Faith formation

During the early 1900s, a British doctor came to Kuwait with physicians from the American missionary services. They arrived in an ancient world unfamiliar with modern medicine. However, their work made a difference in common medical problems like cataracts that the traditional medical practices didn’t address. The compassionate work of the doctors eventually led to cataract surgery on the Skeiks own daughter, saving her from blindness and earning the gratitude of the wealthy family. As a result, the Sheik donated land to the missionary for the Amricani hospital.

Today, the original hospital is a museum and one of the oldest buildings in Kuwait City. Modern medicine advanced in Kuwait with new hospitals and even Kuwaiti initiatives to impoverished countries to “give medicine as it was given to us”.

The compassion and service of those early missionaries left a lasting impression on the Muslim country and today the entire city block is busy with various denominational churches in a same complex as the museum. Known as the National Evangelical Center of Kuwait, the complex hosts approximately 80 congregations ranging from Pentecostal to Orthodox. Most of the parishoners are from other Asian countries–they came to Kuwait seeking employment and often work very long hours for little pay. In this context, the entrance to the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait is particularly meaningful.

Various chaplains lead monthly trips downtown to see the museum and services in “spiritual resiliency trips”. Saturday, a fellow chaplain and I brought a small group downtown for services. Our Soldiers on this particular trip were Catholic, so we attended the Holy Family mass together. No photos are allowed during the service so I took a picture as parishioners arrived. By the time the service started, the pews were packed.

The mass followed the traditional liturgy and the people sang with such passion. It was humbling to pray and sing with them. “Jesus have mercy on us”. “Christ have mercy”. As is common in all liturgical Christian churches, they sang the “Great Thanksgiving”. These words come from the Didache–a worship book preserved from the first century Christians. Though I am not catholic and did not receive the sacrament, I always feel connected to the generations of Christians reading and singing those words the first century Christians professed.

After mass, we walked through the Protestant side. The complex contained many rooms and several stories. Each room offered services of various denominations and languages. It was a hot, summer evening so all the doors were open. As I walked down the alley, some congregations were loud and passionate, others bowed in solemn prayer. In one service, the people sat segregated by gender and were barefoot, while their shoes sat waiting by the door.

Other services had brightly colored altars and cultural paraments. Every service offered a different language and ethnic group.

As I walked, immersed in the colors and sounds, the sunset faded past twilight marking the time for evening prayers for Muslims. For a moment, the languages and colors mixed with the muzzeim’s song of prayer projected over greater Kuwait City. I was struck by the common struggle of people to seek God. The line became so fine between beauty and chaos. For a moment, I sensed God in the collective prayers and for a moment I found him blurred in the cacophony.

Anyone walking paths of faith in moments like that could have a number of responses. Some choose to abandon religion in the chaos, other cling more tightly to what they know. For me, the question deep in my soul was a call to reflect on what I seek. Can I hear God higher than my own language, culture and custom? Can I see him in others? Can I reflect what is holy in the frail attempts of human worship that constantly contends with self interest?

Today in chapel, we reflected on the story of the paralyzed man in Mark 2. His friends brought him to Jesus to seek healing but the house was crowded and he could not get in. This story reminded me of the times we seek God but the path is crowded by our own pain, lack of faith, hypocrisy, other people…the list is endless, but the lasting question in quest of faith is whether we persist in spirit and in truth.

“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I will seek after. That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in his temple.” Psalm 27:4

Connections

Recently, I traveled to Qatar to visit some direct reporting units and conduct team building events. Instead of strapping into a C130 with cargo, I was on a commercial flight experiencing a different kind of culture. After five months, 24/7 with Soldiers, my attention was piqued by all the Kuwaiti families traveling together. Though there is so much about the culture that is foreign to me, I connected with the shared experience of babies crying, children playing and looking up at me with big eyes. I smiled to see parents trying to entertain young ones on the plane, remembering the stress of traveling with babies. I connected, but also realized how long it had been since I was in a family environment.

Just before the plane took off, the intercom played an Arabic prayer for protection. There were safety signs reminding people to remain in their seats when they pray. (Muslims pray on their knees). If you drive through Muslim neighborhoods you find mosques block-by-block with the tall minarets stretching to the sky. Five times a day the muezzin sings out “calls to prayer” that echo block to block across the city. While I may not share their faith, there is beauty in the rhythm of prayer singing over the entire community.

