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.

bag

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.

bugle

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.

evening service

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.

canada

 

 

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.

Gratitude

Fridays, we get usually get the morning off for “resiliency”. Time to have a more relaxed morning, do my laundry, clean my living area and complete any errands. Usually, I get a few hours to read or write home. We all appreciate this “benefit” knowing that in past rotations or in hot combat zones, there is no time off. In this way, “down time” can be very situational.

This morning, on my way to breakfast I noticed a new neighbor. We have a Starbucks next to our living area but it was closed for renovations since before I arrived. Today, I saw that open sign and knew my resiliency day went up a notch.

Now I sit with a caffe mocha, thanks to my friend Steve Meints who sent me a gift card last month. Thanks Steve! I have a nice chair, copy of Stars and Stripes newpaper and my ipad ready to access free wifi. I feel elated for this taste of normalcy.

As I enjoyed my first sip, a fellow LTC civil affairs officer came in from my unit and I bought him a cup of coffee too. We sat for an hour discussing the Iraq elections and air drops by riggers in Afghanistan. I suppose the latter wasn’t “normal” for a weekend in America, but conversation with a friend over coffee, without a pending presentation was enjoyable.

The Starbuck staff were so friendly and my coffee tasted just like home. The first familiar coffee I’ve had since arriving. I’m not the biggest fan of the dining facility coffee, but who can complain if it is caffeine.

Last week, I sent a VGA cable to a fellow chaplain in Syria. He stood up a “chapel in a box” in a new location. He had everything for Sunday worship including a laptop and projector but somehow the cord from the laptop to the projector went missing. Our IT section found an extra in our supplies and the coveted cord went out in the APO mail the next morning. Needless to say, that chaplain isn’t enjoying Starbucks today because of the austerity of his location. So I’m counting my blessings and considering how I can multiply what I’ve been given to others.

We often fail to appreciate how much gratitude is tied to expectations. At home, I may not think twice about my cup of coffee. In Kuwait, I might not think twice about a VGA cord. And in Syria, we often don’t think twice about electricity while local villiagers just outside live on top of ruble, compliments of ISIS. And so, I am reminded today to set my expectations in view of what I do have instead of what I wish I had. I realize that my cup over-flows.

Line of Effort

Wednesday evening, the civil affairs officer loaded a van of Soldiers to attend “Iron Chariot”. The Kuwaiti Disabled Sport Club had invited us to play with their champion Paralympic basketball team, and the Bocia ball, fencing and table tennis athletes. The sports center itself was built by George H W Bush after the Gulf War and enjoyed a long partnership with the United States.

I was chosen to play Bocia ball and made quick friends with Fahad (green shirt) who taught me the rules and strategy to the game. He and his friends were amazingly precise in their throws despite contending with spasms from palsy at times. They knew just how to angle their wheel chairs for the perfect steal. More than once, Fahad reminded me, “you never give up”.

The welcome we received from the Kuwaiti club included flowers and metals for playing with their teams. The US ambassador and sports club owner shared in English and Arabic the history of wheelchair basketball, which WW2 injured veterans started in 1946. The sport now has an international federation.

The games at the Kuwaiti sports club were also an opportunity for Soldiers who can easily spend a deployment managing conflicts in the Middle East but never leave the confines of the base. It is possible to spend a year in Kuwait and never meet a Kuwaiti. I enjoyed not only a new sport but also meeting a courageous community.

The military categorizes this civil affairs event as a “line of effort” (LOE). LOEs are an organized way to link tasks with goal-oriented objectives. They focus our efforts toward strategic objectives. In this case, the LOE refers to enabling “sustainable military partner capacity”. It is perhaps, high language for enjoying a game of Bocia ball, but sometimes simple acts can become the bedrock of relationships. It takes those gut wrenching-got your back-sacrificial kinds of moments, but also those everyday encounters and practices of finding common ground with people different from ourselves.

A favorite quote of mine from legendary basketball coach John Wooden comes to mind, “don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” There are many constraints and conflicts in this part of the world. We all struggle to find answers to long-standing, overwhelming challenges. In spite of this, we can never lose sight of the big and small ways to make a difference and build bridges. You never know what potential can come from small things. After all, generations of disabled people benefit today from some WW2 vets who decided to try basketball, despite their injuries. A potential that somehow found its way back into a military LOE.

Stow Plan

6ADBFF5E-863D-4D0B-AA13-55F66E39A40FIt was difficult to decide which was more staggering, massive ships ready to load and unload in the Sea Port or the large, waiting lots full of “items” to come and go to their next destinations.  Only planning can link odd sizes, destinations and purposes together onto a floating ship to traverse the oceans.

Our team spent an afternoon visiting Soldiers working the Sea Port.  None of our ships were in that day, which allowed time to talk.  When a heavy lift ship docks, it is “all hands” until the load transfers.   Teams run in 24 hour ops directing the safety and organization of one thousand or more pieces to and from the ships.

However, all that hard work in the Kuwait sun is not for lack of planning.  One particular Soldier demonstrated how he spent his days planning the ship loads called Stow Plans.  “I have the best job”, he said “its like a giant Tetris game”.  He showed me the computer image of a ship he was working and how he needed to consider the height, weight and durability of each piece.  The most expensive and challenging pieces are helicopters because the blades needs to be far from shifting objects on rough seas.  He also studied how pieces interacted with each other—the wrong combinations set off combustible situations and HAZMAT disasters on board.  Of course, he considered the ship itself.  As he planned where to put each piece, he monitored how the ship would sit in the water.  A bad plan would tip the ship slightly causing it to list and be difficult to steer.  Long term, bad stow plans contribute to pressure and wear of the ship.  Finally, he began with the end in mind.  That helicopter had to be last in, first out, to reduce the risk of damage during the unload.  This young Soldier attended a two week school to start, followed by years of mentoring from experienced NCOs and continuing education classes.  So much goes into a stow plan.  The bottom line is that it takes discernment to move critical battle items across a sea.

I’m not trained to load ships, but I could relate to the wisdom of this Soldier’s training.  My role helping Soldiers navigate crisis depends on the work they do ahead of time in their soul stow plan and the work they do to make meaning after failures or loss.  It can be tempting to randomly load up on every idea, theology, emotionally charged experience that comes our way.  Sometimes, we simply borrow values from our parents or friends with little ownership to deeper meaning or accountability.  However, these approaches seldom survive storms and often the conflict between values and lack of deeper ownership makes it difficult to navigate trouble.  I often ask my Soldiers not only if they know what they believe, but why and do live it.  Suffering challenges purpose every time, but those with considered soul stow plans and flexibility to reorder with experience and good mentoring make the difference for those beliefs and values to actually help in combat.  As expensive as a helicopter is, it won’t help if you need a tank and visa versa, if I can make an analogy.  Worse case scenario, we find ourselves in conflict without resources because we never considered how to navigate the journey.

When I considered these things inwardly, and pondered in my heart that in kinship with wisdom there is immortality, and in friendship with her, pure delight, and in the labors of her hands, unfailing wealth, and in the experience of her company, understanding, and renown in sharing her words, I went about seeking how to get her for myself.”  Wisdom 8:17-18