In The Army

It’s been said that in order to win any war, you have to know three things: that you ARE at war, who your enemies are, and what weapons or strategies can defeat them. If you’re a Christian, then you’re at war. St. Paul wrote a lot about the war we’re in: the war of faith. Personally, each of us is called to “fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:12). It’s our daily struggle to live our life in submission to the will of God. We struggle against the inclinations of our own natures which were broken by original sin. We also fight against sinister spiritual forces whose purpose is our downfall (Ephesians 6:12). And on a larger scale, we are members of the Church Militant, the members of God’s own family struggling to reach our heavenly home.

But some of us aren’t being very good soldiers. The old joke tells of the pastor standing at the church doors, shaking hands with the people as they leave after Mass. As Joe tries to pass by, the priest grabs him by the hand and pulls him aside. “Joe,” says the pastor, “you need to join the army of God!” Joe replies, “I’m already in the army of God, Father.” “Then how come I only see you here at Christmas and Easter?,” the priest asks. And Joe whispers back, “Sssshhhh….I’m in the Secret Service.”

Unfortunately for Joe, the fight we are in doesn’t have light duty or rear guard positions. We’re all on the front lines every day. If you aren’t fully prepared and personally engaged in the battle, you’re headed for defeat. So how do we “fight the good fight?” We submit ourselves to the will of God. We obey His commandments–all ten of them–and we cultivate our relationship with God and our neighbor. St. Paul tells Timothy (and us) to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (I Timothy 6:11). By keeping the “new” commandment of loving God and our neighbor, we wage war against our selfish natures, the lure of the world, and the workings of Satan.

Some Christians believe that the battle was won when Christ conquered sin and death once and for all on the Cross. And He did win the victory, but the number of casualties is still to be determined. As long as so many of us believe there is no battle, that we’re guaranteed heaven no matter what we do, then the casualties will mount. Satan delights when the children of Christ deny his existence and allow him to gain a foothold in the body of Christ. If the battle was over, St. Paul wouldn’t tell us to “put on the armor of God”(Ephesians 6:11). You don’t need armor if you aren’t headed into battle. We must wear truth as our belt, justice as our breastplate, zeal for the Gospel as our shoes, faith as our shield, salvation as our helmet and the word of God as our sword. In other words, we must immerse ourselves in the Church that God gave to us as the pillar of truth (I Timothy 3:15). The Church gives us the Sacraments founded by Jesus as the source of His grace. In them, we are joined to Christ in baptism, strengthened in confirmation, forgiven in confession, and nourished by His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Only by living each day as loving members of His Church can we encourage and support one another in the journey towards the battle’s final, forever victory.

“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather the sword!” — Luke 12:51

Christ On The Battlefield

This past Memorial Day we remembered the men and women of our armed services who have given their lives for our country. We are blessed to enjoy our freedoms which were purchased through their great sacrifice. Among the thousands of stories of bravery and selflessness are those of the many chaplains who serve God and His flock in the battlefields of war. America has had chaplains of all faiths since the time of the Revolutionary War. There are currently about 2900 chaplains on active duty. They provide care and comfort in all kinds of situations and settings. And in the course of their service, 406 chaplains have lost their lives. In World War II alone, 182 chaplains were killed and 158 chaplains were lost in the Civil War. All of their lives and sacrifices are noteworthy but a few are extraordinary examples of unselfish love and devotion.

World War II saw our government enlisting civilian ships to transport troops and supplies across the Atlantic to the war in Europe. One of these transport ships, the USAT Dorchester, was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Newfoundland.  On board were 904 troops including 4 chaplains: a Methodist minister, a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a minister of the Reformed Church. As the ship floundered, the four men helped others into the lifeboats, even giving up their own life jackets to help others. Witnesses reported seeing the chaplains joining arms and praying together as the ship sank. They say they heard the chaplains praying to God in English, Hebrew, and Latin. Only 230 men survived the attack and surely many of those lives were saved through the heroic actions of “The Four Chaplains” who perished at sea on February 3, 1943.