Once on base, I connected with Soldiers in small units. I brought some team building games requiring groups to solve puzzles with various constraints (some could see and not talk and some could talk and not see, sometimes the instructions were vague and they had to find more information). The games were fun, but also a launch pad to talk about the constraints we face solving problems and how to bring out the most in every team member.

Ironically, team building becomes especially important in safe situations. In danger, we recognize our need for each other and can often accept the differences of others for the sake of shared survival. When we feel safe, complaints and preferences easily create conflict. In these situations, I often ask questions about how presenting issues reflect deeper issues. Sometimes people know and sometimes they only know that they are irritated, angry and not getting along.

Our general has a guiding advise known as “the Kotulich principal”. It basically says you get the team you have- make the team the best it can be. This is particularly true in the Army where there are less options for the hiring process we place so much emphasis on in the civilian work world. The emphasis here becomes talent management, placing people you already have in positions and projects that work best with their experience, training and talent.

As a bonus in Qatar, I ran into an old chaplain friend from my last deployment. The last time I saw him, we were on our way home after a year of service. We arrived to Fort Bliss on a weekend and the dining facility was open only for brunch. Jet lagged and hungry, we decided to walk three miles to the gate, certain there would be a restaurant outside. There wasn’t. So we bought honey buns at the gas station and ate them on the parking lot curb. We laughed again after 13 years about our “welcome home” breakfast. It was a great disappointment at the time, but became a connecting memory later. You never know how time and perspective can continuously influence a story line.

Walk on Water

After months of planning, this week marked an exercise with our army watercraft.  The purpose is to measure our ability to unload cargo from a large ship to land without the benefit of a port.  Using interlocking pieces, cranes and a team effort of specialized equipment and skills, the Roll On Roll Off Discharge Facility (RRDF) looks simple, but makes amazing things possible.

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The surgeon (in charge of port medics) and I traveled out to the port to visit the Soldiers preparing for the big day.  After conversation and stories, they requested prayers for the weather.  By afternoon, the winds have been up to 30 miles per hour every day making sea operations challenging, to say the least.  “Ma’am, you need to pray for the waves”.  I joked they already found a way to walk on water with their floating dock, now they needed “Peace, be still”.

Joking aside, my prayers are for an opportunity to learn regardless of context.  We often hope for prime conditions, but the truth is, we also need to know how to move forward when nothing is going as we would hope.  Often, success is not about perfection in perfect conditions but perseverance and ingenuity in austerity.

I enjoy traveling with the surgeon—he has quick wit and his stories are always good for a laugh.  At 65, he still serves his country due to a shortage of doctors.  He inspired his young medics at the port to shine.  As we left, we saw them out on the port going over their plans once again.

On the drive out, the surgeon’s humor was in full swing when we passed a stop sign with a green light.  He motioned to me and said, “that’s just what its like when you talk to a woman”.   “What does that mean, Go? Stop? Both?”  We both had a good laugh and I told him I reserved the right to change my mind.

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Typical of this weeks weather, 15 minutes into our drive back to camp, the winds picked up and visibility dropped.  Today was another challenge to slow down, think through courses of action and consider how to navigate the context.

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Here as is Heaven

This Father’s Day, we gathered in chapel for services as a sand storm blasted the sides of the hard stand building. As we sang and prayed, we heard the winds constantly reminding us of the harshness of this environment. But inside, 80 gathered to celebrate the presence of a heavenly Father

Today, one father prepared in a special way. Today was his baptism day! As he knelt, I was overcome with the contrast of blessed water in this wilderness and sacred relationship of God’s adoption. His love from which we know no separation.

Presbyterian, Chaplain Lawson and I lead this service together, covering for each other when we travel. Today, we were both in Kuwait sharing this service together. It is a true blessing for me to work with him.

Also a father, Chaplain Lawson preached today from Matthew 4: 18-22. It was not, perhaps, a typical text on Father’s Day but one that resonated deeply with us all. He imagined that moment Jesus called James and John who “immediately” left their nets with their father to follow Jesus. In a context of a family trade and dependency on each other, the silent acceptance of the father, Zebedee, spoke volumes. Likewise the acceptance of a calling James and John had no preparation for, spoke volumes. It is a text with so much unsaid, but felt. As Chaplain Lawson reflected, “Sometimes, God calls you to drop the nets. Sometimes, God calls you to stay in the boat. Neither is easy and calling always requires sacrifice both for those who go and those who stay.” I couldn’t help but think of all the “nets” Richard is managing as a father while I am deployed forward- a feeling echoed with tears by all in the room.

