Thoughts on Killing and Combat

One of the most sobering thoughts and challenges I face as a military chaplain is ministering to those who have directly engaged in the task of killing others in the line of duty. Recently, I’ve been re-reading LTC Dave Grossman’s fascinating book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. As a former Army Ranger, he looks at the effects of killing in war, both during the conflict and in its aftermath. As horrible as it may sound, this book is a compelling read, especially for anyone who may have to interact in any capacity (personally or professionally) with those who have killed in combat.

The first time I read this work was during my stint of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Washington. During that summer I had my first serious interactions, personally and pastorally, with individuals who had killed others in their service to our country. The book is filled with first-hand accounts from LTC Grossman’s decades of study and research, most of it spent talking with vets from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. While reading it, I couldn’t help but see how my training at USAFA had been part of a larger program to train me, quite bluntly, to kill.

Out of that initial reading, I wrote a reflection paper to share in my CPE group. I decided to revise it a bit and post it here, if for no other reason than to get us to be more thoughtful in our interactions with vets, soldiers, or police officers who may have had to face the horrible task of taking another life in the honorable calling to serve our nation and her people. Now almost fifteen years later, I have thankfully never had to kill anyone in the line of duty and would consider myself to have been resensitized to the atrocities that may have grown to be almost instinctive for a time.

Anyway, here is the short paper in its entirety. All that has substantively changed is the fact that I am not only now a non-combatant, as a chaplain I am forbidden from taking up arms and would never be called upon to engage in this sort of melee. Those to whom I have been called to minister, however, are not exempt from this very real possibility. (NOTE: The block quotes are taken from Grossman’s book mentioned here.) Continue reading

More A-musement (26 May)

Well, I’m home for the long weekend and don’t plan on spending any more time in front of this computer than is necessary. So this commercial is a logical choice for a bit of quick, weekend a-musement as it is the funniest commercial ever, hands down. (Hat tip to Sarah for this one!)

Counseling Training (BCC Week 3)

Here at Maxwell, week three has bit a bit like Groundhog Day.  It has been a continuation of last week’s counseling training focusing on marital enrichment and short-term pastoral counseling.  Sure, it isn’t Friday yet, but tomorrow is scheduled to wrap up two pretty intense weeks in the classroom.

That said, it has been very good, helpful training that the Air Force has invested lots of time and money into.  For one to take all this training ‘on the outside’ would easily cost several thousand dollars…the Air Force is clearly seeing some benefit to sink all the time and money into us.  The Army has been providing this training for several years, but the Air Force has only been doing do this intentionally for about the last six months.  In fact, we are only the third class to go through all of this training together.  While the hours have been long, hopefully we will have a chance to utilize our training in both our Air Force and civilian ministries. Continue reading

Thoughts on God’s Peace

Tomorrow morning, I will have the privilege of leading our BCC class in a short morning devotional. There will be no formal time of worship but a hymn or two, a time of prayer, and some brief reflections on God’s word.

As I prepare for this time, my heart cannot help but be drawn to many of the great difficulties of ministry in a military context…especially in deployed settings. To steal from Dickens, deployments are the best of times and worst of times. They are the best of times in that soldiers and airmen finally get to see the fruition of countless hours or even years of preparation, as they execute the tasks for which they have tirelessly trained. They are the worst of times because of separation from family, friends, home, church, and all things familiar. As you might expect, there are many trials and much suffering during deployments. Fortunately, it is into this suffering that chaplains have the privilege of speaking words of comfort and peace.

You may be thinking, “How can you possibly bring words of peace into the midst of such suffering?” Many have asked and tried to answer the question, but I honestly think this is the wrong question to ask because it pursues peace from a worldly perspective, as the absence of trouble. Jesus promised a different peace, a peace that surpasses understanding (Phil 4.7). “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 15.27).

