All posts by lancesellon

striving to... discover God. follow Christ. love Katherine. guide Gabe. know others. ...more each day.

Forgiveness Asks…

November 26, 2017 message. Watch here.

Poetry invites the listener to hear familiar concepts with new ears… LISTEN CAREFULLY.

What they meant for harm, God used for good.

He trusted his brothers, couldn’t imagine their hate
And how they plotted and planned this dreamer to betray
His life was exchanged for silver pieces in a bag
Much like another “much greater” who came later had

Beaten and banished he was condemned to perish
In the darkness of a dried out well
By his brothers who into slavery would sell
Their younger brother, Joseph, to human traffickers enroute to Egypt

From Potiphar to prison to prophecy to Pharaoh
The favor and provision for Joseph from God would grow
Not a word or visit from his family for twenty years
Yet, Joseph grew in authority and power over his Egyptian peers

Thinking their brother loooong dead,
the other sons of Jacob would soon head
To Egypt in order to seek aid and relief
From the famine in Canaan which compounded their grief

Joseph could have raged, he could have stored up his hate
But these brothers did not realize Egypt’s Secretary of State
was the one they sold so long ago
on that road near Shechem north of Jericho

Forgiveness sidesteps revenge of the situation
Regardless Arminian free will or Calvin’s predestination
As ambassadors of God, forgiveness is ours
to liaise on God’s behalf and heal creation’s scars

Forgiveness is a change of heart,
Something typically done after much time apart
We look to another with eyes now wide open
And look past the hurt of what was once broken.

Forgiveness is one of the most amazing things
that a person can give to another
Time may be needed to give you the peace
To forgive your sister or brother

“What you meant for harm, God used for good”
Joseph replied while his brothers before him stood
But wasn’t as easy as Genesis 37 thru 50 displays
There was much anger, fear, and weeping on the way
Toward the healing and wholeness found on that day.

Please turn to Genesis 50:14-21 (NRSV) for today’s reading

36 yearsJoseph was the next son in a family lineage in which the younger/youngest son was given favor over the eldest. This was unheard of in ancient culture. Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham started this “family tradition” when he favored his younger son Isaac over his first-born son Ishmael. But this favorite son Isaac would be deceived by his youngest son, Jacob who stole the birthright of his older twin – Esau. Then that Jacob was deceived by his 10 oldest sons after they sold their youngest brother, Joseph, into slavery. Tracking? See the cycle of hurt, abuse, and deceit?

And you think Thanksgiving revealed that your family had problems…

These 10 brothers/sons maintained this deceit for 20+ years, allowing their father to indefinitely grieve the death of his child. Then, they never came clean once Jacob was reunited with Joseph. Neither does it seem Joseph mentioned his brothers’ betrayal and deceit to their father, Jacob. The withholding of truth became its own prison and pain for both the sons and father.

We see the brothers’ shame, fear, remorse, and angst come to critical mass in today’s reading. These brothers clearly feared that Joseph was strategically harboring a grudge until after their father’s death, at which time he would go all Game of Thrones on them.

After all of the suffering already endured, these brothers attempt to perpetuate the cycle of deceit and hurt by lying to Joseph right after their dad’s graveside service. Joseph’s heartbroken reply, “What you meant for harm, God used for good,” reveals a forgiveness that comes from a place of true healing where God’s providence has strengthened Joseph to break the cycle of hurt.

Let’s look at another family wrestling with secrets. We’ve been walking alongside the hit TV series “This Is Us” for the past 4 weeks. We’re using the remarkable writing and acting to illustrate lessons of timeless wisdom from God. Today, we’re focusing on forgiveness. I invite you to look for concepts of forgiveness in this video.

push upsTo Jack and Rebecca, Randall is their biological child. With good intentions and the deepest love for Randal, they kept this secret from him his entire life. But, like Jacob’s sons, the withholding of truth becomes its own prison and pain for Rebecca with cascading effects on Randall. Randall recognizes that Rebecca has kept this secret for 36 years. His heartbroken & empathetic response was, “It must have been incredibly lonely.”

