Silhouette Man

Silhouette 3Walking down the aisle between two rows of our housing containers, camouflage netting eight feet above the ground, connecting the rows, giving it the appearance of an indoor hallway, I could barely see the outline of a man sitting on the steps in front of his door.

It was late, and I was returning to my hooch dog-tired. I’d been to the medical clinic several times to visit that day’s wounded. I’d been to three or four work areas to encourage, counsel, or pray, depending on what people wanted and needed. The last thing I wanted was to get into another conversation. I just wanted to go inside, lock the door, fall on my bed, and turn off the world for a few hours. Forget brushing my teeth and showering. Maybe tomorrow. What caught my eye in the moonless night, was the burning, circular tip of a cigarette.

I greeted the silhouette. “How’s it going?”

A voice behind the glow responded. “Survived another day.”

“Sometimes that’s all we can ask for,” I mumbled.

I unlocked my door, walked inside, turned on the light, dropped my body armor and helmet onto the floor, turned out the light, and crashed-landed on the bed. Almost asleep, I heard a knock. Being in that not-quite-asleep, not-quite-awake nether world, I wasn’t sure whether there was someone at the door, or I was already dreaming. When I heard it again, I got up, opened the door, and saw the cigarette and the silhouette.

Chacos 1“Are you the chaplain?”

“Yes.”

“Can we talk?”

I felt like saying, “C’mon dude. Give me a break.” Instead, what came out of my mouth was, “Sure. Let me get some sandals on and I’ll be right out.”

I sat on the stoop across the hall as he lit up another cigarette and asked, “Mind if I smoke?”

I grinned, assuming he couldn’t see my face any better than I could see his. He was going to light up no matter what I answered. “Nope. Go ahead.”

The average smoker spends five-and-a-half minutes per cigarette, and the next time Silhouette Man spoke, he was on his fourth Marlboro. I wondered if he knew I had fallen asleep two or three times. It had to be past two in the morning.

“I was a cop for thirty years and saw some pretty interesting things.” He paused for half-a-cigarette. “But for the first time in my life, I’m scared.”

“What’s been happening?”

“We have two shifts. Early and late; I’m on the late shift, working from two PM til about midnight every day. Plus an hour to get there and an hour back. We go into town to the police station to teach the IP how to do their jobs. We send people to all the stations. I think there are about thirty IP stations in Diwaniyah. Most of our team is Army MPs, but there are a few civilian cops on each team. Most of us retired.”Cigarette 1

He lit another cigarette and continued.

“The station where I work is a two-story building surrounded by those huge apartment buildings – fifteen, twenty stories tall. The break area at the IP station is on the roof-top. You know how the men will drive over to the field on their way to work or during lunch or on their way home and shoot off the mortars?”

“Yeah.”

“They do that to us with rifles. They sit up in those apartments like snipers, waiting for one of us to be visible in a window, or when we go on the roof for a break, and they start firing at us. We’re trapped. We’ve been shot at every day for the past three weeks.

“This afternoon I was on the roof. It had been a pretty quiet day until a little after four when the shooting started. I dove for the parapet that surrounds the roof-top patio, using the wall to try to protect myself. The two guys next to me were killed. One American cop like me, retired, from Cincinnati I think. One Iraqi. Several downstairs in the main part of the building were shot, too. Injured; none killed. I felt so powerless, so defenseless. We’re like sitting ducks waiting for the slaughter. It’s starting to get to me.”

I hurt for this faceless guy from Philadelphia. I wanted to move over, sit next to him, and put an arm around him, but then I thought that might seem weird to a total stranger, especially a career policeman. Maybe after we got to know each other I’d have that opportunity. So I asked him a question. “When do you get back here at night?”

“It’s usually a little after 1:00. 1:30, maybe.”

“Would it be helpful for me to be here when you get back so you have someone to talk to about what you just went through?”

“Yeah. I think it would. I’d like that.”

So I started waiting up for him most nights, letting him set the agenda for what we talked about.

One night, all of a sudden he asked, “Where do the priests get all those stories about Jesus?”

“They get them from the New Testament.”

Bible2“No! You mean they come from the Bible?” He’d never heard that before.

“Yep. Would you like me to get you a Bible?”

“Yeah, I would.”

 

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Gotcha!

44 Paul after PromotionEarly in my military career, I showed up at a new infantry battalion one day and started meeting some of the guys. The Sergeant Major introduced himself and asked, “Hey Chaplain, do you have your Gotcha Cards?”

“No, Sergeant Major. I’ve never heard of a Gotcha Card, and don’t know what it is, so I’m pretty sure I don’t have one. What is it?”

“Our previous chaplain, every time he heard one of us cuss or swear or use the Lord’s name in vain would pull out a business card, but all it said in big bold letters was Gotcha. So when the guys heard we were getting a new chaplain, they started wondering if you were going to be like the last one.”

“I bet you guys hated him.”

“Yes. We. Did.”

“Tell you what. I’m not planning on having any Gotcha Cards printed up, so you can relax. Cuss if you want. I’m just here to love you guys.”

Apparently, a bunch of Soldiers were listening to the conversation, because as soon as I made that last statement, a cheer erupted from around the corner.

“You’re gonna fit in fine here, Chaps. Nice to have you aboard.”

Over the next two years, I led more than 25 of those guys to faith in Christ, and I never once said, “Gotcha.” Oh they cussed, alright. But I figure it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to reach them, and he does a pretty good job. I just had to do my part, which was love them and be consistent in setting an example of what a Christian is and does.

Soiled Lives

Telephone 1When I answered the phone, it was my uncle. Though he had sons of his own and I had a father, he always called me “Son.”

