Monthly Archives: February 2015

Ashes in Prison.

Now that I am no longer at the prison, I can reflect on some strong memories I have from there. Ash Wednesday is of particular note.

There hadn’t ever been an Ash Wed service before. It was not because there was not a need, there just had not been the energy to make it happen. In the prison system, everything runs according to a very strict, rigid schedule. Deviation from the standard, “schedule of calls” throws off the day and usually is not very helpful. The downside of this kind of rigidity is that being spontaneous and creative just makes a mess of the day, is frowned upon, and often just cannot happen. The upside is an extreme amount of predictability in my workday and the fact that while it was hard to change the schedule, once the change happened, it became an embedded part of the work day very quickly. That schedule of calls was a bit like the “law of the Medes and Persians.”

In order to make an Ash Wednesday service happen, I looked at the schedule and for reasons I do not remember, it couldn’t take place in the evening so I planned it for the opposite end of the spectrum, 0730-0800.

This meant that the prisoners would come to chapel instead of work call, attend service and then return to work after. One of the interesting impacts of this which I was not planning or intending for was that myself and my inmates were getting ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of the day. There is something very spiritually significant about “bearing the cross” all day long. Going to work, lunches, visiting, and interacting with my Soldiers while wearing an ashen cross. Over and over, every year I was at the prison, I would need to explain why “my forehead was dirty” or what Ash Wed was. Inmates who chose to come to service and wear the cross had to do so very publicly.

It put “bearing the cross” in a whole new light.

Not only was it a reminder of our own frailty and humanity, it was also a testimony to the Gospel. It took some courage to bear the cross.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

The first year, I was able to coordinate a service with our Catholic Deacon that provided pastoral care to Catholic inmates. This made the service truly eccumenical and helped to emphasize that in the Family of God, we can come together to recognize our shared humanity.

The second year, the power was out, the correctional specialists had switched to 12 hour shifts and the service had been lost in all the movement. I showed up that morning and was greeted by emergency lighting and the inmates were all still in their housing areas.

(side note: in military prisons, every inmate had a job. Every day is the same. Your cell pops open at 0500, breakfast soon after and by 0730, everyone is at work. Everyone goes to work, every. single. day. Therefore, the only time anyone is able to sleep in is Saturday and Sunday. Even then, you can’t really “sleep in” as wake up and breakfast always happen at the same time. However, you can go back to bed after breakfast if there is no work call. So when work call is cancelled and you have the opportunity to sleep a bit, it makes for a very quiet prison…)

So I had it put out over the sound system that there would be Ash Wed services that morning. I really didn’t expect much participation as work call had been cancelled and most everyone was taking advantage of the time to sleep away their time and to top it off, the Deacon could not come because of the weather.

But after putting out the word, the doors to the housing areas opened and out came inmate after inmate, filing into the chapel where we, with emergency lighting and no instruments, had our service of penitence and reflection.

The final Ash Wed service was a year ago today. I had mentioned in service on Sunday at my post congregation (Memorial Chapel) that I’d be conducting the service in the prison. A couple of my church members to include the Garrison Commander asked if they could join us in worship.

That morning everything worked, the schedule of calls was on time and the church was fairly full. Looking out over my congregation, it was a picture of the Church. The powerful and powerless, the formal worshippers next to the informal, the Catholics side by side with the Protestants, the Mormons next to the Baptists, the handsome next to the homely, the brown (prison uniform) next to the green (Army uniform), the inmate and the Garrison commander, the public sinners who were tried and condemned for their crimes and the private sinners who alone knew of their brokenness – I remember sitting in the pastor’s chair a little speechless by what was before me.

I knew it was to be my last Ash Wed service in the prison and very soon I would be leaving the prison and my inmates. My voice quivered when I started but soon confidence took over and the service went on. As inmates filed up to receive their ashes, the officers and Soldiers mingled with the prisoners, all one, all equal, all aware of their humanity and frailty.

Finally it was time for me to receive my ashes. I motioned to one of my inmates and, surprised, he came forward.
“Will you put the ashes on me?” He nodded.
I said the words, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the Gospel.” His hands trembled a bit as the prisoner applied the ashes to the chaplain’s forehead.

