24 October 2016
Camp Taji, Iraq
Beloved Saguaro Christian Church,
Greetings brothers and sisters! On this somewhat comfortable day here in Iraq, I carry my hope for you onto the pages you now read. Each day I wake with prayers for you on my heart and rejoice with you all the ways that God continues to shape and guide your lives and ministries. Celebration seems to be the theme these days. There is much to celebrate in the life of Saguaro. You held special services of worship to honor all the ways you are addressing hunger at the church’s doorstep. Many of you experienced the beautiful renewal of a spiritual retreat. The celebrations continue as you welcomed back Sarah Williams from India. In a world where people often wonder whether the spirit of the Living God still moves, it is meaningful to know that your ministries harness this spiritual gift.
Please know that I am doing well and that I am safe. No surprise, but I still miss my family terribly. Watching birthdays over FaceTime is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you actually get to witness the celebration, a privilege which many soldiers before me did not have. On the other hand, that tiny screen makes it painfully obvious that you are not there.
Thankfully, the weather is finally beginning to cool, which is a welcome reprieve. For whatever reason, the break in heat has decreased the intensity of the smells around here. I look forward to the day where I am not overwhelmed by the smell which I call, “Essence of Dirty Dudes and Toxic Dust”. At this point in the deployment, it is really about focusing on the small victories.
Celebrations are not always free of complications. These days our attention keeps a close watch on the happenings in Mosul, and the turning of the calendar which promises our return home. We spent successful months helping prepare the Iraqis for the fight. As we go about our day-to-day, one can’t help to look at the television screens and see the evidence of our logistical support for the effort up there. We resist the temptation to celebrate our efforts knowing that the fight there will be fierce and prolonged. I ask for you to pray for the families that are caught in the crossfire. It broke my heart to hear of a small village being massacred after the liberating forces moved too soon and DAESH circled back into the middle of the celebration leaving few alive. I cannot imagine such an evil, but I force myself to pray that God might change their hearts.
Like you at Saguaro, this past month was a time of celebration for me as well. The new Resiliency Center opened. We had a beautiful ceremony that was well-attended. Honestly, the Center (and especially the chapel within) is probably the nicest military-use building in Iraq. I called in all my favors for this project! Already we have uniquely increased the capacity of our care for the soldiers here in Iraq. We are learning that we are only scratching the surface of the Center’s full potential. When I hand over the Center soon, I pray that the new chaplains will take renewed energy and keep the momentum going. I hope that God will give them vision to see the opportunity this tool gives them in caring for our soldiers. I am thankful to be able to leave behind such a legacy.
Additionally, the time for my deployment personnel evaluation came due this month. Nothing brings back flashbacks of middle school more quickly than when the evaluations are conducted. The effort I provided was rated as Lieutenant Colonel quality work and I earned the highest evaluation, “top blocked”. I am not trying to boast, but I worked hard for the evaluation. That is the funny thing about the Army. You get report cards. When you get a good one, it is hard not to rush home to the people you love and pin it to the refrigerator!
I’m not going to lie; these days are a strange brew of emotions as I consider all the ways celebration manifested itself in October. It occurred to me last night on my walk back from the chapel that this week marks the 10th anniversary of my ordination. It seems like just yesterday. I remember waiting for the service to start at my home church in Henderson, Kentucky. Emily, my lady friend soon-to-be wife at the time, peeked her head into the office where I was sitting to let me know that the church wasn’t on fire. She guessed God was okay with the proceedings (I may be misremembering the exact details of this moment but it is more fun this way). I do remember clearly a retired minister sitting across from me. He smiled, “This is the official start of a great and challenging journey!”
As I type these words in Iraq, I can’t help but think that his observation was the understatement of a lifetime. Ministry has seldom been what I thought it would be – good and bad. Over the years I’ve made many mistakes and I’ve witnessed blessings beyond reason. And yet, here I am, thankful for the journey which humbles, bewilders, and stretches. It appears that God has not given up on me and neither have you.
We are getting closer.