Category Archives: Navy Chaplaincy

Remembering Veterans’ Day: An Old Story

 I wrote this reflection back in 2007, while I was still on Active Duty in the Navy. It was something I didn’t share publicly, but needed to write anyway, for me. I wrote this during pre-seminary education/pastor phase of my life, and I’ve left it unchanged over the years.  So forgive any heresy, mistakes, lack of gender-inclusive language, and incoherence.  But I wanted to share with you all because Veteran’s Day is so important to me……


Passage: Romans 8:18-25

“The whole world groans.”  Just that statement by Paul in Romans pretty much sums up what we see around us everyday:  whether it’s in the news, in our workplace, communities, or our homes, “the whole world groans.”  And we hear it loud and clear.  This coming week, Veteran’s Day will be upon us.  It marks the remembrance of those who have served this country as members in our Armed Forces.  And for a lot of people, it’s the reminder that we live in a world where war is present.  And the reality that goes with war is that those who serve are killed.  We don’t really see it; we hear the numbers, but when it hits close to home, when we open the newspaper and read about some person from our hometown has been killed as a result of war, our grief and sorrow turns to anguish.  We’re moved to question, “why?”  “What’s the point?”  “What a senseless death?”

The problem with wars are that they are complex.  There are forces and motives and agendas that work behind the reality of the death and destruction that goes on.  We ask “why?” and then turn to those forces and agendas, and the people who make them, and try to make sense of the death that’s come so close to us by blaming them.  And what I’m not saying is that we shouldn’t question those forces and agendas or the people who make them, but in our blame, we don’t get any answers, we don’t find any comfort.  We’re left with our sorrow, and it turns to bitterness.

His name was Travis Manion.  He was a teammate of mine on the wrestling team at the Naval Academy.  We were a couple years apart, so I admit, I didn’t know him that well.  But, when the news hits and it’s one of your own, it affects you.  Travis was killed in a fire fight in Iraq April 27th of this year.  Another Academy brother killed.  Now, being in the service, I understand the cost of what we do; I understand what the military is about: our profession is fighting wars.  Fighting and dying is part of it.  But Travis’ death hit me a bit harder than most.  And I really don’t know why.  I think it was the fact for the first time, I found his death senseless.  It wasn’t a good death.  No one noticed, except for family and some of us who knew him; it wasn’t because he was involved in a major campaign, fighting to free a nation.

I read Travis’ Citation for his Silver Star, a pretty prestigious award.  It reads:

 “The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star medal posthumously to First Lieutenant Travis L. Manion, USMC

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action as Company Advisor, 3rd battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Army Division Military Transition Team, regimental Combat Team 6, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), in support of operation IRAQI FREEDOM on 27 April 2007.

As First Lieutenant Manion’s patrol concluded a search of a suspected insurgent house, it came under precision small arms fire attack. With the corpsman grievously wounded by enemy fire and the attack developing into a full-scale ambush, First Lieutenant Manion and a fellow Marine exposed themselves to the increasing fire to pull the corpsman out of the kill zone. After recovering the corpsman and administering first aid, First Lieutenant Manion led his patrol in a counter attack personally eliminating an enemy position with his M4 carbine and M2303 grenade launcher. As he continued to direct the patrol another Marine was wounded by the enemy’s accurate fire. He again moved across the kill zone, under fire by five insurgents, to recover the wounded Marine. Iraqi Army reinforcements, halted by an improvised explosive device, were unable to advance on the flank of the insurgents, and First Lieutenant Manion and his patrol found themselves taking fire from three sides. While fearlessly exposing himself to gain a more advantageous firing position and drawing enemy fire away from wounded Marines, First Lieutenant Manion was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper. His courageous and deliberate actions inspired the eventual counter attack and ultimately saved the lives of every member of his patrol. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Manion reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

As I read this, it dawned on me: Travis put himself in harm’s way for something well beyond a set of values or loyalty to country.  It went way beyond honor, courage, duty, integrity.  Travis put himself in harm’s way, at the expense of his life because of love.  In the midst of chaos and bullets flying everywhere, with members of his team being hit with enemy fire, Travis acted because of the love he had for those people.  It was to defend those around him who meant so much to him.  On a larger scale, it was out of love that Travis continued to serve.  Defending others in a place where freedoms and safety we take for granted are not daily realities for people, Travis understood the call to stand for those who had no voice.  One day, while back in the States, his brother joked if Travis broke his leg, he wouldn’t have to go back.  Travis replied by saying, “If not me, then who?” 

