Danger, Dust, and Death

When they told me where I was going, they said it was the Safest Place in Iraq, but by the time I got there, things had changed. On a Tuesday night, the dining facility was crowded, bustling, with hardly an empty chair, when mortars landed on the building.

People were stunned, walking around like zombies. Most avoided eating in the DFAC, even after it was repaired and they started serving meals again. From that moment, incoming mortars and rockets became part of the routine that was soon to be my daily life.

Men from Diwaniyah would drive to a vacant field on the edge of town, bringing their rockets and mortars to fire at us. They did this in the morning on their way to work. Sometimes it was mid-day during a lunch break, and other times in the evening on their way home from work. Occasionally it was in the middle of the night. Some of the people shooting at us were teens or even younger. Often, they would launch their missiles-of-death just before, or right after their prayers.

I volunteered to go. My philosophy as a chaplain was that I wanted to be wherever soldiers had to go, and if they were at war, I wanted to be there with them. Not because I enjoy fighting. We all know that a chaplain is a non-combatant. I wasn’t there to fight.

I was there to encourage, counsel, and pray; provide worship opportunities, friendship, and guidance; nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead; and guarantee the constitutional freedom of worship to men and women of all faiths, and the same freedom to men and women of no faith. Camp Echo was my home, my parish, my fiery furnace.

I knew from the start that I could be wounded or killed. It was a weird feeling, and I came to accept it. How or when, I had no idea. But every time there was another explosion, I wondered if this was the day.

My wife also knew I might not make it home alive. Or if I did return, I might be a broken man–crippled, blind, psychologically damaged, or all of the above. With that possibility in mind, she told me before I left home, “I don’t want to find out after you get back or after you’re dead that you were in danger. I want to know right away.”

The first time I mentioned during a phone call some of the dangerous things that were happening, she said, “I already know. I saw it on TV and in the newspaper. They’re mentioning Diwaniyah and Camp Echo by name.” She scanned and sent me an LA Times article. I took it to our staff meeting the next morning, and discovered that many on our leadership team didn’t know what was going on outside the wire.

Danger, dust, and death formed the context for the job I was sent to do. Operating from the philosophy that “ministry follows friendship,” I built relationships among the men and women at Camp Echo: military, civilian, American, and Coalition. This allowed me to be there when they were at their best and when they were at their worst, in their strongest moments and in their weakest.

In the heat of the battle and the heat of the desert, hours turn into days, which transition to nights, and add up to weeks and then months. The conditions wear you down, leaving an imprint on your mind and your soul: images that will be seen in dreams for months or years, sounds that reverberate long after you’re home, people you befriended and cared about and stared at death with, but will probably never hear from again. For many of us, it’s only memory now. But for others, the war continues … on the inside.

An excerpt from the book, Safest Place in Iraq, published by Morgan James Faith.

Jesus, Peter, and a Centurion

Jesus was not in the military and did not routinely go out of his way to minister to soldiers. Yet a Roman centurion who needed help came to Jesus.

Jon Bloom, a staff writer for an organization called Desiring God, makes the following observation: Luke 7:9 and Matthew 8:10 use the Greek word thaumazo (thou-mad’-zo) which is translated as “marveled” or “amazed” to describe Jesus’s response to the centurion’s faith. The only other time this word is used to describe the Lord’s response to other people’s faith is in Mark 6:6, when he marvels at the lack of faith in the people of Nazareth, his hometown.

Bloom calls this centurion a “firstfruit and a foreshadow of what Jesus had come to bring about.” It may be that Jesus Himself was the first in the New Testament to minister to people in the military, and the “firstfruit and foreshadow” refers to thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who will come to faith in Christ through the message of the Gospel.

Peter also had an encounter with a centurion. Acts chapter ten tells of Peter’s vision about eating unclean food. In the dream, the Lord told him to stop calling something unclean if the Lord Himself declared it clean. Peter woke up and was thinking about the experience when Cornelius’s representatives arrived. The Lord told Peter to go with the men, so he went to the home of the centurion and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ. Acts 10:44 says everyone who heard Peter’s message received the Holy Spirit and became believers in Jesus.