We are all one. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We all come from dust and no matter what power or prestige is given to us on earth, to dust we shall return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Sacred dust. Sacred Ash. Sacred Redemption.

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Ten Year Itch: Part Four – A conversation about two careers and conclusions

The last installment of the “Ten Year Itch” series is a conversation between Sara and I. We decided that it would be fitting, as we extrovert these thoughts about Active Duty, to also extrovert some of the thoughts, ideas, and motivations we have as a couple.

It’s the whole “one flesh” idea. Any choice that one person in a relationship makes impacts the other – it’s felt – by the other. Thoughts about the future are as much about Sara as they are about me. We are a “two-pastor family.”

It’s been pretty easy up to this point. As soon as I got pregnant with Sophia, I stopped working and spent the next several years home with our kids. “My career” was never an idea that crossed our minds; while I knew I wanted to work when the kids were older, I had no clarity on what that would be. We lived the maxim “Home is where the Army Sends You” – Jon went to work every day, I was a stay-at-home mom. Whenever we needed to move, nothing would change about my life except the location. And then, one day… I DID have clarity. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And it became clear very quickly that my path would not always be “Where the Army Sent Us.” So then what?

Your call was clear. Certainly more clear than I ever experienced mine. I remember the first time you stood behind the pulpit at Memorial – it was an almost electric feeling that went through me. You belonged there. I remember thinking how obvious it was that this was where you were supposed to be. Clearly, it wasn’t just me that saw that. It’s been true throughout the last few years.

This calling presents a significant problem – how do we, as a couple – pursue two distinct careers? I’ve known dual military officers, dual enlisted Soldiers, and dual chaplains. But I’ve yet to experience a successful active duty chaplain and full time pastor. I’m wondering what some of those barriers might be to have a two career family?

There are the obvious:

  • Moves to areas we can’t control. I happened into a great position here in Kentucky, but it’s very likely that the next duty station either won’t have a Disciples church, or that church won’t be hiring. While I’m still pursuing my MDiv and ordination, part time/ intern positions are great – but in a few years when I’m done with that, it will be difficult to go through the denominational Search & Call process with Army moves.
  • I will have to leave good situations prematurely.
  • Pastoring requires networking and building relationships in a community and region. This is hard to do with frequent moves.

When I think of the challenges, the one that sticks out the most to me is networking. The way I experience the Disciples working, a pastor needs to “build a brand” within the region and that takes time. Consistent time working within a region building a reputation that will follow you throughout your career. As you follow my career, I’m afraid you’ll just have to be a volunteer or intern for the next 10 years until you’ll be able to actually embrace your call.

But the alternative isn’t appealing either. The only way for me to fully “embrace my call” (as in, enter the Search & Call process and we move to the church who calls me) would be for you to either not work or have a portable career. We rely on your income, so that is not a realistic alternative – whether you were Active Duty, or worked in the Bureau of Prisons or VA or anything else. Sometimes it just seems as though there’s no win-win.

There must be. I think its somewhere in trusting the call. At the time of every Army move, we take into account your career and what is available to you and choose accordingly. Coming to Ft. Campbell turned out to be a great move for us as you were able to work at First Christian and proximity to school/family. I have to believe that this will continue. While I am not really committed to the idea that it will always work out like this, I do believe that there will be two good opportunities for us to be a part of God’s work wherever we go.

In many ways, we make the opportunities good ones.

I agree. I think the conversation isn’t “your career” vs “my career” – or even how much weight each of our careers carries in the decision-making process. We take it move by move, job by job. Sometimes it will be really great for me and not quite as fulfilling for you – other times it might be the opposite. There IS no perfect. I think the key is acknowledging this – and acknowledging the grief that each of us has in our personal sacrifice for the other.

And as we make these move-by-move decisions, there might be a point where we do something nearly solely for one or the other of us. I think the move to Hopkinsville was that: after I spent so many years unfulfilled and mostly unhappy, we moved here because it was good for me. The next move will be different. We each make sacrifices for the family, because what’s best for the family will not always be what is best for you or best for me.

