I had prepared to be with you all as one of your faculty leaders during your Chaplain Career Course. I had your names in front of me. I had prayed for you by name. I had really looked forward to teaching you in preaching—”sacred communication,” as we more “affectionately” call it. How I longed to dialogue with you, in a Socratic way, about progressing in your ministry, and working through the unavoidable traps of leadership and supervision of others, younger chaplains. I am always armed with a full supply of illustrations of how not to do it. We have fun together learning. I receive energy from our students. The word “love” is overused; but I love being with our chaplain students. You are, after all, not merely students, but beloved colleagues in this spiritual battle we face every day. I dare say that I always take away more from the stories of seeing and hearing of God in your lives than I could ever possibly give.
But I am not with you. The Army doc put me on “quarters.”
My 19-year-old-son, who has heard a lot of Army talk in his growing up had somehow missed that one. He had driven me down since my condition has restricted my driving right now. He was acting as my assistant. Since I was having some symptoms of the illness he was also seeking to take down every medical instruction. But one simple phrase threw him off: being “ordered to quarters.”
“Sir,” My son politely interrupted, wanting to make sure he understood every jot and tittle of instruction for the care the physician was directing, “Would you mind clarifying what you mean by ‘quarters?'” The Army doctor smiled patiently and explained. “I’m sorry, Son. I just meant that your dad needs to remain on duty, but at home, until we can get him into a specialist.” My son thought “quarters” was being sent to “the brig!” Since I was once in the Navy, my own language at home reveals the differences in services that I still can’t get over some thirty years later. So, my son though being sent to quarters meant I was being detained!
Well, knowing that you are there and I am here is sort of like that. So from my brig of illness, I share this Convocation message, which I preached a few years ago at the beginning of a class not unlike yours. I even speak of the illness that was plaguing me the, which did, indeed, calm for a season, but came back with a vengeance that makes my optimism in the sermon seem foolishly naïve. Yet faith and hope in the midst of trial is never naïve. It is an intrinsic trust that in the resurrection, all things are, indeed, becoming new, even when they may seem to be getting worse.
Use this time to prepare to run the race before you. And know that there is one “chaplain in the brig”—or at least on sick “quarters” that feels like a brig—who is praying for your success. This not exactly on the level of excellence of Letter from the Birmingham Jail, but my heart and soul go with the words to you—and I miss being with you in a way I cannot describe.
God bless you and your families as you become living conduits through which God’s blessings may flow to our U.S. Army and Armed Forces personnel and their dear families who need that blessing now more than ever.
~ ~ ~
“It’s a Growing Time: Resting in God before Running in Ministry
A Convocation Message for the US Army Chaplain Center and School, Fort Jackson, South Carolina,” CH (LTC) Michael A. Milton, USAR
Your soul and mine needs a time of convocation. Convocation is quite simply an assembly that has a purpose. Though some convocation events that I have been to which are merely prescribed ceremonies announcing a new school year, or something else—and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, I believe that we can use these times more intentionally in our community. I believe that Convocations can be, and should be, more than ceremony. Convocations should be gatherings to rest before we run. So I think that convocations are good. They are like Jesus stealing away from the crowds at Capernaum. You will recall that many wanted healing. Many received it. The disciples of Jesus could sense the growing momentum of ministry. Yet Jesus did not continue the race towards tasks, even tasks that would bring about healing. That may sound cruel—as cruel as a pastor who actually takes a Sabbath and refuses to answer his phone. Jesus had convocation of sorts, with Himself and with His Father. Peter didn’t understand it. That often-impetuous apostle is even recorded as chastising Jesus for hiding out while people with needs were waiting for Him. But the Lord needed convocation, an intentional pause for reflection before an unfolding plan of redemption. If such a season was so important to Him it should be to us.
