A Seat at the Table

This article was printed in the September 2017 issue of Army Magazine, published by Association of the US Army: http://www.ausa.org.

CH 1

The Black Hawk ride from Camp Victory, located at Baghdad International Airport, down to Ad Diwaniyah covered about 120 miles. Diwaniyah was the Iraqi headquarters for the militia leader Muqtada Al Sadr, and we got there just before Operation Black Eagle, meant to rein in militia violence, kicked off. Technically, my Chaplain Assistant and I were assigned to a military transition team, but for the past three years, Camp Echo had no Religious Support Team, so our job was to establish a religious program for the installation.

One day, after two weeks at Camp Echo, I got to the Dining Facility late. There were several casualties that day, and I spent a lot of time in the medical clinic, and with two units that had lost some Soldiers. I was tired and hungry, and finding an empty seat was difficult. Several units were at our forward operating base to assist with the operation, and many of the visiting Soldiers were in the dining facility.

Locating a vacant spot, I placed my tray on the table, but before I had a chance to sit, a Master Sergeant next to the empty chair growled in my direction, “No officers welcome here.” I doubt that he noticed the cross on my uniform. He probably just saw the major’s insignia on my chest, but it might not have made a difference even if he had recognized that I was a chaplain. There were three possible courses of action, and I had to make a quick decision.

• Look for a different chair

• Attempt to pull rank

•  Tell him I am an Honorary NCO

After completing a two-second strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis, I came to attention, turned up my collar to reveal a Sergeant E-5 insignia, and shouted as loud as I could, “Request permission to sit at your table, Master Sergeant,” then remained standing at attention and waited.

The growler did a double-take, and his eyes got real big. “Have a seat, Sarge.”

The other NCO’s at the table were howling with laughter by now. They knew the Master Sergeant, but they didn’t know me. And they had never seen a Major with NCO’s rank under the collar. They found the whole encounter to be quite entertaining.

After the others at the table calmed down, the Master Sergeant said, “OK. Suppose you tell me why you’re wearing that rank.”

“Sure, Master Sergeant. When I was a rookie fresh out of Officer Basic, my first assignment was with an Evacuation Hospital in the California Army National Guard, where I had a great rapport with the NCO’s. When they invited me to attend their dining-in, I thought it was because they wanted me to do the invocation, but that wasn’t it. During the program, the first sergeant pinned the NCO insignia on me and gave me a certificate appointing me to the honorary rank of sergeant, making me an ‘E-5 for Life.’”

“Hmmm. And you actually wear it?”

“Yes.”

I wore the SGT Stripes invisibly throughout my entire career. When in the woodland Battle Dress Uniform, it was pinned under my collar. When we switched to the newer army combat uniform, it was velcroed under the collar. And when I wore the dress greens or dress blues, it was under the pocket flap, beneath my name. Every time I went to a new unit, I met with the first sergeant or sergeant major, presented the documentation, and asked for permission to wear the rank and be part of the NCO corps. I was always welcomed.

After eight years in the Guard, I became an Active Duty chaplain in the Army Reserve’s Active Guard Reserve program. These chaplains don’t usually deploy, since our role is administrative and training. But while stationed at Fort McPherson, GA, in January 2007, I heard that the U.S. Army Forces Command wanted to send three chaplain teams to Iraq. There were some areas that needed religious support immediately, and Forces Command gave the task to the Army Reserve.

Strong Sense of Calling

As part of the chaplain staff at the U.S. Army Reserve Command headquarters, I had trained many chaplains before they went overseas. But this time I wanted to go. We were running out of chaplains who hadn’t already deployed. But more importantly, I felt a strong sense of calling. We had Soldiers in dangerous places with no chaplain, and I wanted to be there with them, so I volunteered. It took a while, but I managed to talk my boss into letting me go.

Those Sergeant stripes were under the collar when I went outside the wire with the military transition team. They accompanied me every time I visited wounded soldiers at the medical clinic. I wore them at each memorial ceremony or funeral. They were there for the worship services, the counseling appointments, and the Critical Incident Stress Management sessions. Whenever we had incoming rockets or mortars and we gathered in the bunkers—yep, still had them with me. One time I was eating lunch in the dining facility and the sirens started blaring. In a hurry to get out to the bunker, I forgot my helmet. My Chaplain Assistant grabbed me by the collar and pulled me back inside, “Chaplain, you forgot your Kevlar!” Just then a mortar landed right outside the door. It’s quite possible that she saved my life or prevented injury. See why I love NCOs?