I think… the strength of forgiveness in this scene is when Randall steps away from his mom’s embrace… “No. Not yet.” Randall is not rushing forgiveness. He is taking the time needed to walk through the healing work toward it.  We see Joseph doing the same thing in the 14 chapters of Genesis 37-50.

Forgiveness is not microwavable. Never rush the baking of healthy forgiveness.

This leads us to the most important question of the morning…So What!?”  So what does forgiveness really mean for me today? Forgiveness seems like a whole lot of Hallmark Holiday Specials, cartoon characters, unicorns, and cotton candy when you try to apply it to. the real world.  So what does forgiveness really mean for me?

Forgiveness asks questions…lots of questions… that must be answered before it can be complete…before we can progress toward reconciliation. Here are a few…

Forgiveness Asks: “How can I choose to see the image of God in the other?” 

Choosing to see the image of God in the other person overrides my desire to withhold forgiveness.

soccerball2I play goalie on a soccer team on Sunday nights. My last game we were playing a tough team. They had already scored 2-3 times (more like 4-5 times). The lead scorer was making another move on goal. He dribbled the ball just far enough in front of him that I knew I could dive on the ball before he got to it. I made the save. But the other guy was already in the motion of kicking, so he just kicks the next closest round object: my head. He was supposed to wave off. I’m thinking, “Come on dude. It’s a rec league!” However, I wasn’t going to hold a grudge against this guy. We’re both playing a game we love. He’s my brother from another mother. I choose to see the image of God in this dude.

Joseph’s response to his brothers (50:20) “What you meant for harm, God used for good” affirms the image of God in his brothers and the situation.

Likewise, Jesus always chooses to see the image of God in others: the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, Samaritans, Peter’s betrayal, the woman caught in adultery, Saul’s conversion…and… EVERYONE. When he was raised on the cross, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing.” It’s like he’s saying, ‘they’ve forgotten your image in them; remember your image which you created in them.’

When it comes to seeing the image of God in others, most forgiveness is practiced in the context of dozens of minor disputes that we have with our family, friends and loved ones. You know the disputes I’m talking about…
– If you wrestled with Black Friday shoppers…maybe literally…
– If you’ve had Thanksgiving disputes with parents/kids, aunts or uncles, or your brother’s new girlfriend or your sister’s fiance who just graduated with a political science degree… those kinds of disputes…
– If you’ve had Thanksgiving disputes over political differences, theology differences or who’s sport’s team is better. #GoArmyBeatNavy

We can either hold onto these minor disputes and hurts or we can practice forgiveness. We can’t do both.

Yet, forgiveness involves more than minor disputes. It extends to life’s biggest hurts; most of which are aimed to wound, disable, or destroy the image of God created in us. This is why forgiveness is so tough sometimes.

Forgiveness isn’t a cup of hot chocolate or a Hallmark Channel Holiday Special. It’s boot camp. It never exempts us from doing the hard work of inherent to forgiveness. Forgiveness requires puke-level work-effort.

Forgiveness rewards us with the capacity to see life and live life from Jesus’ perspective. Jesus shows us that forgiveness isn’t easy. He’s the guide.

Forgiveness Asks: “How much time do I need for this?”

The difference between God‘s forgiveness and human forgiveness is that God‘s forgiveness is preemptive and immediate because of Jesus.

There is no lag time or incubation period. As a matter fact, God offers grace and forgiveness before we ask (Romans 5:8). All God asks is that we receive it.

