Unity in Diversity

There hadn’t been a chaplain at Camp Echo during the three years before I arrived, but now that people were being wounded and some were dying, our leaders decided to send a chaplain. My job was to build a religious program from scratch, take care of the spiritual needs of the people, and provide a “ministry of presence.” To do that, I needed a ministry team. I already had four congregations of prayer partners back in the States. Now I needed “boots on the ground” partners.

My first day at the FOB, somebody told me there was a civilian worker on post who was a pastor before the war. A Baptist preacher from North Carolina, James had been leading a Bible study every Sunday morning for the past year. In essence, he had been the only pastoral presence for the people at Camp Echo.

James worked the night shift, so on Friday night, the day after I arrived, I went looking for him and found him in his office around eleven p.m. A forty-two-year-old African American, he was a trim five-foot-nine with a ready smile, slight mustache, and graying goatee. He had a gold front tooth, which sometimes gleamed and sometimes was dark, depending on the lighting.

When I walked into his office, he was sitting at his desk. In front of him were two computers, a stack of paperback Bibles, water bottle, calculator, flashlight, thesaurus, telephone, and a fly swatter: things he considered essential. He wore a blue hoodie. I never saw him without that on, no matter how hot it was. He was indeed an ordained Baptist minister, and had heard that a “real chaplain” was coming.

When he saw that I was the new chaplain, he looked at me and grinned, flashing that gold tooth, but he was serious. The first words I heard him say were, “You gonna fire me since you’re a real chaplain an’ I’m not?”

I’ve read a lot of books and articles on various leadership styles and principles, and could easily make a case for asking James to step away from his previous role in the chapel program. It’s a common practice, for example, to bring in an entirely different team when a new leader arrives. Another issue is that a lot of pastors and chaplains want to do all the ministry: preaching, teaching the Bible study, praying for people, and visiting the sick.

But I know how important it is for all God’s people to be involved in ministry. Plus, I had a good feeling about the man, and I wanted to honor him for his faithfulness over the past year of leading the Bible study and praying for people.

So I said, “Pastor James, I have no intention of firing you. You were here ministering when there was no chaplain. Chances are, you might be here after I’m gone. How would you feel about us working together as co-pastors?”

When I called him Pastor James, his eyes opened big and he got excited. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious. There’s plenty to do. You already know everybody on post. You’ve been doing the job of pastor when nobody else was here. Perhaps you could show me around and introduce me to people in the various offices and sections.”

“I can do that,” James offered.

 “And if the war continues, there might be times I have to be at the clinic or visiting another FOB when it’s time for church. I think it’s better if we worked as a team. What do you say? I could use your help.”

“I like that plan,” he said.

When I held out my hand to shake his, he threw his arms around me for a long hug, instead. “What about this Sunday morning?” he asked.

“Why don’t you plan and lead the worship service, and then introduce me as the new chaplain, and I’ll preach,” I suggested. “At the end of the worship service, we’ll serve communion side by side.”

“That’ll work.”

“Then we’ll take it week by week,” I continued. “There’s a lot to do, and we can accomplish more if we work together.”

“Gotta deal.” He showed off that gold tooth again.

The differences between us were obvious: different denominations, different personalities, different spiritual gifts, different skin color, and more. But the fact that we worked together, supported one another, and honored each other had an immediate impact on the people at Camp Echo. Just as important, it seemed the Lord was pleased with the way we handled things, and he blessed our efforts from day one.

The decision to have Pastor James stay involved in the chapel program was a winner. There was a continuity that we were able to build on, and a unity that paved the way for the presence of God and the power of God to be experienced in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

This is an excerpt from the book Safest Place in Iraq. The book won first place gold at the Florida Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Awards as well as the first place Peach Award at the North Georgia Christian Writers Conference.

Room for Individuality

I used to assume that all butterfly eggs were identical regardless of the species. Maybe some were slightly smaller and some a bit bigger, but otherwise, one butterfly egg would be just like every other butterfly egg. Oh, how wrong I was! When I started investigating, I discovered that the eggs of different types of butterflies are sometimes quite different from every other kind.

