3rd Deployment, Army, Chaplaincy




This is the part I like the least. I won’t say it’s the “worst” part because there are always worse days but I still don’t particularly like it. Soldiers come and go. Everyone is waiting for their number to be called so they can board a plane and get to their mission. Those who are stationed here and doing their job are just working and waiting till they can go home. Everyone is waiting and everyone is thinking.Waiting

During the wait, I find quiet spots to sit and wait with them. Often, it’s the smoke pit. It occurs to me that I don’t know why we call the smoking areas “smoke pits” but we do. The one I prefer has a sun shade and picnic table. I sit, read, smoke my pipe and gradually my Soldiers pass through. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we joke, sometimes we just share the silence. Always we wait.

Getting to war is slow. There is so much waiting. My battalion has missions in multiple places and they have all left now except a few of us who are going to the most remote location. There are not as many flights there so we wait till there are enough to fill a flight and we’ll go eventually. In the mean time, ministry happens in the waiting.

Waiting gives time to reflect. Perhaps its why I don’t like waiting. In these moments, I am thinking about my family, the kids, Sara, and this work. I’m glad to be here. Glad to be with my Soldiers. Glad that if someone has to minister here, it’s me.

I brought a noteworthy journaling Bible with me this time. I’m using it for my war journal and devotions. There is a daily reading and space to write. Yesterday I read, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Today, I read, “You are the light of the World, a city set on a hill cannot be hid… let your light so shine before all that they may see your good works and glorify God in heaven.” It occurs to me that purity of heart results in seeing God in everything around you and then, the light you shed cannot be hid resulting in God being glorified. God cannot be hid.

Even in the waiting.

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.

You are God’s Now


Remember what it was like the first time you went home after basic training? Or when you went home after being gone for some time, college perhaps or summer camp? There you were, having traveled, grown, been shaped, met people, done things, become something – but when you stood in the kitchen, talking to your mother and she looked at you cross-eyed because you forgot to take off your shoes – you just crumble.

Only two people in all the earth ever called me “Johnny,” my mother (who died in 2000) and my granny (great-grandmother, died at 101 a couple months ago). Two women who could call me anything they wanted. All the places I’ve been. All the people I’ve worked with. All the Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, all the Soldiers I’ve served  – none of them called me Johnny. Most everyone I know calls me Sir, Chaplain, Captain, Chappy, Padre, or Dad. No one calls me Johnny. But I tell you, every time I walked in to see my Granny, blind though she be, she’d call me Johnny. Mom only said it when she was happy. It was a cue that she was pleased with me. If, on the other hand, she used my ENTIRE name – run. Run fast. Maybe that’s why I never wanted to be called Johnny.

That awkward moment when you remember that you are, and always will be, just a kid to your parents.

In our age, the expectation is to do better than your parents. It is a part of everyone’s family mythos in America to list off your humble roots. It’s the “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” idea. My great grandfather was a sharecropper. His daughter married a man who dies in prison, whose only daughter marries an alcoholic Navy Vet who dies at 51 of cirrhosis of the liver. One of their daughters runs away from home at 14, struggles to gain legitimacy through her considerable talents, marries a stable man and is my mother. Sara had a great uncle, moonshiner, who fled from the Feds all the way to Portland. My great grandfather on the father’s side worked in the northern Michigan logging industry. The GI Bill changed our family tree! In our culture, the expectation is upward movement.

This is emphatically, NOT the case in ancient Mediterranean culture. In fact, ideas of family honor and “place in society” are firmly embedded ideas in most cultures other than our own. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity, everyone had a proper place in society and this place was established by birth. No one was ever expected to become something better than or to improve on the lot of their parents. In fact, to do so was to cast some dishonor on your parents by saying that their place was not good enough for you. What they did was somehow dishonorable and you are going to do something different, more honorable.

