Army Chaplains' Blog

Archive for September 2013

Army chaplains spend, on average, between two and three years with a particular unit before moving to a new location to begin the process again. The following reflection is written by the Revd Hector MacKenzie who experienced this transition for the first time last year.

‘I moved recently from my first unit, The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (my home battalion) to the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. This was my first experience of leaving one unit to commence chaplaincy in a new and different environment. I am sure that almost always leaving a unit comes as a wrench, when you have worked closely alongside individuals, deployed on a tour with them and had the privilege of ministering to them in the highs and lows of life. That is certainly the case for me, and I have to be honest and say that I was apprehensive about the move and anxious at stepping out of my comfort zone. But the Paras have been so welcoming and as I slowly get to know individuals I feel more at ease.

Relocation, with all the physical and emotional stresses and readjustments, has given me a valuable insight into how change affects me; it has informed my ministry and I offer this reflection not as the finished article but as a work in progress.

Am I someone who handles change well? I’m not too sure. On the one hand, being a Highlander full of Celtic melancholy I have a tendency to look with nostalgia and romance at the past and lament the here and now; on the other hand, I have heard God’s call to ministry and stepped out in faith, albeit reluctantly and with a certain degree of apprehension. I am sure that we would all admit a sense of fear of the unknown. I know that I have likened myself to Moses many times, wishing and asking God to provide an Aaron to go instead of me!

There have been a number of passages from scripture that have spoken into my experience when I was preparing to commence my training as a chaplain. The resonating theme was God promising to be with his people and helping them to overcome. These words from Isaiah 43:1-3 encouraged me on tour time and again:

But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. (Holy Bible, New Living Translation, 2007, Tyndale House)

The thought of moving, whether that be to a new job, ministry opportunity, school or leaving the Army after a long period of service can be very daunting, in fact for some people it is a terrifying experience. That is understandable when you are somewhere that you know, where routine is familiar, where you have built strong relationships with individuals and personalities are well known: you feel comfortable and at ease. Moving into a new area can be tough, you may be reluctant and find it a struggle to engage. It can be like going to a big hill and when you begin your climb all is fine; the visibility is good, all is calm and the path is sure underfoot. But the further and higher you go, the visibility deteriorates, the terrain becomes unfamiliar, hostile even and you become less and less confident. What do you do? You remember the stream that flows close to the path. You listen out and sure enough you hear the faint trickle of running water. Knowing that it runs downhill it will be your guide home.

We can liken Jesus to the stream, even though the way may seem unclear, if we listen we will hear his voice; he is a safe and sure guide, and he promises to equip us for whatever (new) challenge he calls us to. I am still learning to come to terms with the fact that change is inevitable, and I will continue to have mixed emotions/reactions towards it, but the words of the old hymn ring true, ‘change and decay in all around I see, oh thou who changest not, abide with me.’ (H F Lyte, 1793-1847)

We may worry about our role as chaplains in a changing, shrinking, contingency-focussed Army, but we must remember that God will still give us opportunities to minister and will equip us for that ministry and strengthen us to face the change. It may be that we have to step out first of all, feeling the fear but doing it anyway. Above all let us remember the nature of the God whom we serve, who as James says, ‘never changes or casts a shifting shadow.’ (James 1:17, ibid) Everything else may change, but our God never will and he is entirely trustworthy.

The Secretary to the Methodist Forces Board writes:

‘Normal adjectives like ‘good’ are not appropriate when describing the experience of our visit to Afghanistan. I have been asked for a response many times since returning. I generally resort to words like extraordinary or daunting or fascinating – all of which are true but also completely fail to convey the scope of the experience which was at once complex, profound, exhilarating and confusing.

‘This was my first opportunity to visit a theatre of war and even the flight into Camp Bastion was a revelation. 20 – 30 minutes out, we made the final descent and all the lights were extinguished except for the green guidance lights in the aisles. At near enough the same moment, the conversation died away to silence. After a few minutes, I did wonder if prayer was the sole preserve of the clergy in the period of suspended quietness.

‘Amid the presentations, briefings, meetings and visits, the importance of chaplaincy was a constant theme. Repeatedly, Commanding Officers spoke glowingly of the vital contribution of their padre. ‘Vital’ is a powerful word, so what brings about such a conviction? Repeatedly we witnessed the seriousness of chaplains as well as their humour. We saw their passionate, pastoral and professional commitment, but all of this was placed in a new perspective because of their context. Warfare means the constant proximity of death or serious injury. Of course we know about this as theory but the experience at first hand confirms without question that in this situation, the prayerful person of God is invaluable – vital indeed.

‘All conversations spoke of the grimness of war and two questions were always in my mind. The first asks ‘what does this experience say about humanity?’ Chaplains spoke about warfare bringing out the best in people but one pointed out the best has to be balanced by an experience of the worst in humanity which is at the heart of war.

‘The second question is even more fundamental and asks ‘where is God in all of this?’ In many respects it seemed a God-deserted place but chaplains mostly wanted to point to God present in laughter, joy, and in the relationships of colleagueship and camaraderie. God was also present in pain and suffering of injury and death. From this my mind went back to the death of Lazarus (John 11). Seeing all the distress of sisters and friends, ‘Jesus began to weep.’ (Jn 11:35)

‘So maybe it is enough to say:

            I will weep when you are weeping

            when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;

            I will share your joy and sorrow

            till we’ve seen this journey through.  (Richard Gillard b1953)

It is the ultimate question for chaplaincy to answer ‘where is God in all of this?’ At times the answer is to be found in theological eloquence and narrative, but as many chaplains will testify and as Robert Jones as hinted at, there are occasions when silence and emotions speak more powerfully.