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.

Captain Interrogative

Several years ago, when I was a brand new Active Duty Army Chaplain, I got a call from an Army chaplain recruiter. A pastor of a Baptist church in Southern California had called to ask about becoming a chaplain. Although the pastor was in a wonderful church and was doing a great job as their pastor, he felt that the Lord might be leading him to redirect his pastoral and discipleship efforts to Soldiers, instead of among civilians.

I asked the recruiter why he was telling me about the pastor, and he said, “The guy’s wearing me out with his questions. He literally calls every day of the week with another couple of questions. And after I answer the question, he has ten more. I’m not exaggerating here!”

I agreed to take on the challenge of staying in touch with the pastor, and I called him. He admitted that he always has lots of questions, even to the point that while he was in seminary, classmates referred to him as Captain Interrogative.

“Here’s the deal I’d like to make with you,” I said.

“Deal?”

“Yes, deal. I’m willing to answer every question you come up with, on two conditions.”

“Conditions?”

“Yes, conditions.”

“OK, what are they?”

“First, you may call me or email me up to three times a week, Monday through Friday during the workday. Second, you will keep a record of every question you ask and every answer I provide.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“You have a right to know everything you possibly can know before making the decision to transition from your church ministry to the military. Since you and your wife need to pray over this potential move together, you need to keep a notebook that you can both review from time to time. And after you have the answers to all your questions, you’ll have a large notebook full of information about ministry in the military, and who knows, maybe you’ll be able to help someone else someday.”

The guy agreed, and boy did he have a ton of questions. In the process of Q&A, he and I became good friends. My wife and I even visited his church to see him in action and meet his wife. After about six months, he had a fat notebook filled with everything he needed to know about military chaplain ministry. He made the decision to apply and was selected.

It’s important to keep in mind that ministry in the military is in many ways the same as ministry in a local congregation. Men and women in the uniformed services have the same needs as those who are schoolteachers, plumbers, mechanics, or salespersons. The context is different and there are some issues particular to the military, as there are in any field. But Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines need someone to teach them the Bible, provide pastoral counseling, visit them when they’re sick, model effective relationship styles, and set an example for how to live for Jesus, just like anyone in any town in America.

The above is an excerpt from the book titled Military Ministry: Chaplains in the Twenty-First Century, written by Paul Linzey and Keith Travis, published by Wipf & Stock.

A Divine Call to Ministry

The call of God is one of the most important points in your thinking about becoming a military chaplain, and this call has professional, personal, and spiritual dimensions.

The professional side of the call has a lot to do with how the military looks at you and your work as a chaplain. When a minister goes to an accessioning board to apply for for Active Duty, Reserve, or National Guard for the Army, Air Force, or Navy, one of the topics each candidate will have to respond to is “Tell us about your call.” An applicant should be able to communicate a definite experience when the Lord called him or her to become a military chaplain.

There is also a personal side to the call to military ministry. Fulfilling the call of God on your life isn’t easy. There will be tough days. There may be times you feel like quitting or throwing in the towel. You have to do physical training when you’d rather be relaxing with your family or spending time with friends.

There is also a spiritual side to the call. In 1994, Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman wrote a song titled “Burn the Ships.” The song tells the legendary story of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who sailed from Spain with a fleet of ships to conquer the Aztecs in Mexico. After arriving, some of the men were homesick, fed up with being away from family and the life they knew, and threatened to return to Spain. Cortés responded by ordering the ships to be destroyed so his men had no way to leave. The lyrics include the devotional application that when we make a decision to follow Christ, there’s no going back. In essence, sometimes we have to “burn the ships” in order to remain faithful to the Lord and his call on our lives.

The point is this: if you obey the call of God to minister as a military chaplain, the Lord will strengthen you. God called you to the work, God will prepare you for the work, and God will sustain you in the work.

A specific divine call to any ministry will change the direction of your life. It will motivate you and lead to new behaviors and habits. It will give you the strength, stamina, and tenacity that you’re going to need if you’re to run the race and finish the course. And just as important, the call will come with a divine anointing, and the promise that the lord will be with you every step of the way.

The call of God, therefore, is undoubtedly one of the most important points in thinking about becoming a military chaplain, and this call includes the professional, personal, and spiritual dimensions of your life. If you aren’t sure, then take more time to pray and seek God until he confirms his call for your life’s work. There must be no doubt. There’s no room for wondering whether this is where you are called to serve. You don’t have the luxury to guess or assume. You have to be certain.

