He Hides…

I see his small, bare, size 5 feet poking out from under the bottom row of clothes hanging in our closet. He isn’t aware that his feet are showing, assuming that if he can’t see me then he can’t be seen. It’s adorable.I pretend for a few minutes that I can’t see him and that he has bamboozled me. I hear him giggle. My heart swells at those high pitched chuckles.

Then I swoop in for the attack. I grab his exposed feet and he breaks out into full laughter. However, at this moment the tables are turned. Gabe’s laughter becomes a growl and the bear hidden inside him charges forward and chases me through the house until he “tackles” me in the den. His smile is stretched from ear to ear and his mischievous giggling is incessant. He runs circles around me (soon in more ways than I will be able to count) as he prepares to dive bomb on top of me. He finally turns in for his attack run and lands on my chest. 

I let him overpower me because it’s important for him to know he is strong and will be strong and how to not abuse or misuse that strength. I let him win because my biological father, Carl, would never let me win.  

I only knew Carl for 1 year of my life; between ages 9 and 10 years. It was a traumatic year. For example, our “wrestling” matches always turned into him pinning me and laying on me until I almost passed out from lack of breath or he would trap me in a blanket or sleeping bag by cinching it’s end together, prohibiting escape. Sure, maybe it made me “tougher” but I never thought, felt, or sensed Car loved me. There was rarely an interaction with him that wasn’t violent or frightening.

No matter how I cried or asked to stop “playing,” he wouldn’t relent until he’d had his laughs, literally. Then he would call me names like cry baby or sissy. I just wanted a dad who loved me. Fortunately, I would receive that dad later in my life when I met my step-dad, Bill.

I don’t have a template for what a heathy, loving dad looks or lives like before the age of 13. So, I fill in the blanks. I look to other dads who have inspired me as they raised their young sons; dads like my uncles Russ and Gary, as well as mentors and friends in Scott Smith, David Hopkins, Paul Ballowe, Ray Ward, Brian Niece, Nate Ward, and Rob Patterson.

Books like The Five Love Languages of Children, Wild at Heart, Way of the Wild Heart/Fathered by God, Killing Lions and Telling God’s Story have proven invaluable.

The more I endeavor to love my son, the more I discover about the great lengths of God’s love for me and the rest of us. The game I play with Gabe as he is hiding in the wardrobe isn’t too much unlike God’s efforts toward me. 

I’m all smiles too.

Everyday Feels a Little More Like “I’m Home!”

It’s almost here.

We know we’re not supposed to think about it or talk about it. The countdown. 

Perhaps there are those who don’t want others to think they’re soft or aren’t pining away for their family and loved ones at home. Some don’t say anything about the time remaining because it psychologically makes time pass slower. Others avoid the topic for realization that dates scheduled for return aren’t set in stone; avoid getting your hopes up in order to prevent disappointment if schedules get “bumped.”

|time out|

I wrote “Everyday Feels a Little More Like Goodbye” before I mobilized and deployed with 2-124 Infantry Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard in the summer of 2015.  It summarized my thoughts and feelings as we prepared to leave our homes and families.

I started writing this new post right before we returned home during the summer of 2016.  I set it on the shelf with plans to finish it shortly after returning home.  However, I’ve spent the last 12 months making up for my time away from Katherine, Gabe, my family, extended “family” and friends.  So, now I’m finishing.

|time in|

We unceremoniously boarded the plane during a humid evening in Djibouti City bound for Fort Bliss, Texas.  The only parade that led us to our plane was the convoy of passenger vans that shuttled us across the airfield.  It felt more like NASCAR than an escort as drivers jockeyed for position, weaving in and out of each other and avoiding collisions enroute.  Some of us wondered if we’d made it through 9 months “in country” only to perish in this final half mile.  Prayers were said.  Others called out to mysterious gods with creative language.  Fortunately, we made it to the awaiting plane, unscathed.

We hopped across cities in Europe and the U.S. to finally land in El Paso, Texas.  The cool, dry air that greeted us was a stark difference from the 90% humidity and 110° heat of Djibouti (and it hadn’t even gotten hot yet).  We were happy to be on home soil even if it wasn’t Florida.

After two weeks of decompression and post-deployment requirements at Bliss, we were chartered home by air to rejoin our families at a welcome home ceremony. 

I scanned the crowd which packed our armory as I walked through the armory doors.  I locked onto Gabe’s face within seconds, which was easy since he was hoisted up on his granddad’s shoulders.  I saw Katherine’s beautiful smile next.  A lump filled my throat.  Tom and Alice, Katherine’s parents were nestled alongside.  Our dear friends, Nate and Liz were there too with their children, Sophie and Nolan. 

I was concerned.  Gabe had just turned 4yrs old a few short months before my return.  Since he was 3yrs old for most of my time away, I was concerned as to whether he would recognize me or my voice.  We FaceTime’d multiple times during the deployment, but I’d known Soldiers whose children had trouble remembering them once they returned.

As we marched in, I waved to Gabe and mouthed to him from a distance, “It’s me. Dad.”  He smiled a big smile and nodded “yes.”  It was all I could do to hold the tears back.  

I looked at Katherine and saw love and relief in her eyes.  We were together again.  This was the second deployment through which we have persevered.  Her internal fortitude and resilience are a bulwark of our marriage.  She faced many tough days alone, yet she relayed tenderness and love across the time zones that separated us.  She is my true love.

