From a military chaplain: What I needed to stay Christian

I’m always careful to preserve the anonymity of folks who write in, but especially so in this case. I think you’ll find this worth reading on several levels:

It was such a joy to meet you a few weeks ago (I am the army chaplain you spoke at the book table). Thank you for the information about your friend who is involved caring for veterans. I was able to find her on the net and I sent her an email of introduction, offering myself as a resource for her fantastic ministry to veterans.
I again want to thank you for the tremendous impact you have had on my life. It was a bit hard to share with you Friday night when we met because I still get choked up when I talk about the spiritual “dark night of the soul” I experienced in Iraq. I came to faith in my twenties after being born and raised in a non-Christian family. Because of my socially and politically (and religiously) liberal upbringing, I never quite fit in to the conservative Southern Baptist world that I found myself a part of, but I tried my best to learn the language and world view and blend in. But I finally threw in the towel several years ago, and changed my denominational affiliation (mostly over the women in ministry issue, but others as well), which much more seems to fit who I am.
One of the joys of the military chaplaincy is the opportunity to be intentially pluralistic — it’s required! So, in chapels I have pastored, we have had everything from Episcopalians to Pentecostals to Baptists to… ME! I’ve taught pluralism and worship to my fellow chaplainsl, and some fellow instructors and I have commented on how “A Generous Orthodoxy” should be required reading for new chaplains (at least for those coming from Christian traditions; we now have Muslim and Buddhist chaplains, along with Christian and Jewish ones).
Without boring you too much on the details of my journey, what I wanted to tell you was how impactful your writings were to me when I was deployed. In the army I am surrounded mostly by very conservative men (and women), both politically and religiously. Most chaplains today are from conservative/Evangelical/Fundamentalist/Calvinist backgrounds, and they tend to bring their neat and tidy theologies to war. This often results in simplistic pat answers to seriously complex questions, as well as a conservative approval of whatever we happen to be doing. This did not work for me because I was opposed from the outset to the Iraq war, based mostly on the criteria of the Just War Tradition that I became very familiar with in my graduate studies. My opposition to the war, combined with the simplicity of my colleagues’ theological answers, and the horrible and random destruction of way too many young lives, led me into my spiritual darkness.
I found myself becoming very angry with my neo-Calvinist and fundamentalist friends who were glibly able to provide explanations and answers to what I saw as just random violence and destruction. For example, one of my chaplains said, after an IED took the lives of a humvee full of soldiers, “Well, we all deserve to die by an IED; it’s only God’s grace that keeps us alive.” … I could NOT accept, let alone teach, that God was anywhere involved in the destruction of these young lives, and that we just need to accept it all as part of his “plan” or “will” or “providence.” Didn’t work for me. Too many memorial ceremonies of kids the same age as my own daughter; some deeply religious kids, most not.
If we’re going to think about God’s place in war at all, what can we say about it? I can say God remains with us through it all, that he provides comfort and peace through the Holy Spirit. I can say that we, the Body of Christ, can be God’s arms to embrace the grieving, and God’s mouth to speak words of comfort. I can encourage people to grow through the traumas and challenges, and to allow God to cause internal changes within us. And I did say all of that — to myself, as well as to my soldiers and chapel congregation.
But still, internally, my spiritual life was hurting. I journaled my questions and issues, and felt somewhat better for doing so. But I also felt very alone in my doubts and questions. Nobody else was asking the same questions, expressing the same doubts. And then one day, after I shared with a doctor friend of mine about your “Generous Orthodoxy” book, he gave me a copy of “The Last Word and the Word After That.” I devoured it, and immediately sent off for the first two books of the trilogy (thank God for!). And this is where you entered into my life to keep me safe through the rest of my deployment — and after. You spoke the questions and doubts I hid, and provided responses that touched my soul. Not only the trilogy, but also “The Secret Message” after that, and on through your most current books In other words, just giving me permission to ask questions, express doubts, and believe there really is a different way to be a Christian, has changed my life. Changing the narrative, reading the Bible and seeing Jesus from the Jewish perspective, applying what we know about the character of God and the teachings/life of Jesus to the challenges facing our planet — all of this has given me what I needed to stay a Christian.