I was on Chaplain duty. I was ministering at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School. I came to instruct, to give my testimony of why I continued to balance the life of civilian ministry and the role of a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain. I came to teach. But I was instructed instead.
My lesson came from the life of a second lieutenant, a Chaplain candidate, a Pentecostal seminarian, from Minnesota. The classroom environment was the “latrine.” Washing our hands, I thought I would make conversation with this young man. I just asked a simple question, “How are you doing today, Son?” His reply suspended all other thoughts I had at that moment. His response was as if he had been waiting all morning for someone to ask that very question. He beamed, popped to attention, looking ahead into the mirror at the sink, and replied, “Sir, I am living the dream!” I laughed. I told him that I loved his answer. “Living the dream, huh Lieutenant? Well, at ease, son!” The Minnesotan’s rigid attention collapsed to a normal stance, but he had a smile from ear to ear. He then proceeded to dry his hands on the Brown, wood-chip-paper towel. Still smiling, the Lieutenant pivoted, like Steff Curry, and gave it a three-point shot to the trash can. That done, as if for an encore, he summarized his soliloquy,
“Yes Sir! Living the dream! I am called to preach, called to be a Chaplain and I find myself this very moment in Chaplain school, preparing for ministry in the United States Army. Now, you tell me, Sir, does it get any better than that? I don’t think so,” He answered his own question. “Yes Sir. I am literally living the dream. Have a great Army day, Sir!”
“Carry on, Lieutenant! I will see you in class.”
I had a presentation ready with a rather vanilla title, “Why I Am Still a Chaplain,” to be delivered to mid-career Chaplains. Many of them will decide to either continue with ministry as a Chaplain, go on to Command and General Staff College, move up the ranks and finish their careers, or return to a civilian ministry. I wanted to encourage them to consider the spiritual power that would possibly keep them here in the U.S. Army as Chaplains. God knows, literally—God knows—that our Soldiers need their Chaplains. Yet, as I dried my hands and walked out with my Bible under my arm to give my testimony to these mid-career Chaplains, I had a new title and a fresh way of framing my call and explaining my vocation: “Living the Dream.”
I am retired, now. I “aged-out” with thirty-two years of military service. But that day lives on in my memory. But on that day, just a few months prior to mandatory retirement, I pondered the question, “How is it that I—merely one of hundreds of Chaplains—continue to walk the tight rope of civilian and military ministries;;and how could it be said that I am ‘living the dream’ of being a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain?” It seems to me to be a good time, on this Veterans Day, to reflect on this and share my reflections with others, maybe with some young bucks just “pinning on.”
Let me give you three ways to live the dream.
The Spiritual Reality
I am a Chaplain first and foremost because I am a minister. I became a minister out of my calling as a Christian. And I became a Christian out of the spiritual reality of being an undeserving sinner, unable to secure my own happiness, much less able to accumulate enough good works to overwhelm the sins I had committed and the sins committed against me. I was, in short, one messed up pup. And that pitiful pup was on a road to eternal Perdition. Some of the flames of that dark destiny were already licking at my lost soul. I was haunted by the idea of waking up at the end of my life and having done nothing of any significance in the world. And I was haunted by an absence of assurance of my eternal destination. I was dark, brooding, mistaken and making mistakes, lost and wandering deeper into the forest of unhappy unbelief, farther from the faith I had known as an orphaned child being raised by my Aunt Eva in the woods of South Louisiana. I finally realized, as a young Navy enlisted boy, that I needed salvation. Somewhere in my training as an intelligence specialist, an Albanian linguist and a cryptologist (a “spook” in Navy colloquial parlance), I knew I had to find my way home, using the image of the prodigal son (the story I knew, to my own shame and double damnation, that I was living out) to the Father’s front porch, the place of healing, the place of acceptance, the place of grace, whatever that term “grace” meant.
Oh the glory of the meaning of that word! It was grace that got me home. It was not my steps to God, but God’s steps to me—through the presentation of the Gospel by Dr. D. James Kennedy—that finally got me home to the Father’s house. I came to understand that I was a sinner in need of a Savior and that Savior was Jesus Christ. What I didn’t know was, like St. Peter, I could not boastfully bull my way into the House of God. I had to respond personally to His first step to me. He initiated my salvation. I responded. And even my response was His work (Ephesians 2:8,9: faith is a “gift”), for I had been “dead in trespasses and sins.”
That is the spiritual reality that has led me to this place of living the dream, this place of ministry.
But there is not only a spiritual reality that had to be understood, and a response to that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, there was a powerful call that came to me. That is the second step that led me to living the dream of ministry.
The Sacred Encounter
All ministries must be born out of a personal, sacred encounter with the living Lord Jesus Christ. If you are ministering out of something other than an encounter with the risen Christ, then you are ministering out of your own strength; and you cannot run the race with such evanescent energy. It is pseudo-strength like a high from a Venti Starbucks coffee in running a marathon. You are good for a while but it will wear off sooner rather than later. And thus it is with a religion void of divinity. Jesus described such man-made religion as a “whitewash” over a tomb. Her most beautiful rituals are like rainbows in the sky, appearing to be of inestimable beauty and worth, but powerless to endure; to endure the challenges of the Christian life, much less the trials of pastoral ministry, which undeniably await.
For me, my ministry was born out of a personal calling to Jesus Christ, but also a sacred encounter with Christ to the ordained ministry. Jesus Christ called me, both internally and externally, through my own growing sense of a desire to preach, to administer the sacraments, to shepherd the flock of God, and to yield my life to His service in the ministry of preaching Christ and His grace to sinners. That calling was confirmed by my wife, by my session, by my presbytery, by my seminary and my professor-mentors, and ultimately by a call to become a church planter-evangelist in the Heartland Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. I can tell you, though, the reason that I wake up each day excited about the ministry before me is not because of some personality trait bent on optimism. It is because of the call of Christ on my life.
