Spiritual Readiness: What Will It Take?

I was in a conversation recently with a fellow military chaplain and he shared with me some disturbing news. Five of our fellow soldiers took their own lives recently. Individual soldiers, at different times, took their own lives. As a chaplain, but just as a man, a husband, a dad—as a human being—I was shaken.

As a soldier, I cannot comment on politics and government and bureaucracy, but as a minister and chaplain, I would offer what I hope most folks could agree on. Like everyone else, I have a worldview, a theology, a way of answering the big questions of life. And like everyone else, I have presuppositions.

And what I offer below is a list of some fundamentals I would long to see inclulcated into our lives as not just soldiers but as reasonable human beings:

I. Recognize that man is a spiritual creation. He is not a machine. Man is not mere matter in motion. He has a soul. He has a spirit. He has a mind and an imagination. This should be so obvious. We build libraries and art museums and we paint and write poems and plays and we watch films and ballets and listen to operas and music concerts. Why? Because we are spiritual beings. We recite hymns and raise our hands in worship and we kneel in prayer and we kiss those we love. We are spiritual beings.

II. Denying man’s spiritual nature costs lives. I was in a conference recently where the topic was spiritual readiness. Specialists in spiritual care, psychiatric care, behavioral health, chaplains of various stripes, and secular psychological approaches were all part of the discussion. A lot of talk was offered about why soldiers were being sent to behavioral health. When the behavioral health folks were asked if the soldiers were crazy or had some psychological issues, the formidable response was simple and direct. No, the soldiers were not crazy and they didn’t have psychological issues. What they were missing was connection. They often did not feel valued. They felt like spiritual orphans. They may’ve had Netflix, YouTube, and a smartphone, but they were living lives of isolation with virtual relationships rather than actual ones, and they felt like orphans.

III. Secularism fails to explain man’s nature, man’s deep need to connect to God and to other people. The secular worldview, by definition, denies transcendence. Man is seen as material, a cosmic accident, matter in motion. But every day and at every moment, we know that secularism contradicts our experiences as people. We assume our lives have meaning. We assume that our words that we write and speak have meaning. We take oaths when we are married, when we sign a contract to pay our mortgages on time, when we get a loan, when we promise to show up at work on time, etc. We tell our loved ones that we love them and we work sacrificially to provide for them. We conduct funerals and retirement ceremonies and birthday parties, etc. Why? Because we know in our bones that man’s deepest longings are incapable of being answered and/or satisfied via secularism. Man is designed to long for the transcendent and for meaningful connection to one another. Man’s well-being has several areas, of course: physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. But the failures of secularism are obvious to any honest observer.

Personal Connection: I have been a soldier for a long time and I love it. I love soldiers and being a pastor to soldiers and families. Military chaplaincy has been a wonderful blessing in my life. But if we as a culture continue down a path of secularism and paganism, it should not surprise anyone when morale falls, when generations cannot even define ethics, and cannot articulate a coherent worldview.

Contemporary Life Connection: If a generation is raised on YouTube, TikTok, and mental bubble gum, that generation’s soul is malnourished and atrophies. And a culture that atrophies is sick; it is twisted; it is missing essentials. One of the essentials is a coherent worldview that answers the deepest longing of man’s spirit. And I hope that I’m not alone in longing for a return to truth, to coherence, to a Word that comes from beyond secular bromides. As one 1st century writer phrased it, there is such truth, such coherence, such a Word.

The Biblical Worldview:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)

Turn and Be Healed: I am well aware of the reaction of most hearers when the gospel is presented to them. Like in John’s day, they often do not receive it. They reject it because they prefer to remain in their sin (John 1:11). But the biblical worldview calls the faithful to go and herald this message of God in Christ reconciling sinners nonetheless and all the more (2 Corninthians 5:20-21). We are told that we’ll encounter resistance and rejection.

And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

Keep on hearing, but do not understand;

keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’

Make the heart of this people dull,

and their ears heavy,

and blind their eyes,

and hear with their ears,

and understand with their hearts,

and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10 ESV)

Man is a spiritual being.

He is committing spiritual suicide by way of idolatry.

Secularism, in all its machinations and flashy ways, fails. It enslaves man to the cruelest of creatures.

But the gospel does not fail in its purpose. It is the power of God to redeem fallen and sinful creatures.

But we must turn to the One who made us and embrace his Savior, his Word, and do things his way.

If you intend to properly diagnose man’s alienation, his exile, his desperate unending pursuit of distraction instead of depth, you must understand man’s spiritual bondage to sin, his suppression of the truth of God, and of his (man’s) exile from Eden unless and until he looks to the gospel–the amazing grace and good news of what God does to rescue, redeem, and restore us fallen sinners.