Father Emil Kapaun was a Catholic priest who served in the Army during the Korean War. As the troops fought their way northward, Fr. Kapaun constantly ministered to the wounded and dying. He baptized and heard confessions and celebrated Mass on the hood of his jeep. Several times his Mass kit and jeep were lost to enemy fire. On October 7, 1950 he was captured by the North Korean army and taken to a prisoner of war camp. During the bitter winter, he did all he could to minister to his fellow prisoners and to improve the conditions and morale of the men. He would steal food to feed the starving and steal medicine to treat the sick. Letting his own health suffer, Fr. Kapaun developed a blood clot in his leg as well as dysentery and pneumonia.  And yet he continued his priestly service as long as he could. On May 23, 1951, Fr. Kapaun died in the prison hospital. On April 11, 2013 President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to the chaplain. In 1993, the Catholic Church named Fr. Kapaun a “servant of God” which began his case for possible sainthood. Since that time, the Church has investigated several purported miracles attributed to Fr. Kapaun’s intercession.

Finally, the story of Father Tim Vakoc unfolded on the battlefields of Iraq. To date, Fr. Tim is the only chaplain to have been killed in action in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fr. Tim was born in Minnesota and after his ordination he served as a pastor before enlisting as an Army chaplain in 1996. In 2003, his unit was deployed to Iraq. He served in Mosul, offering the sacraments to men involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war. On May 29, 2004, the twelfth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, his Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb and he sustained a severe brain injury. He died on June 20, 2009 at a nursing home in Minnesota. He was just 49 years old.

The love of God suffuses the world, leaving no spot without His grace. Even on battlefields and sinking ships. Even in shattered Humvees and dark and cold prison camps. God is close to the brokenhearted, the lame, the suffering, those terrified and facing death. The brave and loving chaplains who answer His call of service bring God to the hearts and souls of the men and women who fight our wars for us. Too often their duties and sacrifices are lost in the fog of battle. But these chaplains serve in the trenches of the heart and their victories have eternal consequences. Remember them in your prayers and thank them when they return home to serve us here. God bless our faithful chaplains.

“The safest place for me to be is in the center of God’s will, and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be,”

—Father Tim Vakoc, in a letter to his sister

Read This Book

People are hungry for good books on our Christian faith. Without hesitation, the first one I recommend (after the Bible, of course) is “The Great Divorce” by C.S.Lewis. It’s a small book, just a little over a hundred pages. You can easily read it all in an evening. And you couldn’t spend your time any better, in my opinion. Lewis takes us on a bus ride from hell to heaven and along the way, he explains our faith in words and images we can easily understand. This is good theology for us average folk. We hear the stories of the traveler’s lives and we see ourselves revealed in them. Lewis is one of us, he uses language and references we can understand. And he’s gifted in helping us grasp the great truths of our Christian faith in his “little” stories like this one.

“The Great Divorce” opens in a sad, dark city called “the grey town.” Our narrator encounters others who are there with him and he learns their stories as they travel together on a bus to — who knows where. As they travel, we come to understand more about what heaven is and what hell is. We learn the part that our own choices in life play on our journey to our final home. Much of the despairing imagery of the grey town comes from Lewis’ own experience of wartime London, as the book was published in 1945. I don’t want to give away too much of this story, because I hope you’ll want to experience it for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll never think of heaven or hell in quite the same way again.

And here’s the thing: all of us are on that journey to our real life in eternity. We are all undergoing a spiritual transformation, as Lewis says: We are becoming either “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” That image stops me in my tracks. Created in God’s own likeness, I believe that I’m destined to live forever—the question is, where will that be? We are all given choices to make and these choices (or refusals to choose) shape our souls. When we choose Christ, He makes His home in us (Ephesians 3:16-17). When we deny Christ, we take a different path. But we are in the unfolding process of “becoming.” Lewis says, “There are no ordinary people—only those on their way to becoming devils or glorified creatures like the angels.” Of course, he doesn’t mean that we actually become either devils or angels. We are always human, but oh, the variety of light and dark, of virtue and of sin that we contain.