I really like that “move by move, job by job” – I think this is the challenge that everyone has in this age. We live in a two-career/income society. Really, in many ways, the Army is part of that last vestige of single-income jobs that make the traditional “breadwinner” life possible. One of the people that come to mind is one of my old principles, Brian Foreman who now blogs at Luke1428 He and his wife made the choice to switch who became the breadwinner but it does not seem like an either/or choice but one where they chose what was best for their family. I see our responsibility to each other’s careers in a similar way – what is best for us right now? The future is always changing but what is best for us: me, you, the kids; in the now and immediate future?

I’m fascinated when I meet dual pastor families who have been doing this for years. I’m amazed how they have been able to manage two careers that are based so firmly in relationships. How they know members in each other’s congregations and are engaged in the social fabric of two churches. It binds the two congregations together in a intangible way.

While we’re far from having this figured out, I am encouraged that we have these conversations. I am constantly reminded that whatever we do – we’ll do it together. We think about the two-clergy couples we know, and it looks different for every single one of them. There’s no “right” answer; there’s only what’s best for our family in each time, in each place, given the information we have at the time.

Indeed. Thanks for having this conversation in public.

Conclusions

For what it’s worth, we’re nowhere closer to any decision than when we started the conversation. At the end of the day, choices like this are just choices. I like what Andrew commented a couple days ago – things that are life-changing and massively significant to us are not to God. Wherever we serve, whatever we set our hands to, God provides and blesses. I believe that. In the mean time, we serve with our whole hearts engaged in the task at hand.

Finishing in the Army would mean total flexibility after I finish my career and that’s significant. One thing I have determined in this thought exercise, my value of family is more important that just about anything and that we’re going to bloom wherever we’re planted. Things like retirement and salary are important but not at the expense of our family.

I have loved being a Soldier – not all of it – but it’s a part of me that will never really go away. I suspect that no matter where we end up a decade from now, Soldiering on will be the order of the day…

Thanks for taking this journey with us. I hope it’s given some clarity for you.

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Ten Year Itch: Part Three – The Retirement

With calling addressed. I’ll approach the sticky subject – money.

When the question, “should I leave Active Duty” comes up, invariably, the answers come back quickly. There is a short calculation, basically how many years do you have left until the magical 20, and then it’s, “well you only have XX left.” It’s all about the retirement.

US-Army-retired-logo

The military pension, as it exists today, was set up for another time. When it was instituted, life expectancy was much shorter and military pay did not equal civilian pay. This, of course had dramatically changed over the years with the advent of the all-volunteer force’s pay coming up to par and sometimes exceeding civilian pay. To be fair, the demands of military life certainly justify the pay and benefits and if you survive to 20 years, the defined benefits package includes half of your paycheck and free healthcare (among other things) for the rest of your life. It’s a sweet deal if you can pull it off.

There have been some proposals to change the system. Proposals that seem beneficial in the long run. As great a deal as it is, I’m wondering if its really a sustainable system when people like me can “retire” at 47, pull a paycheck (while pursuing another career) for the rest of my working days. Truth be told, all I need to do is make it another 10 years on AD (this means not getting into trouble and passing my bi-annual physical fitness test) and I’m set. For life.

Too good to be true? In some ways, it kind of is. It’s a little like winning lottery – the check of the month club – if by that you mean exchanging your blood, sweat and tears for 20 years… it’s all or nothing. Either you make it there or you don’t.

Of course, there is always the reserves – in which I have 11 years good time – which also pays a retirement albeit I cannot draw until I’m 58.