I’m not trying to glorify war, or what Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines do.  It’s a bloody, dirty, sobering experience.  Knowing that the things you do can ultimately end the lives of others, I find no glory in that.  But acting out of love for the neighbor, that is the call of the gospel.  God acted for us out of love at great cost, through the offering of his Son, Jesus Christ.  Christ died for the world out of God’s love for us.  Jesus’ words in John 15 assure us, “There is no greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  This is the proclamation of the gospel, that the depth of God’s love goes to such lengths, that he bore such a high cost in the humiliating and inglorious death of his Son on the Cross.

Paul’s words in Romans 8:18 comfort me.  “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  I think in Travis’ death, one I felt was so senseless, so empty, that something is revealed in it.  The suffering his family, his close friends, myself, and perhaps even this nation and yourselves have felt or are feeling are nothing in comparison to what is revealed in Travis’ death.  The glory revealed in such a death is that sacrificial love makes no regard for the self, it is purely out of the love we have for our neighbors.  It points directly to a God who loves us to the extent he has little regard for himself – he bears death.  If that is the case, than I think we can find hope in the realities of war, the reality of the deaths and sacrifices are military men and women make each day.  It’s the hope that people are acting not for the motives and agendas of politics and men, but it’s that people are acting out of love for others who cannot stand for themselves; for those who the reality of suffering and oppression are something we can’t even imagine here in our lives.

This Veteran’s Day, let our groans be joined with the groaning of others in this world, especially as we remember those we’ve lost due to war or other senseless acts.  But also, let us be reminded of what God has done for us, at great cost, out of love for us.  Let us honor those who have dedicated their lives in acting out of love and defense for their families, neighbors, and those who cannot fend for themselves.  In the midst of our groaning, let us hear of God’s great love for us, embodied in those who serve in our Armed Forces.  Amen.


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Final Thoughts from Navy Chaplain School: Defining the “American Dream”

“I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.” 

This past weekend, I came across this article in USA Today.  The writers did a little “informal” research to quantify just how much it costs to fund the “American Dream” – a lifestyle that apparently, every American is aspiring to.

I’ll let you check the article out to figure out what that final figure is, and what categories and descriptors they used to define the American Dream.  Their method is subjective at best, and if you take it for what it is, it’s a well-intentioned attempt to raise discussion about the points they’re trying to make.  But here’s what really interests me: They define the American Dream in terms of a financial number, a measure of wealth, and in material terms.  Based on what they’ve got down, the bottom line is that well, my wife and I aren’t living the American Dream.  Not even close.

But I guess the thing is, I don’t feel like I’m missing out.  Sure, I’d love to make more money (who doesn’t?) but the fact of the matter is, when my wife and I look at things, I think we’re doing pretty well.  And, if we were to decide to have a kid tomorrow, we’d still be ok.  Not only our present, but our future as well.  Yeah, we’re doing pretty good for the most part.

As I think about it more, I have to challenge the terms and categories they use to define what the “American Dream” is as a whole.  If it’s caught up in a quantity of money, defined by the material things we deem as unequivocally necessary for life but really aren’t, then we’re likely missing the mark completely.

If I were to define it, I’d say the American Dream is the opportunity to pursue the things that are life-giving to me, and being free to do so.  That definition of what is “life-giving” certainly differs for everyone; I know for me it’s informed by my religious faith, among other things.  I do think there are two overarching takeaways from this definition of “life-giving” though: one, a lot of us are able – and are – living it.  Two, it challenges us to be self-critical of the definitions and standards that are imposed on us and invites us to define our own standards for our lives.

