Monday, May 7, 2007

God and War

Several years ago I had determined to become a chaplain in the armed forces. However, as God does so often, he frustrated those efforts so that after ten years of on-again off-again trying, I finally stopped trying. It wasn't meant to be. At any rate, I had a family by then and was now way over the military's weight limit.

While I was still attempting to get in, my view of the chaplaincy was probably far more 'rosy' than real. In the late 80's we were not fighting a war and the memories of Viet Nam were not as evident. With the latest Newsweek (May 7) issue, we are given a sober and very realistic view of what it means to minister to soldiers in wartime.

Eve Conant in her feature article "Faith Under Fire" gives what I would consider a fairly balanced and honest view of the military chaplaincy, in so far as I am not in the military and have no firsthand experience with it. She specifically follows Chaplain Roger Benimoff through his struggles both in Iraq and then stateside when he returns to minister to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. Rather than use this article as another anti-war diatribe, Conant sympathetically probes into Benimoff's inner struggles of heart and soul as he attempts to reconcile faith in a loving God with the harsh realities of death, pain and loss on a scale that exceeds what the normal person can often endure.

Benimoff began his career as a chaplain much as I suspect I would have: eager, optimistic, and full of positive expectations. However, war has exacted a huge price for this chaplain, and the stress on his soul has taken him even to the brink of doubt and anger at God. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' experience when he lost his wife Joy. It is difficult in times of great carnage and senseless violence to see the hidden face of God. For God often 'hides,' as Luther reminds us, behind pain and suffering. We see the love of God most clearly in the cross, where God 'hides' behind the suffering and agony of his own Son. As a Baptist Benimoff may have struggled more to reconcile this "hidden God" with the theology of glory that is often prevalent in much Protestant theology. Nevertheless, he wrestled with the same faith issues all of us would. And the stress of ministering to so many with so much pain would overwhelm even the best.

If one were inclined to complain about life and work in the church today, a helpful corrective to our own pastoral self-pity would be to live inside the experiences of our military chaplains. They are called upon to offer themselves in ways that exact and demand much from their sanity and health. They are pushed to limits the average parish pastor will never experience. And yet the grace in it is that they, by God's sheer grace, still maintain faith. Benimoff does teeter on the edge of denial, but he regains his faith footing. Such raw evil is difficult to battle on so constant a basis. If ever there was a picture of the "wounded healer," our military chaplains may be just that.

May God grant them renewed strength in Christ.

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