The beginning of a new semester in school, a new job, a new career, or a new pastorate, or even new relationship, is a good time for a personal, and even corporate, convocation. In my own life I have recently learned how God can even force us to go to Convocation with ourselves and with Him. I was elected the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary last September. Our board chose the path of a well-ordered succession plan. This year I am in a “left-seat-right-seat” relationship with my esteemed predecessor. I am preparing for a convocation of sorts in 2012, when I will be inaugurated, Lord willing, with the community gathered around me, and will begin a race. God, however, chose to have my inauguration a little earlier and with pomp and circumstance that I could not have anticipated and would have never chosen. You see, I fell very ill in the spring of this year. Indeed, from around the fall of last year until just recently, I was not doing well physically. After the first of this year, fatigue and a virus and something altogether unknown threw me into something called neurocardiogenic syncope. Basically, that means I was passing out, or getting so fatigued that I lived in a state of being close to passing out. It was debilitating. The physician tried treatment after treatment, but every new pharmaceutical cocktail he concocted didn’t seem to do the trick. I grew sicker still. Finally, he and our board of trustees felt it best for me to take a medical leave to focus on healing. I have never been so sick in my life and I welcomed the time to heal, but I confess to you that I was also anxious. “I should be out there leading the troops,” I thought. “Of all times for something like this to happen” I grumbled in my syncope-induced state of mind. Yet I have learned the truth: this was exactly the best time for that to happen. I would not have been wise enough, or patient enough, in my own wisdom, to actually steal away for such intense times of spiritual rest and renewal as I did while I was sick. In fact, my wife and I look back at that time and call it, “A Growing Time.” We do so partly because during that time we listened together to an album, the last one released by Dan Fogelberg before he died. One of his songs on his last album is about his own time of growth during sickness, a time when he and his wife, Jeanne, spent time together in their garden. He called it a growing time because their garden grew in the springtime of the year, even as their relationship grew in the soil of affliction. It is a strange thing to say I am growing as I am dying. Yet this song became our theme as Mae and John Michael and I grew closer in my sickness, even as our own garden grew. But I grew with God also. Before I would run the race of serving a seminary system of multiple campuses with national and global goals and dreams, I needed to simply rest. I need to do what Bonhoeffer talked about when he said that affliction causes us to love God for God’s own sake. My motivations for ministry, my love of God, my relationship to Him, my own sins, my own limitations, were all brought before me during this season. I am better now. My doctor even said, “Mike, one day you will forget this ever happened.” I smiled and responded with wisdom I did not have previously, “No, Doctor, I will never forget it. And I don’t want to.”
Have you ever had convocation like that? Seasons of life like that where you are one on one with God before you are standing before others? Have you ever assembled with God to love Him for His own sake, to examine your motivations for ministry, or to reflect on where you have been and where you are going with God and with others? I suspect that many here will say, “Yes.” For I know that you have come from Iraq and Afghanistan, or from a place far removed from family and friends. You have learned to trust God in a new way. Yet I also know that those times can be more like the masses of people at Capernaum and less like “a growing time” in restful, prayerful repose. We want this time to be a growing time for you.
David had known days of communing with the Lord in the fields as a boy. But war and political intrigue, monarchial responsibilities, and family chaos took its toll on this man of God. Indeed, his own sins caused him to spiral out of spiritual equilibrium. So when we read Psalm 37.3-7, we must remember that we are reading the divinely inspired words of a man who commended rest before running because he had lived it himself.
The Psalm contrasts the ways of the evildoer whose lives “fade like the grass and wither like the green herb” (verse 1) and who will soon “be no more” (verse 10) and whose “day is coming” (in verse 13). But for the one who follows the divine call to convocation with God, it is a growing time, a time of resting in God before running in ministry.
Looking at this Psalm, and the classic verses 3-7, we can attain unto the Lord’s directions and the Believers delight in resting before running.