On July 1st, Vice Admiral (VADM) Michelle Howard was promoted to Admiral (ADM) Howard – putting on a 4th star – and to the position of Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), the 2nd highest-ranking person in the Navy.  Here’s the thing: ADM Howard is the first female to become a 4-star admiral in the Navy, and is the first female and African-American to be appointed VCNO.

You think this isn’t significant?  Consider this: when ADM Howard called the uniform shop to get female shoulder boards with 4 stars on them for her promotion ceremony, the uniform shop workers replied, “We don’t have them….because we don’t make them.”  (They special ordered and made a set for her in time for her promotion ceremony!)

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said this about her promotion: “She is also a great example of how much we as a nation and a Navy lose if we put artificial barriers in, if we don’t judge people based on their ability, based on their capability. I hope I have always been passionate about that, but I know the intensity has increased since I am the father of three daughters, and I refuse to believe that there are any ceilings for them, glass or otherwise. That they can get to wherever their abilities can take them. And with that, they and countless others in the Navy now have a wonderful role model in Michelle Howard.”

Just in case you’re wondering if she’s undeserving, I’ll mention that ADM Howard was the Commander of Task Force 151 that conducted anti-piracy operations off of Africa…and was the person responsible for the rescue of the Maersk Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips.

I think ADM Howard’s story is one of opportunity – what will you do when presented with it?  

This past weekend, I got to travel with my wife to Charleston, SC for weekend liberty.  Charleston is a special place for me – it’s where my Navy career officially started at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command. I think about that opportunity and all it led to… difficult as it was, as much as I sometimes sacrificed, it afforded me to do something that shaped me as a person in so many good ways, and continues affect my life in the future.  (You’d be amazed at all the strange looks I get when people hear this pastor operated submarines and nuclear reactors in a previous line of work!)  It was life-giving, and continues to be so.

This brings me to my 2nd point: what exactly does it mean to life a life that’s “life-giving?”  While I was in Charleston, I was also able to visit and reconnect with some people I got to know during my time at Nuclear Power School almost 13 years ago.  I haven’t seen them in about 10 years….but the relationships continued this weekend as if we hadn’t missed a beat.  I think a lot about why that is and the simple fact is, despite the relatively short time I spent there, I invested in these folks, and they invested in me.  The relationships were lasting.  These are people who consider me their “son;” who I consider like “siblings” and “parents.”

And for me, the ability to have those types of relationships, and to have the freedom to reconnect with them, that is the American Dream.  No amount of money or material wealth could ever replace these people and the impact they’ve had on my life, and the impact they’ll continue to have.  It’s the quality of relationships such as these and so many others that define what the American Dream is to me.  I’m living it.  Of course, that means I have to make choices…..choosing things that afford me the opportunity to pursue those things that are life-giving in a lasting, enduring way.  It forces me to distinguish between needs and wants.

Before you write me off as sounding cliché, let me say this: I think if we pursue things that are really wants in life, it leads to an attitude of self-entitlement and scarcity.  I never have enough money.  I never have a big enough house or nice enough car.  I never have enough saved to retire early or to send my kids to that top private college.  I “need” (but really want) those things…..and honestly, I’m entitled to them.

If we ask ourselves what we actually need, it pushes us to live modestly, and to consider the needs of others in that decision-making process.  If I choose this or that, how does that affect those around me now and in the future? If I take out a mortgage on that extravagant house on the beach (which my wife and I are always “dreaming” about) how will that affect what we save for the future?  If we want to invest in those life-giving relationships, what do we have to “give up” to do that?  How do we live in a way that doesn’t waste, and leaves the world a better place for our kids?

So there ya go….my final thoughts from Navy Chaplaincy School as a finish the final two days of training.  The “American Dream” – what is life-giving today, tomorrow, and years from now, and choosing to invest in that now, and live into that for days to come.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and all the best in living the “American Dream” in your own ways….


