An Ally Every. Single. Day.

Chaplaincy, Open and Affirming

Back in February, I “came out” as it were as an “open and affirming” chaplain. It’s had an interesting effect on my ministry. Over the last few months, after leaving the prison and going to my mid-career Army chaplain school, it’s been revealing just what that means for me.

1. It means being an ally every day – for example, yesterday, when I took this picture in front of the Circular Church in Charleston, SC, one chaplain made a comment about the “interesting colors.”

God is still speaking

I replied by saying how cool it was that when this church said they welcomed everyone, they meant it. Another chaplain made a comment about the size of the church, something like, “Well, no wonder they are dying since they left the truth” – or words to that effect. I gently questioned if he was saying that there were not conservative churches dying across the country? Then pointed out that this church, unlike many others, had been around since the 1600s.

 

Progressive Church

Conversation quickly moved on.

I’m not a quick-witted person; I wish I had zingers that I could throw out there, but I’ve realized that the best way to advocate for others is to simply tell the other story, counter the embedded narrative and to do it in love.

2. It means being gentle and allowing people to grow in their time. Not everyone is ready for their theology to be drastically confronted. To be clear, I am much harder on chaplains than any other group since they, of all people, should understand treating others with dignity and respect – and should be able to handle having their theology questioned. Sometimes, I’m gentle in poking holes in arguments or reflecting what a statement might sound like to an LGB* Soldier – other times, I just lay it out there and watch the sparks fly.

Either way, I try valiantly to couch all advocacy in love.

But bullying – that I confront. There is too much to loose.

3. It means saying it out loud. I’ve talked to more chaplains about this subject than any other. Saying, “Well, look. I’m open to everyone, if they would just talk to me, reach out to me, they would find that I’m a loving and caring individual.”

That’s not enough.

And it’s not going to happen.

Here’s the thing: when dealing with those who have been battered and bullied by theology and churches for this long – we need to be clear and direct about how we, as clergy, will interact with them. If you are truly welcoming, then say it and be specifically inclusive. Let people know who you are welcoming to, and how you will treat them when they come to you. Put up signs. Make statements.

Sign

4. It means being an ally for everyone. I have found that it’s not just LGB* Soldiers that need an ally – I try to use my limited status, power, and responsibility as an Army chaplain/officer to be an ally for all minority groups I come across. Minority faith groups need intentionality. Women, other ethnicities – it means separating from a joke, even the well meaning ones – because joking from a position of power and majority sounds an awful lot like bullying.

It means saying something.

And that is where it’s actually the hardest.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned about being an O&A chaplain is this: being an advocate for others requires more than just big statements and signs on my door, it means taking the small opportunities to talk to others, challenging assumptions, and lovingly letting others know:

You are welcome here.

By the way, this blog inspired me to write this morning. Good thoughts.

*I say LGB since the Army has yet to allow Trans Soldiers to serve openly, though it’s looking at the problem.

Billy Graham Library, A Mechanical Cow, and what unintentional prejudice looks like

Army, Chaplaincy, Two Pastor Family

Facepalm.

It was a total facepalm moment.

There I was, staring at the silly mechanical talking cow that was introducing me to the farming history of Billy Graham. It was a protestant chaplain field trip to the Billy Graham Museum, Charlotte NC. The opening exhibit is a full size talking cow that praises God and Billy Graham. Its four minutes of “halleluah-indnt-God-great-praise-Jesus-this-is-where-Billy-was-born” talk.

In the best stereotypical “Aunt Jemima” black woman voice I’ve heard… ever…

It’s the only distinctively black voice in the entire museum. The only one. Every other voice I heard was distinctively Caucasian. Mostly, who you hear speak are narrators and Billy Graham but they are all serious and they are all white.

The only levity in the whole place is the silly praising talking cow, in the barn, behind the fence. It’s meant to be funny, bring a smile, and appeal to the kiddos.

And it’s the only black voice.

In 2014.

Celebrating a man who worked diligently (at least that is certainly what the museum said in its various exhibits) at working toward reconciliation and bringing diversity to the world.

For what it’s worth, I seek to understand Billy Graham in the world in which he was raised, I give him great credit as a person who worked for and actually achieved reconciliation and diversity across the American religious landscape.

It’s what makes the decision to make the only person of color voice the silly, talking cow even worse.

And then there was the prayer.

Before we went in, an older man who works for the library wanted to pray for the large group of Army chaplains who was about the tour the museum. In his prayer, he passionately prayed for male chaplains who bring the gospel to male Soldiers. I know he didn’t mean to exclude the female chaplain who was there, I’m certain that he didn’t intend to exclude all the female Soldiers in the US Army – but he did.