In this account, the representative of Christ went to where the soldier was in order to minister to him. This is exactly what a chaplain does: after praying, going to where the people are, spending time with them, and paying attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who opens a door for sharing the message of the Savior.

The significance that Peter attributes to his experience is that the Lord has opened the door for Gentiles to come into the Kingdom of God. But there’s another, more subtle significance that we can’t afford to miss. In the same way that the Church must no longer think of the gentiles as bad people who are outsiders, the Church must not think about people in the military as being unclean or bad. It’s not an accident that the gentile who Peter visited was a military man.

Peter understood that Christians should accept, love, and serve all people, all demographics, and all ethnicities. Nobody is to be considered inferior, less valuable, or unworthy. The same is true for those serving in the military. They are people who need God, need to be loved and accepted, need someone to tell them about Jesus, need someone who’ll be an example of Christian faith and lifestyle.

Military chaplains have an opportunity almost every day to speak about faith, hope, love, and the grace of God. They develop relationships and friendships with the people in the command, and let their light shine. And the fact that chaplains come from all backgrounds and all walks of life allows for a wide variety of methods and opportunities to teach, disciple, and represent the Lord.

This is an excerpt from Military Ministry: Chaplains in the Twenty-First Century by Paul Linzey and Keith Travis.

Legal Basis of Military Chaplaincy

Before he became our first president, General George Washington was keenly aware of our need for military chaplains. He understood that chaplains, through their life, influence, and preaching, could help his men morally and ethically. He knew the impact chaplains would make by instilling courage and discipline. And he wanted chaplains to counsel the soldiers, visit them when they were sick or wounded, honor the dead, and write letters home for those who could not write.

Apparently, the Founding Fathers didn’t question whether a military chaplaincy was needed. It seems they merely adopted the British practice without debate. On July 29, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized a chaplaincy for the Continental Army and decided that the chaplains would be paid. In 1777, they authorized a chaplain for each Army brigade. By 1791, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of religion for every citizen, including people serving in our military.

These early actions by the United States Congress in the late 1700s served as the legal foundation and paved the way for further refinements as we shaped the military chaplaincies. When he was a congressman, James Monroe had voted in favor of a military chaplaincy on several occasions. Then as president, in 1814, he signed the explicit authorization for military chaplains. In 1818, a chaplain was authorized for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In 1838, congress passed more sweeping legislation providing military chaplains at frontier forts, military hospitals, and other military schools. Also included were chaplains for the Navy and for Congress itself. By that point, the legal grounds for a military chaplaincy were firmly in place, and they endure to this day.

In 1861, Congress directed military commanders to weed out undesirable or unqualified chaplains because not everyone serving as a chaplain was qualified or was behaving properly.

It wasn’t until 1917 that Congress authorized minority faith groups to have military chaplains. Previously, all chaplains were Christians, the vast majority being Protestant. This new legislation, however, allowed Jewish rabbis to serve as military chaplains, and eventually let representatives of other minority religious groups serve as well, such as Buddhists and Muslims.

Following WWII, the Geneva Convention established the Law of Armed Conflict, which designated chaplains as noncombatants who are not allowed to fight, and who should be protected during battle. The United States was one of the first to sign the agreement to the Geneva Convention guidelines.

By 1956, Title 10 of the United States Code had been approved. This important legislation significantly expands and identifies the roles and functions of military chaplains. Because of the scope of this legislation, anyone interested in the military chaplaincy should read it thoroughly. According to Title 10, the military will fund and maintain a military chaplain corps and retain chaplains.

There have been some significant policies, instructions, manuals, pamphlets, memos, and regulations prepared by the Department of Defense and the various military departments that shed light on the role, function, and tasks of military chaplains.

Chaplains have to know the law. They’ve got to understand current policy, and must build a good working relationship with the commander and command staff, as well as with officers, enlisteds, and NCOs. All commanders are well trained and knowledgeable when it comes to issues related to religion. However, some of them are “anti-religion,” while some go overboard promoting religion. Others don’t care at all about religion, and want to take funds earmarked for religious programs and use the money for other priorities. Therefore, chaplains have to be well informed and strong enough to tell commanders what is right or wrong when it comes to implementing their religious programs.