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Lessons Learned: 4 Days in a Van, Navy-Style Field Trip, & the 4th of July

“I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.” 

Well, we just completed the last full week of training….4 days driving in vans with 30 other Navy Chaplains and Chaplain Candidates in training; visiting Navy/Marine Corps bases, sleeping on a ship tied pierside, watching Marine Corps recruits, and talking to a seemingly endless number of chaplains and unit commanders about the role of a chaplain and what’s important in ministry to sailors and marines.

Ok, let me first start off by saying this: it felt a lot like my Midshipman Summer Cruises during my Naval Academy days, and because of that, it was hard to stay motivated and focused because of what I like to call the “been there, done that” syndrome that Navy training can do to a person.  To be honest, it – and those 30 other people – started driving me crazy.

I think that’s a pretty human thing though; you stick that many people in close quarters, with a frantic and tiring schedule, people get stressed, and they start to get irritated. (Even 30 Chaplain/Pastor types!)  So I think in the midst of all the lessons and knowledge I gained over the weekend, the best lessons learned where those that came from dealing with people – living with them, and understanding that personalities can clash.   But as I’ve told countless athletes and sailors in my previous years on active duty, “Mistakes and conflicts and failings are always gonna happen….it’s how you respond, what you do after that fact, that says the most about you.”

And so I think I’ll take my own advice on that, and share a few of those “lessons learned” after that fact, now that I’ve had a shower, and I’m comfortably in my room and hanging out…..and a couple things heading into the 4th of July weekend:

– Sometimes you get roped into deep discussions….about nothing.  It’s intellectual “junk food” – tastes good and it’s enjoyable at the time but it honestly does nothing good for ya.  I often think of deep theological discussion, while beneficial, can take this turn so often.  Thankfully, I had one of those what we’d call “simpler” voices sort of snap me back to reality.  I think we need to talk more with those voices….and it’s a good reminder to do so, because it keeps us focused on what life and ministry is all about – grounded in the reality of living, breathing people.

– I am stubborn….when conflict arises with another, I have this really bad tendency to let it stew, and not go deal with it directly.  Of course, it happened this week – and while I eventually came to my senses and reconciled, it took me having to be prompted by another.   I’m thankful for those voices….but I also recognize I have to get better at being the bigger person and get past my stubbornness.

Here’s the deal: we so easily dehumanize and marginalize others in our minds when they aren’t responsive to us, or when conflict arises.  Our stubbornness makes us defensive and we want to be right.  We might call our behavior and attitudes a sense of justice, but it’s really just stubbornness that leads us to disconnect with others.  When that reconciling moment happens….you look at people in a different light.  You are more gracious in dealing with them.  And you start to actually see them as human beings worthy of love and care – your love and care.

– You’re never too good for anything – and the minute you think so, that’s when feelings of entitlement and cynicism set in.  In my “been there, done that” moments, there were times I felt like “I don’t need to be doing this.”  And you get cynical about why you’re even there – sleeping on a ship inport when you’ve done it so many times before, “motivational” shouting and “yes sirs”…..being a unqualified “student/trainee.”  All I could think about was “didn’t I do this during Plebe Summer like 17 years ago?”

But then you realize that the bulk of those around you haven’t had those experiences.  They’re important for them, just as they were for me so many years ago.  Those feelings of cynicism and entitlement do me no good, because they rob others of an experience that is valuable to them….and honestly, valuable – although in different ways – to me.

Case in point: we watched a graduation parade for new Marine Corps enlisted recruits.  I’ve seen and been a part of countless parades…..but to see the pride and precision of these young marines and their instructors, to see the pride and joy of the families that love them, I’m probably not so impressed by what I saw – because it isn’t new – but I am reminded in a very good way about why I chose to come back as a Navy chaplain, and to appreciate the joy and awe that others are experiencing…for the first time.