However, as humans, our healing takes time. Forgiveness like grief, is a process, a journey, a direction, a road trip where the mileage varies for each person and experience.

rollerskatesI was wearing the old school roller skates; 2×2 wheels in front and back. Give me a break, they were the only kind we had in the 70’s and 80’s. I was skating in the street trying to show off to my ‘new’ dad, Carl. Carl was my biological dad who had recently re-entered our life after a 7 year absence (he abandoned us in Texas, but that is another story). Mom wanted us to have the storybook family and hoped Carl had changed, but neither of them did the work required for healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Carl was grilling on the front lawn with his shirt off and I desperately wanted his attention and approval. So, I was skating fast in the street; showing off. I skated into the driveway and then “walked” on skates (tip-toe) across the front yard to where Carl was grilling. I sat in the lawn chair opposite Carl and tried to just soak up being next to my “dad.” I took off my t-shirt like he did and I even crossed my skate-bearing foot over my leg (which was awkward), to mirror my “dad”.

But as a hyperactive 9 year old, within a few minutes I wanted to go back to skating. As I stood up, my skate kicked the table with the condiments and Carl’s beer on it. Everything went flying… including Carl who flew across the grill. He grabbed me by the arm and began hitting and kicking me across the front lawn, onto the porch, into the house, across the living room, down the hall and into my bedroom.

This is just one of many times Carl would beat me, my sister, and/or my mom. I’d never known violence like this until he came into our lives. Fortunately, he only stayed around for about a year or so.

Would anyone dare tell 9 year old Lance, “Hey, you’d better forgive Carl immediately. Jesus tells us to forgive, otherwise you won’t be forgiven?”

NO… that’s misapplying Matthew 6:14-15.

Forgiveness Asks: “How much time do I need for this?” because even though Christ directs us to forgive, there is no template or timeline. Beware of the person who uses Jesus’ words to strong arm or manipulate you into what amounts to false forgiveness.

Forgiveness Asks: “How much time do I need for this?” because if forgiveness is demanded or rushed or cajoled, it’s not forgiveness. Plus, it discounts the suffering experienced and usually creates an opportunity for abuse to continue.

Forgiveness Asks: “How much time do I need for this?” because one or both people are at a place where they cannot absorb any more pain or hurt. Abusive and hurtful relationships usually gradually over time, therefore, the individuals in those relationships need to take a long time to heal – separately.

Healing and forgiveness insists we take the time necessary to name the hurt, the damage, the abuse, the injury done to us.

Forgiveness is a choice which results from you and the other person acting from spiritually, physically, and emotionally healthy and rehabilitated places in life.

My forgiveness of Carl was a years’ long journey. At first I thought the only thing that needed forgiveness was what Carl did to me. But then I learned that I needed spiritual and emotional healing for what I saw Carl do to my mother and sister. Those were the hardest abuses to forgive. I couldn’t have forgiven Carl without the time it took me to heal through God’s presence and guidance.

Forgiveness Asks: “How do I break the cycle of hurt?”

God empowers us to break the cycles of hurt and abuse in our lives thru forgiveness. Forgiveness is a super-power God gives us through God’s Spirit.

Hurt people hurt people.

Carl hurt and abused because he was hurt and abused as a child by his dad, as was his dad by his granddad, and so on. Carl held onto the bitterness and anger of his abuse and relayed the abuse to us. Hurt people hurt people.

Joseph broke the generational cycle of hurt and replaced it with a future of provision (50:21).

Jesus breaks the humanity’s fallen cycle of hurt and replaces it with eternal provision and grace.

Even in my 10 year old mind, I knew I had to break the cycle of hurt. I never wanted to be like Carl, but I already had a bad temper and was beginning to make bad choices. Yet, I was raised to have faith. I knew a tactic that would ensure I would never be like Carl.  Jesus seemed like the kind of man I could try to grow up and be like. Trying to be like Jesus became my “tactic” not to be like Carl.

However, Jesus broke through my tactics and transformed me through his love, example and teachings through the gospels. It wasn’t through tactics, rather through a supernatural relationship with my true Father through Jesus that I was changed from the inside out.

My transformation was reinforced through the love, mentoring and counseling of teachers, pastors, and counselors. Through these people, Christ molded me in to seeking and finding health – spiritually, emotionally and relationally.

