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Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart

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This is second 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 second 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. The first part is linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

“There is a twilight zone in our hearts that we ourselves cannot see. Even when we know quite a lot about ourselves-our gifts and weaknesses, our ambitions and aspirations, our motives and our drives-large parts of ourselves remain in the shadow of consciousness. This is a very good thing. We will always remain partially hidden to ourselves. Other people, especially those who love us, can often see our twilight zones better than we ourselves can. The way we are seen and understood by others is different from the way we see and understand ourselves. We will never fully know the significance of our presence in the lives of our friends. That’s a grace, a grace that calls us not only to humility, but to a deep trust in those who love us. It is the twilight zones of our hearts where true friendships are born.”Henri J. M. Nouwen

Dear Chaplain

The next section of our discussion is about the “minefields” that we so often encounter as Chaplains and to some degree as Ministers, Priests or Rabbis or other religious leaders. As I noted in the first section I am dividing these “minefields” into three major areas; the personal, the behavioral and the professional.

This section is about the “personal” minefields which I call the “Minefields of the Heart.” I call it this because it seems from the Christian and Jewish Scriptures the heart is the figurative locus of what we are, good and bad alike as human beings.

Of course there is always some spillage between the areas personal, behavior and professional areas and our behaviors and professional relationships are certainly influenced by the things that we hide deep in our hearts. As human beings we may try to compartmentalize our life to keep things apart such as keeping our personal life separate from our professional life, or hide behaviors from our friends, families, peers or co-workers; but the cold hard fact is whether we are aware of it or not each area impacts the other. If we are not aware of this fact, if we have little self awareness, if we have self awareness but try to live our lives with the illusion that we can separate our lives into neat little boxes we will most undoubtedly hurt ourselves, and as spiritual leaders harm those that come to us.

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There is a scene of the last episode of Star Trek the Next Generation entitled “All Good Things” that comes to mind.  In it the being known simply as “Q” helps Captain Picard discover how his actions influence human history.

Q: You just don’t get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.

Capt. Picard: When I realized the paradox.

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

You may wonder where I am going with this but it has to do with the personal minefields, those that exist inside of us, those that lurk beneath the surface which if we are unaware wreak havoc on everything else that we do. In the episode of Star Trek that I am referring to Captain Picard is allowed by Q to see the effects of his actions and to see how limited his thinking was.  The challenge for us is chaplains are to be aware of what Nouwen calls “the twilight zone in our hearts” and how what is at the depth of our heart impacts everything else that we do.

Too often though, mostly because of our own personal limitations and serious lack of real theological and pastoral formation involving self reflection and exploration we fail to see them. Like an uncharted minefield we are unaware of them until we either discover their existence through accident and “blow ourselves and others up” or until we listen to those that can see those twilight zones, those minefields better than we ourselves. Of course the latter, especially when it comes from those who love us, care for us and have our best at heart is the preferable method to learn about these things.

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However, that being said part of this can be done through reading. A lot of us simply read “how to” type books when it comes to ministry. We seek direct easy answers in how to run our programs be it in the church, in a para-church ministry or in the chaplaincy. Believe me there are plenty of those kinds of books out there, not only that but a plethora of “self help” books that tell us the “three things we must know” the “five whatever’s to success” or the Seven Habits of Highly Defective People.” The sad thing is, even when these books contain nuggets of truth, they serve it like fast food and reduce it to the lowest common denominator. In a sense, even the most well intentioned of these “how to” or “self help” books promote a reductionist view of faith, spirituality, psychology and in some cases ethics and doctrine.

Reading is important, especially the hard stuff, philosophy, history, moral theology, but also things that you might not expect science fiction for example. In addition classic literature from antiquity and from non-western traditions also sheds light on those personal minefields. Heck we can even find truth in television and film, note my continued references to Star Trek. I find that God can speak to us in many ways.

As Christians we may also find lessons, insights and inspiration from the Bible that can be quite helpful. Unfortunately most of us have so many theological filters in place that we often miss the very things that would be most helpful to us. They can serve as blinders that keep us from sensing what the Spirit of God is trying to teach us. Our church, denominational or theological traditions as well as our hermeneutical methods often cloud our minds to what God is trying so hard to say. It was a problem that the religious establishment of his time had with Jesus, and often with the various prophets that preceded him whose stories we read about in the Old Testament.