With all the upside, what is the personal and family cost of serving in the military?
I’ve spent years away from my family.
My family and I are currently living in the 9th house in 10 years of Active Duty. My kids, ages 3,5,7, are in their third school district in as many states and 4th school. I think that as a field grade my moves might slow down a little but they haven’t yet and if I extrapolate that reality over another decade, my daughter might be in as many as ten different schools before she graduates high school.
These continual moves have been an adventure and we’ve adapted well but every one wears on me a little more. The last two were just work. No fun. No adventure. Just the “cost of doing business.”
When deployments happen, it’s 24/7 – the work never stops. Basically, the deployed Soldier just lives for the day that he or she can come home and rest. Only, there really isn’t rest for the weary. There is just more work. The optemp of the active duty force is all day/every day. After all, there are other Soldiers deployed and we can rest… when we retire…
We’ve not lived close to family – ever – all our vacations revolve around seeing them. I know this is a reality for many people in and out of the military but it’s a cost nonetheless.
The physical/emotional/spiritual cost on my personal wellbeing is intangible but there are days I feel it deeply.
My children make friends quickly and then suffer when we leave and we are always leaving. Sara and I find that it’s getting harder to maintain deep relationships since we’re always the one’s leaving.
My wife’s career is on hold until I get out. She can always get more education but to actual get a church, she needs stability and to network in a region. I’m not willing to be a geographical bachelor.
And then, there is the very real risk – to my life – being a Soldier. It was one thing to take that risk ten years ago with no children but I’ve changed, I have three who are very dear to me and it weighs on my shoulders.

But it is also true, we are well-compensated. I’ve gained a great deal from my time in the Army, not the least of which has been a DMin (still working on that one), 4 units of CPE and a residency, and all the experience that comes with a decade of ministry.

If I left, it would cost of a great deal. Besides drawing a pension at 47, there would be the exemptions I have from state income tax, homestead exemption, free healthcare (no copays, no deductibles) and other benefits I can’t really think of right now.

The benefits are tangible, the cost, less so.

Which is why Army service is never usually talked about in purely monetary terms – it’s not like other occupations – it’s a calling for most and chaplains especially.

Over the years the most impressive people I’ve met, those whose life has stood out to me are people that have such a clear sense of call that their service in the Army is just a part of that call rather than the sum total. Chaplains who served their deployments and got out (or went to the reserves) because their call to preach/family was stronger than the retirement. Soldiers whose calling to be a firefighter/doctor/police officer/business executive were stronger than a simple 20 year retirement.

Soldiers for whom the Army was a part of their identity but not their entire identity.

In many ways, I’ve envied them, looked up to them, wished I had such clarity of vision myself.

But then, I enjoy being a chaplain. I always have. There are parts I don’t enjoy but there are parts of any vocation that are not fun. What is remarkable to me is that the parts I no longer enjoy are the parts of this work that brought me in in the first place. That’s significant to me.

I have other options. Because of my 4 units of CPE, hospital and prison experience, I’m a good candidate for either the Department of Veteran Affairs or the Federal Bureau of Prisons, both of which would count my ten years of federal service toward a federal retirement.

If, in fact, a retirement was what drove me.

What drives me is fulfillment of the calling, the burning in my soul to be there for the outcast, the forgotten, and the underserved; to preach and teach.

The most fulfilled I’ve ever been was the last two years serving the inmates at the JRCF/USDB and the little congregation at Memorial Chapel. My weeks were full and I was often tired but it was a good tired – like a great workout at the gym – I knew what I was doing mattered. Every. Single. Day.

When it comes to retirement and compensation I’m reminded of a story in our family. There was a time in my mom and dad’s life when they were poor and just starting out. They needed some dishes and a church mother gave them some from her attic. They were beautiful plates with gold rims and ornate designs on them. My father, being a son of the Midwest, was astounded at the gift. He responded to the generosity with, “we can’t take these they are much too nice.” The Minnesota grandmother’s response has always stuck with me, “The’ re just things pastor, just things.”

It’s just money. Just money.

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Ten Year Itch Part 2: Calling

When I was in college, it was always a mystery to me how other “preacher boys” (always boys of course) just knew God’s exact will for their lives. I mean they KNEW it. There was this whole ritual that included finding a verse in the Bible (the more obscure the better) that spoke to them in “just that way” and somehow pinpointed on a map the exact location, job title, and sometimes the woman who would accompany them and bear their children…. sometimes the woman knew too…

Then there was passive-aggressive breakup move (might have used it myself a time or two *rolls head in shame*) where the guy would ask out a girl because he was following God’s leading, rejoice in God’s bounty as the relationship progressed, experience a “check in their spirit” as the relationship started to be, oh I don’t know, normal and finally, once again following the leading of God, break-up with the girl. God’s will all the way.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

So what then is a call?