I. There are divinely given directions that call us to trust the LORD
Twice, in this passage, we are directed to trust in the Lord, in verse one, and to trust in Him, in verse 5. You say, “ I trust Him already. What else is needed?” Yet you see the answer is in this: this trust comes from a deep, soul-satisfying season of lingering in love before Lord. That is what we want for you. It is what we want for all believers. To possess this trust is to have experienced the presence of God in a way that is deeply personal. It is the trust that Enoch had, who walked with God. It is the trust that Moses learned in the Midian “back forty” when, in exile, he saw a burning bush that was not consumed and heard his call clearly. It is the trust that Paul received when all had turned against him, and in his final epistle, 2 Timothy, we witness a man who is able to pass along his ministry to another, Timothy, even as he is in a Roman cell awaiting his beheading. It is the trust that allowed the martyrs of not only the first century, but this century, to worship the Lord amidst hatred and yet be able to say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
To cultivate this trust we are given these directions:
1. Do good (v. 3)—Giving our lives to others in service is an imitation of God;
2. Dwell in the land (v. 3)—To dwell is to embrace the place where God has placed you as a sacred land; to dwell is to move beyond the discontentment of always wanting to be somewhere else; it is living with God in the place where you are, with the people you are with, with the circumstance you have been given;
3. Befriend faithfulness (v. 3)—This is the cultivation of a personal faith that produces the fruit of virtue, through intentional feeding of our souls in the grace of the Lord;
4. Delight yourself in the Lord (v. 4)—This is simply, profoundly, wonderfully and gloriously to worship God for who He is;
5. Commit your way to the Lord (v. 5)—This is the trust that rests in God’s sovereignty and allows us to entrust our past, present and future to God without fear;
6. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him (v. 7)—Ah, how challenging this is. This is to release the moments of life to the Lord and learn to live in the glory of the present, trusting that God can work things out without your interference! For some of us, like myself, the Lord mercifully interceded with a severe grace that forced me to be still!
7. Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way (v. 7)—Here our faith, in the growing season of time with the Lord, produces a relationship with the Lord that is not based on others.
In all of these instructions we can see this one truth: The Lord wants His saints to rest before running by simply starting with a deep relationship time, “a growing time” with Him.
Let us remember that the context of this growing time is over and against the evildoer who seems to be flourishing (verse one introduces this theme which is interwoven throughout Psalm 37). We are so often enticed (like David and like Peter) to judge our effectiveness in service to God by comparing ourselves to others. The Lord’s instructions here call us to not look and fret over others, but look in faith to God. Before Peter was to run the race of leading the Church, Jesus had to minister to him on the shore of Galilee in John chapter twenty-one. There, at a most amazing breakfast with the resurrected Christ whom Peter had denied, there needed to be renewal. And how does the confrontation begin? “Do you love me more than these?” Why did Jesus begin that way? It might have been so because Peter seemed, in the Gospels, to be constantly comparing his faith against the faith of others. “Others may deny you, but I will never.” But now it was a convocation time, a one on one time, an assembly time with the Lord. And in that time, Peter had to learn to love Jesus for Jesus’ own sake. Peter had to also learn that feeding sheep, doing ministry, must come out of an overflow of a deep sacred encounter with Christ.
That is what I need to learn again and again. If you are anything like me, then maybe you need to learn that again as well.
Oftentimes, this happens in affliction. But it can also happen, mercifully, in a spiritual retreat, or even in Chaplain Career Course! I have been told that the Commandant does not expect anyone to “check his brain at the door” as you come into this season of your career, but I am told he—and all of us—are praying that you will grow in grace, in peace, in love, in this time of spiritual healing, spiritual resting before running. Oh that this may, indeed, be a growing time for you. Your instructions from the Lord are before you: focus in this time on trust in the Lord, dwelling in the presence of the Lord, discovering what it means again to be His faithful one, delighting in Him for His own sake, rededicating or committing your life again to Him, learning to be still and waiting and cultivating that most illusive virtue, patience. And what will come of it? The Lord is so good to us. He not only gives us his directions but as usual this law, if you will, coming out of the grace of God, leads to something good:
II. There is a divinely granted delight that comes from trusting the LORD
That delight is marked in verse four.