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I am sure that others who are not Christians can say similar things about their faith, traditions and holy books. I remember an Iraqi General who I met who took the time to show me his well worn and read Arabic-English Bible. He was a Moslem, but he said that he learned so much from it because it was different than what was in the Koran and he meant no disrespect of his own faith by saying that. He had opened his mind to truth that others turn a blind eye to.

Some of the personal issues that prove to be deadly include what we don’t know about ourselves, usually dating back to childhood, how were raised, how we see God, if we perceive ourselves to be worthy of God’s love or worthy of the love and respect of others.  Those attitudes, especially those created as a result of negative relationships or even physical, emotional or sexual abuse, abandonment and rejection are powerful. Many of us like to pretend that we have gotten past those things but few of us actually do. Unfortunately there is a tendency for those issues to raise their heads in often very ugly ways as we minister as Chaplains.

For example: Let us say that we are distrustful of authority because of having an abuse parent, that we fear that no matter how well we do that there is always someone waiting to take us down. Let us say that we had previous experiences in the church, at work or maybe in prior military service where we were mistreated by those in authority.

I have found that if that condition is not dealt with that in a hierarchical organization such as the Chaplain Corps and the military that it is almost always fatal to the ability of the chaplain to minister in the organization. That is because the military is based on trust, our lives and mission depend on it. We have to trust the chain of command, we have to trust those that serve alongside of us and we have to trust our subordinates. There may be times when the chain of command fails and things don’t go right. There are toxic leaders and there are also toxic chaplains, one has to be aware that they are out there, know how to deal with them or survive under their command but one cannot presume that everyone is like that, trust is essential.

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I find it interesting that Jesus commended the faith of the Roman Centurion when instead of asking Jesus to come to his house and heal his servant simply said “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”Matthew 8: 8b-9 Jesus told the people around that “he had not seen such faith in all of Israel.” Jesus saw the virtue of the Centurion, a virtue that many of his own people were lacking.

That is just one of a myriad of personal issues that can trip up a Chaplain in the military. The fact is that issues of the heart those things that we don’t like to admit are true about us, things that we are unaware about or in outright denial about in our lives are the things that go to the “heart” of who we are.

As fa as the minefields of my heart, they too are many. However the one that gets me time and time again is my passion for justice and my visceral reaction to those that I believe are bullies. That comes from my childhood. As a Navy brat I was always the new kid in town, and being that I was kind of the short, shy and introverted kid I was also kind of a nerd, or geek. I was not gifted with speed or great athletic abilities and it took me a while to find my academic prowess. That meant that I often didn’t fit in and though I was generally well liked that I would on occasion be bullied and I learned to defend myself, not very well at times but well enough to as the Klingons say “to die an honorable death.”

Jeremiah the prophet, who admittedly was most certainly clinically depressed if you look at his writings did note that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 Depressed or not Jeremiah did seem to understand that what he and many writers of scripture call “the heart” is hard to understand, especially when it is our own.

Thus I go back to Nouwen’s comment about the “twilight zone of the heart” that we cannot see. That it is why as Chaplains we have to develop relationships with people who can help us see what is in the twilight zone of our hearts and lovingly come alongside of us, not just as colleagues but as friends.

Those people may be clergy or other chaplains, but then they may not be. Perhaps they are senior enlisted personnel, long time friends, teachers, spiritual directors, counselors or our God forbid our spouses, I jest about the latter because my wife can see things about things about me that I cannot see, she is incredibly wise.

The minefields that exist in our hearts are so varied, so diverse and so treacherous. They have the potential to affect so many other parts of our lives. Thus for us as chaplains if we are not careful they can be destructive not only to us, but to those that we serve as well as those that we presume to love.

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When I look back at my career and I am honest about it, I can say without a doubt that most of the things that hurt me were a direct reflection of the minefields that were already present in my heart. When things that happened that I felt were unjust or threatening I reacted and quite often my reactions caused problems greater than what I was reacting to. All they needed was something to set them off. What I have come to understand is even though I have had a very successful and that I am now a Senior Officer that what lies in my heart can still blow me up and that I need to always be careful of those minefields that exist in the twilight zone of my heart.

Lao Tzu said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

That is the key, those things that emanate from the deepest recesses of our hearts are full of minefields and we need to guard our hearts and minds in this ministry that we are privileged to have as military chaplains.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Learning from David Wilkerson: A Reflective Moment

David Wilkerson died Wednesday in a tragic car wreck on a rural East Texas highway bridge. I wrote about this yesterday and have had more time to reflect on Reverend Wilkerson’s life and ministry and what struck me again and again as I read his blog posts and some of his books, was how he defied being put in a neat box.  It is a time for us to reflect on the life of the man and the content of his ministry so we might learn from him and serve God’s people.