If we do our homework and maintain proper relationships, we have an open door for an incredible ministry and an opportunity to impact countless lives on behalf of the Kingdom of God.

Freedom of Religion in the Military

Throughout most of the twentieth century, understanding the Constitution and how it affected the work of chaplains didn’t seem all that important. Today, however, it is imperative for every chaplain in the Armed Services to fully understand the Constitution, the Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause because there is so much at stake.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from creating an official state religion. Although the precise definition of “establishment” is unclear, historically it referred to government-sponsored churches or religions, such as the Church of England, or any of the other officially recognized national religions throughout the world.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Free Exercise Clause, on the other hand, extended religious protection to individuals, giving them the right to practice the religion of their choice without fear of punishment or negative consequences.

Although the Constitution deals with religious freedoms for all citizens, it doesn’t specify or authorize a military chaplaincy. Our government and military leaders have decided that having military chaplains is the best way for the constitutional rights and privileges of military personnel to be guaranteed, implemented, and supervised.

In essence, citizens of the United States don’t lose their constitutional rights when they enlist or become an officer in the military.

There have been many challenges to having chaplains in the military and there will be more, but each case inevitably comes back to the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. In a nation where people of many faiths live side-by-side, the First Amendment’s free exercise clause protects individuals from government interference in the practice and expression of their faith. The government cannot target laws at specific religious practices or place undue burdens on its citizens who want to worship.

Constitutional authority travels in a direct chain of command: from the Constitution, to the President, to the Secretary of Defense, to the Pentagon, to the Branches of Service, on down to the unit Commanders. The chaplain is the commander’s personal staff officer who is delegated the task of implementing and supervising the constitutional religious freedoms, restrictions, and opportunities. In essence, the religious program in the military belongs to the commander, and the chaplain works for the commander to make sure it is done properly and legally. That’s why every chaplain must understand the constitutional issues.

An important consideration to keep in mind here is that it’s the government that is specifically limited by the constitutional amendment. Because religious freedom is an important part of our national values, the government isn’t allowed to restrict those rights or to infringe on the individual’s free exercise of religion. Nor can the government impose religion onto the individual. This is particularly relevant to commanders and chaplains in the military.

The commander has legal and constitutional authority; the chaplain is the subject matter expert who provides ministry for those of his or her faith group, facilitates meeting the religious needs for those of other faith groups, and ensures that all personnel have the opportunity to practice their constitutional freedoms. And because of the Establishment Clause, the chaplain also makes sure nobody is coerced or forced to worship, and that nobody is subjected to presentations of religion against his or her will.

It’s important to note that the Constitution is the authority that gives chaplains the right to express their faith in a secular and pluralistic environment. But it also provides limitations that chaplains must respect. Otherwise, it is possible for chaplains to find themselves caught between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

These clauses were written into the constitution to protect churches from government, and also to protect individuals from religion, because freedom to worship also includes freedom not to worship.

Christians have freedoms, yet so does everyone else in the Armed Forces, and those freedoms are guaranteed. Chaplains have a crucial role in how religious rights play out in the military, and we need to know our role.

Source of the Word “Chaplain”

The background of the word “chaplain” provides an important lesson about care giving. The word itself traces back to Bishop Martin of Tours. According to tradition, in the fourth century, while he was still a young soldier, Martin shared his cloak with a beggar. The cloak became a reminder of this simple act of compassion and kindness. Martin later became a bishop, and upon his death, his cloak (capella) was enshrined as a reminder of his compassion for a fellow human being.

Centuries later, Charlemagne appointed priests to care for his relics. One of the relics was believed to be St. Martin’s cape, and the priests became known as the “cappellani,” or “keepers of the cape.” The cape and other relics were housed in a small room connected to a cathedral, and the room itself was termed the “capella” or “place of the cape.” This came into English as “chapel.” Gradually, the term “chapel” came to mean a small place for worship or prayer other than the main church, and a priest who served in a chapel was called a “chapelain” in French, which is the immediate source of the English word “chaplain.”