– During our van rides, for the most part we were pretty comfortable – two to a seat.  But we have to shift around, and at the beginning of the trip we had three in the seat ahead of us.  Now I realize one, I’m a relatively small guy, and two, a couple of the guys in the seat ahead of me were not.  Yet, I sat there and watched one guy be miserable all weekend – and didn’t once offer a swap.  Maybe it seems trivial, but the right thing to do is often the hard thing to do…..and I hate that I turned away from the need of another and instead to my own comfort.  Doing the right thing….it’s a constant internal battle, but one worth fighting.

It’s the 4th of July tomorrow, and I’m appreciative that I’m wearing the uniform again during this time, and I’m thankful for what a good thing it is to live in this country.  As I think about conflicts around the world, people who deal with much more difficult and serious issues… reminds me to put my “first world problems” in perspective.

Enjoy and celebrate the freedoms of living in this country this weekend.  I know the country’s not perfect, and there’s problems to solve, but for now, I think it’s totally fine to simply enjoy a 3-day weekend with family and friends.

And, for a little extra motivation: a great man passed away today.  I encourage you to check out his story….it’s men like this who really embody what our country is about, and I give great thanks for his life and witness!


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Thoughts from Navy Chaplaincy: Tidbits for “Being Church”

As many of you who’ve come across my blog know, I identify as a “multi-vocational” person – I’m pastor, Navy Chaplain, wrestling coach, husband and family member, among many things.  I like to make connections between the things I experience and learn and bring them into the other “vocations” or “spheres” of my life – for example, how does coaching wrestling inform what kind of pastor I am, or how does being a pastor inform what kind of husband I am.  In short, I’m always thinking about how God shows up in my life (or doesn’t)….in all aspects of it.

My time training at the Navy’s Chaplaincy School, as part of my basic leadership training as a Chaplain, is such an example.  For the past three weeks, I’ve been learning some of the basics of what it means to be a Navy Chaplain, and what it means to do ministry in a secular institution that invites people like me to minister publicly to its people because it believes it is beneficial for their lives….especially in a profession that raises so many moral, ethical, personal, and spiritual challenges.

I’ve enjoyed it a lot….and I’ve enjoyed it because what I’ve learned has got me thinking about the church, and doing ministry in a congregational setting – in the church.  I think the Navy Chaplaincy approach to ministry offers a lot of good things to think about for parish ministry (and I hope to talk with my two congregations about them when I get back!).  So, as I enter my last week of training, I want to offer you some of those tidbits from this past week – thoughts on some of those topics that frankly, congregations and pastors are always thinking and talking about.


is about growth – personal and spiritual growth – of the individual.

Growth is defined as people growing within their own tradition and beliefs – and the Navy Chaplain’s role is to help…..provide for those who are within our own faith tradition, and facilitate for the growth of those outside it.

Outreach then, is not about the preservation of a space/building/membership.

Social media….

fosters a lack of ownership and accountability for one’s thoughts and comments that face-to-face communication demands of people.

Does social media restrict the development of critical thinking, deeper thought? (We only think beyond 400-800 word blogs, 140 character tweets, etc)

Philosophy and Approach to Institutional Ministry…..

The institution (Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) has invited us (ministers, pastors) to publicize religion in a world where its privatized.  That is a privilege.

Our mission, then, is to help people see they have value…because our faith says that about humanity.

It means in a pluralistic environment, we have to put aside our “entitlements” and our theological commitments, and unit by a commitment to care for all people (institutional-mandated commitment).  Pluralism is complimentary in this approach.

Our challenge is to find language to speak to issues of dignity and humanity of people – to define these things as well as the medical profession does.  We speak to issues of shame/guilt – how do those we minister to see themselves?  How does those we minister to define shame and guilt?

Relevancy is an important issue….while the leaders and people we serve may think religion is irrelevant, and they will believe what they want….our role is to fulfill the institution’s commitment – to care for all people.

That means we make ourselves irrelevant when we close ourselves off from caring for all.

Well, that’s it.  What do you think?  How do you see any of this helping how we think about ministry in a parish/congregational setting?  Or do you think that institutional ministry – in our Armed Services – is simply disconnected from the ministry we do in the church?  