Luther describes this peace beautifully:

You must not think that I [Jesus] give you peace such as the world gives. The world considers that peace means the removal of trouble or affliction…such peace, however, Christ does not give. He allows the affliction to remain and to oppress; yet he employs different tactics to bestow peace: he changes the heart, removing it from the affliction, not the affliction from the heart. (Sermons, Vol III)

We would do well to be reminded to seek this other-worldly peace of Christ, not expecting him to remove us from trouble but rejoicing that Emmanuel (God with us) comes to us in our suffering, reminding us of his gracious forgiveness and his promise never to leave or forsake us. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Putting the ‘A’ in Amusement

It was bound to happen.

It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of using big words, writing like I was an ivory tower academic, or being over analytical. Actually, those are fairly common criticisms, but I am doubly destined to such a fate by virtue of being both an engineer and chaplain by education and trade, what do you expect?! Such is life. So tonight, after a weekend of reading/writing on theology, counseling, and leadership, I’m taking a much-needed break in the name of frivolity.

But not without a bit of an English lesson first…

The verb ‘to muse’ is not one we use often today, but its meaning is pretty straightforward: to be absorbed in one’s thoughts, to consider thoughtfully or deeply, to think about carefully and at length, to ponder or ruminate. And as any grade school scholar will tell you, the prefix ‘a-‘ is used to negate the standard meaning or usage of a word. So, in the truest sense of a-musement, i.e. not thinking deeply, here are some thoughts on my pathological tastes in music.

As my loving and longsuffering wife will admit, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for angry women singers. In the 90s, who could possibly get enough of Four Non-Blondes, Alanis Morissette, or Meredith Brooks? More recently my heart has been stirred by a resurgence of the angry girl singer in the likes of Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone. But my current favorite angry girl singer has to be Avril Lavigne…oh sure, she’s belted out angry, punky lyrics in the past, but never before have they left me laughing out loud like her current song Girlfriend.

In case you haven’t heard the song, I’d equate it (to those who grew up in the 80s) as an angry modern version of Toni Basil’s Mickey with a terrific edge instead of the silly sugar-coated nonsense. If you’ve heard the song but not seen the video, it takes a hilarious song and really goes over the top.

  • Is it edifying? No.
  • Is it sensitive? Nope.
  • Is it like being back at [insert the name of your high school here] for three minutes and forty-seven seconds? It sure is, and that’s reason enough to watch and laugh.

Enjoy! We’ll put our game faces back on tomorrow, right, sis?

Jesus Finally Showed Up! (BCC Week 2)

Finally after over a week at the Chaplains’ Course (all Protestant Christians, remember), Jesus showed up! After a very frustrating first week at BCC, where Christ was all but absent and any mention of his name brought strange silence, by his grace he broke into our class in a very unexpected way…in counseling classes! Call me a skeptic, but I fully expected our counseling training here at CSI to be little more than secular psychology ‘baptized’ with a few Scripture verses here and there if we were lucky. Based on what I had seen in the Air Force and heard from others who had attended this course in the past, I admit that I held out little hope for this training.

This week we had training in suicide prevention, pre-marital counseling, and basic pastoral counseling. While some of this training had a secular background, our chaplain-instructor was clear to make his case that sin is at the core of all human problems and our ultimate point in counseling is to point folks to the cross of Christ. Hallelujah! It surely shouldn’t be novel that Christian pastoral counseling focus on the cross…but it was a breath of fresh air to hear him teach and lead us to explore the implication of the cross for particular counseling scenarios. All in all, it ended up being a very valuable week of pastoral instruction and training!

Here’s the real irony (maybe?), as a class made up primarily of those within the pale of Evangelical Christianity, it was NOT at the hands of an Evangelical that we were rescued from last week’s insanity. No, in fact, our sufferings last week were at the hands of cross-less and Christ-less Evangelicals…grace shined through into our class courtesy of a conservative Lutheran chaplain (Missouri Synod). In other words, we weren’t turned back to Christ by any of the glitzy, glamorous, trendy, exciting, relevance of contemporary Evangelical chri$tian thought but by a humble, Christ-centered attitude passed down by a German monk nearly 500 years ago:Luther

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death…This is most certainly true.”
(Martin Luther, Small Catechism)

Thank you, Doctor Luther, for again rescuing Christ’s Church from her Babylonian captivity…

Ascension Day and Evangelical Anti-Traditionalism

Happy Ascension Day! Jesus' Ascension

“Um, what?” you might ask. Ascension day, of course, is the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven forty days after his resurrection (cf. Luke 24.50-53 and Acts 1.6-11). I wonder how many Evangelicals celebrated this great event today? I wonder, in all honesty, how many of us have ever heard of it beyond some obscure reference on our calendars? It’s another indicator of the sad state of Evangelicalism and our utter disdain for much of anything traditional and/or historical within our worship and praxis.