That is the way to true and lasting spiritual readiness and resilience.

Where to Turn?

Question: Where should one turn in times of crisis? And perhaps the more important question is, Why do we turn where we do? What reasons do we have for turning the way we do?

Illustrations: I am surely not unique in having times in my life where I didn’t know how I was going to make it. I was unsure about my finances, about how I would live, about how I would provide for my family, about how I would afford health insurance, etc. I am not special, I get that. But I am hardwired to work, to provide. It is inseparable from my identity. I don’t do well if I am floundering. I thrive when I’m busy working on a project, focusing on some goal, have a target, etc. I blossom when allowed the freedom to maneuver towards a clear objective. I don’t understand laziness. I despise it. I was raised to respect hard work and to do hard work. Laziness is, in short, sinful.

But what happens when life throws us curve balls? What happens when our health goes south? What happens when our job is eliminated? What happens when the powers that be, so to speak, restructure and we find ourselves cut off?

Or perhaps worse still, where to do we turn when an emergency befalls our family or us as individuals? Where to turn? And why turn where we do?

Connection: Recently I was reading a book by Ken Ham entitled How Could a Loving God . . . ? In it he quotes J.I. Packer:

The ultimate reason from our standpoint why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another, is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him [God] fast.” The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, a sure refuge, and a help for the weak, is because God is bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally. We dare not trust ourselves to find or to follow the right road. God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing so that we may learn to lean on Him. Therefore, He takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence, to trust in himself (154-55).

The beauty of the binary is that clear thinking reveals the alternatives, the worldviews. Either we trust in the holy, good, purposes of the sovereign God or it’s all meaningless and random and there’s no reason we should expect order. You don’t matter, I don’t matter, your suffering doesn’t matter, my suffering doesn’ matter, and this is all one sick joke where we just thought we had significance. It’s like Macbeth says in Act V of the play bearing his name:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

The Alternative to Macbeth’s Despair:

The alternative to Macbeth’s despair, the alternative to discounting your suffering and my suffering; the alternative to viewing the moments of panic and despair and emergencies in our lives as evidences of meaninglessness is to be quickened by them.

Why? So that we look to the Author of life, the Alpha and Omega, the One who raised his friend Lazarus, and the One who says of himself in Isaiah:

I am the LORD, and there is no other,

besides me there is no God;

I equip you, though you do not

know me,

that people may know, from the rising of the sun

and from the west, that there is none besides me;

I am the LORD, and there is no other.

I form light and create darkness,

I make well-being and create calamity,

I am the LORD, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:5-7, ESV)

To state what should be obvious, God does not hide. He reveals himself here.

He says, in short, you and I are not accidents.

Our sufferings and joys and dreams and aches matter.

Why? Because we are clay in the hands of the sovereign Potter.

Takeaway: The alternatives remain. Either we are nothing and so we should expect nothing–because there is no God, no objective meaning, no overarching purpose.

Or we are what Scripture says–creatures formed by the sovereign hand of God the Potter, who uses and even ordains our sufferings. Why? So that we come to Him, the One who knows and does always what is right, even though that takes us through valleys of the shadow of death, through the throes of cancer, divorce, brokenness, unemployment, and uncertainty.

We can give up and say, “It’s all pointless,” or we can flee to God who bids us welcome.

Young Buck Scraping

This morning as I sat at the kitchen table looking over Scripture and jotting my notes on the index card for purposes of teaching, I watched several small bucks milling about outside the kitchen window. The rut is over, the bucks are skinny, and will shed their racks soon, but as the saying goes, “Boys will be boys,” and it was fun to watch several scrape and rub scent on shrubs and laurel as they meandered down the trails.

Here was one little fellow I caught as he passed through:

Brewster, Birds, & Bones

A cloudy mist-filled day in our area, but Brewster and I took in a bit of time for the woods and the creeks.

He discovered more deer skeletons.

We have found over the years that certain areas seem to be preferred for their last moments. Maybe it has something to do with thirst, as the areas are invariably close to running water.

And my friend Jim is seeing some of his beloved birds come near already and we’re still only in February. But I’m already seeing blooms on some of the flowering trees and grasses are appearing with new green blades, too.

On Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

When I read Plath’s The Bell Jar as a student in college decades ago, I knew little of the author’s biography.

Having studied her background now and her brief life, her reading regimen, and her lifetime of writing, I now have a fuller, deeper appreciation for her writing and her soul’s anguish. It is unfortunate, in my view, that her suicide overshadows her literary contributions. I know of few people who can speak intelligently about Plath’s poems and prose, but of several who bloviate about her suicide. That is indeed depressing to those of us who appreciate Plath’s gifts to the world that came by way of her pen.