Hear this: Seeking the counsel of a licensed, trained counselor does not make you weak…It makes you healthy. You may be someone who need’s to quit kicking the can down the road. Make that appointment that you’ve been ducking with a credible counselor. We can provide referrals.

Let me make this clear: Jesus gave me power to forgive…otherwise, I’d have held the hurt and darkness inside. Forgiveness meant I could look to Jesus to discover a different future.

When I was 20 yrs old, my Grandma, Carl’s mother died and I was asked to be a pallbearer at her funeral. For 10 years, I had prepared my response for the next time I would possibly see Carl again. A funeral is an awkward place for a showdown. I immediately saw him when entering the funeral home. I was expecting the same man I knew as a 10 year old – a tall, menacing, and volatile man. But as I looked on him and generically greeted him, I noticed he was shorter than me and his body was ravaged by decades of alcohol and drug abuse. He was jaundiced, frail, and was missing teeth. I was shocked out of whatever I thought it was I had prepared to say.

US button2Later that evening, I was with my mom and step-dad (I called him “Dad” because he was my true dad who loved me sacrificially his whole life…but that’s another story) having dinner at my aunt’s house. After dinner, Carl came into the house and we passed in the hallway. It was this moment when Carl attempted to extend a olive branch, actually a brass US insignia that was his when he served in the Army as a young man in Vietnam. He was attempting to establish some form of connection with a son he had neglected or abused for 20 years. He knew I was in the Army, so he was trying to connect in any way he could conjure. He held the US insignia in his hand and extended it to me. All he said to me in a partially drunken slur was, “If our country…if you guys ever need…I’ll be right there next to you guys.” In that moment, my anger evaporated and I felt this emotional wave rush through me. Forgiveness replaced anger in me for a man so visibly broken and isolated by his choices.

In that moment, I realized that because of Christ’s transforming work in me during those 10 years, I would never be like Carl. I knew the cycle was broken.

What Carl did to harm us, God transformed into something good.

Forgiveness realizes that the other person may never recognize, admit, or acknowledge what they did was wrong. That day may never come. You may simply need to do your healing and choose to forgive so you can break the cycle of hurt and be free.

There are some hurts and abuses which will always be with you. There will be scars that will never fully fade away. Forgiveness allows God to transform the abuse you’ve suffered or the mistakes you’ve made into something good and productive. What has been intended to harm you, God can transform into something good.

Forgiveness simply says, “I will no longer hold this against you.” However, sometimes healthy forgiveness also has to say, “but we can no longer be friends or family in the way that we were.”

If Carl were alive today, we’d have to have boundaries. Actually we did while he was alive. I lived in Oklahoma and Florida and he lived in Missouri. He never turned from alcohol or drugs or his pattern of abuse. My own healing helped me know that I wasn’t and could never be the one to try and fix him.

For you, forgiveness/breaking the cycle of hurt may mean finding another job if there is abuse or ongoing hurt at work. It may mean making new friends if your social circles involve you being the continual brunt of jokes or abuse.

Forgiveness is setting someone free and realizing it you. 

free2

Forgiveness Asks: “Whom do I need to ask for forgiveness?”

Forgiveness realizes that I need forgiveness.

There’s no complicated instruction for asking for forgiveness. Just approach, apologize, and ask. That’s what we learned in Kindergarten and still applies to us as adults.

What about you? Are you withholding forgiveness or need forgiveness from another? From yourself?

The person most difficult to forgive is often ourselves. How, where, when are you going to forgive yourself for that mistake or that failure or that personal disappointment?

push upsRemember the push-up scene in the This Is Us excerpt?

I like to transpose Jesus over that scene…
Jesus’ back was built to carry God’s children through life.
Jesus is willing to hold us up no matter what comes our way.
Jesus is willing to raise each of God’s children into strong disciples who change the world.
Jesus is willing to push us toward being the best people in this world in this life that we can be.
Jesus will be enough for you.
Jesus is willing to lift us to greater heights even if it hurts him.
Jesus won’t stop doing push ups with us on his back…because that’s what God is like…that what God does.
I can hear Jesus saying, “I won’t stop.”