Some are round and others hemispherical. Some are conical, cylindrical, or shaped like a barrel. Some resemble a cheese wheel, while others actually look like a turban. Many butterfly eggs are angular, and many appear to be flattened at the ends. There’s a wide variety of textures, sizes, designs, and colors. There are blues, reds, greens, yellows, purples, oranges, whites, and browns. Oh, my goodness, there are some fascinating differences among them!

The same is true among human beings, and even among Christians of similar theology or the same denomination. We have different personalities, talents, and preferences. We don’t have the same spiritual gifts, callings, or interests. We definitely don’t look alike. We don’t agree on every doctrine, type of music, or choice of liturgy. In addition, there are many different relationship styles among us. Who we are and what we are like depends so much on our genetics, our upbringing, our experiences, our health, and so much more.

The Apostle Paul takes this into account when he discusses the Gifts of the Spirit.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. There are many parts, but one body. 1st Corinthians 12:12, 20.

Another take on the differences among the people of God can be seen in Galatians 3:28. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

It’s important to understand that the differences among us are good. We shouldn’t try to be like one another, nor should we try to force others to be like us. In fact, there is greater health in our fellowship and friendship circles when we invite diversity into the mix.

A Butterfly Believer in the egg or embryo stage might want to keep in mind that even though there may be some important changes ahead, you don’t have to become just like everyone else. There’s plenty of room for individuality. You can still be you. A better aim for all of us would be to give each other space to grow into the likeness and the image of the Lord. That’s what we were created for.

An excerpt from the book Butterfly Believers, a set of devotional readings based on Romans 12:2 and the butterfly metamorphosis.

Only a Receptionist

Call the Midwife Jenny (3)Last night, my wife and I watched another episode of the BBC television show, “Call the Midwife.” In this segment, the doctor had to be away from the office because of an emergency, and his wife, who functioned as the receptionist, was running the clinic. When the patients realized the doctor was gone, they refused to let her help them because they were totally unaware that she had worked as a nurse for ten years. In their eyes, she was “only a receptionist” and they bolted for the door until a doctor or nurse was there. The next morning, the “receptionist” was dressed in a nurse uniform, and when she opened the door to let the clients in, they saw her as a professional medical caregiver, and accepted her expertise. Even though she was the same person, respect came with the right uniform.

This concept was the basis of John Molloy’s 1975 book titled Dress for Success, and the sequel two years later, The Woman’s Dress for Success. The average person is highly influenced by other people’s outward appearance, and most of us aren’t able to see beyond the surface. If people look good on the outside, we think more highly of them. But if their appearance isn’t impressive, we think less about them and, too often, we treat them worse.

This interpersonal dynamic can be seen in the Bible, too. In 1st Samuel chapter 16, the Lord told Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the new king. When Samuel saw Eliab, he was impressed, and thought this must be the young man who would be king. But the Lord said to Samuel in a now-famous verse, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

It seems people of every generation have to re-learn this lesson. It took a vision from the Lord to bring Peter to the point of admitting that “God shows no partiality.” James had to remind the church not to treat wealthy people better than the poor when he wrote, “My brothers and sisters, believers in Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”

It’s important for us to dress appropriately for work and business appointments. It does make a difference how people see us and think about us. But Christians are called to be different. We can grow in our relationship with Christ and ask the Holy Spirit to help us see people through His eyes, to see beyond the outward appearance and see the heart, the real person. We are called to treat all people with dignity and respect, no matter who they are or what they look like.

The apostle Paul tells Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he is young. I think it would be fair to replace “young” with a number of other possible factors. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are poor, darker skinned, an immigrant, a woman, a senior citizen, or unemployed. The apostle continues, “Instead, set an example by the way you live and the way you conduct yourself.”

Only a receptionist? Only a teen? Only a woman? Only an immigrant? Only a farmer? When I mentor people, I remind them never to use the word “only” when talking about themselves or others. As Christians and as human beings, we have an opportunity to get beyond superficial appearances and circumstances when it comes to how we treat people and how we value them.

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The Old Chevy

1When we drove up to the historic motel on Route 66, an old Chevy parked out front caught our eye. It had to be more than sixty-five years old, and though the paint was faded, worn-off, and rust-eaten the car still exuded a certain charm and beauty. A couple of the tires were flat and one window was permanently open. Yet, it had a stately dignity that spoke of a time when it ruled the road.

