Reflections from Christmas Eve in Iraq – 2016

by Owen Chandler

The chapel is quiet right now. The only noise comes from the Black Hawks and Chinooks preparing to take off to destinations around Iraq. It is Christmas Eve. The rain is pouring and the ground is rapidly covered in a type of mud that is anything but festive. It bogs the mood of the camp, but the war effort does not slow. I have been here for every holiday this year. It never slows, not even in Taji, a place far from the thunder of the front lines.

In just a few short hours, the Australian Padre, fellow US chaplains and I will lead a candlelight service celebrating once again the birth of the Prince of Peace. We will sing traditional carols as military personnel and contractors from around the world pause to pay homage. It is a wonderful reminder. Men and women have looked to this event with hope-filled wonder for many years.

I think a great deal about peace these days. Whether it is Iraq or Syria, it is difficult for those who care not to watch with broken hearts. I feel fortunate to be part of an ongoing operation trying to do something about the tragedy we all see on our screens, but it never seems to be enough and it never seems to move fast enough. The destruction is indiscriminate and especially brutal to those most vulnerable: the elderly, women, and children.

As I unpack the candles for the service, I meditate on the last year. I’m getting ready to leave. The battles still rage to my north and probably will for some time to come. There is a certain guilt I cannot help but feel as I prepare to leave. I get to go home. I get to hug my wife and children and sleep in relative safety under the beautiful Tucson night sky. If I want, I do not have to even consider the war-torn events I am poised to leave. It is a strange luxury lost on most of our country. I am ill at ease with that reality. And so I wonder and pray, what will PEACE look like for this part of the world?

One of the officers at lunch recounted the story of the Christmas Truce from WWI. I googled it when I returned back to my office. The story perfectly illustrates how, during the weeks leading to Christmas, tragedy becomes the paradox of God’s grace. The story has the feel of myth. As it goes, roughly 100,000 British and German soldiers were involved in an unofficial cessation of hostility along the Western Front. The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees. Both sides joined in singing Christmas Carols, shouting greetings across the way. They even made excursions across No Man’s Land to exchange gifts of food, tobacco, and alcohol.

How were they able to peer past their training and their reality to see the peace being celebrated in the birth of Christ? I think of the enemies we now face and I cannot imagine a similar scene. I cannot see the same opportunities of make-shift sacred space or a common understanding of humanity. During the Christmas Truce, there was a stalemate in the trenches. There was a space created in the impasse. The space was steeped in desperation and prayer. It became a sacred moment juxtaposed with the coming Christmas morning. There was time to actually consider the story of the one hunkered in the opposite the trench. The soldier was drilled to believe that the enemy soldier is the enemy of all life and all future. But in the space in between, they saw a common humanity. They saw the image of God within the other. In a season where we celebrate hope, joy and love, peace overcame them, even if for only a short while.

In some respects, it is probably not completely fair to compare this current conflict with that one so long ago. As I hear the approaching steps of a chaplain, one cannot help but wonder, however. Have the last 13 years of war has created a similar type of stalemate? This deployment has created more questions than answers. Will we be able to take the tragic spaces created by war and make them holy? How will peace be possible if we are unable or even unwilling to see our own stories, sons, and daughters in the faces of our enemy? I do not know. In our candlelit circle tonight, there will be no elements of the enemy. There will be no echoing songs coming from battle lines afar. No gifts. No sharing of photos of family. No laughter. After nine months however, I can attest that the same desperation and prayer will be here tonight.

The problem of peace is nothing new. I had hoped that this problem would be one I would not have to pass down to my children awaiting my return. I imagine that same hope was a driving reason for the anticipation surrounding Christ’s birth so long ago. And so tonight we will sing. And we will pray. And we will lift the light of Christ high into the air. And we will welcome the Prince of Peace, trusting like those soldiers did a hundred years ago that peace can be born in the most hopeless places.

Peace,
Owen

Advent in Iraq: An Experience in the Unfiltered Wonder of God

by Owen Chandler

Beloved Saguaro Christian Church,

Greetings! I pray that these words find you well. I continue to lift you in prayer each day, trusting that the power of God’s love, which keeps us connected, rests peacefully within you. For the most part, I am fine. Mercifully, the days pass quickly as we begin the preparations to hand off this mission soon. It turns out that being deployed during the holidays is unideal. Who knew?!? The Army made it look so quaint on the brochure.