I’d love to hear what you think….as for me, our class is headed to Mayport, FL to visit a few surface ships and the Coast Guard station to experience that world a bit, and then we spend some time at Parris Island, SC at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot – watching young men and women become completely transformed from civilians to U.S. Marines!  It’s definitely feels like I’m going back to my U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman days – summer cruise/training!  But it should be fun…..

PS: All the best to the young men and women who will be sworn in July 1st for “I-Day” at the U.S. Naval Academy – the beginning of Plebe Summer and a 4-year journey unlike any other!

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The Difference between a “chapel” and a “church”

I’m in the midst of Navy Chaplain’s Basic Leadership Course right now, and this past week we discussed “occasional services” that chaplains perform – things like weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, etc.  One of the things we discussed was the use of the Navy’s chapels.

By definition, Navy chapels are not churches.  They are government-owned buildings designated as places where religious practices can happen.  They are not “sacred” spaces as churches are…so what we say is that the chapel is a tool that helps chaplains do their job to provide the means for religious practice according to the faith tradition they represent, facilitate the free practice of religious expression for according to their tradition, care for all people, and advise on moral, ethical, morale, and spiritual matters to their superiors.

One example our teacher gave: while overseas in the Middle East, some of the marines in the command he was assigned to asked if they could use the chapel to hold a Halo tournament.  “You got those big screens in there Chaps….is ok if we do that in there?”  Of course, they were allowed to use the chapel, and use it in that manner….because it was caring for those marines who spent their days around going out patrols and going into harm’s way.

I have to ask… we think and use our churches that way?  It seems so often, our churches are “sacred spaces” which means we keep them neat and orderly, arranged just so, and we make sure the things that get done in them are appropriate, and by the appropriate people.  And in order to keep them sacred, we devise a whole bunch of rules to make sure they stay that way.  This notion of sacredness isn’t just the sanctuary either….it’s the whole building, and even the surrounding grounds.

But what if “sacred space” was a place where people were invited in and experienced the love, grace, and care of God?  What if we provided our spaces for that, for that moment to happen?  What if we worried a bit less about the desecration of our spaces…..and made a lot less rules?

What if we thought of our churches more like military “chapels?”  

And if we did, is it just possible that things like a Halo tournament in the Middle East might be a “sacred” moment that blesses our spaces….that blesses “our” church?

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Making a Case for Military Chaplaincy

Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own based on my experiences in Navy Chaplaincy School, and do not represent official stances of the DoD, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.

It’s important I say that before I go forward – because I care deeply about chaplaincy to the sea services, and while I feel compelled to share what we do, I want to make it clear nothing I write here is official word or policy, and any contrary stance is expressed without intent or malice.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “why Navy Chaplaincy?”  I think back to my time of 8+ years of active duty, and Navy life is hard – deployments, following orders, restrictions on what you can and can’t do, fitting into a system of hierarchy in which obedience and discipline are requirements, not suggestions….and then there’s that whole profession of war thing.  Yet here I am – beck in the Navy as a chaplain.

As I’ve thought about “why Chaplaincy” I’m drawn to two things.  One has to do with ministry within an institution, and the other is personal.  That said, I want to make a case for chaplaincy in our Armed Forces, and perhaps you’ll walk away with a better understanding and appreciation for what these men and women do, and maybe even consider a call to care and minister to these awesome people!

Ministry within the Institution.  While sharing essential elements of ministry like worship leading, teaching, pastoral care, institutional ministry is different from parish ministry in a number of ways.  This is especially true within the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard (what I’ll refer to as the “sea services” from now on).  There are advantages to doing ministry within the institution: “insider” status/credibility, awareness of people’s needs, ready-made contact with non-faith affiliated, intentional culture of “unity with diversity.”