Since towns were small and very interrelated, your choices as a family (and individual within that family) impacted everyone in the village. You do what you were born to do, what your father was born to do, what your grandfather was born to do. This kind of consistency, helped the culture deal with the changes that came from geopolitical forces they could not control. This fact is the basic foundation of honor, public claim to worth and a public acknowledgement of that worth by others. Each child inherits, carries on, and is expected to safeguard the family’s honor. In fact, throughout human history, this has under-girded societies. One of the challenges of globalization is that this is dramatically changed. The daughter of the rice farming family can, in fact, rise to great heights through education – but then, who farms the rice?

The people in Jesus’ hometown know him and his family well. The prose here in the Text is as dynamic and lively as any in the New Testament. You can see the separated classes in the Synagogue. The men up front, women in the back. All is quiet as the young man, Jesus son of Joseph, the carpenter, rises to read. Everyone remembers the questions around his birth. Joseph had to work particularly hard to overcome those stories but then, everyone needs a table! Jesus, the author Luke notes, is filled with the Holy Spirit and selects a reading that challenges their understanding. This isn’t a “awe, Joseph’s son reads so well! Bless his heart…” It’s a “wait. Isn’t this Joseph’s son, who does he think he is???”
14-15Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure.

16-21He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,
God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!” He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”
22All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke. But they also said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?” (The Message) 

Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, doesn’t make it any better. He puts himself in the same place as two of Israel’s greatest and most holy prophets. Elijah and Elisha. Really? Can’t read a crowd Jesus? They are not liking this.

23-27He answered, “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, ‘Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’ Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon? And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.” 

28-30That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way. (The Message) 

In Jesus’s world, the basic rule of thumb is, “look at your family first.” It’s like opposite land to our contemporary worldview that sees that as nepotism. Jesus has a responsibility to care for his parents. He has a responsibility to care for the village that raised him. Gave him the benefit of the doubt when, clearly, his mother broke some very cardinal rules of society. There were those in the crowd who gave him business when they could have gone elsewhere. The village needs these rules to survive and Jesus is breaking them. This village needs their sons to grow up and do what they do NOT become healers and teachers. What if other young men get ideas about their self-worth. Who does he think he is?? The crowd gets hostile. They advance on Jesus. Push him toward a cliff. How dare he!! Take it back!!

Jesus escapes by walking through the crowd and away from Nazareth.

The author is writing this decades after Jesus death. He writes to the early Church. A persecuted church. A church struggling with what their identity is in the world. He deliberately highlights the mission of Jesus in the world – the restoration of a fractured world. The groups he is come to work with have all been rejected. None of them have worth to the world – blind, poor, prisoners, oppressed?? To a church struggling with a growing oppression, a church that is experiencing their daughters and sons being systematically hunted and destroyed – this is a life-giving identity. Who do we reach out to? The traditional religious leadership don’t want us, they hire people like Saul to hunt us down and stone us. The Romans are getting worse and worse. They demand that we say things like “Caesar is Lord” just to do business! They were struggling and Luke reminds them that Jesus came for them!! That the religious traditions they have left behind to follow in “The Way” have a dark side and they are right for this new path. I can see them, hearing this read in services, nodding, weeping, holding hands in the dark. It was right to follow this path. It is true.

Here is Jesus mission. It’s not to the local family, it’s bigger than that. It’s not to maintain honor, it’s bigger than that. It’s not limited to teaching, preaching, and fine theology – it’s practical, hands-on, and life changing.

Is Jesus’ Mission our mission?

The other day, I was visiting with an inmate. He struggled with the classic question of being spiritually healthy. He wanted so badly to serve but the “dark side” of his life seemed to close in. Seemed to crush out the part of him that wanted to serve God and others. Weeping, he spoke of just wanting to be healthy so that Jesus would love him. I listened. I waited. When the weeping had subsided. I said, “You are exactly who Jesus came for. You are exactly what God wants. You, in your depressed, struggling, sinning state is who Jesus loves. I seem to remember something about not coming for the “healthy” but the sick.” He started to smile. I showed him this passage and we talked about it. These words, recorded thousands of years ago about an event that took place decades earlier surrounding a dead prophet – these words, brought life.

Are you one of these groups? Jesus came for you. Are you wondering what the focus of your ministry and service should be? Look to these groups. Whatever you were – you are God’s now!