Luckily, the mail keeps a steady traffic of support coming into our offices. I wanted to express my gratitude for the two enormous boxes of goodies and the Advent Wreath. It was a huge hit. The irony is that we have all worked so hard to lose weight and get into shape on this deployment. Many of us are risking gaining that weight back eating our holiday feelings with all the stuff coming in the mail. I have started working out twice a day so that I can eat the good stuff with no guilt. There is no way I am going to pass on Christmas cookies.

The Advent Wreath is beautiful. Most of the people who come to our chapel program are part of religious traditions that don’t utilize this worship practice. I must have had twenty questions about it the first week. After so many conversations, I didn’t know what they would think of it. They love it, however. We run stripped-down and simplified services in Iraq, but when I introduce some traditional elements, I have been surprised by how welcomed the practices were. It will be interesting to see if any of these soldiers try to introduce an Advent Wreath into their churches back home.

I will miss the sanctuary of Saguaro CC this Christmas. It is my favorite time of year to worship with you. I tried to recreate some of that ambiance here, but I literally blew up the Christmas tree. It was a pre-lit tree and I forgot to check the wattage requirements. You would have thought that I learned my lesson with the coffee pot from back in June. There are so many things I wish they had taught me in Seminary. I have now added basic electrician skills to that list.

I pray that these next weeks are a true blessing. It is peculiar to lead soldiers during these days as they are conducting the operations of war. There is not a lot of gloss here. This is definitely not a Hallmark setting. In some ways, it has led me to consider Advent anew, free from the presents, parties, and general consumer saturation of the holiday. In the sparseness of this place, I find myself preaching the following theme: Advent is an experience in the unfiltered wonder of God. Within that journey, tragedy becomes the paradox of God’s grace, for out of the brokenness of the world’s despondence the promise of God’s peace is born. It is not the jolliest of sermon series, but there is part of me that thinks it is probably closer to the truth of that historical reality many years ago. Don’t feel too sorry for my chapel goers; I make it up to them by singing Christmas songs instead of Advent songs. It is a little trick I picked up from [our music staff,] Keith Koster and Jeff Myrmo!

I hope to write you one more letter before I leave. If I am not able to do so, then I say with all my heart: Merry Christmas.

Peace,

Owen Chandler

Owen Chandler

Complicated Celebrations

by Owen Chandler

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.

The Good Stuff

guest post by Owen Chandler

[Editor’s note: Rev. Owen Chandler, the Senior Minister of Saguaro Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tucson, was deployed earlier this year from the Army Reserve and serves as Battalion Chaplain of the 336th CCSB in Iraq. He writes  monthly letters to his home church, and is graciously open to sharing them here on the SWC Blog. This is his August letter.]

Beloved Saguaro,

As I sit to write these words, I am literally snacking on the goodness of your love and continued prayers. In fact, I can turn in my chair and see office after office sharing in your support. 

first care package at Camp Taji
This is from the first of your care packages that came in to us. As you can see, it was a hit. This is my Battallion Commando and XO.

We’ve never received a care package load so concentrated with “the good stuff”. A few of the soldiers have “lovingly” taken to calling me Taji Santa because of the items you sent. They thought they were pretty clever until they saw me writing in my notebook. “What are you writing?” they asked. I replied, “The names of soldiers who may be worthy of God’s love but who won’t be receiving any more Oreos.”

Please know that I am doing well. July was a very difficult month for a variety of reasons, some of which I expressed in my last letter. Luckily, the rest of the month passed without witnessing any battle-related incidents. The good news: ISIS continues to be pushed back and they find themselves having to reevaluate their strategies. This is a significant morale boost to the Iraqi people even as it adds new political wrinkles from the power void which ISIS’s departure creates. News like this dramatically helps with our morale, as well.

It may seem trite; I traveled all over Iraq in July and saw some pretty crazy things, but nothing rattled me more than not being there for Harper’s first day of kindergarten. Seeing mothers and children being able to pick up the pieces of their lives in places like Fallujah help me and others keep focused during months like July.