When the strong winds of opposition come again you there is only one thing you have and that is your call from Christ. It is what gets you through the rest of the inevitable trials of ministry and of the Chaplaincy in particular.
“The Chaplaincy in particular” is what I want to speak to now. For that is why I continue to balance these two lives: of civilian ministry and military Chaplaincy.
The Special Calling
I became a Chaplain because I had a special calling from God to minister in the military community. I do not see how any military Chaplain can truly minister without that special calling. Military ministry is not only too hard, but too complex, with the increasingly pluralistic setting and civilian political tinkering with the military, not to mention deployments and stresses and strains (and enemies shooting at you!), to minister in without a special calling from God.
What is this special calling? I believe as I look at the life of Paul, for instance, that God does, indeed, do what we often speak of: “open doors and shut doors.” God shut the door of ministry to Asia in Paul’s life:
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them (Acts 16:6-7).
Yet the sovereign Lord guided Paul to Europe as he had a vision of a Macedonian calling him for help (Acts 16:8-40). So, too, the Lord guided me in several ways into this special calling to the Chaplaincy. I will never forget that call and that special calling is also how I can say that I am “living the dream” when I put this uniform on.
First, I had and continue to have a passion to minister to mixed-up seventeen and eighteen-year-old enlisted kids like me. I want to reach them with the Gospel because I remember what it was like to be there. I, also, saw my late father’s picture sitting on a shelf in our living room as I was growing up. In the 1941 photograph, he is a fine young Third Mate in the Merchant Marine, fresh out of New London Maritime Officers’ School. A war stretched out before him. He served most of World War Two in the North Atlantic moving troops from New York to Liverpool and moving goods from there to South Africa. On one of those trips he was hit by a U-Boat. He concluded the war with an honorable discharge as a Coast Guard officer, having been promoted to Chief Mate, or the First Officer of the Ship. He would continue service with the Merchant Marine through the Korean War. Yet, his stellar career was ruined by alcohol that became alcoholism. The disease wrecked morals and stole mortality. On a still, frosty winter evening in 1963 I walked hand-in-hand between my father, Jesse Ellis Milton, and my Aunt Eva, down a gravel road towards “the Tabernacle.” The light in that little place was more than the kerosene lanterns in the windows. There was a glow on the faces that sang, “O Victory in Jesus, my Savior forever; He sought me, and bought me with His redeeming love …” It seemed to be a glow that radiated from the inside out. Turn-of-the-century accordions replaced pipe organs. Greasy overalls from a day’s work as a plumber replaced golden threaded vestments. But the people and the pastor formed a magnificent clergy and choir in my childlike senses as these poor folks sang to the glory of a God whom they believed was as near as the soft moonlight appearing through the piney notch holes in the chapel wall. On that cold night, my father knelt reverently in the sawdust of that little roughhewn chapel in South Louisiana, his noble head bowed in his hands, leaning on the bench back before him, and he did repent. I sat next to him. I watched him heaving tears. I saw the preacher in his overalls come down from the little pine pulpit and lay his hands on my father’s head. Others, men and women, gathered around and did the same. I was frightened with a reality of reverence that God was close to me and I was undone. My father was a new man. He was clean. He smiled more. He played his violin again. He read his poetry aloud. He bought some ducks for his pond. He tried to make a new life. He died suddenly on the first of May. The spring rain fell on his steel gray casket. Six years old and standing next to the open grave, I could smell the sweetness of shoveled earth awakened by the spring rain. Gathered under the funeral-home-supplied-tent, our family prayed the Lord’s Prayer as my father disappeared into the grave. And I remember every detail of the service to this day.
So, I want to minister to officers who face the trials and temptations of life. I love them. I love Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen and Guardsmen, and their families. I love them because I came out of them. It is a most incarnational calling. So that calling worked its way, providentially, into the U.S. Army Reserve (and that is another story which shows how God shuts one door [the Navy Reserve Chaplaincy, which was my first choice] and how God opens another [the U.S. Army Reserve, which has been my happy home since 1992 when I was commissioned]).
In my years of ministry, I have seen how God has sovereignly sown together experiences, passion and love to bring about special callings in pastors’ lives. This is how Chaplains are made. God makes them out of the stuff of life: heartache, longing, patriotism, family, heroism, photographs, memories, dreams, childhood hopes and childhood losses; all mixed together and poured by the Holy Spirit into the mold of a unique vocation. Others recognize that calling and they affirm it as they say, “Come minister to us here.” That special calling cannot be ignored. I would challenge every military Chaplain, indeed, every minister—nay, every believer—to go back and remember your spiritual situation that God called you out of, your sacred encounter with the resurrected and living Christ, and His special calling on your life as He has gifted you, equipped you, given you open and shut doors, and a heart filled with burden and passion for a particular people or area or ministry. These are the things that keep us going forward in ministry, and faith, despite the hardships. These are the motivations for ministry. These are things that let us say,
“I am living the dream.”
 I follow the grammatical rule of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains with the words Chaplain, Soldiers, and Families by capitalizing those words when they refer to the U.S. Armed Forces. I used this rule as Senior Editor of the Chaplain Corps Journal.
 See Michael A. Milton, Lord, I Want to Follow Your Call: A Pastoral Guide to the Ordained Ministry (Charlotte, NC; ISBN: 978-0692793732: Bethesda Publishing Group, 2016).