Category Archives: Army Chaplain

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.  

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

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

Character

“Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” ~Vince Lombardi

“Leadership is the potent combination of character and strategy. If you must be without one: be without strategy.” ~GEN Norman Schwarzkopf

“We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope…and hope does not disappoint us.” ~Romans 5:3-5

(Word of the Week 25APR-01MAY)  #WOTDseries #Drop18

:01

I was happy to drop my ruck, fall on top of it and get off my feet.

We finished at an old unused beachside restaurant, which used to be part of the French Marine base located here many years ago. We sat on a broken patio, leaning back on our rucks…watching the sunrise break under a volcanic canopy of clouds. An ever so slight drizzle of rain breezed over us.

ruck patioMost were exhausted from the 12 mile road March to the beach, especially me. This was the final event for our Expert Infantryman Candidates. The Expert Infantry Badge (EIB) is a highly coveted badge by all Infantrymen in the US Army and can only be worn by those who earn it as an Infantryman. The EIB requires an Infantryman to earn 100% pass rate in 37 different Infantry tasks with no assistance or use of notes. This involves the exact memorization of hundreds of steps for 7 weapons, combat casualty medical treatment, tactics, land navigation, communications systems…all tied up neatly with a 12 mile road march. Army-wide, of those who test , only an average of 17% pass. This EIB class started with 118 candidates, yet only 18 earned the EIB.

12milerThe road march, or ruck march, was the second to last task required to merit the EIB.

The route stretched through the Arta mountain range in central Djibouti. We stepped off at 0215 (yes, in the morning). EIB standard for completion of the 12 mile ruck march is 3 hours. One second too late means no EIB. Each EIB candidate carried at least a 35lb ruck, rifleman’s kit, M4 (rifle), and wear their ACH (Kevlar helmet). Total carried weight is easily over 50lbs. As chaplain, I chose to march with the candidates minus the weapon and helmet…similar to the cadre uniform during the march. As one of my mentors says, “90% of ministry is in simply showing up.”

The mountainous terrain involved slight inclines and declines along the road we traversed. The “road” consisted of well-worn tire tracks over loose-gravel and dirt. Switchbacks dotted the course. At times you could see the front and the back of the column of Soldiers within the same 50 yards by chemlights attached to the rucksacks, or “rucks.”

The light of the half-moon poured onto us the whole night. Yet, it didn’t drown out the millions of stars blinking in the heavens…the amount of stars you can only see when you are 30 minutes outside of nowhere. The moonlight and stars exposed the towering vertical shadows of the mountains that bracketed the valley through which we trekked.

Our Battalion Commander (an EIB holder) and Battalion Executive Officer led the pace the entire route. I trailed the pack, catching up to groups here and there to hand out a Jolly Rancher or Life Saver. I would like to say it was by design, but truth be told, I trailed because I wasn’t as prepared as I would like to have been. Yet, I was resolute to complete the route, come what may.

Enroute, I stuck an earbud in one ear and listened to a Bill Hybels talk titled “The Intangibles of Leadership” from the 2015 WCA Global Leadership Summit. I simply wanted something to keep my mind occupied, but a few minutes into the talk, Hybels stated the first intangible of leadership is “grit.” He defined it as “long-term tenacity” and “steely determination demonstrated over decades” and “the willingness to utilize every last drop of human effort to move something ahead to cross the finish line.” He declared that “gritty people play hurt” and “don’t quit, ever.” They “expect progress to be difficult but believe to the core of their being that they can overcome whatever obstacle stands in their way.”

I was inspired by these thoughts…and I would need to be. For me, the course was tough. With a half-mile to go to reach the finish line, the toe of my left boot caught a rock and my momentum sent me into a nose-dive. My only fall, but what I lacked in quantity, this fall made up for in quality. My right knee, hands and face took first contact. I rolled with the momentum. Took a second or two to do a mental check on if everything was working. Then I had to get up and get going. Up and away I trudged.

image3I crossed the finish at 3:01. One minute past the cut-off. I walked over to where some of the finishers were resting and there dropped my ruck. I was happy to complete the course, but I wasn’t satisfied. I crossed the finish line, yet plan to train harder to make up for that :01 in the future. However, thoughts for myself soon subsided for the pride I felt for these Infantrymen who showed grit and earned their EIB.

Near the finish, spray-painted on the wall of this abandoned outpost were the words “It takes some dying to feel alive.”

Indeed.

image2

(Word of the Week 28MAr-03APR)  #WOTDseries #Drop16

 

Sunrise

We ran to the sunrise.

