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.

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.

A Seat at the Table for Honorary NCO

During War C-1The 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.

Finally 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.

1. Look for a different chair

2. Attempt to pull rank

3. 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 Class A uniform 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 was 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. 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.

* This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Army Magazine, a publication of the Association of the United States Army.

E5 for Life

Heat, Danger, Dust, and Death

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.”

Many of our military personnel won’t tell their spouse and family what they’re going through during war, thinking they’re protecting them. Plus, we’re limited in what we’re allowed to say or write to our families. But I have a hunch there are many, like my wife, who are better off knowing what’s going on, and who want to know.

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.

Heat, 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.

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Rockets and Mortars

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. Of the more than two hundred people in the dining facility, eighteen were killed. Forty-seven were wounded, some seriously, but they’d survive – with or without that arm or leg or eye.

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.

Located on the main rail line between Baghdad and Basra, Diwaniyah is known for its manufacturing, and famous for its automobile tires. Dust-colored high-rise apartment buildings line the streets, each building home to more than a thousand people. Water from the Euphrates River irrigates the farms and groves outside the city, making the region one of the nation’s most fertile.

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.

Camp Echo was a small, roundish Forward Operating Base, about a mile in diameter, in the middle of the desert, with temperatures ranging from 110-120 degrees. The dirt, sand, and heat were inescapable. Every day began with a new film of dust on each desk, table, chair, bed, and floor. The layer of dirt thickened as the day wore on.

Surrounding the entire FOB was a 12-foot high concrete wall. The other side of the barrier consisted of dry fields inhabited by rabbits, snakes, and camel spiders. There were also scorpions, an occasional wild dog, and, of course, the men and boys trying to kill us.

I volunteered to go. My philosophy as an Army 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.

IRAQI FREEDOM

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