I have spent the month of August, thus far, grounded to Camp Taji. Back in early June, I pitched an idea to a General about creating a streamlined concept in soldier care. It involved a stalled chapel renovation project. The Chaplain corps had hoped to update the chapel, but the General wanted a more comprehensive concept that fit the Army’s focus on supporting the soldier if the Army was going to spend any money. I put together some ideas and he gave me the green light.

move to interim chapel
The move to the interim chapel begins. We had soldiers from around the world help us. The entire move took less than an hour.

Two weeks ago, we moved the chapel to an interim location and construction began on the ‘Camp Taji Resiliency Center: Spirit, Mind, and Body’. The concept is to relocate the Chaplain, Behavioral Health, and elements of JAG into one place to foster a spirit of cooperation and unity of effort. An idea like that might seem self-evident, but it does not exist anywhere else in the military. (Apparently military bureaucracies don’t naturally like to share, even when there is an overlap of mission.) Subsequently, this is a first-of-its-kind endeavor. I won’t do much traveling until the construction is complete. We are expecting to have a big grand opening ceremony with generals, ribbon-cuttings, cake, and the military news people sometime in late September or early October. I am excited.

Friends, we are halfway done with our time in Iraq. Our replacements sent a scout team this week. It seems a bit surreal to think about the return journey. I give God thanks for you and pray for you each day. I hold you in my heart, knowing that I am one day closer to being back with you. May God continue to bless and keep you. Keep doing great ministry. Keep being people who dance within the joy of God’s love.

Until we meet again,

Owen

PS: I have never seen adults fall in love with a snack like they did with those SuperSeedz. If you find it in your heart, I’ve been told you can send as many of those treats as you like.

A Minister’s Empathy: A Perplexing Tool to Bring to a Combat Theater

guest post by Owen Chandler

[Editor’s note: Rev. Owen Chandler, the Senior Minister of Saguaro Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tucson, was deployed earlier this year from the Army Reserve and serves as Battalion Chaplain of the 336th CCSB in Iraq. He frequently writes letters to his home church, and is graciously open to sharing them here on the SWC Blog. This is his July letter.]

Beloved Saguaro,

My prayers and these words travel to meet you with the speed of God’s love. I miss you so. We are nearing the halfway mark and my affection for you remains unchanged. I am grateful for your continued prayers, letters, and packages. I am thankful you continue to grow stronger in your fulfillment of the vision that God placed on your hearts. That strength is contagious. It helps me when I have days here that leave me questioning the nature of my Call and the power of God’s peace.

The last few weeks were challenging in ways needed, unfortunate, and unwelcome. I spent most of the time traveling to a distant outpost. We have soldiers there that help with the supply and sustainment functions of the war effort. Nestled just behind the front lines of Fallujah, I experienced my first combat landing! This is where the plane does a corkscrew maneuver to land – and to think i was sad because I didn’t think I was going to get to ride any roller coasters this summer!

Amazingly, there in one of the austere environments we operate, I met another DOC [Disciples of Christ] chaplain, CH (MAJ) Fisher. I am biased, but i think the DOC develops some of the best ministers. After a week with CH Fisher, I am further convinced that we produce some of the best chaplains. The week I spent with him was like drinking from the font of military chaplaincy wisdom. The guy is the real deal. The soldiers there knew it, too. I watched him engage with the lowest private to the highest colonel. Each soldier left feeling affirmed by the grace of our Lord. I pray that one day I can operate with such skill.

It was fortunate that CH Fisher was there. I was able to process with him one of my most difficult moments of the deployment. As I stated, this outpost held close proximity to Fallujah, during the last days of the battle to retake the city. Each morning I awoke to the sound of cannons firing on the city. I guess you get used to them after a while, but not after only a week. Each day the sounds of war acted as the soundtrack to life on the post. At night, you could see the outskirts of the city due to the distant flashes of bombs and tracer rounds. Day after day, one would read about the desperation of the civilian population being used as shields by ISIS. I saw the faces of Saguaro in those trapped in Fallujah. They were the normal people without the means and connections to escape. My adrenaline pumped with the rage I felt at the evil of ISIS. How could one group be so depraved?

During my time there, the news stated that the battle was over. ISIS was defeated. One night, I was playing basketball with the Navy Seal team located there. In between games, they indicated the last remnants of the opposition were attempting to flee by a large caravan. The Iraqi Army had blocked their exit and there was this weird stalemate occurring just a few short miles from where I was playing. That night I stood on the flight line trying to talk my way onto a flight back to Taji. I was unsuccessful. There, under a darkened night sky, I looked to my left. Where there were once just stars, the sky illuminated, and the bowels of American military might were dropped onto the stalled ISIS fighters. And just like that, it was over; hundreds of lives gone.