If you cherry picked his writings you could paint a picture of him to make him in your own image. His theology was classic Pentecostalism and he was a Pre-Millennial Dispensationalist. These two pillars were foundational to his ministry. He was a young Pentecostal minister before Pentecostalism hit the mainstream and became a fashionable faith for well off political conservatives.  Pentecostalism began as a movement among the not so well to do back in the early part of the 20th Century. I think that gave David Wilkerson a heart to go into the slums of New York City and begin a ministry to gang members, drug abusers and prostitutes, people that most churches across the denomination spectrum of the day held in distain kind of like the religious crowd back in Jesus’ day.  He certainly didn’t go there for the money or for that matter with the goal of building a mega-church.  He went there because he heard about the violence and the suffering and he was used by God to change a lot of lives.  Likewise he never lost sight of that ministry but took it worldwide and then in the late 1980s when New York was in the tank awash in poverty crime and gang violence he went back. He took a former theater in Times Square which was the hub of all sorts of nastiness and planted a church there which is there to this day attracting a wide variety of parishioners and pilgrims.  By the church-growth school models it was not a smart move but he was obedient to the call that God had placed upon him two decades before.

His message was influenced by his Eschatology or belief in the End Times.  That message saturates his writings as he called people to be ready for the coming of the Lord, something that if I recall correctly is scriptural even if one does not embrace Wilkerson’s Dispensationalism as their eschatology. The Creed even says it “and he shall come again to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” Wilkerson was a Pentecostal in his understanding of this and also believed that God still speaks today and that the spiritual gift of prophecy was still operative in the church. In this he was not unique even if some of his warnings seemed overblown or did not take place.  However his messages were always full of sadness when he spoke of judgment and he obviously was not watching CNN on a daily basis to check out what changes he needed to make to his message to sell more books and tapes.  He was authentic and honest and the message that he preached came out of a heart that was broken for the people of the earth. Through his work with the least, the lost and the lonely he was very sensitive to injustice, greed and the cult of personality.  When he preached a message of impending judgment it was because he believed it and because like so many of the Biblical prophets, especially Jeremiah who he reminded me of.  One could disagree with his interpretation of the signs of the times but one could never doubt that he actually cared about those he was warning.

If that was all that you wanted to believe about him you could paint him as just another Fundamentalist preacher.  But he defied that label.  His work, preaching and life showed that he was a man who also embraced the call of Jesus to care for those who were not welcome in respectable circles making him somewhat of a social Gospel type as well. In his prophetic preaching he condemned the Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism and some of his harshest messages were to the financial elites especially the banking industry.

Another interesting thing about him was that as he grew in ministry he refused to judge or condemn individuals and unlike many popular preachers had friends who were homosexual.  He did not agree with their lifestyle and he was honest in what he believed about homosexuality when he dealt with them but he did not drive them away.  He hated what he believed were the sins of homosexuals but he actually had compassion for them and maintained friendships with homosexuals, in other words he hated what he believed to be their sin but loved them and had compassion for them.

Wilkerson held himself and others to very high standards of Christian conduct a direct outgrowth of Pentecostalism’s roots in the Holiness movement.  Again he wasn’t a hypocrite, in his writings he admitted his own struggles in regard to his faithfulness and what he believed were his own failings. When one reads his last several months of essays on his blog you see a man engaged in an intense personal spiritual struggle even as he sought to encourage others going through similar times.  His willingness to write about this was remarkable by present standards where so much allegedly Christian preaching is shallow and insipid pop-psychology covered with a veneer of Bible verses and baptized as “Christian teaching” by men and women that never admit their weakness or faults until a scandal erupts and they have to apologize.  His writings as I pointed out last night reminded me of Jeremiah the weeping prophet who undoubtedly suffered from severe depression and even a bit of Martin Luther who struggled with his own worthiness even as he proclaimed the message of being saved by grace through faith.