This is why we, as Christians and certainly as chaplains have GOT to be more intentional about inclusive language. We need to name everyone.

I’m certain that the library didn’t intend to be prejudicial when they chose the black voice for the talking cow, I’m sure that when they respond to the letter I’m sending them, that they’ll talk about Billy’s dedication to diversity and reconciliation.

It just highlights how blind we white men tend to be when it comes to minorities. We are just unaware of who we leave out and what prejudice looks like.

We’re better than this.

Oh the “System”

Army, Chaplaincy

The System. 

Oh, the system. 

It gets blamed for failure. Gets marginalized for successes. Has to feel the weight of all the anger when someone, somewhere, points to it and says, “we could, but the system won’t let us…”

Or words to that effect. 

Here’s the thing: We are the system

Put bluntly, I am the system, you are the system. The system changes when we change. We make it change. We make it what we want it to be. That’s how systems work. 

I’m not saying it’s easy or even worth it, but it is still true. 

Especially in the Army. Every Chaplain that now serves in a leadership position once sat where I sit, a student at the Advanced Course. Every senior leader in the Army was once a Captain looking at Major with their operational days largely behind them and a decade or two left of staff functioning ensuring the capability of the operational Army. Every single one.

The system they operate is one they inherited but it is not static. It moves. It breathes. It changes as those who work within in do the same. I am continually inspired by leaders who own the system. For them, it moves from, “the system” to “MY system.” Once a leader owns this, positive change happens. When they speak, I get chills down my spine and am excited, honored, and thrilled to serve under them. 

I once served a chief of staff who would constanly encourage us to think differently about the orginization in which we served. Over and over he would say that this was our unit, these were our rules and we could (and were empowered to do so) think creativly about how it could be better.

Because when we are better, the unit we serve is better, our charges are better and our country is a better place.

There are always reasons why we “can’t” do something:

“We can’t mix colored and white troops!”

“We can’t have Humanist chaplains!”

“We can’t allow gay Soldiers to serve openly!” 

“We can’t let…”

Always the “system” can’t do it. The sky will fall. The world will come crashing down around us. All the chaplains will quit, all the Soldiers will go home, combat effectiveness will be crushed… 

On and on it goes. We can’t change because the system will not tolerate change. But again, WE are the system. When we say that the system will not tolerate change, what we are saying is that WE will not tolerate change. 

The most effective leaders look at their world differently – they see the world through the lense of what they can do to make it better. 

Being a change agent takes courage. I’ve seen a few chaplains recently who have given me courage. I’ve been inspired because they did not accept the status quo. They looked at the world around them, the “system” and said, “I know we can do better.” And then set out to change the little world they live in. Like me, at the prison, they influenced their world and thus impacted “the system.” 

What an exciting time to be a chaplain in the US Army! 

Emotional Leadership

Army, Chaplaincy

Emotions are not bad. They are best integrated, not stuffed into the recesses of our mind. 

Of course, that’s not what I heard from an Army training on “Critical Thinking.” 

What was briefed there was this classic, tired axiom of our culture: good leaders are critical thinkers who will “set aside” their emotions, preferences, and bias in order to utilize reason and logic to arrive at the best decision. 

Oh the tyranny of reason and logic. One of the problems in our leadership today is exactly what was espoused (and argued with by me… respectfully of course) is this false assumption that:

1. We CAN “lay aside” our emotions, culture, and bias. 

2. That the best decisions are made without accessing our emotions (and all that goes along with them).

I disagree with both presumptions emphatically. Emotions happen, preconceived notions happen, cultural baggage is a part of our lives, preferences are a reality – to have an internal bias about something is part of what makes us human. 

Reason, divorced from emotions, is limited – for our humanity, at that point, is limited. 

I am suggesting that the best decisions are made through a thorough understanding of reason, logic, emotions, preconceived notions, cultural baggage, etc. 

I have served as a chaplain in Corrections for the last four years. If I have met one, I have met a hundred men who were solid Army leaders (at least where the Army was concerned) and were rewarded by promotions and more responsibility. Their problem was not that they were not reasonable or logical in their thinking but that they had followed the path of suppression, and were therefore not integrated in their thought. Since feelings were “bad” and suppressed, the important feelings of healthy shame and guilt that might have limited their behavior were also suppressed. Thus, they became unlimited people practiced at the art of living in violation of their conscience. 

Emotions are like signposts to let us know that there is a problem. It is vital that we pay attention to what is happening internally. When making decisions, emotions can check reason and reason can check emotions. 