Here’s the irony…among contemporary American Christians, Evangelicals have led the crusade for retaining traditional ‘American values’ and traditional ‘family values’ (ala Boy Scouts, the Book of Virtues, etc.). We have rallied together, seen each other at the pole, and lobbied strongly to hold tightly to many precious values and traditions esteemed through over 225 years of American history. None of this is necessarily wrong or bad in itself, but…

At the same time, these same Evangelicals have also led the way in the wholesale jettisoning  of traditions held for over 2000 years in the historic Christian church. More than that, we have done so proudly…to our shame.  (In all fairness, much of this disdain for tradition is inherited from our Puritan forefathers; however, in recent years, the pace at which we have moved further away from tradition has increased along with our arrogance.)

Can you for one second imagine the response to a serious suggestion that we do away with Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, or Thanksgiving? These institutions have had a much shorter history than traditional Christian festivals and feasts and are, honestly, much less significant.  How much sense does it make to jettison smugly so much of our Christian past when we would not dare yield an inch on so many less important secular traditions?  Our silliness is appalling.  Our increasing irreverence, shocking.  Our inevitable irrelevance, unavoidable.

Strange Land of the Chaplaincy (BCC Week 1)

The chaplaincy is a strange land, strange indeed.

It is no secret that the rank and file of the U.S. military is a conservative bunch that finds itself definitely on the right side of the spectrum of politics, society, and religion. Consequently, one would expect military chaplains to largely be conservative types as well, but that is simply not the case. Taking a cross section of the chaplaincy would reveal that, by and large, the exact opposite is true…at least among Protestants.

Now there are certainly ‘conservative’ Protestant chaplains, but in the chaplaincy as in the larger land of American Evangelicalism, ‘conservative’ usually has less to do with theological conservatism as it does political and social persuasion. To be more blunt, the moniker ‘conservative chaplain’ like ‘conservative Evangelical’ is more likely to mean ‘Republican’ than anything else. While there are indeed theologically conservative chaplains in the historical sense, there don’t seem to be many. In fact, there are many more ‘moderate’ or even ‘liberal’ chaplains…hands down.

All this makes for some interesting situations in class here at Maxwell AFB. For instance, during a session on ‘Cultivating Diversity’ our class was discussing the various reasons that different groups had a hard time living and working together and just what we as chaplains could do to foster a better climate in the Air Force. Keeping in mind that my class is 100% Protestant Christian chaplains (very unusual) and that this particular session was led by a Protestant Christian chaplain, the discussion sounded exactly like something that would take place in a sociology class at Yale. Various reasons were suggested why an adverse climate existed in some parts of the military: differing social backgrounds, cultural stereotypes, upbringing, ethnic prejudices, etc. I apparently went out on a limb by suggesting that the true, deep-seated reason for these conflicts was sin and the proper response to dealing with those who differed from us was to treat them graciously as Christ has treated us. Upon making this suggestion, the rather heated discussion we were having abruptly ceased, and the only sound to be heard for some time was a deafening silence…until our instructor started tap dancing around my proposal and returned to the earlier discussion.

Was my suggestion really that radical? From a Christian perspective, absolutely not! Did the class reaction to my comment surprise me? Not at all. Perhaps the situation is most profoundly summarized by an Army chaplain and seminary classmate of conservative Presbyterian persuasion who said to me today (via chat from Afghanistan), “The biggest problem I face as a conservative chaplain is the other chaplains.” Well said, Ben. Well said.