In this community, we experience the strength of shared burdens. But also, the vision of God.

My chapel prayer this Father’s Day:

“Our Father, holy is Your name. Rock of Salvation, the righteous run to You and are protected. Creator, You breathe life to the dust, establish order from chaos, speak light into darkness. Father of lights, with whom there is not variation or shadow due to change, You are the One from whom all things are and for whom, we exist.

You make Your sun rise on the evil and on the good, and send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. You are a Father who sees in secrete and rewards righteousness. You judge all people impartially, according to their deeds. You welcome the prodigal. You forgive our trespasses. You teach us to be perfect, as you, our Heavenly Father are perfect. You are above all, and through all, and in all. No one knows the day or the hour of your coming, neither the angles in heaven, nor the Son, but only You, the Father.

ABBA, Daddy, You are the Father of orphans and protector of widows. You have compassion for your children and for those who respect your name. You reprove the one you love. You delight in your children. You enable us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. You call us. You call us beloved.

And we, Your children who received a spirit of adoption, we cry, “ABBA! Father!”

Amen.”

Battlefield Circulation (BFC)

Last weekend was meant to be a “turn and burn”–a quick flight up to Iraq to provide coverage and chapel at a camp.  I packed everything I needed, including a sleeping bag and helmet in my ruck sack.  Carrying everything yourself along with body armor requires an exercise in simplicity.

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For good measure, I threw in two Tide pods in case the trip was extended.  That way, I could wash and go for an additional 6 days.  This proved prudent since the return flights were delayed one after the other.

I provided two chapel services.  The early Sunday service included a Soldier who played a bugle.  He announced services with the traditional music.  In the days before portable alarm clocks and electronic wake-up services, Soldiers depended on a system of bugle calls to let them know about what time of the day it was.  Calls were also used to announce attacks or call retreat.  Sunday, the Soldiers proudly led me outside to see that they were “doing something new”.  I said, “I think you resurrected something old.”  It was a beautiful connection to history and the primacy of faith throughout military history.  Church call has its own melody.

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Back inside, we enjoy rousing music by the camp band including two guitarist, a keyboard, yukele and cajone (box shaped drum originally from Peru).  Helicopters flying low added some of their own rhythms and the drummer jokes that they were not “in time” with the music.

The Sunday evening service was smaller but attended by two Kenyan contractors, a Canadian and 3 Americans.  In coalition areas, we often start with a conversation about traditions to find some common ground.  The Kenyans told me their favorite hymn was “Rock of Ages” so they sang in Swahili and the rest of us in English. We then did a reading of Bible texts interspersed with a refrain of “This little light of mine” complete with clapping and stomping for our own percussion.  The Soldiers sang loudly and I felt a deep sense of community in that diversity.

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The camp has a large perimeter with small camps inside.  It was easy to get disoriented on my first day.  After walking the wrong direction we asked a passing Canadian Soldier for directions.  He personally walked us where we needed to go and we enjoyed conversation about our shared history on the way.  As we said goodbye, he ripped his flag off his uniform and gave it to me.  I gave him my combat patch from my first deployment.  Trading patches is not unusual, but for a simple task of asking direction, it was a generous gesture.  It reminded me of the power of shared experience that sometimes begins with admitting a need for help and likewise going the extra mile in small things.

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Reflections-“The Gesture”

I shared this picture last week, but it stayed with me in deeper reflection. Journeys are like that, we have initial impressions that deepen, distort, clarify and produce meaning in profound ways. I consider this my take two on what I’m sure will produce more insights over time.

My first impression of the many, many people who waved their gesture of two raised fingers was surprise. I was used to other places where, let’s say, the greeting was mixed or complicated. If I can be honest, sometimes I receive “complicated” gestures at home over little things. I digress. As our convoy continued, I witnessed this greeting like waves in small towns where everyone knows each other. I too, caught up in the potential, waved back with my own sign of “peace”. This led to the question that has stayed with me. I asked the convoy leaders, interpreters, Soldiers, commanders, all sorts of people, “what do they mean by this wave?”

