After Nineteen Years

Devotion for North American Division staff, September 16, 2020

This past Friday was the 19th anniversary of an event that is for most of us what the Kennedy assassination was for our parents—one of those days where you know exactly where you were and what you were doing.

I was in campus ministry then. I supervised ten directors of campus ministry centers in the Houston area, and I had stopped at Kroger to get donuts for our monthly staff meeting when I heard of the first plane hitting. Our meeting was shorter than usual, and I spent much of the rest of the day glued to the TV.

Darold Bigger was much closer. A long time theology professor at Walla Walla, he was a chaplain in the Navy Reserve. He rose to the rank of Rear Admiral, Lower Half (one star). When Barry Black was Chief of Chaplains for the Navy, Darold was his deputy for the Navy Reserve. He happened to be in Arlington then for his annual training. He was the senior chaplain on the ground at the Pentagon for the first couple days, coordinating the chaplain response.

You may have seen his reflections in the Review the other day.

Darold wrote,

I remember the sound of an airplane screaming overhead, then a loud thud.

I remember a terrified woman running toward us yelling, “Is this the end of the world? Is this the end of the world?” I remember thinking, If this is the end of the world, I want to be right here, comforting those who are terrified.

I remember the screams of burn victims quieting as I prayed with them.

I remember a man passing out bottles of water to first responders. Pointing to the gaping hole in the Pentagon, he said, “My wife works right there.”

I remember searching for a specific car in the Pentagon parking lot that belonged to a single mother, who that morning had left her 2-year-old with his grandparents and driven to work. I remember days later going with two other Navy officers to the grandparents’ house to tell them that the remains of their daughter had been identified.

For the past nineteen years, this has been our life as chaplains. Civilians tend to forget that we remain a nation at war. We do not.

We have three Seventh-day Adventist Army chaplains deployed right now, providing Religious Support in the US Army Central Command theater of operations that extends from Syria to Afghanistan. They serve nine month rotations in what is called the Global War on Terrorism. We have about 130 military chaplains, Army, Navy, and Air Force, Active, Guard, and Reserve. All pledged to serve “for God and country.” All know a time will come when they will be deployed to a combat zone. Away from their family for 6, 9, 12 months or more. Exposed to high risk. Maybe coming under fire. Maybe having to do memorial ceremonies for service members killed in combat. Maybe having to stand at the door of the next of kin with another officer to bear bad news.

In my 20 year Army career, I only had one combat deployment. That was in 2013. Some of our chaplains have had four, five, six, or more.

We deal with the wounds of war, too, both our military chaplains and our VA hospital chaplains. I’ve stood at the bed side of wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. I’ve ministered with service members, veterans, and their families dealing with Post Traumatic Stress and what we now call “Moral Injury”—the feelings of guilt and shame that often affect soldiers who have done things they knew crossed a moral line—or saw things done they could not prevent. Or felt themselves to be part of something that was wrong.

My professional focus the past ten years has been on suicide prevention. I’ve done two next of kin notifications—both were for active duty soldiers who died by suicide. One month I had five suicides in my Texas National Guard brigade. Three were in one week in one infantry battalion in the Rio Grande Valley. Six months later the commander of that battalion killed himself. At that point both the brigade commander and I took a break, transferred to the Army Reserve, and we both got positions at the Pentagon, which was my last assignment before I left military service 18 months ago.

Americans too often talk as if the wars were over. I even heard a national deputy commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars speak of the post-9/11 wars as in the past. But our friends are still in harm’s way. My cousin, commander of an Apache helicopter troop, returned from combat in Afghanistan a couple months ago—his squadron chaplain was one of our Adventist chaplains, Jose Merchan.

The death toll continues to creep upwards. We had 20 die in Iraq this year and 10 in Afghanistan, bringing the combined total to 7036.

That’s a number dwarfed by the 200,000 Americans who have died since February from a virus. Our chaplains have been busy there, too. We have nearly 500 Seventh-day Adventist healthcare chaplains on the front lines of that battle. Many of them are overworked. They, too, deal with PTSD and moral injury. They know this is no hoax, and so they also have to deal with the anger they feel when they hear people dismiss or deny or downplay that which is killing their patients and their fellow staff members.

Our role as Adventist Chaplaincy Ministers is to pastor those chaplains. In the military. In the hospitals. Those with police departments, the FBI, and other government agencies. Those in airports. Those who respond to disasters. My fellow assistant directors of ACM and I are like their ministerial directors. It’s an important part of our work that has been curtailed because we haven’t been able to be out there caring for them as we normally do.

