Category Archives: New Things

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.

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

Grand

A straight line of hand-placed rocks, each the size of a football, stretched for 9 miles across an ancient desert bowl in Djibouti called the Grand Bara Desert.  I couldn’t see where the rocks ended and the desert continued.

Over 3000 of us rendezvoused at the starting line on a “cold” morning in Djibouti – meaning in the low 70’s. It would soon reach the mid-90’s (in December). We had to race the heat to finish line.

bara2The start line wasn’t spectacular. A few French flags and Djiboutian flags and a white chalk line marked the launch pad of this adventure. I was flanked by many of the Soldiers whom I serve and deeply love. After a few initial comments by the hosts of the race, the French 5th Marine Regiment, we readied ourselves for the start signal. It was inbound…but right on time at 0700 that morning.

Thunder! Three French Mirage fighter jets marked the start, flying about 500 feet above us. We felt the blast of their pass. It took me a moment to realize  I needed to get going.

The pack spread long but were funneled into a narrow alley the width of a 2-lane street. The Djiboutian running team took lead.bara4a

The “sand” was hard-packed for the most part. It was more of a talcum-powder type dirt than sand. It was a good surface for running. I carried a Camelbak just in case I needed water #bigmistake #100ozExtraIdidntNeed  I discovered that there was a water point every 3 miles along this narrow lane.

If you’re familiar with me by now, you realize I’d never waste an opportunity like this. Nine miles of this unique race was going to be a great time for meditation and prayer. But don’t let me sound too “super-spiritual” – I listened to a lot of music and talked to a few Soldiers along the way (grunted more like it, as we passed one another).

#Soundtrack: RUN DMC, Coldplay, R.E.M. (“Everybody Hurts”), Fitz & the Tantrums, Dave Matthews, Fort Minor, Lifehouse, Linkin Park, Muse, Switchfoot, U2, Fall Out Boy, and the Black Keys among others.

But after the distraction of the music got to be too much and its energy wore off, I still had to kick out those last 3 miles. I sensed that nudge…  the tug…  the whispered invitation…  to finish the run with my best running partner.

I looked at the expanse of the desert around me. I thought to myself how I’d never want to be stranded in this desolation…  this isolation. I kept watching each rock in the line pass behind me. I was impressed by how straight the line of rocks was. That was part of the mental obstacle… running in a straight line without seeing the finish line or being able to reckon how far you’ve gone or how far remains. Plus, as I stated before, the lane was narrow. It was narrow because a straight line tends to create that, plus the French Marines and Djiboutian Army were providing security for the race… helicopters flew overhead, personnel carriers patrolled the sides, and Djiboutian soldiers were stretched the length of the course about 100 yards apart #RunningInDjibouti. To run outside the lane meant danger, no matter how appealing it looked.

Straight. Narrow. I recognize these concepts from somewhere else.

I was raised with this toxic impression that God somehow was just waiting for someone to mess up so he could kick them off the path… into desolation…  into destruction… But that’s not correct at all. Unfortunately, that seems like a widespread misconception these days.

God is doing all he can to keep us on the straight and narrow. That is the story of the Hebrew and Christian scripture. God indefinitely pro-acts toward creation and the universe and offers covenant and community. That’s where we find security, not freedom from danger, but security. That’s where we find sustainment, not freedom from hunger, but sustainment.

The straight and narrow is not a campground. It is intended to get us to go where we need to go. It’s our choice whether we stay on it or not. We are free to choose other paths, roads, and highways.

As for me…  I’m aiming for the finish line. bara5

*Many modern translations use the term “small” more commonly than “straight.” However, “straight and narrow” is a term that has been wedged into our vocabulary thanks to the King James version of the Bible.  Although, I do not use “small” instead of “straight” to offer this reflection, I am certain it holds true to the deeper scriptural meaning of Christ’s teaching.

(Word of the Week 15DEC)  #WOTDseries #Drop11

“Endurance” – Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon and 6k

“Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us! So we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially the brokenness and baggage that just won’t let go. Let’s run with endurance the race that is ahead of us.”  Letter to the Hebrews 12:1

jaxrunA big “THANK YOU” to my hometown race company 1st Place Sports in Jacksonville, FL for making this event possible.  This race has become an annual tradition for me.  When I discovered I would be deployed and would miss this year’s Thanksgiving Day Distance Classic half marathon, I contacted 1PS and asked if I could register for the race in JAX but run it in Djibouti.

I got the thumbs up. Then, I thought that other Soldiers deployed with the battalion would want to run a half marathon also. So I asked 1PS if I could host a remote version of the race. As the Battalion Chaplain, the extra-fun aspect is getting to plan and host this as a ‘Spiritual Fitness Event’ for my battalion. Thumbs up again.

