“The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.” ― Karl Barth
This is fifth part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the fifth of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. As I wrote this tonight I thought of one more installment so I expect soon that I will write it, but not tonight. The first three parts are linked here:
It has been a while since I started this series so tonight I figured that I would quickly finish what I started. The young Chaplain who I wrote this for is about to report to his new assignment and I do wish him well and pray that he will do well in it. If things go as I expect and he does well he should still be serving as a chaplain at least 15 years after I retire.
Thus for me this series is in a sense about passing the torch. I figure that in five or six years I will finally retire from the Navy Chaplain Corps. Of course that could change because I’m not God and so until I actually retire I will keep my head in the game. There is always a new generation and those of us who have labored need to be there for and be ready to do all we can to help, encourage and mentor those who follow us.
One of the things that I have learned over the course of 32 years in the military and 21 years as a military chaplain is that one must keep a sense of humor and not take oneself too seriously. In that time I have ran into many a chaplain and minister who lived their lives bereft of a sense of humor, had no ability to laugh at themselves and who were positively gloomy people. Saint Teresa of Avila made the comment “God save us from gloomy saints!” I think that she was right and she did take fire from people in the church because of her joyous spirit.
Now I have my times where I am not a happy camper. I can be morose and moody and sometimes even a bit cynical. However, that being said I try not to live my life that way and certainly do my best to keep a sense of humor, laugh at myself and even when things are not going well to try to find a silver lining in the otherwise dark clouds.
Chaplains have a unique ministry. We are not cloistered in parishes or trying to build churches. We serve in a secular institution with people who volunteer to serve their nation in often dangerous, lonely and arduous manners. Those who serve alongside of us on our ships, or in our units we in the Navy call “shipmate” and that transcends differences in religious beliefs, politics or philosophy. As the chaplain it is our duty in this secular institution to care for the people who we serve alongside. They are our parish whether they be believers or not. Pastoral care in this setting is about caring for and loving people who many times don’t believe like us (no matter what our religious tradition) respecting their faith or beliefs and treating them with the same dignity that we would want others to treat us, our families or our friends.
For me this is a joyful life. I like working outside the brick and mortar of the church because it suits my personality and way of doing life. I was a Navy “Brat” growing up. Had it not been for a Roman Catholic Navy Chaplain who helped care for my family when my dad was in Vietnam and a civilian church of our denomination made us unwelcome. I trace my calling back to that man. He was not about pushing his denominational or personal agenda, he simply cared about a military family who needed it.
I think that approaching life and ministry as a chaplain with joy is paramount. It is I think a reflection of the grace of God. As Karl Barth said: “Grace creates liberated laughter. The grace of God…is beautiful, and it radiates joy and awakens humor.”
In our military careers we chaplains will find many opportunities to lose our joy, to become graceless and to become consumed with our own status, promotion and even power. It is a temptation and danger of any kind of institutional ministry where there is an “up or out” promotion system. Thus we must be careful to keep our focus on caring for others, doing our best in all things, build collegial relationships and real friendships with others and trust God with how everything else works out.
Joy is essential if we are to be living sacraments or vehicles of God’s grace and we have to chose joy. As Henri J. M. Nouwen said: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
So count it all joy.