I think that we can really learn from David Wilkerson’s life without putting him on a pedestal and proclaiming him as some sort of extra-special Christian that he would tell us not to do.  He was not a man of pretense and if you read his writings there are in them a sense of humility and unworthiness that at times comes to the forefront.  I think we need to remember him as someone who was obedient and authentic in the way that he lived his life and conducted his ministry.  He didn’t seek out the approval of the rich or powerful and was not one who was a partisan political activist. Where he was politically active it was mostly at the local level in trying to help those without a voice.  He was not a pawn of either major political party. Liberals could agree with his messages against corporate greed while conservatives could agree with his message of personal responsibility.  He was simply a Christian minster who cared about the kind of people that Jesus hung out with most of the time.  He embodied the traditions of his Pentecostal faith and was not a man that pursued the latest and hottest ministry fads.

I think that those things make him unique and hard to copy. There will be those that seek to emulate him and if they do it in his spirit versus trying to “claim his mantle” as some would want to do they will do well. I hope that those that emulate him will do it in humility and seek to be who they are as Christians and ministers and care for those that he cared for rather than trying to mimic his prophetic messages.

As I read article after article about Reverend Wilkerson today I was struck that even those that disagreed with him had nothing bad to say about him. The closest thing to a snarky attitude in an article came from the Wall Street Journal which appeared attempt to smear him by noting that Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were fellow Assembly of God ministers and was the only paper to make light of his preaching.   The “liberal” New York Times, USA Today and others were much classier than the journal in writing about Wilkerson and good on them.

I didn’t agree with his eschatology and some of his teachings as I theological moderate from a catholic tradition. Likewise I see his struggle in his writings and I wonder about the circumstances of his death in light of those writings, but none of that takes away my admiration for his authenticity and willingness to care and be a voice for the least, the lost and the lonely.  We can only hope than in our time of economic crisis and political division that we will have more men like him who are authentic and faithfully proclaim the Word of God while caring for God’s people without seeking their own aggrandizement or power.

We thank God for David Wilkerson and for the lives that were changed through his ministry even as we pray for his family, friends and co-workers.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Unexplained and Tragic Death of David Wilkerson

The Reverend David Wilkerson 1931-2011

Renowned Pentecostal  preacher David Wilkerson was killed in an automobile accident in East Texas about 1PM yesterday.  Wilkerson was one of the more influential preachers of his era preaching a message of God’s love, God’s judgment and rigorous personal holiness. Unlike many of his contemporaries who embraced the “word of faith” and “prosperity gospel” message Wilkerson condemned that message without denying the fact that God still does miracles and answers prayers.  Likewise there was never any scandal associated with him or his ministry financial, sexual or otherwise.  He proclaimed many “prophetic” words concerning judgment upon the church and the world as the time of Jesus’ second coming approached. Whether one agreed with his prophecies or interpretation of the Biblical texts concerning the second coming or not one did not question the reality of his faith or his belief in the message that he preached.  In fact one can see even in his more extravagant prophecies a tone similar to that of the Old Testament prophets especially Jeremiah.

The heart of Wilkerson’s outreach was to people that much of the church had ignored or condemned, gang members, criminals, drug abusers and other young people who lived on the margins of society. One cannot deny his impact on those that he ministered to as well as those that he influenced.  Many young people who became Christians in the 1960s and 1970s, especially those that were considered “hippies” found his message attractive and many have talked of his influence in their lives and ministries.  In fact back in 1975 I remember reading his famous book The Cross and the Switchblade and actually being inspired by it.

When I heard that Reverend Wilkerson had died in a car crash I looked up the articles on the news and was surprised to see that he evidently swerved into an oncoming logging truck and was not wearing a seat belt.  I really found this strange.  Of course there are a number of reasons that this could have transpired he could have become distracted while driving, tried to avoid a small animal in the road, been startled by something or even experienced a sudden medical problem that caused him to lose control of the car.  Looking at the pictures on a local Texas television station of the car which is unrecognizable as to its make and model it is no wonder that he did not survive the crash. His wife was probably saved by her seat belt, she is recovering in hospital and I join with their family, friends, co-workers and those that he ministered to for her complete recovery.

As I searched for information on the crash I came across an article that included his last daily blog post which was posted in the hours before his death. As I read it I sensed a man struggling with faith and God a man who seems to have been enduring his own “Dark Night of the Soul.”  The article was entitled When All Means Fail http://davidwilkersontoday.blogspot.com/2011/04/when-all-means-fail.html and it is thought provoking especially when read in the light of the circumstances of his death. I repost it here because it appears to me to show a man struggling with burdens that are overwhelming. Please know as someone who has struggled greatly with faith that I seek in no way to cast any dispersion upon the life, ministry, character or godliness of David Wilkerson.  I do not know what he was facing but it was something incredibly painful that caused him in this post and many of his recent posts on his blog site and ministry web site to wrestle with God.  As a minster I know that many things that we write or preach about deal with the things that we are dealing with ourselves. Sometimes it seems that we are preaching as much to ourselves as to the people that God has entrusted to us.  Of course we are not alone even Paul the Apostle demonstrated such a struggle in the Letter to the Romans.