I completed reading The Bell Jar again this week, and it details the shock therapy her stand-in protagonist endured, the misunderstandings she endured, her ambitions, her isolation, and the respite she found in logotheraphy. For Plath, her only salvation came via literature, poetry in particular.

She penned many caustic rebukes, especially towards Roman Catholicism’s system, and she was not much kinder to some Protestant abuses she saw and endured via some professing adherents. Some of her black humor in The Bell Jar is seen here:

“Of course, I didn’t believe in life after death or the virgin birth or the Inquisition or the infallibility of that little monkey-faced Pope or anything, but I didn’t have to let the priest see this, I could just concentrate on my sin, and he would help me repent” (164).

There are many examples of Esther (the main character in the novel) calling out false systems and of religious hypocrisy in the novel, all of course as the protagonist’s reasons for wanting to end her life. She’s literally sick of the lies and comes to view death as preferable. Sadly, the protagonist’s struggles and laments were carried to fruition in Plath’s own life just a few months after her novel was published.

Life imitated art in tragic form.

It is not uncommon today to hear so much about mental health. Well, we might do worse than reading and grappling with the writing of Sylvia Plath, both for her literary importance and for the light her literary corpus may shed upon spiritual, psychological, and emotional spectres that haunt not a small number of people.

Feathered Friends

Today is a federal holiday and I am off from work, and my friend of encouragement, Jim, shared some of his photos of his beloved birds.

They remind him of the goodness of God, of the providence of God, of the artistry and craftsmanship of God, and I could not agree more.

The birds, the daffodils, and more showcase the coming of spring and the author and restorer of life that superintends creation.

Hope you enjoy. (Thanks, Jim, for sharing.)

Sensing the Demonic

This morning I stopped by the shoppette for a cup of coffee. Normally I park as far as possible from the store in order to walk more. Plus, I labor to avoid door dings from other drivers and/or passengers who don’t mind opening their doors into other people’s. But the shoppette had almost all open parking spaces in front of the store, and so I took the space adjacent to the handicapped spot, as I figured no one would park there for the ninety seconds or so it would take me to get a cup of coffee.

When I went to the coffee section, I poured my black coffee and snapped the plastic lid over the lip of the cup, and walked to the register. The friendly lady who works the mornings there said, “Good morning, Chaplain,” as she always does when I stop in for a coffee.

I was paying when a very muscular man, dressed in a ball cap, flip flops, shorts, and a t-shirt came through the door, expelling a large breath as if exasperated. I had to take a step closer to the counter to avoid being shoved by him. He plunged his arms into the coolers and came out with a case of Monster drinks, the ones with the lime green writing on the black cans. When he came to the line to pay, my skin literally crawled. I know this may sound crazy to some, but I sensed being in the presence of the demonic. My guts seemed to turn inward in visceral retreat. I knew spiritual warfare was occurring.

As I finished paying for my coffee, the sweet lady behind her register looked at me and nodded as if she, too, shared an understanding with me of what was occurring in that moment. I nodded at her and said, “Thank you. Have a good day.”

“Have a good day, Chaplain,” she said. And we both heard the man behind me muttering to himself as if I was taking too long to pay for my coffee. I must’ve been at the counter for thirty or forty seconds.

When I walked out to my car, the man with the Monster drinks had parked his black F-250 pickup truck in the handicapped spot, and so closely to my car that I had to squeeze into my door like a rodent entering a wedge. Why would a young muscular man, in t-shirt, flip flops, ball cap, and shorts, driving a jacked-up black F-250, park in the handicapped spot?

But I finally got in my car and could still feel the presence of evil. I buckled my seat belt, put my coffee in the center cup holder, and pulled towards the road in order to go on to the morning’s duties. As I waited to turn onto the highway, the man with the Monster drinks pulled beside me and the other cars, and shot onto the highway, the sounds of his truck exhaust ricocheting across the morning air.

I cannot prove it empirically, I concede that, but I know in my bones that spiritual warfare occurred in that shoppette this morning. It was as real as the coffee I sipped later on and as emblazoned on my guts as those demonic lime green emblems on those dark energy drinks.

Evening with Willie Morris, Skip the Dog, & Spit McGee

If you adored The Andy Griffith Show, skipping stones across the pond, placing pennies on the railroad tracks, and have ever been frog giggin’, Willie Morris is probably your type of writer, too.

I am reading his Good Old Boy and My Dog Skip this week, and when I went for a stroll in the gloaming, the sunset burned in majestic bronze, and I came across two mature does in the river bottom just when it was growing dark enough, and they did not even dart into cover when I approached.

When you read a master of capturing simple pleasures, especially ones that bring your formative years back to you in burning and joyous remembrance, it’s a good day.

Thanks, Willie, for bringing it all back.