Today in America, a clergy who ministers in any context outside a traditional congregation may be called a chaplain. There are chaplains serving in hospitals, prisons, and corporations. Police and fire departments may have chaplains. There are chaplains ministering to truckers and motorcyclists. Others may be found at rodeos, fishing tournaments, campgrounds, and many other places where people gather. Similarly, someone who provides religious ministry for military personnel is typically called a chaplain, regardless of the faith group he or she represents. Interestingly, many service personnel call their chaplain “Padre,” which is the Spanish word for “Father,” and comes from the Catholic tradition.

The above is an excerpt from the book, Military Ministry: Chaplains in the Twenty-First Century, by Paul Linzey and Keith Travis. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2022. Paul and Keith were military chaplains who now teach and write.

Can Dreams Come True?

A question often asked by people around the world is whether dreams can come true. I think they can. Of course, it depends on what kind of dreams we’re talking about.

When I was a kid, I often dreamed about finding buried coins in the front yard. Lots of money, usually quarters and dimes. When I was eight or nine, this dream was so real that in the dream I took all the loot, wrapped it up, and hid it in my bottom dresser drawer so it would all be there when I woke up in the morning. I was so disappointed when I woke up the next day, ran over to my dresser, opened it, only to find that there was no money. I used to have that dream three or four times a year up until I was about thirty. Now it’s only once every other year or so. It never has come true.

Then there’s the dream where I’m in school or at church or some other public location, and all I have on is my underwear. Interestingly, in this dream, even though I am totally embarrassed, nobody else ever even seems to notice. Fortunately, this dream has never come true.

After returning from the war in Iraq, I frequently had dreams and nightmares for the next two years or so. Explosions, or gunfire, or dangerous situations. What a relief when those gradually faded away. It’s been several years now. The only two aspects of PTSD that still linger are the claustrophobia and eating in a hurry. I can’t seem to overcome those.

But there are some dreams that really do come true. Let me tell you about three of them.

Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to teach a three-week intensive class at the Hungarian Bible College in Budapest. We taught the class every morning, then in the evenings and weekends, would preach in churches in Budapest and nearby towns.

One day, our missionary hosts had to go up to Czechoslovakia (now Czech and Slovak) for meetings with their regional supervisor, and told us how to get from their home to the college. The trip would require a bus ride part of the way, then the subway, and then we had to walk the rest of the way. Of course, the trip would be reversed after the class in order to get back to their home.

Up to this point, we had resisted taking the subway because the missionaries had told us about an American pastor who got lost in the metro. He had missed the station where he was supposed to get off and rode the train all the way to the end. Seven hours later, he called to ask them to come and get him.

When we got to the subway, there was a huge, long escalator that took us way, way down. Longest escalator I have ever seen. When we finally reached bottom and turned right, I stopped.  This was really strange, because the scene in front of me was familiar.

“Linda, I’ve been here before.”

“What are you talking about? We’ve never been to Budapest.”

“I know that, but I’ve seen this before.” It was a really eerie feeling.

“How could you have seen this before?”

“I don’t know. But if this is what I’ve seen before, the subway cars will come from the right, and they’ll be blue.”

In about fifteen seconds, the train arrived . . . from the right . . . and it was blue. We go in, the doors close, and the freaky experience continues.

“When we get to the next stop, the doors on the left will open, and the walls will all be yellow.” Sure enough, that’s what happened.

Even Linda was weirded out by now. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know! But at the next stop, the doors on the left will open and the walls will be orange. But when we get to where we need to get off, the doors on the right will open, and the walls will be blue.” It all unfolded exactly as I expected.

Then it dawned on me. Even though I had never been in a subway, a year-and-a-half before we came to Hungary I had a dream about being in this very subway, and the details in that dream were exactly the same as the reality we were now experiencing. That was a dream that came true.

Another dream I had as a kid was to be a Navy chaplain like my dad. But by the time I was ready to become a chaplain, the Lord redirected, I went into the Army instead, and had a wonderful career. Six years after retiring from the Army (which was thirty years after I became an Army chaplain) I was invited to serve as the Protestant pastor at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, working with the chaplains. It was a one-year assignment, but a fantastic experience. I felt like I had come full-circle back to my dream of being a Navy chaplain.

One more dream worth mentioning here, was the dream of growing up, falling in love, and marrying the woman of my dreams. That’s another dream that came true. Life with Linda has been everything I had hoped for . . . and then some.

