space where God is present, active, and alive; working in the moment in the lives of my fellow travelers. This is how I know I need to do this work.

This, I believe, is the calling that will get me through the next few years – and that’s what it’ll take to just get into the program!!

We – lets be honest eh?


The thing that gets me about politics – yes, I have political opinions and for all my “I’m above all that” attitude I like to believe about myself, I continually get sucked into the muddy slog that is politics in this country – the thing that gets to me is the spin. I know, I know – it’s all spin right?

Of course it is, I know it, and it still gets to me.

I’m fine with a party or viewpoint understanding and expressing the world as they see it. We all do it! I do it! It starts to bother me when a person is doing that and not understanding that they are doing it. When they get all puritan about their particular belief as though they don’t do the very same thing.

It gets to me when, to defend the viewpoint, we tend to not acknowledge when our viewpoint is just another expression of the opposite one.

Like when liberals, in defense of good and effective government, don’t admit that there are parts of are government that are, in fact, way to big, too inefficient, and needs to get smaller.

And conservatives, who, in defending the idea that we have too much government imply that they are these independent folks that don’t ever take anything from government!!

Of course we do. We ALL take from government.We ALL use government subsidies. I really enjoyed this clip on “Here and Now” about that very idea. It is right and proper to talk about how much and how efficiently our government spends our money – lets just be real about it.

To paraphrase my CPE Supervisor – lets stop talking about “them out there” (who clearly are evil, greedy, socialist, bleeding heart whatever, them who are not us) and start talking about We. We who benefit from our government. We who all pay taxes is so many ways. We who are responsible to hold our representative accountable for how they govern. We who would rather do just about anything then get informed. We who are the problem and believe that “them out there” are the problem.

We need to fix this. All of us. Honestly.

Two views on the repeal of DADT

Army, Chaplaincy

In the wake of the study that highlighted that the repeal of DADT has had no real impact on the military, I thought I’d share a couple of articles from chaplain’s groups (both sides of the debate) that express how they feel about it.

My own thought is: does the loss of the preferential treatment of my faith (Christianity) equate to the loss of my own religious freedom?

My answer is of course: no. It is true that America is a traditionally Protestant Christian nation and thus most of it’s chaplains are, military chapels are based on Christian churches etc. etc. However, as we become more religiously diverse (as reflecting the diversity of the nation as a whole), it only highlights how great our system is when those from other faith groups and expressions can express as we do.

Is religious support fair? Is it just? Are the ideas, rituals, tenets of your faith still able to be expressed? These are the questions we need to ask.

First, a response from the conservative “Chaplain’s Alliance:”

“This list of problems and incidents that have arisen mere months after this administration imposed its will on the armed forces is disturbing to say the least, and we know it is only the beginning,” said Crews. “Compounding the outrage, service members are not free to speak out about these matters. This ensures that distrust in the ranks will increase and morale will decrease as the number of silenced victims grows.”

The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty said it has worked with members of Congress to enact legislation to protect freedom of conscience for chaplains and those they serve. The proposal has passed the House of Representatives but is awaiting action in the Senate.

The second from a progressive chaplains’ group run by the UCC:

Will religious conservatives in the military no longer be able to practice their religion? Will their chaplains have to refrain from preaching against homosexuality (their term, not mine)? Not at all. Chaplains have always had the right to preach according to the tenets of the religious bodies that endorse them — and they still will. Will anti-gay chaplains be forced to conduct same-sex weddings in military chapels? Of course not. They will continue to conduct rites and sacraments as allowed by their religious bodies. And the same principle applies to conducting religious education and pastoral counseling. The one thing that every chaplain is required to do, regardless of their religious perspectives, is care for everyone. If these chaplains can’t minister to gay and lesbian service members themselves, they are obligated to refer them to another chaplain who can.
So where is the threat to religious freedom? And where could their right to free speech be limited? It will no longer be acceptable to speak about fellow gay and lesbian service members in demeaning ways in the workplace and other public settings. The fact that this has ever been acceptable by anyone anywhere, but especially by chaplains, is regrettable. And chaplains from the religious groups who are now demanding protection from discrimination have been some of the worst offenders. They, and others who agree with them, may continue to think and believe what they want, but outside of those areas where their religious speech is protected, they may now have to keep their bigotry to themselves.
I agree that religious freedom is a precious right that we must hold inviolate. It is a right that all service members serve to defend, and which all should be able to enjoy. By all, I mean those who are religiously liberal as well as those who are conservative, and by those who are gay as well as straight. Are ADF and the religious groups they represent as willing to defend the same rights and protections for others they claim for themselves? Are they as willing to acknowledge the right of chaplains from gay-friendly denominations to perform gay weddings in military chapels? And are they as willing to speak up for those who suffer discrimination because they are gay? If not, their pleas for special protection from discrimination for themselves are self-serving and unworthy of consideration.