Once upon a time, this automobile was the lifeline for an entire family. Dad drove it to work; Mom took it shopping. Weekends were for family outings, and Sundays for going to Church. Each summer she took her family to a far-off destination, and special occasions saw her at family get-togethers. The kids learned to drive behind that huge steering wheel, and longed for the day they might get a car of their own: something new, shiny, and fast, with the latest technology.

But the old Chevy had long ago been discarded. Removed to the junkyard, where it sat for a decade: unwanted, untended, and ignored. Just taking up space.

Sometimes we look at people that way. We have no time for the elderly, no interest in what they have to offer or what they’ve accomplished. They had their day in the sun; now it’s our turn. We look at people of different ethnicities similarly. We too easily disregard their importance, their feelings, their dreams and ambitions, and what they can contribute to the community or the church. We treat children as though they were worth less than adults, and teens as if they should be banished to a remote island.

The Bible, on the other hand, tells us to honor people, value them, and care for them. To look for the beauty and the charm that are still there in every human being. Romans 12:10, for example, says to honor and give preference to one another.

James 1:27 reminds us that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their affliction.” In other words, we’re supposed to honor those in society who are helpless or in less fortunate circumstances.

The writer of Job adds to this discussion by recognizing the dignity of the common person and by identifying with the hireling and the slave. “Do not mortals have hard service on earth? Are not their days like those of hired laborers? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows, or a hired laborer waiting to be paid?”

In context, Job is saying there’s no difference between the rich and the poor, the master and the slave, when it comes to how hard life can be. We all want rest at the end of the day, we all want a better life for our family, we all have hopes and dreams, we all need love and friendship, and we all crave acceptance and respect.

The apostle Paul summarizes in Philippians chapter two, where he simply says we are to value others above ourselves.

The woman who owned the roadside hotel told us that a lot of her customers express an interest in old cars and the way life used to be on Route 66. So, she called a friend who had a junkyard, and asked if there was an old car she could buy. Her friend gave her the Chevy and brought it to her motel, where it has attracted attention and sparked conversation among people from all over the country and all around the world who see the car while driving by.

5

Stranger in Boston

entering-boston

The station wagon with the third seat facing the rear pulled into Boston. My two younger brothers and I rode that seat from California to Massachusetts, watching where we’d been, rather than where we were going.

3,177 miles backwards. For a while I was dizzy, car sick, nauseous, but after a while I got used to it.

third-seatThe ’59 Dodge was a big car. It seemed like Mom and Dad, and whoever else was sitting up front with them, were in a different county. The actual dimensions of this monstrous car? Just over eighteen feet long, six-and-a-half feet wide, weighing about 4,200 pounds. The advertised top speed was 120 MPH, but I never saw my parents drive faster than 115. Mom liked to drive fast. I remember my turn to sit up front and help her “stay awake” one night driving through the Arizona desert while Dad got some sleep. It was scary.

We got about nine miles per gallon if one or two people were in the car. Seven or eight miles a gallon when all ten of us went somewhere together, like we did on this cross-country trip. Nobody had seat belts back then.

As we pulled up to a traffic light in this strange city far from home, suddenly, my dad was yelling and talking excitedly. Someone outside was shouting and talking just as fast. From way back in the third row, I tried to see what was going on. Were my dad and the stranger mad at each other? Why were they yelling? I looked out the side window of our car and saw that the driver of the car next to us had dark skin and black curly hair. Why was he yelling at my dad? And why was my dad yelling back at him?

At first, it seemed they were angry with each other. But no, they weren’t upset. Rather they were excited and happy. They were yelling for joy. But why?

As I kept on looking at the man in the car next to us, I glanced down to see the license plate on his car. We had played the license plate game all across the country: keep track of all the license plates, and see who gets the most states. There were a lot of variations to that game; you’ve probably played something similar.