So, we are a few days before the race. We have over 150 runners ready to hit the pavement at 0330 (yes…in the morning). We have runners representing each branch of the US Armed Forces, as well as a number of our beloved French 5th Marine Regiment allies. We will each earn our Thanksgiving Day feast later that day.

The Word of the Week is “Endurance” which I will share as part of the opening ceremonies.

Ready

We’re ready.  I sense it in every conversation with each of our Soldiers.  The atmosphere is thick with anticipation.

It feels like pregame of a contest we know we’re fully prepared to win.  There is a razor’s edge to their sharpness.  The farewell’s to our families, friends, and loved ones have only served to fuel our drive to get overseas and begin mission.

I never cease to be inspired by the quality of Soldiers I have served with in times such as this.  The challenge brings out our best.  These Soldiers are confident in their craft.  They are expert warriors…there’s no other way to say it.  Yet they temper their fury until the moment for which it is called.

These are the sons and daughters of a good nation.  If you ever doubt America’s grit, tenacity, integrity, and resilience, spend an hour talking and training with these Millennials and GenXers.  Doubt will be removed.  These Soldiers are the leaders of their generations.  They are high-order thinkers and tireless workers.  If they complain, it is only to each other.  It is their earned privilege which actually serves as fuel for their continued diligence and critical awareness of their missions’ objectives.

Our leaders are ready.  They have scrutinized and vetted multiple strategies, options, and actions for the mission ahead.  They carry a paternal love and burden for each of those in their formations… even the rowdiest ones.  They hunger to be called on to lead the hardest missions, but are faithful and humble to give the same drive and effort to even the smallest of assigned objectives.

We are ready because we are confident.  This confidence is not false motivation that dries up in the face of real adversity.  Rather it is true confidence that seeks to be proven through adversity.

Readiness is not best measured by a checklist of trained tasks. It is best measured by the character, commitment, competence, and grit found in both the individual Soldier and their team here in the Seminole Battalion.

We’re ready. Never surrender.

“Come Back Better”

Come back better.

This phrase takes on new meaning as I make the solitary stroll down the concourse away from my wife and little boy for the next nine months.

I will come back better.  These next nine months won’t merely be measured by the passing of time.  Time is non-recoverable currency. IMG_1672I demand from myself an increased ‘return on investment’ based on the price that is paid and the cost to those dearest to me.  How will I come back better for Katherine, Gabe, myself, and our family as a whole?  They deserve it.  They are paying this price with me.

Deployment pays well.  However, it would be wasteful for my biggest takeaway to merely be storing away extra money in our savings account.  Financial health is a minor factor in what it means for me to “come back better.”  For me, a bank account is a poor substitute for family and loved ones.  Coming back better is about them.  How can I come back better as a husband and father for them…for our family?

Some may say, “You don’t have to worry about coming back better. The comprehensive experience of the sacrifice is enough to make you better.”  Agreed.  I will come back as a better Soldier and Chaplain – a residual effect from the caliber of Soldiers with whom I deploy,  as well as the training so far received and the day-to-day improvement of my craft overseas.

However, I’m looking to learn a unique lesson or develop a new skill or habit that will mold me, dare I say transform me on a comprehensive and transcendent level.  Therefore, this “come back better” idea must be better than a “do more” bucket list or checklist that I accomplish on my own as some existential ‘show-and-tell.’

Ultimately, “coming back better” requires aspiring to something “better” and more durable than what is currently organic to me.  This ‘something better’ will mold for the long haul.  For me, that ‘something better’ is a someone Who is eternal; Who calls and equips us to be our best.

As Patrick Henry stated in the early years of the American Revolution, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  I relate these words to today.  But I know something that perhaps Mr. Henry didn’t;  God has built us for moments such as these.  God has engineered us to rise to the challenge.  While these moments may be met and overcome alone, we are even “better” when we meet these moments together with God.  “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” Philippians 4:13 MSG

This is the first step of my “come back better” plan.

2 Days

“I only have two days left with my family…” …two unobligated, non-itinerated days before deploying for the better part of a year. 

A lump begins forming in my throat at this thought. My instinct is to squelch the emotion and tell myself something like, “it’ll be okay” or “it’s not that bad.” Yet, I enter the sorrow that accompanies the thought. I don’t drown in it or let myself be overcome or controlled by the emotion. But I enter it. I experience it fully because it drives me to make the most of these remaining hours and moments with Katherine and Gabe.

By experiencing the great sorrows of life, we enable ourselves to fully and deeply experience the great joys of life too. This is one of life’s secrets.

So I will make the most of the two days we have left and I will look forward to the great joy of our family’s reunion to come.