Oh, how many of us have claimed this verse at one time or another, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
We mustn’t think of this as a heavenly guarantee of riches and wealth for our labors, or winning the lottery. If that is the desire of your heart, then you are in sin! For we are told not to pursue riches! OK, most of us will grasp that one easily enough. But let us make this harder. What if we are praying for healing, as I was doing in my own case, and what if that desire of our heart doesn’t come? I will not resolve the mystery of theodicy—of a good God and an evil world—in this or any other sermon. Nor will you. But we can say that God’s Word is sure and if we trust Him He will grant us the desire of our hearts. The way we understand that is to understand that love begets love. Divine love, so different than human love, is, as Luther reminded us, creative, proactive. Human love is dependent, responsive. We love because we find something worthy to love. God loves out of the super abundance of His own Person. He is love. To come to know this God of love is to begin to have our hearts transformed and therefore to have our desires transformed. To trust in God and lay before Him the desire of our hearts, which may be a child for a childless couple, and receive no answer may seem harsh. Yet the couple that has trusted in this God of love, experienced Him in this restful way revealed in Psalm 37, come to see that the gift of children comes to them in new ways they could never imagine. In other words, our desires become more like God’s the more we rest in Him.
That delight is also marked verse six. We read that to follow the divine directives of trust will lead to a harvest of two great things: righteousness and justice.
“He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”
Perhaps this is given because in this Psalm there is a discontentment present. Evildoers flourish, but what of the godly? Why is it that they seem to have it so hard? The answer is that the quiet time of reflection and rest is needed to straighten this out before you take off running in the ministry of trying to make sense of God’s grace in this world. Without this time of being with God in such a season, you cannot bring the true message of the LORD’s salvation to others.
It is, therefore, very important that we note that the name of God here is the covenant name of God, which has redemption and hope and glory embedded within the name. We need to know that God. In Him there is the righteousness that we cannot find in the world or in ourselves. Jesus said that he came to convict the world of righteousness. What He meant was that there is no resident righteousness, but we are in need of an “alien righteousness” as Luther put it. We are not just communing or mediating with some Deistic higher power, but with the God who is the great “I AM;” and the Lord of promise and deliverance and hope and eternal life). The righteousness and justice that I miss in the world I find in Him.
I am a follower of Jesus Christ. In Him alone I find the righteousness that I cannot produce with my own religious works, much less than I can find in a fallen humanity. Without time alone with God, without seasons of refreshment and renewal in Him, without a convocation that seeks to jump start that time, I can get lost in the crowded field of pseudo-righteousness and forget that my righteousness comes from Christ. I can even begin to believe my own press releases and think that I must be adding something to the corpus of goodness in the world by my ministry of helping others. But my righteousness is like filthy rags, says Isaiah. And I have come to believe it when I linger in the presence of pure glory. In a similar way, righteousness, here promised, leads to justice. When you have seen children blown apart by terrorist to advance their own diabolical agendas, and you see no response to that, there is a craving for justice. People protested in the streets of Orlando in a recent trial of the young mother who was accused with what seemed to be insurmountable evidence of her guilt because they wanted justice for the little girl who was dead. I have felt that seething feeling of a demand for justice as I have helped abandoned spouses and children in family court, or held parents in my arms whose children were killed by drunk drivers. But the God who is our righteousness is also our hope of justice.
I have a friend who signs all of his letters with the same phrase, “For a New Heaven and a New Earth to Come…” I have come to love seeing those words. For in them, I am able to release the pent-up indignation over my own rights and injustices, my own hurts and pains, to the God who Kingdom is now come, and will come in an even greater and everlasting way. This is a gift of salvation for those who haven’t righteousness and a gift of hope for those who long for justice.
Resting before we run allows us to follow the divine directions and enjoy the divine delights shown to us in Psalm 37.
It is funny that the longer we live, the more that the simple things seem so profound. Come to think of it, as the columnist and former speech writer Peggy Noonan says, “the most profound things are usually said the simplest”—like, “I love you.” I guess the simple words of an old Gospel hymn sum up what we hope and pray will mark the days ahead:
“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
If we so rest, we shall run with a new power from on high. And we shall look back and say it was “a growing time.” And I will never forget it.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.