The challenge is not in setting aside our parts of our humanity in making choices – the challenge is integrating them into our lives in a healthy way. 

I offer the following articles for further reading on the subject:

On how reason and emotions work together

On how decisions are inherently emotional

Emotional Intelligence 

It’s about time

Army, Chaplaincy

It’s me.
I know it.
I’m aware of it.
This is emphatically my opinion and I speak only for myself.
It’s because I am married to a commissioned minister, a serving pastor. And hey, I’ve become sensitive to it. Recently, at morning chapel for chaplains, a male chaplain preached to “men of God” and completely ignored the presence of the only female chaplain in the room. Of course, this seems to be standard fare. I regularly experience chaplains (and I’ve been guilty of it myself) not even making an atempt at gender inclusive language.

We have a recruiting problem. We need more female chaplains in the US Army.

Yesterday, the US Navy appointed the first female Chief of Chaplains of the Navy. She had been the Chaplain of the Marine Corps (the Navy Deputy Chief of Chaplains) just prior. I applaud it. I am excited and proud of the Navy that they, finally, in 2014, had the courage to appoint a woman pastor to a position of power.

Only, it’s 2014.

And my service? My beloved Army? From this Captain’s foxhole, our halls of leadership look awfully white and male.

And it’s 2014. I think it’s about time.

I’ve heard the reasons, and they all sound the same – “the path to leadership needs to go through certain gates and those gates are closed to women. We choose the best candidate, and we’ve just not had a woman pass through the right gates – they are just not competitive for the job.”

It’s 2014 and THAT is still a reason. If gates are a problem, either change the gates or start sending the women through them in order to get them ready to lead the Corps. It’s our Corps and we decide the path to power.

Here’s the thing, my Corps loves to post the story about the first woman commissioned as a chaplain. It was 1974 and Rev. Alice Henderson, a pastor with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was sworn in at Ft. McPherson, GA and served for 13 years. Since then, dozens of women have served and even gained the rank of COL. But not chief. Not even deputy chief.

And the notion that they “just have not had the right assignments” is not good enough. I have heard for my entire career that the Corps sees you at some point and starts grooming you for leadership opportunities – up to and including the role of chief. So, what I’m seeing, is that for 40 years of women serving in the US Army Chaplain Corps, there hasn’t been one person, one woman, who could be groomed to be the Chief. Not one.

We are not the Infantry Branch, Armor, Intelligence, or Artillery. We are the Chaplain Corps, and we are woefully inadequate in the area of diversity. I can only hope that as I write this, there are great women serving in positions of power who are being groomed for the role as Chief. I hope to serve one in my career.

No more excuses. They are not good enough. Having women serve as colonels is not good enough. It’s about time.

Hope

Chaplaincy, Sermon

This last week, during counseling, one of my inmates made a profound observation about his life,

 “I know I’m going to make it, but right now really sucks.”

What a resilient statement. It’s a life-giving, hopeful statement. It’s based in reality. It is a recognition that he is full of sorrow and discouraged but, based on his past journeys through similar terrain, he knows that he’ll make it.

On the same day, Good Friday, I served Communion in the SHU. The SHU is the “specialized housing unit” 23 hour lockdown, solitary. Inmates end up there because they are having a difficult time getting along with others or obeying the rules. It is, by it’s nature, a depressing place. Inmates struggle back there. It is not a pleasant place to be. I put on my stole, filled individual communion cups, and took the trays into the SHU. The inmates are usually very respectful of my presence in there. They’ll stop their conversations and, particularly if I’m bringing communion, they’ll quietly prepare themselves for their turn.

The SHU becomes a sacred place. A place where God is present.

I move from cell to cell. The small feed tray is opened and I kneel down outside of it. Because of the low height of the open slot both myself and the inmate inside are in the kneeling position. Though a massive steel door separates us from one another, our faces are inches apart which creates a very intimate experience. Behind us, radios squawk, correctional specialist discuss what needs to be discussed, other inmates talk through their doors to one another, but in that sacred space between me and the inmate, God is there. I invite the inmate to confess whatever they need to God and then say amen out loud so I know to pray. When they are done (this can take a few seconds or even minutes as we kneel on the hard cement floor), I pray for them, myself, and the correctional staff. I thank God for the forgiveness promised in 1 John 1:9 and praise God for mercy and unmerited favor. I speak the words of institution:

“I will tell you the story as it was told to me, that the same night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread…”

We partake of communion together and end with the Lord’s prayer. Some of us have known each other so long now that they could recite the entire liturgy with me. When I finish, it is not uncommon for the inmate to have tears in their eyes. Yesterday, I ended with, “My friend and brother, it is Good Friday. Easter is Sunday. I’m so sorry that this will be your Easter.”