This highlights the reality that Christian’s have always struggled through – how do we work out our understanding of Jesus’ teachings? How do we walk as salt and light? I am convinced that both these groups claim salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ and his salvific work on the cross. Yet they come down hard on both sides of the issue.

Such is the way of families. I just hope it doesn’t ruin the family reunion.

Work and Worship


A thought this morning from Sufi Islam as translated through a street vendor from Senegal:

“Work as though you will never die. Worship as though you will die tomorrow.”

It is reminiscent of the “protestant work ethic” I grew up with. All things, to include our work, is done in service to God. We do what we do to benefit ourselves and society as a whole – all as an act of worship to God. The question I am asking this morning is: does my work benefit me, society as a whole, and can it be worship to God?

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Col. 3:17

Thoughts on DADT

Army, Chaplaincy

A continuation of yesterday’s post:

I stayed out of the great “gay debate” that swirled around the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. There was a great deal of misinformation being pushed about that, on a local level, I sought to correct but given the political nature about the whole thing (and me being a federal chaplain) I felt it necessary to stay out of the debate until it was concluded how we would move forward.

As a citizen, I have strong opinions and feelings about this (and many other issues), but as a Soldier, I also follow the orders given, salute the flag, and drive on. There is also the imperative of a chaplain to be a moral voice to power. It is within my mission as chaplain to advocate for the powerless and speak truth to power in a respectful way. Navigating the nuances of these conversations can be and have been a struggle.

Today, I read an article about how gay military families have found a warm welcome within the ranks and at unit events etc. The article highlighted the fact that there has been no negative impact of recognizing same-sex couples in the military. There have always been gay Soldiers. Now at least they don’t have to lie about it.

During my first deployment, I had a Soldier I could tell was struggling with something but seemed to never want to talk about it. I watched the Soldier move deeper into depression. Finally, after a couple of months of relationship building (I suspect it was when the Soldier felt safety with me), the individual confided that their seven year same sex relationship was starting to fail (as many relationships fail during deployments) and how their depression was impacting them. It was a moment when I realized how terribly crippling it can be to have a struggle (that most everyone around shares) but be unable to find solidarity with others because of judgement.

Regardless of how an individual believes about this subject, surely, grief and pain are grief and pain. I reached out to the Soldier and learned something about myself, my ministry, and Christ.

I’m glad DADT was repealed. Not because of my beliefs about this issue but because of the freedom that individuals now have to be who they are in the public spere. Much is asked of Soldiers. There are standards of behavior and conduct that we abide by that the rest of the Country does not. This has not nor should it change. Thankfully, honesty is one of them.

Chaplains and Gay Marriage

Army, Chaplaincy

I read an article this week about a bill being put forward that  would protect chaplains from having to perform marriage ceremonies they deem violate their conscience. A goal I’d be down with – if it needed to be done.

But it does not. Chaplains have always been able to perform or NOT perform marraiges on or off instalations. It has everything to do with their particular faith group, ordination, and endorser.

Army Regulation 165-1 lays it out clearly:  (5) Chaplains, at their discretion, may perform marriage ceremonies for authorized personnel upon request and in accordance with the laws of the State or country where the marriage is to take place. Chaplain participation in marriage preparations and ceremonies is in keeping with individual conscience and distinctive faith requirements. Chaplains may perform marriage ceremonies for DOD military personnel overseas in compliance with all applicable civil law requirements of the host nations, Army regulations, and any other military command directives.

That seems kind of clear to me.

The point I am making here is that this law is unnecessary. I won’t comment on DOMA, that seems to be a political issue and I’m not going to wade in those waters. I will however highlight that chaplains were not nor are not required to perform marriages (or services) outside of their tradition. Given some of the conversations I’ve had recently, I thought I’d point that out.