The day after I met the master sergeant in the dining facility, he showed up in my office. The night before, he was feisty and energetic; now he seemed sad and tired. Something had happened.

“Good afternoon, Master Sergeant. What can I do for you?”

 “This morning, I lost a Soldier . . . a close friend. I wanted to know if you’d do a memorial ceremony tomorrow morning before we head out.”

“Of course, I will.”

“And Chaps, I’m sorry about last night.”

“Not a problem, Master Sergeant. I understand.”

“You can sit at my table any time.”

It meant a lot that this senior NCO welcomed me at his table, that he wanted me to be there to honor his friend and that we had overcome the invisible barrier between officer and NCO. In 2015, I retired as a Colonel. But I’ll be an E-5 for life.

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When the Lights Go Out

dark-1850684_1920It was Friday night, we’d gone out for dinner, and barely made it back into the garage before the downpour.

When the power went off, I was writing at my computer and my wife was reading an e-book on her tablet. The plan was to watch a movie a little later, but there we were with no electricity, no lights, no internet, and no television.

“What do we do now,” she asked.Lantern

I reached into the desk drawer for the flashlight that doubles as a cell phone power source, plugged in my phone, and turned on the mobile hotspot so we could maintain internet connection. Then I walked over to the kitchen pantry where we keep two battery-operated camping lanterns, pulled one out, and placed it on the kitchen counter, where its light sprayed throughout the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Not a lot, but enough.

For the next hour, rain poured from the sky as if God had picked up the Atlantic Ocean and was dumping it on us. Linda took the lantern over to the couch to read; my laptop had plenty of charge for me to finish the work I was doing.

Although the rest of the house was dark, and the temperature grew warmer because the air conditioner was off, we didn’t have a crisis when the lights went out. During the previous weekend, we had checked the batteries in those emergency lamps and charged my mobile power back-up. Because we were ready, there was no emergency when the storm caused a blackout. We didn’t panic, and there wasn’t a crisis.

The same can be true if something terrible happens and life itself comes to an end. If we’ve taken time to prepare in advance, even death isn’t a crisis, and we don’t have to panic.

In Philippians 1:21 the Apostle writes, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That doesn’t sound like a man who is afraid of the dark or of death. He was prepared for whatever might happen.The Man Who Knew Too Much

Job is another who had a deep confidence when facing the storms of life. Despite all the pain and ugliness that he faced, he still declared, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”

When the lights finally came back on, we watched an old Alfred Hitchcock movie starring James Stewart and Doris Day. It was a lovely evening—despite the storm raging on the outside.

 

Lightning

Inspected by #1

business-suit-690048_1920Have you ever found an “Inspected By” tag when you bought new clothes? One day I came home with a jacket, and when I reached into the pocket to look for that little slip of paper, I was really surprised when it said, “Inspected By # 1.”

When God created the universe and everything in it, he “looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!”(Genesis 1:31 NLT) Then he attached the little tag that says, “Inspected by # 1.” He did the same thing when he made you. He slipped that little tag in the pocket of your life that says, “Inspected By # 1.” The fact of the matter is this: God loves you and treasures you.

blonde-2198759_1920Most of us look at ourselves with a distorted or twisted perspective. We either see ourselves as no-good dirty rotten scoundrels with nothing good about us, or we see ourselves through rose-colored glasses, without any faults, weaknesses, or blemishes.

But when we look at Psalm 139, we begin to understand how God sees us, and his perspective is objective, fair and accurate. He sees us as we really are. He knows everything about us, both good and bad, yet he loves us. Listen to a few verses from the Psalm.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. . . . For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb; I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  . . . all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139: 1-5, 13-16 NIV)

paul-2If I am to have a healthy and accurate view of myself, it’s helpful to understand how God sees me. The same is true for you. Only when we see through God’s eyes do we really see ourselves honestly. Then, we discover that nobody is all bad, and nobody is all good. Each of us has some wonderful qualities and characteristics, and each of us has some attributes that are not very attractive. Some of these traits get in the way of our becoming who and what we were created to be, and hinder us from developing a relationship with the Lord and with other people.

These verses from Psalm 139 fill me with hope. When I start beating myself up because I see myself as worthless, instead, I choose to focus on God’s view of me. He knows every flaw, yet he loves me completely. I used to think God should love me less because of all my failures. Now, I realize that he pours out His love and grace on me just the way I am.