“Insider” status/credibility: As a Navy Chaplain, I am also a member of the institution as a naval officer.  That means I wear the uniform, follow the same rules of conduct, take an oath to defend the constitution and espouse the same values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.  The institution teaches me its customs and traditions and to an extent, its norms.  The institution virtually guarantees my place of status and gives me a certain degree of credibility within the institution and with its members.  Of course, this enhances with the building of good relationships founded on trust and love, but the point is that in a parish, you often come as the outsider – having to spend time figuring all this stuff out.  Even then you may never reach a degree of status and credibility as being “one of them” – a part of the community or parish at all.

Awareness of people’s needs: Let’s be honest, “who lives in their parish?”  Or, maybe a better question is, “Who lives with their parishioners?”  As a parish pastor, the answer is “no” to both of those questions.  One, I don’t want to live in an old church building, and I don’t think my wife would like it if I told her we were going to start living with folks in my congregations (and I bet they wouldn’t be too thrilled either)!  My point is: as much as we probably don’t want to admit it, our interactions are limited with our folks in the parish.  So it’s natural we aren’t truly aware of their needs fully.  And that’s ok…..I think the problem is that more often than not, everyone in the parish (pastor and parishioners) think they know and think they are aware of each other’s needs.  And that’s where the problems start (at least for me).

As a Navy Chaplain, you go to work with those you minister to every day.  You actually go spend time out in the middle of the ocean on a ship, spend time in the middle of a country on the other side of the world with them.  And because of that, you see everything – the good, the bad; their laughs, their tears; you see them save lives, you see them take them – and have to deal with the emotions that come with that.  You see them take wounds – physical, emotional, and spiritual – and you see them die from them.  And you see them wrestle with the idea of hope or joy coming out of any of that as well.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t done that as a Navy Chaplain yet.  But I’ve done it as a junior officer aboard a submarine; I’ve done it with NROTC Midshipmen and prior-enlisted sailors and marines in my office and in a university parking lot; I’ve done with on the pier while their ship sits in a dry dock all torn apart.  Trust me, when you live that close to people – unless you just go blind and deaf to it – you become fully aware of what’s going on in their lives.  You have awareness and access that takes years in the parish, if at all.

Ready-made contact with non-faith affiliated: This is the Navy’s terminology for “unbeliever” or “unchurched.”  Frankly, I like it better (much more unassuming and less biased about their notions of faith and spirituality).

Lots is being made these days about getting more people to come to church.  Some call it “bringing people to Jesus,” others call it “evangelism,” others “mission and witness.”  Hard thing is, in the parish, you often scratch your head, trying to figure out who those people are, and how to interact with them.  “Getting them in the door is half the battle”, you’ll probably hear folks in the parish say.

But in the Navy, you are contact with those people every day.  Trust me, there are lots of people in the Navy and Marine Corps that are in the category of the “non-faith affiliated.”  And while the rules are very clear we’re not there to convert, coerce, or proselytize to them, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be faithful examples that witness to the God we place our faith in.  Maybe that’s half the battle for us in the parish – doing that last part.  But in the sea services, that part is already done for ya!

Intentional Culture of unity with diversity: Churches, in general, are not diverse cultures.  They are often singular in race, socio-economic status, values, beliefs, and virtues.  The sea services are anything but that – it’s diversity of all kinds.  And as I mentioned before, the Navy actually has written regulations that promote and protect this culture of unity with diversity.

I’m not going to criticize the church for what they are now.  The Navy as a nonreligious organization enjoys dynamics that the church doesn’t.  But what this highlights for me is that as a Navy Chaplain, there are increased opportunities to engage diversity.  It’s an opportunity to engage in that diversity, share things, and as a person grow from those experiences as we minister to these people.

Personal story.  This past week, we were watching a video on suicide awareness and prevention during training.  The video interviewed service members and family of those who committed suicide.  A number of the interviewees had “dolphins” on – the warfare insignia/pin that submariners wear.

I felt that pretty deeply when I saw that….and I thought, “Those are MY people.”  Those are people signified those I’ve served with – brothers in the silent service.  I think of all the good people I served with as a submariner and I realize, they’re the reason I’m back in the Navy as a chaplain.