Our journey has two eventual destinations. Through Christ, we become more heavenly, more in harmony with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. Or we choose another path and become more hellish—at war with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. These “becomings” are at the heart of the story Lewis shares in “The Great Divorce.” In our glimpses into the lives of the characters, we’re also confronted with our ideas of both heaven and hell and what they might be like. Lewis’ vision doesn’t include harps and clouds, or lakes of fire. Heaven is a place of infinite realty, where all the beauty we have ever known is a pale imitation of God’s home for us. The closer we get to heaven, the more intense the beauty is and the more there is to experience ahead of us. Each moment is ecstasy. For those who choose a different path, reality becomes smaller, darker, duller, and more self-absorbed. It’s the saddest, most lifeless of realities you could imagine. Lewis is a master storyteller.

Our souls are being formed at every moment, and with every breath. You and I are, at this very instant, becoming either more heavenly or more hellish. We are becoming more and more like Jesus or we are walking down another path. Our ultimate destination isn’t something forced upon us, but is a place and a process we actively choose and embrace. Read this little book. Make your choice.

“While others plan your funeral, decide on a casket, a burial plot, and who the pallbearers shall be, you will be more alive than you’ve ever been.”
—-Erwin Lutzer

Everlasting Hope

A tribal chief lay dying. He summoned three of his people and said, “I must select a successor. Climb our holy mountain and return with the most precious gift you can find.” The first brought back a huge gold nugget. The second brought back a priceless gem. The third returned empty-handed saying, “When I reached the mountaintop, I saw on the other side a beautiful land, where people could go for a better life.” The chief said, “You shall succeed me. You’ve brought back the most precious gift of all: a vision of a better tomorrow.”

The hope of a better future, of a brighter day ahead seems a universal human dream. Every heart yearns for happiness. As Christians, we believe that God has placed this yearning in our hearts because He loves us and wants us to be happy. And we know that the fulfillment of all our human desires lies in our union with God. He created us with a God-sized hole in our hearts that only He can fill. As St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” But it wasn’t always like that. In the Garden, our first parents were created out of intimate union and love with God. His very breath gave them life and their intimacy with Him was perfect and beyond all our imagining. Somewhere deep inside our own DNA we “remember” that bliss and long for it as we long for that shared breath of life with God. It was sin that shattered our relationship with Him and we are all the inheritors of that original wound.

Out of God’s love, Christ redeemed us through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, healing the rift of our sin and opening the doors of heaven to all who love Him. He came from heaven as a man, as the Good Shepherd and offered our own wounded and broken humanity on His Cross. When He ascended into heaven, the path of our own return to the Father was opened again. Catholics celebrated this wonderful Feast of the Lord’s Ascension just a few weeks ago. We celebrated our own healing hearts and our own return to the God Who made us. We celebrated hope and freedom and love. Not mere words tossed around by everyone from political candidates to talk-show hosts, but real Hope, real Freedom, and real Love found only in Jesus Christ.

In His Ascension, we can also celebrate the hope of our own better tomorrow. For where Christ is, He has promised that we may also be. We too will have glorified bodies, ourselves still, but whole and beautiful and perfected in God’s sight. This is the vision of the life to come that has been given to the Church. When we picture people we love who have gone before us, we can picture all of them this way: whole and beautiful. When we see them again in the fullness of heaven this is what we’ll see. Until then we are the members of His Body, building the Kingdom of God right here among us, through our love and care for one another, especially for the most vulnerable. He calls us to make that vision of a better tomorrow an earthly reality for all His children. We are His hands now.

“The Ascension of Christ is the end of the Gospel and the beginning of the mission.” —William Baird