This is an excerpt from the book Military Ministry: Chaplains in the Twenty-First Century.

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.

The Ukrainian Stranger

My first Sunday at the FOB in Iraq was Palm Sunday, one week before Easter 2007. Eight people showed up for church that morning: a civilian I called Pastor James, four American soldiers who had been meeting with him faithfully for the past year, my Chaplain Assistant, one new guy, and me. It was easy to see that the soldiers respected James. He had been there for them, and they loved him. My sermon was based on Mark chapter eleven, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” We finished worship having communion together, Pastor James and me side-by-side.

After I thanked everyone for coming and was about to dismiss the small group, a stranger in a Ukrainian army uniform walked into the chapel unannounced and proclaimed, “I have something to say.”

He had an excellent command of English vocabulary, but with a heavy accent. He was an attractive, friendly man, about 6′ 2″ with short hair, heavy eyebrows, and green eyes.

“I am not a Christian. Several months ago, I started having problems with my eyes. I went to the doctors here in our medical clinic. They told me I had an incurable eye condition. They brought in a specialist who confirmed the diagnosis. He said there was nothing they could do for me. No treatment. No medicine. No surgery. He said my eyes would gradually get worse until I was totally blind. Last Sunday I came here and asked the men if they would pray for me.” He pointed to James and said, “That man put his hands on my head and prayed. These other guys put their hands on me and prayed too.”

“The next day, last Monday, I could see better, so I went back to the clinic. The doctors did the same tests all over again. This time, they said I don’t have that disease. I have been back to the clinic to see the doctors almost every day this week. Your God healed me. I am not going to lose my eyes. I am so happy. How can I become a Christian?”

You could hear the sounds of surprise and amazement from the small congregation, especially from Pastor James and the men who had prayed with him the previous Sunday. In simple terms, I explained who Jesus was and what it meant to receive him as Lord and Savior.

I wasn’t a part of the miracle of healing that he experienced the previous week. Pastor James and the others had prayed for him. But on my first Sunday at Camp Echo, I had the privilege of praying with this man, a captain in the Ukrainian army, as he asked Jesus to come into his heart. The feeling among our little group was incredible.

The Ukrainian brother came alive. Every time I saw him, whether walking down the street, sitting in the DFAC, or attending a staff meeting, he hugged me, told me how thankful he was that Jesus healed him and saved him. And then he’d say, “We have to tell people about Jesus. They have to know him.”

The rest of the story may be read in the book Safest Place in Iraq. You may click the Books tab above or order it through any bookstore.

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.

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.

Sharing Our Faith through Friendship

This past summer, Randy Zachary of Family Radio interviewed me on his radio show. He then edited it into three audio segments and one video. You can see the video of the interview by scrolling to the bottom right of this screen. And right under the video is the first audio clip. The focus of this segment is an easy way to share our faith with others.

Randy and I were discussing my new book titled Safest Place in Iraq, and one of the points I wrote about was my philosophy of ministry. In essence, ministry follows friendship.

The audio (mp3) is about two minutes and twelve seconds long. Feel free to contact me through the Connect page above, or by leaving a comment below, and tell me what you think.

Great Book for Small Group Discussion

Even on good days, living for Christ is a challenging, risk-laden endeavor. One way to make the task a bit easier is to see how other Christians have successfully navigated their temptations and struggles.

Safest Place in Iraq aims to do just that, by peering behind the curtain and showing how one military chaplain handled the various dangers, people, and circumstances he encountered during his war-time deployment in South Central Iraq. The result is a story that ranges from death and destruction to friendship and faith, and from temptation and torment to redemption and revival. Colonel Paul Linzey identifies the broad themes that everyone—both Christian and non-Christian—has to deal with when the going gets tough. He also shows by example what it takes to overcome life’s obstacles, whether dodging mortars in the desert, or fighting fear, loneliness, and temptation at home or at work. And in the process, Safest Place in Iraq shows that it is possible to remain true to one’s values and calling as a person of faith in a hostile world.

Safest Place in Iraq would be perfect for individual reading, but it’s also ideally suited for a small group discussion such as a home group, bible study, a men’s group.

In addition to telling the stories of answered prayer, divine intervention, and people coming to faith in Christ, it answers questions that people are asking about Christians in the military, overcoming temptation, and other issues.

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