Forgiveness reveals that God loves you before you ever get your stuff together.

The only reason I need a hurricane every week…

No service. No connectivity.

I had to…got to…ignore my hand-held device, smart phone, cell…whatever else we call the glowing rectangle in my pocket.

The only reason I need a hurricane every week is because it knocks out much of the cell towers, wifi signals, and noise which surrounds me. In this moment, I’m invited to notice what’s around me…who’s around me. I’m invited to notice the Divine.

I’m invited to be exclusively human again, instead of a cyborg, irretrievably connected to a glowing rectangle which suspiciously offers me much of the conveniences which life has to offer, but few of life’s truly meaningful experiences. I’m invited to be a human who reaches out to other humans whether through my needs or theirs. I see people as humans, not Trump or Hillary voters, Christian or non-Christian, nor by generational divisions; people who pretty much share somewhat similar hopes and dreams for their lives and families as I do for mine.

I’m invited into mental stillness. I find moments of sabbath from the stimulus from unending emails, running text conversations, random Amazon shopping sprees, maintaining a “social media presence” and checking scores on sports I don’t really care about. The stillness washes away the clutter and distraction and ushers in peace and calm. 

I’m invited into my thoughts and feelings. Instead of searching for another ‘like’ on a social media post, I’m searching my own faculties. Time slows down and I examine my thoughts and ask for the thoughts of others. I find myself in an hour-and-a-half, free-flow, authentic, vulnerable, and transparent conversation with a diverse group of friends, colleagues and strangers. I conjure images and memories of Katherine and Gabe in my mind beyond those stored in the glowing rectangle.

I’m invited into my senses. I see the beauty of nature in and beyond its brokenness after the storm. I’m invited to smell the aroma of a passing thunderstorm, to smell the salt of evaporated ocean water which recently covered the Keys and to taste the salt in the breeze, to feel the pressure of hurricane force winds deep in my chest, to see the sparkle of stars behind wisps of clouds beyond the powerless street lights and dark city blocks, and to see the resilience of a tree, stripped bare but still standing tall.

I’m invited to reflect on the Divine. As I reflect on the world and the One I believe initiated it and presides over its evolving and revolving, I wonder if there is a purpose to the hurricane’s fury and the dangers it wrought. I’m certain there is no simple answer.

The truth is…I don’t need a hurricane each week. However, I do need to put away the glowing rectangle and invite myself to be exclusively human, to mental stillness, into my thoughts and feelings, into my senses, and to reflect on the Divine. Those are the moments I feel most alive. 

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

What I learned as a Deployed U.S.Army Chaplain


These are listed in no particular order. 

1) No cape required. You can do this too. 

2) Be comfortable with unorthodox beliefs in others; discipleship is about instruction thru “walking with” others, not mere information transfer: “Valhalla” “gods” loose pluralism, loose orthodoxy. Different beliefs of others won’t automatically change yours. We earn the privilege to be listened to, by listening to others.

3) Be present; 90% of ministry is just showing up.

4) Their crisis is not your crisis (esp. when experiencing trauma or suicidal ideations). First responders can empathize, but avoid freaking out regardless of what you hear or see. Bring calm.

5) Listen. Then listen some more. Many people will solve their own problems if they simply have someone who will sit down and shut up long enough to listen.

6) Don’t worry about looking perfect. You won’t and that’s not what people need from you anyway.

7) Don’t worry about having all or even most of the answers. Be willing to delay decision IOT discover answers together.

8) When all else fails, just love on ’em.

9) Read the word.

10) Be mobile. Go to where they are on the battlefield. The most effective place for the BN Chaplain is not in a HQ tent; its where the fighting is thick. If you wait for the battle to get to you, it’s often too late. Soldiers notice that too.