It is a strange mix of emotions watching a scene like that. A minister’s empathy is a perplexing tool to bring to a combat theater. To be sure, I find assurance that those ISIS fighters are gone. I don’t understand the evil that drives them. As I told Emily before leaving for this deployment, I do not want my children to have to fight this battle. The effort to retake Fallujah is one more step closer to that reality. The event left me struggling with two issues. To start, I am uncomfortable with the anger I felt towards our enemy. Christ’s words to love our enemies stand before me like a test that I know I just failed. I guess the other thing that gets me is how complete, effective, and devastating our tools of war are in this world. We have spent so much money, intellectual effort, and time perfecting war. I wonder what would happen if we spent equal amounts of such trying to understand peace. Would our efforts be as complete, effective, and uplifting? These are the questions I spent the next few days discussing with CH Fisher. I am thankful for the honesty of these conversations and questions. I imagine I will be discussing these things within my soul for some time to come.

These may be thoughts born of war, but my news feed tells me that maybe they are questions which we should be entertaining back stateside, too. I wish I had something profound to tell you. I am sure that the wisdom of Bill Robey has been a steadying presence in your times of worship as of late. I only have this prayer I wrote in my journal which is growing out of this war:

[with respect to war, fear, and rage] We don’t accept it. We don’t lose heart. We act in love and love alone. We are created in God’s image and this means something. The resurrection is a shared reality that our hands and feet help recreate each day. That is our job. That is our calling. War may surround us. Death may try to overtake us. Revenge and rage may try to seduce us, but these don’t strengthen our souls. Live and pray with courage. If we don’t do it, then who will?

I apologize for the heaviness of this letter. I am fine. I am safe. I am loved. I’ve attached photos to try to show you that I’m still smiling and bringing smiles to the hearts of others.

Until we meet again,

Owen

taji combat cigar club patch
The Australians welcomed me into their special club. I tell them funny stories about roadrunners and coyotes, and they tell me similar stories about kangaroos and Tasmanian devils.

 

Owen's tiny purple heart
Tall people problems: I ran into an air conditioner. The unit made this for me.

 

fire engine
I got a new coffee pot. Fifteen minutes later I got to meet the fire department. Luckily I have experience with small kitchen fires.

 

Owen Chandler with Jonathan Fisher
I was honored to meet and learn from another DOC chaplain. Our denomination represents maybe 2% of military chaplaincy, yet in OIR we make up about 30%!

 

shrapnel extracted from soldiers
The surgeons of one of our outpost showed me some of the shrapnel he extracted from soldiers over the last month.

 

drone tour
I am being given a tour of the drones (UVA). I tried to get them to let me fly it but they kept droning on about cost and liability.

 

Kat Perkins with Owen Chandler
Kat Perkins (finalist on the Voice) was great. She asked if I knew her. I told her, “Unless you were on Daniel Tiger or some other cartoon, there’s a good chance I have no clue who you are. I have kids!”

 

Finally, here is a link to the story I referenced in my letter. Thought you might be interested.

Inside look at US-led coalition’s deadliest single attack on Islamic State

Camels, Care Packages, and Transitions

guest post by Owen Chandler

[Editor’s note: Rev. Owen Chandler, the Senior Minister of Saguaro Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tucson, was deployed earlier this year from the Army Reserve and serves as Battalion Chaplain of the 336th CCSB in Iraq. He frequently writes letters to his home church, and is graciously open to sharing them here on the SWC Blog.

The letter below originally appeared in the May 6 newsletter from his church.]

Beloved Saguaro Christian Church,

It is amazing, really, I am half a world away – surrounded by herds of camels and the dirtiest desert imaginable – and yet my prayers yearn for each of you. I miss you. I miss the joy you embody in your times of worship and service. I give God gratitude for the ways in which the Spirit leads you. I know that the transitions of the church continue. Stay strong. With love, be sure to express your thankfulness for the ministries of Shelly Tilton and Gary Straub and be sure to welcome, again, the pastoral leadership of Bill Robey.