Over and over, they would say something like, “your right Chaplain, but God is here.”

Hope is so powerful. It can carry us though such hard times. It can give us strength to make it. It can endow us with the courage we need to see life as it is – tough, but we’ll make it. Hope is the very stuff of life.

When I hear hopeful statements like that, I am encouraged that growth is taking place. I am convinced that though it may be hard for them to experience it, they can see it in the Gospel. For that moment, that sacred moment, it’s going to work out.

Life is bigger than their suffering. 

How “Open and Affirming” has impacted my ministry thus far

Army, Chaplaincy

So, it’s not been quite a month since I posted my little sign on my door.

My emphasis on inclusivity has had an interesting, though anecdotal, impact on my pastoral care. I’ve noticed that those coming to see me have “gotten to the point” faster than in the past.

I don’t know if other chaplains or counselors have experienced this phenomena but it’s been true of my pastoral care wherever I’ve been a chaplain and even more so in prison. It goes like this: the individual requests an appointment. They come into the office and we spend significant time in the “joining process.” We talk about what we have in common, where we’ve served, likes/dislikes and theology. We do this gentle dance where I ask about what we’re there to talk about and they, passive/aggressively talk about everything under the sun but what they are really struggling with. I sense this, probe, and sense that they are not quite ready. It used to frustrate me but I’ve come to understand that it’s just their insecurities bleeding to the surface. If I try to rush it, it just gets worse. So, patiently, I wait till they trust me.

That’s the thing about trust – I can’t convince people that I am trustworthy – I can only be trustworthy.

This goes on for the majority of the hour then, after I note that it’s been a great talk and we can schedule another appointment – boom! Out it comes. The real issue. The deeper presenting problem. The shameful secret. Then, we’re out of time and I am in the position of choosing to address it or wait till next time.

Generally, I ask why it took so long. The answer is almost universal – they were concerned that I would judge them. That I would condemn them. That I would “think they were crazy.” It’s so normalized for me, I’ve come to expect it and plan for it in my pastoral counseling.

What I have noticed in the last month is that the “flash to bang” time has been less. Much less. I not only hung the sign on my door but also in the direct line of sight with those who sit in my office. There has been this neat moment when it catches their eyes and they read it. Silently. Take a deep breath and we get to the meat if the issue so. much. faster.

This last Sunday, I preached on the subject of how the Christian interacts with the world. I worked with the story of the Samaritan woman. I asked my congregation if Jesus judged the woman. Of course not. He said what was true for her but not in a condemning or humiliating way. He does not seem to have a need to call out her sin and make sure that she sees it. Of course, it is an assumption on our part that Christ considered the five husband thing a sin. He simply says what is true and she perceives that she is in the presence of a prophet.

Sometimes, we’re so intent on “taking a stand” and “calling sin, sin” that we miss out on the relationship that is forming. I challenged my prison congregation to focus on the “love the sinner” part and let the Holy Spirit take care of the sin part. I wondered what relationships we miss out on because we’re so committed to calling out the speck in our brother’s eye. I wondered what blessings we were missing out on because we refuse to interact with those whose charges we do not like or choices we do not approve of. I wondered what the “other” might have to say to us that would give us hope and encouragement but we were so bent on them “knowing where we stand” instead of just loving people for people’s sake.

I ended by reading my little sign.

After the service, (there were two) no less than ten different inmates wanted to know more about the Disciples of Christ and the response was overwhelmingly positive and affirming. In both services, inmates who know me and those who didn’t were coming up and thanking me. Clearly, it was water to thirsty souls.

Coming Out as Inclusive.

Army, Chaplaincy, Open and Affirming

It would seem that a post about this would be completely unnecessary in the pluralistic world of the Army Chaplain Corps. It would seem that the directive to perform one’s own faith and provide for all the others would make such a statement redundant.

Only it’s not.

Somehow, this needs be said.

So, I am going to say it: I am a chaplain for ALL my Soldiers. All of them. The gay ones. The straight ones. The fat ones. The skinny ones. The conservative ones. The liberal ones. The religious ones. The non religious ones. The connected to church and the far away. The reason driven and the faith-based. The agnostic and the Christian. The pagan, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the whatever-you-happen-to-believe right now. Everyone I can think to mention and everyone else.

All means all.

This last summer, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted to call all Disciples Congregations to be a welcoming people of grace to ALL God’s children. All is given as “race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective.” Seems patently obvious but then, if we were all doing this already, such a statement would be unnecessary. This is my answer to that call.

A call given by my church but heard by me as a call from God.