Soldiers don’t retreat, they will fight wounded…even unto death. They often won’t come to you. Go to them. This is also what the world is expecting.

11) Just ask ’em if they’d like to pray. Then pray. Messy prayers welcome.

12) God provides unexpected peers and allies. Embrace them even if they disagree with you. They’ll become “family” for this age and the next.

13) Be flexible.

14) Embrace awkward. If it’s scary or uncomfortable, there’s a good chance God is inviting you to do it. Be willing and comfortable to be roasted and teased. In Army, that is a sign of affection. If they stop talking around me, that’s when I worry.

15) No qualifiers. I’m not Drill Sergeant Chaplain. I’m Chaplain… not Ranger chaplain, combat badge chaplain, airborne chaplain… I don’t require you to live up to any expectations before spending time with you…showing you love. Soldiers need their chaplain to be the one person in uniform who looks at them with different eyes. I don’t see you for your badges, medals, and ribbons, or what’s on your chest. I’m looking for what’s inside your chest…your heart.

16) Make time to recover and refit. Get your love tank refilled by God, by family, by trusted friends.

17) Get sleep. It’s amazing how a good night’s sleep can change your outlook and problem-solving capacity…and that of others.

18) Convenience is over-rated and a poor litmus for ministry. Much of my most meaningful ministry moments have been inconvenient. But, we’re in good company – so were Jesus’. 

“Find ministry don’t do ministry.” ~Rindahl

Fracture

I fell hard. L1 vertebrae fracture. I felt intense pain as soon as I hit. The impact knocked the breath out of me. I let out a moan and tried to sit up, but the pain wouldn’t allow me to do it. So, I rolled to my side and propped myself up on my hands and knees.
A compression fracture is a unique fracture of a bone where pressure is applied to opposite ends of a bone. Imagine a piece of chalk pinched between a pair of pliers. Compression. Fracture.

I was trying to stand as if to irrationally prove that nothing was wrong. The pain got worse directly in the center of my back. Each time I tried to stand or straighten my back the pain stole my breath. All the while, I was trying to mentally replay what had happened before the fall. “What did we do wrong?”
Jason and I drove to Colorado Springs at the end of our freshman year at the University of Central Oklahoma. We were celebrating finishing the semester and the enthusiasms that go along with being young men in a world of possibilities. We were stretching the borders of our lives.

We met each other during Orientation Week prior to the first day of classes, and even though we pledged different fraternities, we were best of friends throughout the year. Brothers. We shared a common faith in Christ and enjoyment for the outdoors. We started spending random Saturdays during the spring semester at Red Rock Canyon State Park to hike, rock climb, and rappel. 

“Let’s climb and rappel at Garden of the Gods!” Jason suggested one day. He grew up 30 minutes from there which meant free lodging and food; all we needed was gas money. The drive there was epic. The last day of spring classes, we loaded up his Ford Bronco 2 and drove west toward Amarillo. We literally drove watching the sun bring the day to a close and transform the horizon into a blend of dozens of colors. We turned north in Amarillo and made it to his parents’ house sometime in the middle of the night. 

As young men, armed with a brazen plan and half a night of sleep, we woke the next morning and shoved a delicious home-cooked breakfast down our throats and loaded up our gear into his dad’s truck. His dad insisted on driving us so we could grab a few extra winks of sleep enroute to the Garden. 

The Garden of the Gods is an appropriate term for the park’s beauty and grandeur. After we grabbed our gear off the truck, we waved goodbye to his dad, who would return to pick us up at the end of the day. We climbed and rappelled all morning. The pièce de résistance of our climb and rappel was a 70 foot overhang that allowed a rappel in open space from top to bottom. It was intoxicating.

Then rain clouds rolled in. The light sprinkle let us know our day was over. I told Jason I would rappel down once more to untie our ground belay. Once at the bottom, I would signal for him to untie the top. I crested the lip and began my descent. With 15 feet left to rappel, I felt the terrifying sensation of weightlessness as my left hand collapsed into my chest along with all the rope from above. We made a mistake and untied before I was off the rope.