And really, it’s because of all the people I’ve served with, and still have a lot of respect and love for, that I decided to be a Navy Chaplain.  And I’m excited to care for and serve with those I’ll meet in the future.  We’re a country that’s been at war for the last 13 years….and it looks like it might be lasting a bit longer.  And for all the things that come with war – a reality I truly hope one day comes to an end – I know there are sailors, marines, Coast Guard men and women, and soldiers and airmen and women who will need the care of a chaplain who can proclaim the love and grace of God to them, an incarnational presence of Christ who speaks life and hope into suffering and death.

“Why chaplaincy?”

Because it matters.



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Lessons from Navy Chaplaincy: “Fighting with Honor” & the Church

It’s the weekend at “Phase 1,” and we’ve got some down time as a class.  I’ve really enjoyed the time to stop and have one-to-one conversations with folks – getting to know them, pick their brains, and listen to their stories of calling.  It’s what I enjoy about ministry, and honestly, it’s been super-inspiring and life-giving for me.  I can’t help but think….“this is what it truly means to be church.”

I headed out on a run along river in Columbia, SC this morning with some of my classmates, and one of them talked about her experiences within the United Methodist Church.  The big topic in the UMC these days is the issue of homosexuality, and she simply commented, “It’s just really sad and frustrating how mean and hateful people are in the whole conversation…..all we do is fight, and honestly, I think that’s what’s killing our church.”

As an ELCA-Lutheran who was around for our similar discussion in 2009, I get that.  And today, the way we talk to each other over disagreements is simply no better.  Whether within the denomination, with other Christians, or with people of other faiths (or no faith at all)….all we seem to do is fight.  You could make the case all we do is talk about other people rather than with them.

We talk about them – people who are different from us, people who differ in opinion, and we make all sorts of statements.  And while I could go on and on about what they are, the simple fact is this: we fight, and when we fight, we tend to dehumanize other and ourselves in the fight.

This first week of Phase 1 we’ve been talking a lot about what our role as Navy Chaplains to people who fight and are affected by wars.  As war gets more and more technological, and we distance ourselves from witnessing killing (don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes no longer applies), moral numbing is happening in our service members, and it’s leading to trauma (PTSD) that has damaging effects long after they return home.  And in my thoughts this week, I wonder what does it mean for us to wage war….to fight, but to do so with honor.  What does it mean to fight with honor?

War and fighting is a reality in our world.  We can’t avoid it, no matter how much we hate that it exists (and I do hate that war exists in our world).  And fighting exists in the church and our communities of faith too in the same way.  And I wonder if we shouldn’t be thinking so much about how not to fight….but rather, how do we fight with honor?

Honor for me is preserving humanity – both your own and your “enemy’s.”  In war, we aren’t just killing an image on a screen, a target in our sights, but rather we are taking human life.  And while I hate that our people have to do that – it’s an unavoidable reality that war brings.  What’s important is that we keep in mind we are taking a human life – and we acknowledge that causes conflict in us.  It isn’t good.  It’s horrific in fact.  We keep this in mind so that every time the button gets pushed, the order given, the trigger pulled, that decision isn’t made lightly, and it’s not celebrated.  In doing this, we preserve our own humanity as well.  We fight with honor.

What if we did the same thing in how we fight in the church.  We fight over issues of all kinds – doctrine, social justice, ministry, etc.  We can’t avoid it, no matter how much we hate that it exists.  In fact, maybe fighting is good for the church, because it’s in that struggle God can speak a word of redemption to us…a word of grace that speaks new life and salvation for the world.

But we fight preserving humanity.  We don’t dehumanize people with our weapons of words.  Every time we think, speak, or write, we do so with great care, and when we know our words might hurt others, we don’t express them lightly, and we don’t celebrate them.  And in doing so, we preserve our own humanity as well.  We fight with honor.  

Blessings to everyone on the rest of their weekend…..look for more thoughts from the #nuclearchaplain mid-week.  There’s just so many good thoughts coming out of my training here….and this is the gift of being a multi-vocational pastor brings.  God is good!




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