I’ve been ministering in this way for well over two years now. I thought it sufficient to just ignore it and not really say anything. I thought it best to let people believe what they wanted about my ministry and be pleasantly surprised when they found out that I didn’t judge them (this is after they got the courage to come into the office for counseling). Over and over I heard my Soldiers, inmates, and family members vocalize that they didn’t expect me to be understanding. They would say something like, “frankly, I was worried about coming but you are different from other chaplains…” Still, I didn’t want to “put it all out there.”

“After all,” I reasoned, “if I make it too well known, I’ll just be labeled as the one who is “ok with the gays” and it’ll be all anyone thinks about when my name comes up. It’s just not that big a deal to me. I minister to everyone but surely, that’s a given.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met those with HIV because there was no safe place to identify as gay so they went to where they could and it was not safe. I have met those who ran from the church only to come to the Army for a sense of community and get rejected yet again. I’ve cried with those who finally say the words out loud, “I’m gay and I can’t tell anyone.” I’ve heard the stories about walking past the Chapel and in isolation, thinking about suicide but thinking there was no one inside who would help them.

It is not enough to just minister by word of mouth.

In a world where state legislators are literally passing laws that would allow them to refuse service to my fellow Soldiers (and everyone else) simply because of their orientation – it is not enough to be silent.

As a chaplain, I do not have a church to challenge with the Open and Affirming process, but I certainly can be exactly that – Open and Affirming.

I’m not saying this to be reactionary or a contrarian. I do not speak for anyone else but me.

I am saying this for the Soldier who is alone and thinks the world has rejected her because of who she is.

I am saying this for the Soldier walking by the chapel thinking that there is no one in there who can hear his pain and not judge him.

I am saying this for the spouse who, in shame, does not feel like he has anyone to turn to because of what he thinks about himself.

I am saying this for the parent whose gay child has just joined the Army and they are so worried that he’ll be abused for who he is.

I am saying this for the chaplains who also are “in the closet.” Truth is, they feel as I do but do not want to say it out loud and experience other chaplains reject them for interpreting Scripture differently from them.

I’m saying this for me. I’m saying this because if one of my children came out and was in the Army, I hope they would have a chaplain that would help them process what they are going through without judgment or condemnation.

I’m saying this for all those I have known, closeted and not, who have experienced great pain because the God they know and love is represented as doing the opposite.

From now on, this sign will hang on my door as a message to all the Soldiers, family members, and other chaplains I run across in my career – You are welcome.

Sign

Hearing the Wife preach

Chaplaincy, Sermon, Two Pastor Family

Last Sunday, I heard Sara preach *in public* for the first time. It was perfect. It was not her first sermon, just the first time I got to hear her. One of the realities of being a two-pastor home is that we do not get to hear each other preach all the time. Sara often covers for me when I’m in the prison, so while I love that I have a dependable preacher every Sunday I am out of my civilian pulpit and in the prison, I also do not get to hear her preach. boo.

Sitting in the pew, I experienced pride, joy, anxiety, excitement. I’ve walked this journey with her for years. I remember our conversations about what to do as the kids grow up, how to pursue a career. One of the things that attracted me to Sara from the beginning is that she was not just about getting married and having babies. She was a strong, career minded woman even though at the time, she didn’t have the theological freedom to embrace that. I sensed that in her and it drew me. I remember exploring all these helping professions with her since it seemed that was the most logical but all of them fell short. She was not fulfilled. I wanted her to find her passion but didn’t know how to help her.

When she acknowledged God’s call in her life, it immediately made sense. It was the most logical, peaceful realization we have experienced together. I didn’t affirm her because she was my wife, I affirmed her because I immediately recognized the truth of her calling. Of course she was called to pastor. Of course!

When she called the kids to come forward for the children’s sermon and they all gathered around, snuggling in to a pastor who also was a mom, it was so right. When she took to the pulpit and began with a brilliant introduction about the elementary school pick-up line that drew the audience in to the text, it was so perfect. When she ended with solid questions and challenges – I watched the impact on our congregation – it was palpable.

Experiencing Sara in the pulpit for the first time confirmed once again to me that the God we serve is about the business of calling the best shepherds to guide the flock.

It was fun preparing the message. Since we have been in Matthew 5, we chose to do a mini series. I preached last week and Sara this week. What I loved about it was that we were able to take different perspectives on the same passage. Our congregation really enjoyed it as well. As we come into Lent, we are going to preach back to back through the season with the same goal.

I have noticed that we take very different approaches to preparing sermons. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s challenging. I may have been preaching for much longer but that does not mean that I get to critique without leave…

I gotta tell you, this is getting fun!…