Transitions seem to be a sign of the season. I am about to embark on a new one myself. Our battalion was called to a different mission and in a precarious place. I am giving up my residence in Kuwait. Soon, I will try to make a home close behind the ambiguous front-lines of Iraq. If you can follow the news lately, then you can probably guess where I am headed. I cannot tell you specifically where I will be or what I will be doing, but I ask for your prayers. I’m not scared. I thought I might be, but I’m not. I know that I will be safe. It is a strange feeling. I am trusting. I am trusting that the God that called me into the middle of this mess will not leave my side as I go to minister to all the soldiers under my care as they prepare to do dangerous work within dangerous places. Please pray for my soldiers and our leadership. The game has changed; it is no longer a game.

Thank you as always for your mail and email! The care packages build up the mood of this chaplain and our soldiers. Typically, I share some of the contents with the soldiers in need of care. I show them the box and I tell them to pick out what they want. For the ones that steal my chocolate, I wait until they have taken a bite, and then I say, “That was my favorite piece that I specifically asked for.” And then I walk off. Another senior officer said the other day as I was opening a box, “I wish people loved me as much!” I smiled, threw him a package of nuts and told him, “Honestly, you need to stop whining!” I have a good time here.

Thank you also for the way you continue to love my family. I cannot tell you how much that means to me. I keep thinking that this deployment cannot get any harder on them and then stuff like this happens. Give them hugs for me. They are changing so fast.

May God bless you now and always.

Until we meet again,

Owen

P.S. The camels of Kuwait are whimsically perfect. I definitely think that we should put in for a Brady Grant for one. I am sure if we are real nice, then maybe Bill and KC Estes will let us keep it at their place.

owen may pix 1 owen may pix 2 owen may pix 3 owen may pix 4 owen may pix 5 owen may pix 6 owen may pix 7 owen may pix 8 owen may pix 9 owen may pix 9a owen may pix 9b

Greetings from Camp Taji

guest post by Owen Chandler

(Editor’s note: Rev. Owen Chandler, the Senior Minister of Saguaro Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tucson, was deployed earlier this year from the Army Reserve, serving as Battalion Chaplain of the 336th CCSB in Iraq. He frequently writes letters to his home church, and is graciously open to sharing them here on the SWC Blog.

This letter originally appeared in his church’s June 14 newsletter.)

Beloved Saguaro Christian Church,

I send my greetings and prayers to you from Iraq! As always, I give God gratitude for your continued presence in my life. The fact that you make the intentional effort to remember me speaks of your character. It would be easy to merely move on with your lives, but you choose to value our relationship. I am grateful.

Iraq is a tragic blend of the historical wonder and brutal death. Fittingly, I arrived in the country on Friday the 13th. Hopefully it is not a metaphor for things to come. This country has much to offer and appreciate. Baghdad, over which I recently flew in an open helicopter, is a desert oasis along the river with green palm trees mingling among ancient domes and modern architecture. The war has clearly taken its toll on the landscape and the people. Currently, I am outside of the capitol in an outlying town, Taji. Our post is the former home of Chemical Ali’s weapon manufacturing plant and depot. I try not to breathe in too deep! It turns out that Taji looks and feels much like Casa Grande. Who knew that those Regional meetings in that dusty outpost would prepare me for this deployment?!?!?

As seems to be the reoccurring theme of this deployment, my role and duties changed on the flight up here. In addition to my duties as the battalion chaplain of the 336th CSSB, I am now the Camp Taji lead chaplain of all US and international military personnel. I have a couple of other chaplains that work under me. We are it for the whole camp. Essentially, I serve as senior minister of the camp chapel, help with chaplain support for thousands of military personnel, cover an outlying FOB, and make occasional visits to other FOBs that the 336th supports. To top it off, I am having to oversee the chapel reconstruction here on camp, which means regular briefs of generals and numerous meetings with contractors. The days are going much faster! The work is immensely meaningful and I pray that we are making an actual difference. I have attached some photos so you can get a feel for what my life looks like these days. Please know that I am reasonably safe.

I miss you all. I know the summer is upon you, church camps are going, and that your ministry continues to be authentically beautiful. I count down the days until we are sharing in these things together. May God bless your time with interim Bill Robey. Try to be merciful to him as his baseball team doesn’t appear to be doing much this year. I love you all.

Peace,

Owen Chandler