Maybe it would be better to ask, what is NOT a call? I knew that whatever clear guidance the other guys I went to school with were feeling, I was not getting it. I knew it wasn’t some kind of warm feeling. Turns out, that Scripture means whatever you want it to mean so that wasn’t helpful. I never had a “burning in the bosom.” All my campfire decisions were exactly that. As an adult looking back, I can see my family of origin issues in every life altering declaration of God’s leading.

For many years, I put hope in that tired axiom, “if you can do anything else in life, you probably should. If you are called to preach, you won’t be able to do anything else.” But then, I love to preach. I mean, I really enjoy preparing and delivering sermons. I get meaning the purpose from preaching. I am more myself there than about anywhere but… there are many ways I can earn a living and not preach. Typing this blog post, as an Active Duty Army Chaplain, I have not preached a sermon in 9 months.

9 months.

In 15 years of full time Christian ministry, I’ve never made my living as a preacher. Ever. I’ve been a teacher, worship leader, chaplain etc. But paid as a preacher – not so much. And I’m ok with that. I came to terms years ago with working a meaningful, fulfilling job to finance my preaching habit. Often, it seems the best ministry I’ve done has been on my time, voluntarily given.

As a young man, I declared that I was “called to preach” and I believe that I was even if I’m not sure as an adult, what that means.

What is a call?

Direction. Meaning. Purpose. Fulfillment. Opportunity.

It’s that moment in a believers life when she or he experiences the intersection of what they love and a real human need. It’s getting on board with the plan the Divine has for the world. It’s knowing that what you are about is what God is about.

I experienced it in the classroom at New Life Christian School in Dunellen, NJ. I loved being a teacher. Not every day, but most days.
I experienced it downrange, in Iraq, serving the Soldiers of 2-121 Infantry Battalion and the 603d Aviation Support Battalion.
I experienced it teaching ethics to the medical hold Soldiers of the 832d Ordinance Battalion.
I experienced it, deeply, in my Clinical Pastoral Education group.
I experienced it teaching Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) to civilians who volunteered at a homeless shelter in Huntsville, AL
The day I walked into a prison, I knew I was where I needed to be. It’s existential, it’s mystical, it’s spiritual – and it was clear. I experienced it throughout my time both at the Joint Regional Correctional Facility and the United States Disciplinary Barracks.

I experience it every single time and get behind a pulpit and preach. It’s what I’m here for.

A calling is sacred. A calling is personal. It is fundamental to my journey as a Christian.

But does it change?

I’m not sure. I know I have changed. I have grown. I’ve become a different person than I was ten years ago when I started this journey.

Was I called in the Army?
I have a journal that I kept while teaching that first year at New Life. In it, close to the front, bookended by one of those “God’s leading” relationships – 9/11 happened. Jesse Gardner and I sat in a room that included kids who parents worked down at/by the Towers and watched them collapse. We gathered on that Wednesday night service the next day as traumatized Christians gathered, prayed and told their stories. At the end of the week, I wrote, “This week the Towers went down. We’re going to war. I don’t know how or when but I’m going to be a part of this.”

I tried to join the Army that fall but medical issues kept me out.

I came in several years later after completing seminary. Deployments defined the first 5 years, then a year interlude at an Advanced Individual Training unit, and then CPE, then the prison. My time in the Army has been one of constant engagement in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s been amazing.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

But was I called?
Not sure. I know I wanted an adventure. I knew I wanted an opportunity to prove my manhood. I knew I wanted to go to war. I knew I wanted to fulfill a childhood dream.

I did all that. Checked those blocks. I finally arrived at Ft. Campbell and now, I just don’t like any of it. The possibility of going to Air Assault school just pains me and the talk of war saddens me. The man who came into the Army a decade ago joined to go to war. He had no children and no real future plans. He just had a passion and needed to accomplish something.