Riding backwards made it easier if the cars catching up to us had front license plates, because looking backwards I could see them before my brothers and sisters in the middle seat could see them. But if we were passing the other cars, then they got to see the license plates first. The way my parents drove, nobody ever passed us, so I never won the game.

traffic-lights-686041_1920At the red light in Boston, the license plate on the car next to us looked familiar. Was it? Yes! It was orange and black, a California license plate! We hadn’t seen one of those since we left home. Was that why Dad and the other guy were hollering? Yep, sure was.

There we were, our first day in Boston. We didn’t know a single soul in the city, or in the entire state of Massachusetts. But that first traffic light we stopped at in Boston placed us right next to another human being from California. It was his first day in Boston too.

My first memory of encountering an African-American, and the thing that stuck in my mind more than anything else was the connection that he and my dad made with each other. It wasn’t age; my dad was forty-two and the other guy seemed to be younger. It wasn’t family circumstance; my dad had a wife and eight kids in the car, while the other guy was single. It wasn’t that they had similar careers; my dad was in the Navy, and the other guy worked in a factory. And it wasn’t that they looked alike; my dad was a balding white guy, and the other guy was black with a full afro.

No, the connection they made with each other was simply that they had something in common. They were both from California, and that was enough. They were both more than 3,000 miles from home, and friendless – until that moment. They found someone from home.

I often think about that experience. Why is it that people who are different despise each other? Why do people of different skin color or different nationality or different language or different gender or different religion or different political party or different socioeconomic standing hate each other? Why can’t we do what my dad and the stranger did in Boston that day in 1962?

I was seven years old when we drove into Boston. Over the past fifty-plus years, I’ve tried to focus on what I have in common with other people, instead of our differences: marriage, kids, jobs, sports, music, food, weather, fears, dreams, movies, faith, or our human-ness. There’s so much we share, it’s a shame people choose to fight over their differences.

Something powerful and amazing happens when we connect over something we have in common.

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Boy in the Fountain

Boy in Fountain

The little boy sat in the water directly on top of a water spout, cooling off from the heat. How old does he look to you?

He loved the feel of the cold water, contrasted with the hundred-degree temperature of the day. There were other children in the fountain – running, splashing, yelling, having fun. But this little guy just sat there. He didn’t need much; just to be there was enough. I asked around until I found his mother, and got permission to take the picture. I didn’t want her to think I meant any harm. I mentioned that I had children and grandchildren, and I thought her son was adorable. She looked at me, hesitated, then nodded.

Posting the picture on Facebook, I received likes and comments from people all over the country. They wrote things like Cute, Adorable, Smart boy, Awww, and Can I Adopt Him. I “liked” every comment.

A year later, I still wonder about him from time to time. What’s his life like? Has he grown much? What’s his family like? Does he ever go back to that fountain?

And I wonder about his future, too. What will become of him? Will he like school? What sports will he want to play? What kind of music will he listen to? What does he want to do when he grows up? Although that may change a hundred times during his childhood.

Then, in light of recent stories in the news, I wonder if he’ll turn out to be a good kid who grows into a fine young man, or if he’ll get into trouble along the way. Will he ever be shot at by a gang, a friend, or a policeman? These thoughts are very real in America these days, and I wonder about this little guy.

I also wonder about my own grandchildren. One of my sons married a woman of color, and they have children. I know their interests, their likes and dislikes, their preferences, what they want to be when they grow up. My eight-year-old granddaughter wants to be a doctor. Her five-year-old brother wants to be Buzz Lightyear or Spiderman, depending on the time of day, of course. They love school and learning. They love being part of a congregation of faith. They love playing family games. Life hasn’t turned ugly for them, yet. But it could. Hate is a powerful force in America. Racism is still prevalent. Unkindness lurks.

I wonder how they might turn out, too. Will they fulfill their dreams? Will they get into trouble? Will they ever be the victims of prejudice? Will they have to defend themselves simply because their skin is darker, or their hair gives them away? Might they be subject to racial profiling some day? So far, they trust adults, those in authority, such as teachers, pastors, and police officers. Will they ever find their trust betrayed? Will they ever be afraid of being shot by someone they trust?

When I finished my lunch appointment and walked back to my car, the little boy was gone. His mother must have decided he’d been in the fountain long enough. He probably needed lunch. Perhaps it was nap time. Maybe she needed to go to work.

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