Wilkerson posted:

“To believe when all means fail is exceedingly pleasing to God and is most acceptable. Jesus said to Thomas, “You have believed because you have seen, but blessed are those that do believe and have not seen” (John 20:29).

Blessed are those who believe when there is no evidence of an answer to prayer—who trust beyond hope when all means have failed.

Someone has come to the place of hopelessness—the end of hope—the end of all means. A loved one is facing death and doctors give no hope. Death seems inevitable. Hope is gone. The miracle prayed for is not happening.

That is when Satan’s hordes come to attack your mind with fear, anger, overwhelming questions: “Where is your God now? You prayed until you had no tears left. You fasted. You stood on promises. You trusted.”

Blasphemous thoughts will be injected into your mind: “Prayer failed. Faith failed. Don’t quit on God—just do not trust him anymore. It doesn’t pay!”

Even questioning God’s existence will be injected into your mind. These have been the devices of Satan for centuries. Some of the godliest men and women who ever lived were under such demonic attacks.

To those going through the valley and shadow of death, hear this word: Weeping will last through some dark, awful nights—and in that darkness you will soon hear the Father whisper, “I am with you. I cannot tell you why right now, but one day it will all make sense. You will see it was all part of my plan. It was no accident. It was no failure on your part. Hold fast. Let me embrace you in your hour of pain.”

Beloved, God has never failed to act but in goodness and love. When all means fail—his love prevails. Hold fast to your faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world.”

If this were the only time that he wrote such deep and troubling words and if the circumstances of his death were different I would not have given the article a second thought.  But because of the circumstances I decided to keep reading. I read every blog post dating back to February and the topics of hopelessness, failure and struggle are present in almost every article.  They can be found here: http://davidwilkersontoday.blogspot.com/ and here http://www.worldchallenge.org/view/devotions

As I read these articles I felt the pain of a man who has been a weeping prophet and the mould of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah comes to my mind as his writings show a man that struggled with faith and was probably suffering from profound and deep depression and I get the same sense from Wilkerson’s writings.  Wilkerson’s prophetic words, be they true or not are not the words of a man who is angry and lashing out at the society around him.  They are, even dating back to the 1980s the words of a man who preaches out of a heart of sadness and concern for those people, nations and leaders that he believes are coming under the judgment of God.  I have seen some lash out and condemn Wilkerson as a false prophet because of the nature of his words but I cannot and will not do so even though I disagree with underlying premises of his eschatology.  Wilkerson cannot be compared to those that have made their living simply “studying Bible prophecy” and making money off of it or many of the other supposed modern day “prophets” who seem to believe that all they say is as inspired as the Scriptures themselves.  Wilkerson’s struggles which are so apparent in his writings show a personal humility and introspection lacking in the vast bulk of the self proclaimed prophets and Bible prophecy experts.

His writings of the past few months show a man concerned with not failing God and struggling with physical, spiritual or emotional pain of some kind. While the writings are almost always directed to the encouragement of God’s people there is also the sense that he was preaching to himself as much as anyone else.  I think that and preacher who is honest will admit that this is the case and it is not a mark of failure or lack of faith or character for this to be the case.  Likewise it is not hypocritical.

I don’t know what happened on that East Texas Highway yesterday. I don’t know if something happened to cause David Wilkerson to lose control of his vehicle or if in a moment of despair that he steered his vehicle into the oncoming truck. It doesn’t matter really because he is now with the Lord and he leaves the legacy of many changed lives and of faithfulness even while he struggled with things that we cannot fathom.  Perhaps we will know what happened someday but not today and it really doesn’t matter except if it was the latter and Wilkerson committed “suicide by car” it shows us that no-one, even famous preachers that we place on pedestals is immune from struggle, pain or doubt even while they struggle to believe.

We remember his life and ministry and we pray for his family. We trust his soul to God.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Note: I have closed comments to this article things seem to be getting repetitive.  I may reopen them if the situation warrants me doing so. Thank you to all that contributed even those that disagree with my speculation or even those that said bad things about me!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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