The role of the chaplain in layman’s terms is to “perform or provide.” By this we mean that we “perform” our particular faith’s rituals, ceremonys, and services while “providing” for the free exercise of religion for everyone else. This looks different for each chaplain but for me, I have generally kept a folder in my office of local major religious groups that I could point Soldiers and family members in their direction and even *gasp* make a coordinating phone call for them in the need arose. Downrange, I bent over backwards to ensure that my Soldiers had access to their particular faith group as they had need. Thats religious freedom. It’s why I get paid. I think sometimes this gets lost in all the posturing around these issues. There are many Soldiers in the Army who do not hold to Christian traditions. They have as much right to worship as any of us do. I’m all for laws that broaden our understanding of religious liberty, I just wonder about the intent of laws that seek to do what is most certainly already done.

As a rule, I believe the Pauline injunction that couples should not be “unequally yoked” – in other words, Christians should marry Christians. This means that I have, in fact, turned down opportunities to marry those who did not fit that criteria. I’ve never been corrected or guided differently in that. It is a part of my faith. However, this does not mean that I was unhelpful. I am fine helping anyone get their needs met in a way that makes sense to them. Incidentally, I also do not marry folks I don’t believe have a fighting chance to make it. (i.e. Soldier shows up in my office with soon to be spouse and wants me to marry them after a week of knowing each other…) Christian marriage is the only kind of marriage I perform and I take the responsibility seriously. That’s my ordination – my performance. My job as federal chaplain requires that I provide for everyone else. I have no issues with it. I do it happily.

As a side, there has been no negative impact of the repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I guess after all that hullabaloo, it just wasn’t a big deal after all. But I’ll save that for another post.

Addictive “Worship”

General, Theology

So, my brother, who is a worship leader, brought this to my attention this week. Its an article that theorizes that “mega-church worship” has qualities that can be highly addictive.

“Through the influence of our consumer culture we’ve come to believe that transformation is attained through  external experiences. We’ve come to regard our church buildings, with their multimedia theatrical equipment, as mountaintops where God’s glory may be encountered. Many of us ascend this mountain every Sunday morning wanting to have an experience with God, and many of us leave with a degree of genuine transformation. We feel “pumped up,” “fed,” or “on fire for the Lord.”

No doubt many, like Moses, have an authentic encounter with God through these events. But new research indicates another explanation for our spiritual highs. A University of Washington study has found that megachurch worship experiences actually trigger an “oxytocin cocktail” in the brain that can become chemically addictive. The same has been found at large sporting events and concerts, but attenders to these gatherings don’t usually attribute the “high” to God.

“The upbeat modern music, cameras that scan the audience and project smiling, dancing, singing, or crying worshipers on large screens, and an extremely charismatic leader whose sermons touch individuals on an emotional level … serve to create these strong positive emotional experiences,” said Katie Corcoran, a Ph.D. candidate who co-authored the study.”

I found this article interesting on the level that someone is questioning the validity of “mountain-top” experiences. However, I would note that these types of experinces have exsisted throughout time and that they are part and parcel to the human interaction with the divine.

What I most liked was my brother’s response to the article – I thought it so good, I include it here in it’s entirety.

1.  I hate the Yankees, they have all the money, players and fans.  Easy to be a mega church hater.
2.  The same argument could be used for any worship style: Liturgical, Catholic, Old Fundamental KJV Hymn singers.  Any time we only look for God in a system or specific place its off.
3.  The most dangerous view may be that you can find God in all of those places and more.
4.  God says if you seek Him, you will find Him and I’ve found that to be true.  When I don’t seek Him, I can get way off track and only see darkness.  When I do seek Him, I see Him everywhere.  Kinda like a Rich Mullins song I used to listen to.  “And everywhere I go, I see you…”
5.  Even in the dark I see Him if I seek Him.  The face of a chinese orphan who will probably never hear of Him, a rock in Scotland, a good story, a piece of art, the devotion of a muslim.  See?  Told you that was dangerous.  But God is dangerous and His stamp is everywhere.
6.  We all have those warm fuzzy places where we go to find the divine.  Some, its a mega church rock and roll show.  Some?  Bill Gaither.  Still others?  A quiet place in the woods dressed in camo. Me?  I like a good secular concert.   I love it when I meet someone who “gets” this concept.  They are a cool person.
7.  That article makes me hate my job.  I’ll never make anyone happy.  Maybe the debate will get the author some speaking gigs and his wife will be able to buy that dress from Abercrombie.

I remember. New Jersey. The Towers. My students. Life as it was.

