Military Chaplaincy as Cutting Edge Church

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Military chaplains and chaplain assistants are often recognized in the larger church for performing their ministry in a military setting.  In other words, the larger church is impressed with clergy and chaplains who do all of the things military folks in general have to do.  But I believe chaplains and chaplain assistants should be commended for the ministry that they do which in some ways far exceeds what we ever see in most communities.  What do I mean by that?

By its very nature, military chaplaincy is ecumenical.  It brings together all of God’s children, and their clergy, under one roof (or tent) in a particular location.  It doesn’t just encourage, it requires people of different denominations to work together and to do so on a regular basis.  This doesn’t just mean for me as a Presbyterian that I have worked with clergy and chaplain assistants from denominations similar to mine such as the Methodists and Disciples of Christ.  It means I have worked with denominations that are very different from mine such as Pentacostals and Primitive Baptists.  I worked with three or four excellent Latter Day Saint chaplains.  It even means I have worked with folks from denominations that I would likely never work with in a civilian parish such at the Presbyterian Church in America (a church that split with my denomination decades ago).  I not only have worked with chaplains from the Presbyterian Church in America, I know three chaplains from that denomination that were my mentors and I now consider friends.

By its nature the military chaplaincy is also interfaith.  Beyond the larger church, military chaplaincy requires you to work with clergy and chaplain assistants of other faiths or of no faith.  One of my closest friends I ever made in the chaplaincy is a Jewish rabbi.  Two of the best chaplain assistants I have ever known were an agnostic and an atheist respectively and consider both friends today.  I also have worked with two Muslim imams as well who were both professional.

I know that there are times when civilian clergy get together for interdenominational conferences or meetings.  I know there are even times when there are interfaith gatherings or that clergy band together and work on a common civic mission or project.  I think all of this is good, but I just strongly feel we do not do it enough.  And I especially feel that the larger church is way too fractured and we should be getting together and especially worshiping together far more frequently than we do.  It is amazing the commonalities that we have despite our differences.

I have learned from my brother and sister chaplains in my military service.  It strengthens not only my military ministry but my civilian ministry as well.  But I believe we should be able to replicate this in ways beyond the military.  We should be able to find ways to work together more often because it would make such a difference.  For example, we spend so much time and effort collectively trying to support physical infrastructure that all of our ministry suffers.  Imagine, for example, if three denominations came together in a neighborhood and built a single building instead of building three.  Their congregations could keep their separate identities, even separate theologies, and have their separate clergy and services but still only have to pay the electric company, water company, and insurance company once.  And together they could team up for so many joint missions that their impact on the community would be far greater.  And this is just one of many ways we could transform the church if we used this model of ministry to inspire us.

The most powerful worship services in the military are ones when we are deployed.  It not only brings together all the chaplains and chaplain assistants but military members from a wide variety of faiths.  You have never heard choirs like the choirs in a deployed locations.  Many of those deployed chapels are filled with Christians and even clergy and choir directors from local parishes.  The congregations sing like you rarely hear anywhere else.  And this would be so easy to replicate this in every neighborhood in America if we wanted to.

A common children’s hymn many of these denominations teach is, “Jesus love the little children, all the children of the world….”  We also teach there is only one heaven, not a multitude of them.  If that is so, couldn’t all of God’s children find ways to stop segregating ourselves from one another?  Might we even find ways to work with our neighbors of other faiths?  If all of God’s people came together, what an impact we could have.

And it could all start if each of us got to know someone in “that church”, “that temple”, or “that mosque” down the street and see what it might be that we could do together.

Let’s see what is possible.

Until next time,

Tom

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