After a few ceremonial remarks and an official “welcome home” from a representative from State Headquarters, we were released to our families.  I turned and kneeled to invite Gabe to me.  He cautiously walked a few steps, then lunged at me and wrapped his arms around my neck and squeezed long and hard.  Oxygen didn’t matter in that moment.  His hug was the breath I needed.

I stood to embrace Katherine.  Gabe wouldn’t let go, so we all hugged and kissed in a big Sellon huddle.  

I was home. Home isn’t geography. It’s family.  

Three Things I Did Wrong as an U.S. Army Chaplain

It’s time I can’t get back, relive, or redo.   Of all the years I’ve served in the Army, these have been the most rewarding and fulfilling: professionally, personally, and spiritually, thus far.

I was privileged to serve for five years as a Battalion Chaplain with 2-124 Infantry Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard.  During this time we deployed to the Horn of Africa for nine months (2015-16), responded to Hurricane Matthew (2016) and supported the Republican National Convention (2012).

However, it is easy to look back with a sense of nostalgia regarding my work during those years.  I did most things right.  However, I also did some things wrong.  My intent is that this post will encourage and caution you from making similar mistakes.

This is an After Action Review in part.  Those things that “went well” you can read here.  This post is specifically a reflection and honest assessment about three things, from least to worst, which I did wrong.  Have mercy.

3) Getting Political.  “Hide your crazy,” is guidance our Brigade Commander instills when it comes to a host of issues.  Politics is one area wherein I apply that wisdom.  As a voter, I registered my party affiliation as “None” over a decade ago.  A Chaplain risks being marginalized with one or more Soldiers or groups in their unit, community, or church if his/her Political affiliation shares space in the pulpit or with the faith insignia on his/her OCP.  This limits my operational effectiveness to provide and advise for Religious Support.

During the 2016 political season, I suffered from some self-inflicted wounds by making a few inane social media posts.  No matter how well thought out I imagined these comments to be, they were best kept to myself.  Thomas Jefferson said it best, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”  I certainly extend this to all the Soldiers, as well as neighbors and church members with whom I share this life.

As a chaplain, my role is to ensure that all Soldiers have access to the free exercise of their religion.  As a Soldier, my solitary role in regard to politics is to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  As a Christian, I understand that Jesus mobilizes me to sincerely and authentically love my neighbor regardless of whether we vote the same or not.

2) Doling Out Advice.  While this may seem counter-intuitive or contradictory to what some may think a Chaplain should do.  It’s not.

During my time with 2BN, I had hundreds of appointments with Soldiers and thousands of conversations.  Most Soldiers just needed me to listen.  Generally, 75% of pastoral counseling is listening.  The other 25% is asking good questions and discussion.  Most people will solve their own crisis if you care to listen long enough.

Much of the counseling responded to crises – in marriages, in parenting, in units, with operational stress, suicidal ideations, grief, death of a loved one, and/or spiritual crisis.

Be assured, seminary along with pastoral experience, as well as training at the Chaplain Officer Basic Leadership Course prepares all Army Chaplains for a large spectrum of counseling situations. Most days I did it well.

The days I did it wrong that were the days I spent most of an appointment or conversation listening to myself talk, doling out advice, and trying to fix Soldiers’ situations for them.

1) Present but Absent.  I love the adage of my favorite professor that “90% of ministry is just showing up.”  However, it’s possible to be present but absent.  There were times that I was present with Soldiers but largely checked out.  I may make the effort to go sit in the same room with Soldiers, but then have little or no interaction with them while there.

Ministry of Presence is work.  It is active, not passive.  As with medical ministry, it requires me to observe, assess, and engage with what is really happening.  It demands mental, emotional, cultural, and situational alertness – before I arrive in the room and after I leave it.  Most Soldiers, as well as people, are dealing with some form of concealed trauma, pain, stress, crisis, or unaddressed spiritual needs.  A chaplain’s role is to provide support to these needs in context of “hanging out.”

One of my chaplain mentors tirelessly asks, “What’s your plan for Religious Support (RS)?  Ministry of Presence is not just showing up and standing around doing nothing.  What is your plan for that ‘presence?’  Are you going to engage in conversation, share a word of the day, or invite them into prayer?  Never show up to spend time with soldiers without a RS plan of how you’re going to intentionally spend that time.”

The days I did it wrong are the days I did not have a plan.  I just showed up and stood in a corner.  I was present but absent.

Soldiers and service members are some of the easiest people with whom you’ll ever talk, because you can have a conversation with him about anything: family, tech, sports, guns, art, music, politics, religion and why they joined the Army.  One quip from a recent blog about 5 things Veterans Know affirms that veterans know “how to get along with just about anyone.”  It is always so easy to start a conversation with a Soldier.  Our Soldiers inspire me.  I regret the conversations I didn’t start, yet never have regretted a single one I did.

I was recently assigned as Brigade Chaplain.  I’ll take these few lessons learned and relay them to the team of Battalion Chaplains whom I a privileged to now mentor.

I reflect on my assignment as a Battalion Chaplain.  It is a bitter-sweet celebration of those years mixed with a sober awareness that I’ll never get that time back with those Soldiers.   #Seminoles #NeverSurrender