I received all sorts of answers. “It’s the peace sign”. “It means YPG success” (Kurdish Peoples Defense Forces). “They wave to whoever is in power at the time”. “It means we want peace”. “It means thank you”. There was no consensus, though most viewed the waving positively. I wondered why we struggled so much to understand a simple gesture, which I suppose is both the product and prelude of war–we question everything.

I pondered this for over a week. I even spoke about it in chapel Sunday since our theme was “let the peace of Christ rule your hearts”. This sermon, of course, to a room of people with skin in the game, risking and sacrificing for the security that they hope makes external peace possible.

It was on my way out of chapel that I realized I had asked the question of the gesture from only one direction. I wondered suddenly, “What do I mean when I wave out the window?” Do I mean “I want peace” or “we come in peace” or “don’t attack”. Do I mean “I wish you peace” or “we have your back”? Do I wave because you do? I’m sure that some will tell me I’m overthinking, but my big take away was that I first questioned what other people meant and only after time thought more deeply about what I myself meant. I came to realize I had about as many personal answers to that question as the people interpreting the waves of another culture. It is easy to think about others intentions before our own and use that as a gauge.

I am not convinced there are “right” answers to these questions, but the need for self awareness and reflection is insightful. After all, our perceptions of others are deeply influenced by our own beliefs and values and our own ideas about conflict and security. Our own experiences can condense toward a direction we intend purposefully, with reaction, or with little thought. A gesture is simple-perhaps an end state with so much process to be negotiated. But for me, that sign in a place fraught with conflict is hope for deeper understanding.

Forward Logistics Element (FLE)

Last weekend, I traveled with my General and Command Sergeant Major (CSM) to visit four of our FLEs. These elements support offensive operations and units geographically separated from larger support bases. Not only do these teams rely on expertise, but they are always small and depend on “outside the box” thinking. Often, Soldiers do many jobs outside of their primary job because everyone has to “pitch in”. In typical Soldier fashion, the expectation is humorously blunt.

One of the camps had a chaplain, which is not typical. He erected a “chapel in a box” about a month ago–the shipped container came with everything to lead a service, including tents, chairs and worship supplies. He sectioned off areas of the large tent for an office and made his own shelves from left over wood for an MWR area to stage all the care boxes from home. He joked that the Soldiers could go shopping in the sale, “take one and get one free”. It is always nice to see goodwill from home make it all the way to the remote areas.

Other camps did not have a chaplain, so I brought my “chaplain kit” to provide worship services and communion. During the “town hall” meeting, the General invited me to share a “word of the day” after she and the CSM gave mentoring talks to the Soldiers and received questions. There was always time to walk around and talk to Soldiers on their jobs, hear their stories and offer counsel and prayer-something we call “ministry of presence” in the Army.

As we traveled between camps, it was sobering to see the devastation left in the wake of ISIS. The refugee camps, empty villages and destruction testified to the hard fought battle and loss so many suffered.

But along side the destruction, you couldn’t miss the signs of life, as rubble is cleared and rebuilding begun.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the families in the rural areas with their herds of sheep and goats. Often children accompanied their parent for the day. Like children anywhere, they played with sticks, running and playing. Unlike our children, they relied on hard labor and the basics of life.

My own experience mirrors little of the life of those I saw. I do not speak their language and their customs are foreign to my own. I have access to so much wealth, comparatively. But my brief view into their world did not leave me unchanged. I felt deeply the connections of soul that ask questions about the meaning of life and the way of peace. As we drove by shepherds and children, and even the local national Soldiers, they enthusiastically waved the peace sign to our convoys signaling between us the desire for peace.

I do not find this question of peace to be simple. It digs to the depths of our search for common ground but also the complications of our values, the struggle of human nature and the meaning of the sacred. Like our FLEs, this search strips us of excess and begs us to consider the essentials, not only where we are comfortable but where we are not and how we contribute to the greater community in austerity.

It is not surprising that Jesus own ministry began with 40 days in the wilderness, conflicted by temptation and evil. I have revisited His words and sought my own deeper connection to faith so that I can be better grounded and purposeful.

As the sun set on my last day, I climbed one of the old towers before the perimeter expanded. I could see the land before me as I thought of all I witnessed. Like Jesus, I longed for words from the mouth of God–food for soul, not body.

I sensed two things. One, that my searching was welcome in sacred space, even if that sacred space was holy words in a guard tower. Two, as I count the cost of war, I must concurrently search for the signs of life and how God is recreating precisely where it may seem all is lost.