“Son, I understand you want to be a pastor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So you think you’re called, huh?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“Son, if you’re really called to the ministry, meet me at the church Thursday morning and spend the day with me.”

My classes at San Diego State were on Monday-Wednesday-Friday, so Thursday morning I got up and went to the church. I had no idea what he had in mind.

After chatting for a few minutes, he said, “Follow me.” We got into his car and, without saying a word, drove to the outskirts of town, pulled up to a cluster of tiny, two-room shacks, and parked on the dirt in front of a small green hut, too small to be called a house or an apartment, yet this was someone’s home.

Uncle got out of the car, and I followed. We walked up to the door of one of the units, and he knocked. No answer. He knocked again, louder this time. Again, no answer. “I know he’s in there.”

He tried the door, and found that it was unlocked. Slowly he opened it, and went in. There on the bed in the small two-room cabin was a man — drunk, passed out. A mixture of vomit, diarrhea, urine, and alcohol on the bed, walls, sofa, and floor. The stench was overwhelming, as if attacking my nostrils and throat. I thought I was going to throw up.

Suit and Tie

Without saying a word, without even a grimace, the pastor took off his suit coat and tie and handed them to me. I watched as the man of God took on the role of the servant. He turned on the water to fill the tub, then went over to the bed. He undressed the man, rolled up his putrid clothing, and placed it into a garbage bag. He picked up the still-unconscious drunkard, naked and filthy, placed him carefully into the tub, and bathed him. I thought of the scene in the Gospel of John where Peter said to the Lord, “Wash all of me. Not just part of me.”

After washing the man, who never did wake up, my uncle said, “Make sure he doesn’t drown.” Then he went back to the bed, stripped off the blankets and sheets, and put those into the bag with the clothes. Finding an old towel, he mopped the walls and the floor, repeatedly going over to the sink to rinse the crud away. He searched the dresser drawers til he found a set of clean sheets and a blanket, and made the bed. There was a fresh pair of pajamas in a drawer, and he placed them on the end of the bed.

After cleaning up the place, my uncle returned to the bathroom, dried off the comatose man, carried him to the bed, and put the pajamas on him. Covered him up, and tucked him in. Then he took the bag of soiled clothing, bed linens, and a few other things that needed to be laundered, walked out to the car, and put them in the trunk of his car.

After locking the man’s door, we got into the car. The foul smell was not confined to the trunk. It filled the passenger compartment as well. The stench came with us, not only because of the awful stuff in the trunk, but because the filth had gotten onto my uncle’s shirt, pants, and shoes. Although by now it was almost time for lunch, I thought I was going to lose my breakfast.

Instead of going back to the church, we drove to the pastor’s home, where he took the bag from the trunk, went straight to the laundry room, and washed the man’s clothes and bed linens. After showering, my uncle dressed, and we went back to the church. Before I got into my car to go home, he said to me, “Son, that’s what ministry is all about. Good people soil themselves and make a mess of their lives because of sin. Your job as a pastor is to find out what Jesus wants you to do about it. And then do it.”

Though my uncle is no longer alive, I’ll never forget him — or the lesson he taught me that day. As we go about the daily tasks the Lord has called us to do, sometimes we find ourselves cleaning up our own messes — sometimes the messes other people have made. The ugly scenes are often the result of sin. Some of the mountains of debris we are called to clean up are caused by years of neglect or ignorance. Some is caused by discouragement, abuse, or failure. Seervant Leader Statue

In Lakeland, Florida, at the center of Southeastern University’s campus, is a bronze sculpture of Jesus washing the feet of one of his disciples. The sculpture is titled “Divine Servant.” I think of my uncle almost every time I see it. It is a great work of art, beautifully depicting the call for genuine disciples to be servant ministers. Ironically, the sculpture is beautiful, whereas the brokenness of human lives is quite unattractive, and working with broken people can get ugly.

Facing Messy Stuff in the Church Book

In his book, Facing Messy Stuff in the Church, Ken Swetland talks about the ugly, painful situations church leaders may deal with. “Churches are made up of sinners whose lives are broken – sometimes because of their own choices, sometimes because of experiencing wrongs outside of their control. . . . Resolutions are hard to come by.” He goes on to say that the church is “. . . a fellowship of people who come together to worship God, serve him in the world, and be agents of healing in the lives of broken people who make up the church.”

As we respond to the situations that people have made of their lives, their families, their cities, or their nation, it is helpful to keep in mind that we have a rich heritage of serving in Jesus’ name, cleaning up the stench and the debris of people’s lives. As my uncle said, that’s what ministry is all about.

The Safest Place in Iraq

CH 1While deployed to a small coalition-led Forward Operating Base as a chaplain in the spring and summer of 2007, I experienced the danger of war, the loneliness of being away from home, and the exhilaration of watching up close as God answered prayer, changed lives, and performed miracles. After asking to go to Iraq, I was assigned to Camp Echo, just outside the city of Ad Diwaniyah. There hadn’t been a chaplain there during three years of war. I had to start from scratch and lay a foundation for ministry.

Heat, danger, dust, and death formed the context for the ministry I was sent to do. My job was to establish a religious program. There was no chapel, no office, no phone, and no internet connection designated for a Religious Support Team. There were no Bibles, literature, or supplies. Operating from my philosophy that “ministry follows friendship,” I built relationships among the men and women, military and civilian, American and Coalition. This allowed me to be there when people were at their best and at their worst, in their strongest and weakest moments.

The Safest Place in Iraq is the story of what happened in my life and theirs. Drawing on personal experience, I created a narrative of war that is different than you’ve ever heard or read.