Does calling change?
I still love preaching. I still love teaching. I still love work in which there is a clear line connecting the work I do with changed lives and the visible working of God in other’s lives. That has not changed.

You know, it occurs to me that I’ve never believed that the specific location really mattered in terms of exercising a call to ministry. Just do the work and the location/job title/congregation will take care of itself.

During my time at CPE, I developed this pattern of call, it’s not for everyone but it’s how I work with God’s call in my life:

There are human needs, there is the Divine plan to meet those needs, there are my hopes/desires/skills/gifts and they intersect. This vocation is then confirmed by others who, themselves, follow close to God’s voice. Calling/confirmation. It’s what works in my life.

I’m interested in what others have experienced in relationship to ” the call.

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The Ten Year Itch. Part One.

In which I ask the question, “should I stay or should I go now?” And for introducing that ear-worm of a song into your head, you’re welcome.

When I started blogging… ten years ago… I did so with the intent of extroverting the new, exciting adventure I was undertaking – becoming an Army Chaplain.

The journey took many forms and at one point, I stopped blogging for 4 years while I figured out who I was theologically. I’ve been committed to saying out loud things that are often just questions asked internally. I’ve discovered, by extroverting those thoughts, that others are feeling them, experiencing them, asking them. I’ve enjoyed the community of questioning.

Side note: I don’t have all my blog posts any more so I am not sure if I ever told this story – the time I quit blogging was because after that second deployment, I knew that I wasn’t an evangelical anymore. I had stopped calling myself a fundamentalist years before but was holding out on the notion of being an “evangelical.” I explored some of my questioning internally and was reading a great deal at the time. I posted how I was more “ecumenical and open” than I had ever been before and how central the Lord’s Table had become to my expression of Christianity. My endorser at the time was a fundamentalist group who had endorsed me since coming into the Army (they charged me $160 a month for the privilege – but that’s another story). This group had not interacted with me at all. They didn’t call, they didn’t write – as long as I submitted my monthly report of numbers saved, baptized, coming to church, Bible study etc. I was good.

Until I posted that on my blog.

Two weeks. That’s all it took. Two weeks later, I sat in a Golden Coral in Savannah, GA convincing them that I had not strayed from the fold and was a good chaplain still. I knew then that I needed to get out and into something that was a better expression of who I was. After moving to Huntsville, AL and meeting the wonderful folks at First Christian Church, Huntsville and Pastor Guy McCombs, I knew I was home.

That’s why I needed to stop blogging for awhile. I knew that if they pulled my endorsement, I’d have to leave the Army and I was not ready to do that at the time.

I was thinking about that story this morning while reading this post on becoming a disciple. Or at least why you should think about becoming one… we’d never just ask you to be one or certainly tell you that it’s better than anyone else. We’re a bit too polite for all that…

I love being in the Disciples because there is room for me and there is room for everyone else at the Table. There are room for the questions. Isn’t community like that what Christianity is at it’s best?

This post is part one of a series I’m going to do on midlife career changes.

Yup, you heard that correctly, I’m thinking of a career change.

Not too drastic but certainly not Active Duty Army any more.

Or, maybe I’ll stay. That’s the thing, over the years, I’ve wanted to shine a light on the journey of a chaplain and these questions are a part of that journey.

Questions:

  1. What is a calling and does that calling change as we change?
  2. What role should finances play in pursuing a call?
  3. Is personal happiness and fulfillment more important that taking care of your family as best you can?
  4. What about suffering in the now to reap the greater reward in the future?
  5. How does a couple, who both are pursuing careers, balance all of the above and still develop those careers? What responsibility do I have to my wife’s career?
  6. Where does serving God and making good money intersect?
  7. What would God have me do?

The answers might end up being that I need to stay in the Active rolls, continue my journey and end in 10-20 more years.

The answer might be that it’s time to take my talents/abilities/calling to another field and work there.

Either way, I want to be certain that I am leaving to pursue a calling deeper and fuller than the one that brought me into the Corps in the first place.

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