Snatched by Goodness

On October 31, I preached in the Naval Academy chapel. The scripture of the day was Hebrews 9:11-14, where Jesus is introduced as “High Priest of the Good Things.” The sermon title was “Snatched by Goodness,” and I told a couple of stories of my life being spared by someone who literally snatched me by the collar. Then I asked one of the men of the chapel to tell of a personal experience he had as a Naval Aviator. Ed Grunwald’s story is a powerful testimony of the goodness of God in answer to prayer in a desperate situation.

Ed called me yesterday to tell me another story. He graduated from the Naval Academy with the class of 1950, and has been a member of the USNA protestant congregation since retiring from the Navy. For the past twenty-five years, he has been praying for an opportunity to tell his story to the congregation.

I had no idea all that was going on when I felt the leading of the Lord to have him share his story. I had met him when I visited him in his home a few weeks earlier, and as I was preparing the sermon, I just had an inclination to ask him.

God is good. Jesus is the “High Priest of the Good Things.” And it’s wonderful to hear about how people’s lives have been touched by goodness.

If you click on the YouTube link, you can view and listen to the whole service. My message begins at 29:45. Ed’s story starts at 35:15 and runs about eleven minutes.

Should I Give This to a Friend?

I got this email through my website yesterday:

Hi,  Paul. A friend loaned me a copy of your book and I read it. I enjoyed it, so I bought a couple of copies. My pastors wants to read it. Here’s my question: I have a friend who served in Iraq some time ago, maybe 15 years ago or more. He did lose some friends and saw action that had casualties. Do you think this book would be appropriate to offer for him to read? Would it bring some perspective or healing? Or take him back to relive the horrors of war? I would appreciate your input.

And here’s what I wrote back to him:

Hello, friend. Great to get your email. Thank you. I think the book would be a good thing for your friend to read. While it mentions some of the painful stuff and the danger, it also shows how some of us processed the PTSD and got better. The Lord is a huge part of that, and I think it could be helpful for your friend. I’ve had a chance to talk with other veterans who went through some pretty horrible experiences, and they told me it was helpful. So go ahead and share it with him, and tell him he’s welcome to give me a call or an email if he wants to talk about his experiences over there.

The man’s pastor wants to read the book, which leads me to say this: Anyone looking for a book to use for a book group, a Bible study, or a home group discussion might consider using Safest Place in Iraq. There are discussion questions in the back. Plus, there’s a separate study guide. Consider using it in your group or at your church.

Writing Challenge Winner!

I just found out that an article I recently posted won the weekly writing challenge from FaithWriters. The article titled “Running a Marathon” is an excerpt from a brand new book I’m co-writing with Dr. Keith Travis. Our book is titled Military Ministry: Chaplaincy in the 21st Century.

Some comments from readers of the article:

“I liked the idea of comparing training for a marathon for the training of everyday living. Both types of endeavors are only successful with God’s help.”

“Your article has good content and speaks of experience.”

“I really liked this! It wasn’t hard hitting, yet had a very definite message. It was great.”

“Your title drew me in, and I wasn’t disappointed! Sounds like someone that knows about running in a marathon physically and spiritually! You’re running to win!”

“This is a great devotion. I liked your real life lesson and your biblical one too.”

Recommendation for Safest Place in Iraq

I pray that all of you are doing well after a week of glorifying God during Holy Week.  As I compose this email, I have a lingering awe over the profound power of Jesus’ resurrection . . . how that day changed everything for everybody for all of history and all of eternity . . . how it changes you and me every time we bow our heads in prayer!  God is so good!

Here is a recently released book by a chaplain:

“Safest Place in Iraq: Experiencing God During War” by Chaplain Paul Linzey, is an excellent resource for chaplains, as they consider how they might handle combat ministry.  Great vignettes throughout.  Honest and inspiring.  It’s widely available and costs about $20 in paperback.  It is published by Morgan James Faith.

From Rev. Jim Denley, Retired Navy Captain, now the military chaplain endorser of the Assemblies of God. The book may be purchased on this website, from the publisher, or ordered from any bookstore.

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