I think few would argue with me when I say that the job of a chaplain is not necessarily a physical job. Oh, sure we have our occasional display of superhumanity such as when my heart continues beating even after running a few miles trying to keep up with the much younger and obviously better fit soldiers that surround me. But overall, I think, being a chaplain is not unlike being an armchair when it comes to actual motion in the performance of the job. But that’s not to say it is an easy job. The difficulty of being a military chaplain during war comes not from the exertion of muscle and sinew, but from an altogether different kind of exercise. One that is unique to the chaplain, I believe. One that I have not seen explicitly addressed before.
In order to gain a clear understanding of the world of a chaplain you must understand that the chaplain is more than just a pastor in a pickle suit. The chaplain differs from the civilian clergyman in that he wears two primary hats; that of the pastor and spiritual guide and that of the staff officer and advisor to the commander. These two functions work in tandem with each other, the one making the other possible in a military setting. As a staff officer, the chaplain is part of the mission planning process. He speaks with and advises the commander, prior to most missions, of the moral, ethical, and religious aspects of a given mission. As a spiritual leader, the chaplain reaches out to those men and women who will actually be conducting the planned missions to offer them a spiritual foundation upon which to build their actions during the mission.
One of the things I do, and enjoy very much, is to muster with the soldiers as they gather in preparation of an evening of fighting, patrolling, flying, etc. In a word, I see them off. However, this is not the “seeing off” of the movies. This is not the mother, with her hair in a bun and her ankle length dust covered skirt standing on the wrap around porch waving her hanky as her boys head off to war. I’m not there as an observer. I’m not there as a bystander. I’m there as a participant. Instead of a weapon and body armor, I carry a small bottle of oil. As my soldiers prepare for their mission, without interfering with their activities, I walk around and pray for them and with them. It is something spectacular to see an American Soldier, armed to the gills with pistols and rifles and all manner of explosive accoutrements, covered head to toe with Kevlar, and watch him bow to pray as I dab oil on his forehead and pray the protection and blessing of God on his life and his mission. Then to hear that same battle hardened warrior, in a voice shaky from anticipation, adrenaline, and appreciation say, “Amen” and “Thank you, chaplain.” I then move from vehicle to vehicle, aircraft to aircraft, weapon system to weapon system, and like a cammie clad prophet of old, pray for the success of the mission and the safe return of the soldiers. The sounds of clinking armors and snorting horses can be heard as the entire entourage loads up and moves out to the objective, by air, by land, by foot. If you’ve never seen bravado or courage, you’re missing something. I see it before every mission.
Then comes the difficult part of being a chaplain in war. As the sounds of marching armies fades into the distance, the night closes in like a body bag and I’m left with the struggle that few others will ever experience. It is a fight with me and my theology. It is an individual free-for-all of the heart and soul. Alone in the dark, I hope and pray that my part was sufficient. I pray my life was what it needed to be for my prayers to be heard so that my boys would come home safely. Will someone die tonight because I didn’t pray hard enough, or long enough, or sincere enough? Did I use the right words or make the right motions? What in my life might cost someone theirs? This is the battle for the chaplain’s heart. It is an almost nightly occurrence. And I believe it could crush Atlas himself.
It is here, in the middle of questions and questioning, under the weight of the burden of lives not my own, that out of the darkness comes a single simple idea straight from the Throne of Grace. I did my part, now relax and let God do His. I’m the chaplain not the Lord. And until they return, I monitor the radio and continue to pray believing that God can do incredible things in the lives and spirits of my soldiers.
So I may not have the most difficult job, but it is a struggle nonetheless. I may not fight with my men, but I certainly fight for them. And we will continue to fight, physically and spiritually, until the struggle is ended, the war is won, and we can return home to the smiles of our families or the judgment of our God.