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

Hope in a Child

by Abigail Conley

“I think you have a kid in there,” I said, nodding toward his truck, and taking his empty cart back to the return for him.

“Thank you so much,” he answered, looking relieved.

Both of us were crazy enough to go to Costco in the week before Christmas and just happened to park near each other. I confess, I second guessed taking his cart for him. Mostly, I second guessed because women doing things like that for men in public space isn’t expected. I almost did it as soon as I headed toward the return with my own cart, but walked past him just a little bit. I looked back to talk to him, to offer to take his cart for him. In that split second, I might have seen his hesitation to walk away from the truck where his child was safely strapped in a car seat. I don’t know. I do remember what was expressed more deeply than usual, “Thank you so much.”

I’m quite certain he didn’t know that I’d seen him earlier, along with his son, inside the store. I was sitting at the restaurant, quickly scarfing down a slice of pizza before heading on to my next task. He walked by, between my cart and the wall, pushing his cart with both purchases and son. I noticed him because his son was crying. When I say crying, I mean that horrible version of crying that children do when they’re just done.

I’d taken notice because of the crying, and then I saw a father being a very good father. They had a smoothie, and the child wanted some. As he cried, the father gently coaxed, “Use your words.” Over and over, again, “Use your words.” The phrase is familiar, one often heard spoken by teachers and parents of young children. Those words struck me differently today, though, as the man spoke them to his son.

I thought about them after he left Costco, as I was finishing up my pizza and walking to my car. It’s the week before Christmas; the walk to the car in a Costco parking lot is extra long. I let the please, “Use your words,” roll over in my mind, thinking how different the world would be if we used our words, instead.

My mourning for Syria has been long and deep. A “complete meltdown of humanity” the news says. That might be the best summary imaginable if even half of the news making it to this part of the world is true. I fear we actually don’t know the half of it. My fear as leaders talk of the need for more nuclear weapons is deep, as well. Words, it seems, are always used to cry out for something more, too often, that thing is violence. It seems that’s the go-to answer right now, with no one quite sure how to put a stop to it all.

I don’t know any more about that father than what I just told you. Who knows what he’s like day in, day out. I have hope, though, that this father coaxing his very, very young son to use his words rather than have a tantrum might do even more good with that child in the long run. Use your words, not your fists. Use your words, not a weapon. Use your words, face to face. Use your words first, and finally.

It is the absurdity of the season, after all, that our deepest hope is in a child—a child called the Word, made flesh, and dwelling among us. The child, called Word, brought all sorts of hope along into that manger, including that swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would not learn war any more. The beauty of that impossibility lingers deep these days, the promise that we will one day put away our many, many tools of destruction.

For today, while I still await the Christ child’s coming, I am comforted a bit by this man and his child. The hopes of this season run deep: the hope for peace; the hope for fear to subside; the hope that our words become enough. To this man who I’ll likely never see, again, thank you so much.

Helpful or Not?

by Karen Richter

I’ve been mulling over the words sacred and secular lately. Just yesterday a member of my congregation described themselves as “a pretty secular person.” I’m sure I blinked, eyes wide because I have zero poker face skills. How could this person – no matter what theology or philosophy – who I have experienced as chock-full of passion and integrity, be secular? And now that I think about it, how could a person whose faith compels them to act in ways contrary to justice, compassion, and peace be sacred?

What do these words even mean? Is the distinction helpful any longer, if it ever was?

In high school choir, we sang sacred music.  Just a side note, because surely you were wondering, my favorite piece was John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth.

We also sang secular music. Here’s one I remember that you probably recall as well.

Why is a song about connection and longing and common humanity labeled secular just because God isn’t mentioned? And surely, if we thought about it, we could think of religious songs that are so soaked in nationalism, exclusivism, and fear that the word God sours in our mouths as we sing.

I’m always suspicious about either/or choices, and the sacred or secular choice is no different. Questions worth asking always have more than two potential answers!

In this holiday season, we so often get pulled into irrelevant discussions about what is appropriate as part of our Christmas celebration and what isn’t. Mistletoe and holly, yule logs, decorated trees, candles… these treasured traditions all originated in pagan winter celebrations. Contemporary questions abound as well… Santa during church events? Starbucks cups? Church on Christmas day?  How do we choose what to affirm and what to discard? What goes and what stays?

It all stays. It all belongs. If incarnation means anything at all, it means that the false dichotomy of sacred and secular is revealed as illusion, forever broken down, shattered completely, and re-formed as part of a blessed whole.

You belong too! Merry Christmas and peace in 2017!

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

Christmas & Bowen Family Systems

by Amos Smith

Christmas is a time for family. Above is a picture of my family growing up. Family is never perfect. Every family I have encountered in ministry has challenges. Some hide the challenges better than others. Yet, challenges are always there.

How we deal with the challenges of our family of origin has profound repercussions for the rest of our lives. Family and the dynamics of family relationships give us the blueprint that tends to define our future relationships. I have a high regard for Family Systems Thought or Bowen Family Systems as it is commonly called. Bowen Systems has given me and many other ministers and rabbis a more accurate understanding of faith community dynamics than any other paradigm.

One of the counter-intuitive insights of Bowen Family Systems is that all of our relationships are inter-connected. In other words, if a man is having challenges with his wife, instinctively one might think that the best thing for him to do is to work on that relationship. Yet, often Bowen Systems would say, “If you are having challenges with your wife work on your relationship with you mother.” If a woman is having challenges in her relationship with her son, she may need to work on the relationships she has with her ex-husband, husband, or brother. And the list goes on… For a humorous representation of what this might look like in the twenty-first century you may want to take a look at the television show “Modern Family.”

During the holidays many people are stressed by all the preparations. Yet, what is more important than the meals, the stuffed stockings on the mantel, the lights, and the presents under the tree, are our relationships. Seen correctly, beyond shallow commercial and cultural trappings, Christmas at its best is a time to work on our relationships with the people we love. And when one relationship grows in honesty, good boundaries, respect, and love it will have ripple effects on our other relationships.

Merry Christmas!