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

Noah as Metaphor

by Q. Gerald Roseberry

When I was a kid growing up in Georgia, in a small village outside Atlanta, my parents were leaders in a small fundamentalist congregation. All six of us kids attended the Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. One of the things I enjoyed most about those early educational experiences was the teachers’ use of “flannel graph” art as a teaching aid in illuminating the Bible stories. Pictures of people and significant objects in the story backed with flannel adhered to a lightweight board covered with flannel which helped make the story come to life.

One of the stories I loved was “Noah and the Flood.” So I was fascinated to hear that Hollywood was producing a movie on the subject, and I intended to see it. Unfortunately I was unable to see the movie. Many years ago I stopped believing that the stories were literally true. In my imagination, however, I would like to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Noah. The really big question I would ask Noah is, why did God send such a terrible flood to destroy the people and animals and everything else in the land where you lived? But, of course, my interview with Noah doesn’t go well because we live in such different worlds. Everything is different. They are said to have lived unbelievably long lives, such as Noah’s 950 years. Different times, cultures, languages. Even to talk of faith and beliefs would be a difficult at best.

Setting aside a preoccupation with all the species of animals, birds, and insects being rounded up and adequately housed as totally impossible, I am left with the most important question of all: Why did God send such a terrible flood to totally destroy people, animals, and everything in the land were Noah lived? The ancient text gives the explanation:

God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race. . .it broke his heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes, bugs and birds—the works.” – Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, chapters 6-7.

So what can we learn from Noah’s story? One possible lesson is that when human beings forget their origin in God’s creation, neglect their responsible stewardship of the earth, God’s gift, and forsake their due care for one another, then bad consequences follow. Pope Francis, a scientist himself, has caught the attention of the world, and one thing he said reverberates in our thoughts: “Destroy the earth, and the earth will destroy us.” In his encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home, Laudato Si, he referred to “integral ecology” which means that everything on earth is connected, and implies that our actions can and do upset the delicate balance of our environment, disrupting the intricate web of life supporting everything existing on earth.

 The Psalmist says in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who dwell therein. For it was He who founded it upon the seas and planted it firm upon the waters beneath.” Poetic to be sure, but it points to our problem: we have forgotten that earth is not ours to do with as we please. We mortals hold the earth in trust for future generations. In one way or another, we have participated in bringing the earth to the point of rebelling and crying out against the harmful effects of hubris and technology which destroy human community, and disrupt, poison, and pollute the oceans, our atmosphere, water, and soil. This, I venture to say, is the world-destroying “evil” which has brought us to this critical point in human history.
The nations of the world, their leaders and representatives, will meet in early December in Paris to make commitments to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gases from their combustible energy systems. Solutions are at hand. We need to find the political will and the moral courage to apply them. Obviously, the change cannot be overnight, but we must act now with all deliberate speed in ways that enable the essential transitional changes to begin and continue without undue obstruction. That meeting of the nations should be in the prayers of every community of faith and in the hearts of all believers, beginning now and continuing until a just and healing solution is reached.