Chaplains serve on the front lines—because that’s where Christ calls us. To follow him into humanity’s most hurting spaces.

To minister as Christ did is to go where there is hurt, where there is fear, where there is grief, where there is anger. Not to wave a magic wand and make it go away, but to be with those who suffer, to hold their pain close to our hearts, and to speak, when appropriate, of his presence, his love, his promises.

Some people say that we chaplains have “left the ministry.” A fellow pastor in Houston told people that when I deployed. He knew where I was. He knew what I was doing. But he told members of his church that I had left the ministry. We actually hear that a lot. But if this is what it means to leave the ministry, I have to wonder what their idea of ministry is.

The description of the work of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries in the NAD Working Policy quotes Sr. White’s comment in Ministry of Healing, page 143, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”

And when they followed him, Jesus showed them a different path. He spoke to people who were oppressed, who were grieving, who were traumatized, who were discouraged, who were angry and wanted revenge, who wanted to retaliate an eye for an eye against those who wronged them – and he showed them a different way.

“You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” He says that again and again in his Sermon on the Mount. Do not retaliate. Do not hate. Do not curse. But instead, show God’s love to all. Do good to those who do you harm. Show compassion to all who are hurting. Be peacemakers.

That is also what we chaplains do. We are peacemakers—even when we wear military uniforms. Because we are not merely chaplains, we are Seventh-day Adventist chaplains. We are pastors of a denomination that was formed during a time of Civil War by Christians devoted to the work of justice and abolition of slavery. But even though our forbears were completely supportive of the Northern cause, and were active in the work to free enslaved people from bondage, they refused to bear arms. In doing so, they kept up a tradition that began with the Millerites. William Miller, a combat veteran of the War of 1812, rejected arms after his conversion to Christ and was an advocate of non-resistance, and was praised by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison for this. All through the 1840s and 1850s you see Adventists like Joshua Himes taking a pledge of non-resistence, or condemning wars and violence. And calling people to be peacemakers. So when the Adventists in 1863 wrote to government officials, they were able to say, “This has always been our stance.” We do not kill—but we will do all we can to save life, and to protect life, and to heal those suffering from the wounds of war.

My unit fired no shots during our deployment and we were not fired upon. But we were in Kuwait to build relationships with the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. I participated in dialogues with Islamic Affairs Officers of the Kuwait Ministry of Defense. I went to meetings with my commander of military leaders from throughout the region. I took Soldiers on trips into town to visit the Grand Mosque of Kuwait, and museums of Islamic art in Kuwait City and in Doha, Qatar. To wander through the marketplaces meeting with people and talking with them. To see that the path to peace is not through violence, but through understanding.

On April 18, 2002, seven months after 9-11, the Seventh-day Adventist Church issued a Call for Peace. I urge you to read it and reflect upon it. It said,

The Seventh-day Adventist Church wishes to stand for the uncoercive harmony of God’s coming kingdom. This requires bridge-building to promote reconciliation between the various sides in a conflict. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “You will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Isa. 58:12). Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, wants His followers to be peacemakers in society and hence calls them blessed (Matt. 5:9).

It went on,

The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates what may be the second largest worldwide parochial school system. Each of its more than 6,000 schools, colleges, and universities is being asked to set aside one week each school year to emphasize and highlight, through various programs, respect, cultural awareness, nonviolence, peacemaking, conflict resolution, and reconciliation as a way of making a specifically “Adventist” contribution to a culture of social harmony and peace. With this in mind, the Church’s Education Department is preparing curricula and other materials to help in implementing this peace program.

The education of the church member in the pew, for nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation, needs to be an ongoing process. Pastors are being asked to use their pulpits to proclaim the gospel of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation which dissolves barriers created by race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and religion, and promotes peaceful human relations between individuals, groups, and nations.

It was a nice statement. But we never followed through with it. We didn’t do those things. We should.

We need to dig out that statement. We need to brush it off. We need to put it into action. The world is hurting more today than it was 19 years ago. Our nation is divided. We have work to do.

So I ask each department—education, look at that call for schools. Can you do it? Ministerial, look at what it says about pastors and their preaching. Can you do it? Youth and young adults, you have heard me speak about this–can you do it?

Lord, make us instruments of your peace
Where there is hatred, let us sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

O Divine Master, grant that we may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life