The faint trace of nautical sunlight carved the early horizon. As we left our outpost, we knew where we were running, but none of us knew what we would encounter once we arrived. Resurrection Sunday. “Easter.”

I was the slowest. The younger men led the pack. But I wasn’t ashamed, rather proud to be in such company with these men (and another slow runner in the bible)…in such a pursuit.

Almost 2000 years ago, on a similar morning, two young men set off on a foot race, not with each other but with expectation. The younger reached the tomb first…yet the elder ran straight into the tomb. They were looking for Jesus.

This is what we ran for as well…to find Jesus this resurrection morning.

02The sun met us at the end of our 2-mile run. We gathered around the makeshift altar on a peaceful beach at Manda Bay connected to the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kenya, perhaps similar to the beauty of the garden of the tomb mentioned in the Gospels.

We were sweaty, breathless, and alert. We found ourselves connected in disbelief or doubt to those two earliest disciples, Peter and John. They saw and didn’t know what to believe (John 20:9-10). Yet, Christ would later that day reveal his resurrected self to them…but only after first revealing himself to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18) and Mary, his mom (Matthew 28:1-10).

We, too, eagerly await his revealing; his promised return and creation’s reunion and resurrection (Revelation 21:1-5). Until that day, we find the power and hope of Christ’s resurrected body in the legacy of community that bears his name. As Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27), Christians – “the church” – are the living witness until he arrives to conclude this age.

After the service, some walked, some ran the 2 miles back to our outpost. Along the way, I tried to imagine what Peter, John, Mary, and Jesus’ mom were thinking…feeling…as they walked back to Jerusalem to bring this news…

…and what they would experience as today continued…

Neither life, nor eternity, would ever be the same.

(Word of the Week 21-27MAR)  #WOTDseries #Drop15

…was a child

He was as happy as only boy at play can be.

He was swinging on a make-shift swing on a short tree a few feet outside the front door to the shack his family lived in. His swinging was ferocious. He was placing every ounce of his effort into it.

The motion of the swing caught my eye as we were driving through a mountain village along the Djiboutian countryside. It’s not the kind of living conditions most Americans would choose, but it’s normal here. Simple. Primitive. Practical. Small huts are bunched together close to the commerce center of the village. Personal lawns, a luxury mostly for American homes, are impractical as well as impossible in this rocky desert terrain. Any relatively fertile soil – that doesn’t consist of a top layer of centuries-old lava rock stacked above 18-24 inches of dirt/rock – is used for a community garden. The larger lava rocks are moved aside to establish pathways between the huts and through the village.

Those trails surround this boy’s hut. He is playing alone. He is happy. The truth is, soon his days of play will end. He will enter the workforce as an adolescent and work for the rest of his life if he is fortunate…leaving his childhood behind.

In contrast, back home in America, sociologists and anthropologists have noted that during the past 30 years, adolescence has functionally extended into the mid-20’s. Essentially, we are a nation with the reasoning capacity and self-expectation of maturity as that of a teenager. We package “youth” as a virtue in itself and see adults jettisoning commitment, maturity, wisdom, sacrifice, responsibility, and loyalty for the misconception of reliving or extending the perception of their own youth.

Youth loses its value if it is perpetual. Childhood becomes counterfeit if it is continuous.

“You who are young, make the most of your youth. Relish your youthful vigor. Follow the impulses of your heart. If something looks good to you, pursue it. But know also that not just anything goes; You have to answer to God for every last bit of it. Ecclesiastes 11:9 (Message translation)

It is with this perspective that I cherish my time with Gabe. Since he’s a four-year old, I encourage him to play as hard as he can, like the boy in the swing. I want him to cherish his time as a boy, yet eventually anticipate his transition to manhood. It will be bittersweet to watch my beautiful little boy grow into manhood, rather than chasing the shadow of his childhood like Peter Pan, refusing to grow up.

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NIV)

Only through learning responsibility, loyalty, sacrifice, trustworthiness, discipline, and the value of every era of our lives can we truly value every passing day and each passing era.

(Word of the Week 22-28FEB)  #WOTDseries #Drop14

Persist

v. to continue a course of action in spite of difficulty, opposition, fear, boredom, apathy, etc.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” ~Winston Churchill

“The lesson is, the rewards in life don’t always go to the biggest, or the bravest, or the smartest. The rewards go to the dogged; and when your going though hell, to the person who just keeps going.” ~Bear Grylls

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” ~Romans 12:21

In what do you need to persist?

(Word of the Week 01-07FEB) #WOTDseries #Drop13