It’s notBible and Teacup always easy, but I’m getting better at seeing myself through God’s eyes. For example. When I start taking on too many projects, maybe it’s because I’m trying to prove that I’m worthy of God’s love. So, I remind myself that I don’t have to earn God’s approval. Neither do you.

God knows you and loves you unconditionally. Yes, he sees the ways you have failed. He knows your imperfections. But he also sees your beauty, your qualities, and your potential.

An expert photographer takes a picture with an aesthetic eye, then crops, adjusts, or edits in order to create the desired effect, or to highlight a particular aspect of the photo. In the same way, God wants to highlight what is good in you. He wants to fully develop what he sees in you. And when he is done, he’ll put that little slip of paper into your pocket: Inspected by #1.

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Broken & Hurting

Many loneliness-1879453_1920people experience the worst life has to offer. Sometimes, the pain is the result of illness or accident, but at times it is intentionally inflicted by other people.

Debbie grew up in a Christian home, and shortly after high school, met Kyle, a young man who attended the same church. After dating for a year, Kyle asked her to marry him, and she said “yes,” expecting to live happily ever after.

A few months after the wedding, however, Debbie was still on cloud nine when something went terribly wrong. When she got home from work one day, she found out he’d been drinking, and in a rage, he hit her. Horrified, she called their pastor, who provided counseling for several weeks. Things seemed to be getting better, until one night Kyle put a loaded gun to her head. In a panic, Debbie managed to escape. Even though her grandmother lived several miles away, Debbie somehow found the strength to run all the way. She survived, but something inside had broken, making it hard to trust anyone. She left Kyle and abandoned her faith in Christ.Silhouette 2

Every one of us is broken in some way. We might look fine on the outside, but inside we’re hurting. If we’re to find healing or any positive result from the pain, it might be helpful to take a look at Job, James, and Jesus to see how we can respond in painful circumstances.

Even though he did everything right, Job suffered terrible business losses, extreme physical pain, and undeserved accusations from his friends. His wife also lost everything, and chose to let go of hope and faith, suggesting that he do the same. Instead, Job turned to the Lord, and began to understand more fully his own weakness and need for God. These are important lessons that sometimes have to be learned the hard way. We have a tendency to be self-sufficient, unaware of our desperate need for God. In his darkest moments, Job chose to turn toward the Lord, and so can we.

The second possibility for meaning in our pain is character growth. James 1:2-4 tells us to remain joyful when we endure tests and trials, because they will help us mature. It is true that pain can break us, but it also has a way of strengthening us and deepening us. The difference is how we respond to the crisis and to the work of the Holy Spirit.

A third potential benefit of tribulation is that it can help us develop compassion for others. When Jesus looked at the crowds, he saw their need and was moved to compassion. He cared about people and saw their hurts. He felt their need, and acted. He fed them, healed them, taught them, loved them. The Apostle Paul picks up this theme in 2 Corinthians 1:4 when he says the Lord comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort others.

Some people respond to pain by becoming hardened, bitter, or angry. Others are jealous of those who seem to have everything going right. If we want to grow in Christ and enjoy life to its fullest, however, we can’t afford to let either of those happen. Instead, we can turn to the Lord, mature as human beings, and develop a sense of compassion for others.

Silver

There’s a song in the musical version of Les Misérables that a Christian pastor sings to a hungry, homeless criminal, “Come in, sir, for you are weary, and the night is cold out there. There’s a bed to rest til morning, rest from pain and rest from wrong.”

That’s what the Lord is saying to us in Matthew 11:28. “Come to me, you who are tired, carrying a heavy load, and I will give you rest.” Rest from pain, and rest from wrong.

Community Choir Concert

5Tonight we attended the spring concert of the Lakeland Choral Society. The title of the program was “Music of the Continents,” and we had a delightful time. My brother and his wife were visiting from out of town. They happen to be members of a community choir where they live, so we invited them to go with us.

Another reason we wanted to go was to support a friend who sings in the choral society. The music was really good, but the fact that we knew someone in the choir made it even more fun. Rachel is a literature teacher at a local university, but turns out she’s been singing in choirs for years. When the choir filed in, we noticed there was another friend in the choir, too, a friend named Daphne.

The music included songs from many nations: New Zealand, Germany, Korea, Italy, England, the United States, and others. It included folk song as well a poem of Pablo Neruda that was put to music.