I screamed something and nothing. Within seconds I hit the ground. My body landed in a U-shape with my tailbone and lower back striking first. I lay motionless for a few seconds or minutes, I do not know. I didn’t know if anything was broken, but the terror of falling was followed by the terror of potential back injury or paralysis.

Jason made his way down to find me on my hands and knees trying to stand but unable to because of the pain. Any attempt to move shift my weight over my legs to stand resulted in immediate pain and loss of breath. Then it started to rain. Hard.

This was before the days of widespread cellphone use. Jason was able to help me stand and we got to the roadside where a 1960’s Volkswagen bus with three German tourists picked us up and got me to Park Rescue. I was placed on a backboard once the ambulance arrived and the severity of my situation set in. “I may lose my ability to walk or run ever again.” Much time was spent in prayer, reflection, grief, and acceptance over the next few days as I lay confined to a hospital bed.

Prior to this fracture, the farthest distance I ever ran, in one continuous effort, was the two miles required for each of my annual Army Physical Fitness Tests. This isn’t saying much; I was 19 years old and had only been in the Army for two years.

I was in a back brace for 2 months afterward. The compression fracture caused my L1 to break outward instead of inward toward my spinal cord. The doctors said I should heal without any limitations for walking or running in the future.

I run now. I’ve completed only three marathons: the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC and the New York City Marathon. I’ll be running the MCM again this October, the 10 year anniversary of my first marathon. 

Some wouldn’t think of me as a runner. I’m not fast. I don’t log more than 20 miles in a “good” week. I don’t keep track of my PR times. I don’t own any compression socks, pants, shorts or shirts. I look for running shoes that are last year’s model on sale.

I run because I can. I run because I can. Each step is a “thank you” to God; not because I think God favors me and kept me from being paralyzed that day in comparison to the countless millions who face more dire circumstances each day. Rather, each step is a “thank you” for the created capacity for me to be able to walk and run.

What’s your fracture? How do you wring something good out from it?

Desolate Beauty

121° without shade.

I gaze across the miles of wind-blown volcanic rocks, smoothed over the centuries, sporadically layering the surface of the fine volcanic desert soil, interspersed with drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs.  To the south, I see the handful of dead volcanoes which rise out of this rocky plain.  Stretching out to the west are the rolling desert hills, dotted with small acacia trees, flowing into the Arta mountains.  The Gulf of Aden sits in the north.  Beauty.  Of its own kind.

My perception of beauty requires recalibration due to the landscapes I am accustomed to in the U.S.  I too lazily expect beauty to meet me on my terms, but that’s not how true beauty reveals itself.  How deeply can I value the varied beauty of Florida, if I discount that which surrounds me here?

I don’t believe God created any part of this world to be discarded, discounted, or disregarded due to comparison.  The beauty and wonder of this planet is in its diversity.

Heaven forbid if humans sculpted the earth into endless manicured lawns, golf courses, playgrounds and sports fields.  The earth’s first and best playgrounds and ‘resorts’ were sculpted long before the footprints of humanity.  How I fear we’ve become poor stewards of this earth, having long abandoned a life of shared rhythm with the soil from which we came; no longer cohabitors, but mere consumers.

This unique place where I stand was formed millennia ago when Pangea split and the continents drifted to their current, albeit temporary, places of rest.  The volcanoes here were once active, belching ash and lava into the waters which would form the gulf and seas which border this nation today.  The volcanic rocks strewn across the sandy tundra are unavoidable …and ageless.

This place is beautiful.  Part of the human experience is found here, actually begins here.  It’s a part which can only can be found here.  It reminds us that there is beauty in the desolate… in the discomfort… in the inhospitable.