Army, Chaplaincy

Eleven years ago today.

I was sitting in my classroom, first year of teaching. I was in the midst of a gargantuan effort to bring my Jr. High under control. They happened to be a rather undisciplined lot. I was a brand new struggling teacher just learning how to do what I was paid to do.

It was my prep hour. I was grading 8th grade history tests.

A student burst in my door.


I stated at him. “Huh?”

I reached over and turned on the radio.

The announcer on the AM station was cursing. He was broadcasting from downtown NYC and was totally unsure what was going on. Through the fragments I heard that one of the Towers had been hit by “something.” No one really seemed to know what was going on.

I sat, stunned, I stared at the radio. It went dead. There was silence in the room.

It was broken by the timid voice of the student. “Mr. Fisher, Are we going to be in a war?”

I was teaching at New Life Christian School in Dunellen, New Jersey, a suburb of NYC. I had students whose parents and extended family worked at the WTC. For a month after the event my best friend and I could still see the smoke and steam rising from Ground Zero from the roof of our building. When we went to Washington Rock (a local tourist site, where Washington had viewed British Troops during the Revolution, you could see the skyline of the city from there) the view had dramatically altered. The most prominent site, the long obelisks, those monuments to American economic power, the World Trade Center, was simply gone.

I was shaking. I looked at the student, “No‚” I said, not quite sure myself. “They don’t even know what’s going on.”

We walked down the hall. I remember the sound of our footsteps on the tile of the 1930’s era building. I had never been able to hear that sound during school but that day of days it was as if the entire school was empty.

Jesse (my best friend who taught English at the school) and I set up the television in the common room. We sat with the students that day and watched history unfold before us. A 35 minute train ride away people were screaming, just trying to stay alive.

My students sat quietly and cried. One student, whose father worked there started screaming. He ran downstairs. Moments later the administrator appeared and told us to put the TV away. He was furious with J and I for allowing the students to see this. I argued that we needed to experience this together so that we might be a comfort to each other. He was the boss so he prevailed. Its not as though anyone had any experience with trauma like this. I had gone through several very grievous events with my family but nothing prepared me for such collective sorrow.

Since then, tragedy has been a distinct part of who I am and what I have done both professionally and privately. There is a line from the film, Donnie Darko‚ which seems to describe myself and family.

Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood.

So I was born, to be in the midst of tragedy.

In my journal the only record of this was written a week after the event. I wrote of how profoundly I was affected and concluded that I would join the military to avenge this act.


I tried to join the military twice as a 19D Cav Scout. The first time I was turned away because of a physical ailment. The second time I had actually joined and then got out to help with my family during yet another hard time. I thought that this war was going to pass me by, I would have be content to teach it, having not lived the part.

Little did I know that I would not be sent as an avenger, but as a healer of the warrior.

Not to fight the battle but to be with those that paid the price of tragedy.

I have accepted the role that God has given me for this life; the role of the healer. I went to the war on terrorism and returned markedly different. My spirituality has changed, my outlook on life has changed, my emotions have changed, my love has changed, my very heart has changed.

We have all changed because of this fight. We have given up freedom, liberties, conveniences and necessities all for safety. We have sent our sons and daughters into foreign lands to fight a fight that we are growing tired of. I ask you to remember that this war was engaged with the full consent of the Congress and the it was the desire of the people to strike out at a faceless foe whether they were perceived or not. Do not lose courage now. Do not lose strength now. The fight goes on, whether we like it or not.

Even now, I sit in wonder of how that day changed my life.

We are all of us changed.

But we are strong.

The only true solution to this is the love of Christ. We fight, for we must. Let us not forget the injunction of our Lord to “Pray for our enemies.”

Pray for peace.

Pray for strength.

I wrote the above passage several years ago. I was deployed at the time. Little did I know that years from the writing I would be a prison chaplain in the Army system, picking up the pieces of men whose bodies and minds are paying the price for our wars. There is always a price. I think we have only begun to see what these years of war have cost us as a nation. Tragically, we often think of the cost in terms of dollars but it is much deeper than that. Once a person is that familiar with killing, destruction, anger, and tragedy, I fear it just can’t be “turned off.” We will continue to pay the price.

But there is hope. Our country seems a little more resistant of putting their Sons and Daughters into harms way. We are trying to work for a better future. Beyond the darkness is life and hope.

My prayer for this land is that we will seek peace, pursue it, live it – with each other first and throughout the world.