1We knew from the start that there’d be music from around the world, but the surprise came when we discovered that some of the music was Christian, even though it was a performance by a community choir.  In fact, the program featured a song titled “Ukuthula,” which is a traditional Zulu prayer. In 1981, United Nations designated September 21 to be the “World Day of Peace.” Last year, a choir director in Nairobe organized hundreds of groups from around the world to sing the song as a statement of solidarity and international peace. The beautiful part of the story is that the song itself says peace, redemption, and comfort can be found in Jesus Christ.

6The event took place in the local Presbyterian church. The same church where we often attend the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. The acoustics are excellent, and the choir did an outstanding job. What a delight to be able to enjoy some great music in a wonderful setting with the right message.

Afterwards, we went out to dinner with several of the singers in the choir. It was a fun evening. During the performance, I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “I want to join the choir.” To show you how much she knows me, she responded with, “I thought you might be thinking that.”

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In a Hurry & Running Late

usps-796059_1920As a newlywed attending a Christian college in Southern California, I was a driver for a private mail and parcel service. Every day, I was in posh high-rise office buildings and run-down strip malls, machine shops and Mom-and-Pop shops. By the time I worked there for a year, I’d been in almost every post office in Orange County.

One day my boss asked me to come in early because we had a new corporate client in Newport Beach who requested an early pick-up and delivery. Before heading out, I checked my map. Traffic was heavy. I was in a hurry and running late.

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When I got to the post office, I turned into the drive, only to discover that I was in a long, narrow, one-way exit lane with a big red sign announcing DO NOT ENTER. The situation demanded a fast decision. Do I back up into traffic and go around the block, looking for the entrance? Or do I step on the gas and zip into the parking lot before anyone tries to exit? I pressed the pedal to the metal.

When I was almost out of the wrong-way lane, a car turned into the driveway. We both slammed on the brakes, barely avoiding a head-on collision. A bit shaken by the near-miss, I pulled up to the loading dock and put my mail onto a cart, but before I entered the back door of the post office, that same car sped around the building and screeched to a halt. Dressed in an expensive business suit, the driver got out and stomped towards me.

Instantly, Matthew 5:25 came to mind, “Make peace with your adversary while you’re still on your way.”

As the stranger approached, I walked up to him and said. “Sir, I owe you an apology. In a hurry, I drove into the exit. I was wrong, and would like to ask for your forgiveness.”

“Do you know who I am?” he demanded.

“No, sir. I just know that what I did was wrong. I nearly caused an accident, and I am sorry.”

“I am the postmaster,” his face a deep red by now. “I could ban you from every post office in the county. I could have the police ticket you for driving the wrong way. I could call your boss and have you fired.” When he paused, we stared nose to nose. “But tell you what. Because you admitted your wrongdoing without even knowing who I was, I will forgive you. Don’t let it happen again.”

I stood there stunned. If the Holy Spirit didn’t bring that verse to my mind at that instant, I would be in big trouble. If I let pride keep me from admitting my mistake, I might be unemployed by the end of the day.

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It dawned on me that I really can trust the scripture when it says “don’t worry about how to defend yourself, for the Holy Spirit will tell you what to say.” I had memorized those verses long before that morning, never realizing that I’d need to use them in a tight situation. Before driving away, I took a minute to thank the Lord for his Word and his Spirit.

After completing my route, I parked the van and took the keys to the office. While I filled out the time sheet, my boss walked in and said, “Hey, just wanted to let you know that the Newport Beach postmaster called to tell me he met you this morning.”

I froze.

“He said he was really impressed with you, and that you do good work. I Just wanted to pass that compliment on. Good job.”

Embarrassed, humbled, and relieved, I drove to the college. I was in a hurry and running late, barely getting there in time for class, but careful to obey every traffic sign.

Can We Please Ignore Our Racist Past?

Chris Linzey posted a blog that upset some people. It is worth reading. Interestingly, the people of God in the Old Testament routinely established memorials specifically so they would not forget their past — both positive and negative.

The Bible Blotter

I didn’t think I was being controversial. I wasn’t trying to be inflammatory. But this past week I saw a video that gave the statistics of the top 10 lynching states over a span of 8 decades. I shared the video on my Facebook page and added the message:

2,751 confirmed lynchings over 8 decades in ONLY 10 states. There’s NO WAY the Civil Rights Movement can undo all of the damage to race-relations. We have a lot of work to do…

Here’s the video…

While everyone who saw it agreed that the content was horrific, a couple people chastised me for sharing it, saying that I was stoking the fires of hate and that I should allow people to forget and move on. One said:

Absolutely disgusting….and tell me what purpose you serve in playing a video like this? Show me in the Bible what you are teaching? Sometimes…

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