God reminds me that God is here.  God created and loves these people and this place as deeply as any and all others.  God is here…and is with us in the deserts, the desolate spaces, the discomfort, and inhospitable circumstances of the world.  But, am I looking?

Beauty.  Yes.

Struggle

“One of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and learn from even the most trying circumstances.” ~Dennis & Thomas, Crucibles of Leadership

“Storms draw out of us that which calm seas cannot.” ~Bill Hybels

“Pain has a way of making us more honest.” ~Rob Bell

“…for when I am weak is when I am strong…” ~2 Corinthians 12:10

(Word of the Week 02-08MAY)  #WOTDseries #Drop19

Jana

A little boy’s tears. “Please don’t let anything happen to momma.”

I stayed awake and cried in the dark. I pleaded with God in this prayer, the earliest I can remember as a boy. “Please don’t let anything happen to momma.” I just kept repeating that appeal.

Mom had just put us to bed. I must have been 5 years old. I asked mom something about God before bedtime. In her response, she encouraged me that God was so important that I needed to love God even more than her. She gently encouraged that one day I would grow up and sadly she wouldn’t always be here.

IMG_5400I couldn’t imagine loving God more than mom. She was a single mom, raising two children all by herself…on a teacher’s salary…in Oklahoma. She was all we had.

May 8th is her birthday. Every few years we’d get to celebrate it on Mothers’ Day. I would often make her a hand-made card on this occasion, because the prefabricated hallmark moments would never suffice. Even as an adult, I’d still use crayons and write it with my non-writing hand to give it a childish look.

I will always be her “little boy.” I realize and embrace that truth now, as a parent myself. Gabe, will always be Katherine’s and my “little man.”

She was my first encourager. Her words spoke grace, confidence and comfort. She would affirm my possibilities even in my most vulnerable moments and darkest of days. In her own way, she was there for each of her children: Andy, Kaye, and me.

She illustrated God’s grace through her actions and words before Sunday School class or a sermon could teach me its meaning. A healthy mother teaches her son what to look for in a strong, sensitive, and Godly wife. I would find God’s loving grace and my life’s deepest IMG_0644relationship in my wife,  Katherine. She amazes me as she proves she’s #MomEnough as she juggles mothering our 4 year old, working five days a week, and managing a household all by herself as I’m deployed overseas. Most weeks are tough for her. Many days are overwhelming. But her love and faith is resilient.  Grace, indeed.

Moms are strong.

Mom worried about my salvation after I left the denomination of my childhood and chose the denomination I’ve served ever since. I hope that she saw the triumph in that choice amidst the departure. I wasn’t leaving faith in Jesus Christ…I was fully embracing it. 

It was her lifestyle that introduced me to the tangible person of Christ. Her sensitive relationship with God was transparent. I saw consistency in her commitment during both the good and the bad times. Her faith wasn’t decorated by superficial prettiness or platitudes. It demonstrated happiness borne of struggle and grit.

Faith wasn’t reserved for Sundays or holidays. For her, and subsequently us, it was perpetual…daily.

Much of my own faith echoes hers.

Today is Mothers Day 2016. May 8th. During the 0800 Chapel Service in Djibouti, today’s chaplain speaks of mothers during the message. His selection of hymns takes me back to those small congregations and musty church buildings of my childhood. “Rock of Ages” and “Victory in Jesus” are songs I would sing as a little boy standing next to mom on so many Sunday mornings. I’m transported back in time as I sing them today.

8trackThe chaplain’s sermon reference to the song “Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton churns up more memories of mom. She loved that song and wore out the 8-track on which it was recorded. I can still hear it’s faint melody.

Mom has been gone for 3 years. But I spent this morning with her in this remote, dusty chapel. The hymns whisper the promise of reunion…“I heard about a mansion He has built for me in glory. And I heard about the streets of gold beyond the crystal sea; about the angels singing, and the old redemption story, and some sweet day I’ll sing (with her) there the song of victory.”

“Her children rise and call her blessed…” Proverbs 31:28