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When the Going Gets Tough…

July 4, 2015

Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, Uzbekistan - 2005

On New Years Day, 2005, I dug out of a rather substantial snowfall so that my wife and son could take me to the Grand Forks Airport. I was joining a large group of people in Baltimore where we would catch a commercial contract airliner for a long trip to Afghanistan. We stopped in Germany for fuel and again in Turkey. When we arrived in Qatar we deplaned long enough to shower and change into our desert uniforms before boarding the same commercial carrier for our trip to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan with another refueling stop in Kuwait. Once at Manas we began the process of disbursing to various installations around the AOR (Area of Responsibility). Finally, after a C-130 flight from Manas to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan my journey was complete and the Padre was on the ground to begin his deployed ministry.

I figured that I would be based in Afghanistan for the length of my deployment. Uncle Sam, or more correctly, the Combined Joint Task Force 76 Command Chaplain, decided that they needed a Protestant Chaplain in Uzbekistan who would also be flying around the AOR to provide ministry wherever needed. I ended up flying around quite a bit of Afghanistan as did my colleague and friend, Father Steve Voyt, providing ministry to various outposts including for me regular weekly trips to Bagram to provide ministry there.

In May, it was time to rotate back to the States as our time downrange was complete. However, there was a slight hitch. During our time in Uzbekistan, the United States government had been in discussions with the latest variation of the Uzbek government about their record of human rights abuses. These abuses had been going on for years (as a former satellite of the Soviet Union, their record was like the USSR, not good at all), and frankly had been ignored in 2001 as the US military needed a place to stage operations into Afghanistan in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. By early 2005 though, our government began to speak up and try and get the Uzbek government to change their ways. Instead of discussing and changing as we had hoped they would, the Uzbek government kicked the US out of Uzbekistan. The rotation following ours would be the rotation to close up the base and ship it all home. As it was explained to us, the Uzbek government felt they could no longer work with us and our government felt they could no longer work with them, so they kicked us out!

Why this long story about Uzbekistan, Padre? Well, I believe it actually does fit in with the Gospel reading for tomorrow. On the heels of casting out demons, healing people, calming the storm, and various teaching moments, Jesus was finally coming home. When he began to teach on the sabbath at the synagogue, he wasn’t exactly greeted with warmth and respect. Who are you? Aren’t you Joseph’s son? Aren’t you the carpenter son of Mary? Aren’t you the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon along with all of your sisters? Who do you think you are anyway! You aren’t anything special! We know the stories about your supposedly miraculous birth and frankly we don’t buy the myth! So his hometown folks ended up taking offense at him!

Wow, in other towns the leaders of the synagogue come begging him to heal their children. In other towns, people seek him out for healing and inspiration and guidance. But in his own hometown? Nothing! He wasn’t able to do any mighty deeds of power there except for curing a few sick people. Jesus was amazed (and I would also guess hurt) by their disbelief. Because he could do nothing there, he left his hometown. He went to the surrounding villages where he could teach to a receptive crowd.

Jesus commissioned the disciples to go out two-by-two into the field to minister. He gave them authority over the unclean spirits and equipped them to do his work. The instructions he gave were interesting. Take nothing for your journey except a staff. Bring no bread, no bag, no money… Wear sandals and don’t wear an extra tunic. In other words, he was telling them that they would have to completely rely upon the good will of those whom they met on the road as they did his work. They were to find a place to stay and make that their base of operations for the entire time they were in that village.

This reminds me of Uzbekistan with the exception of packing light! We were based in there until we were no longer welcome. When it came time to leave, we literally took everything with us except for the runway! I think the Uzbek government thought that the U.S. military would leave all of the buildings and equipment behind. Nope, that wasn’t to happen… instead, we quite literally packed up all of our stuff, kicked the dust off of our combat boots, and headed on out.

I wonder if the experience in his hometown, which must have left a bad taste in his mouth, had anything to do with the final instructions he gave his disciples. Jesus told the disciples to do what we had done in Uzbekistan if their ministry was not received by the people of a particular village. If the people refuse to hear the message the disciples had, just as Jesus’ own hometown refused to hear the message he had to proclaim, they were told to kick the dust off of their sandals as a testimony against them and head out of town to another place where the message would be received.

 So how does this speak to us today, dear reader? Have you ever been in a place where it felt like you were treading water or simply existing? Have you ever felt frustrated because it didn’t feel like you were being allowed to do the work that God called you to do? I had reached that point personally towards the end of my Air Force career. I saw fewer and fewer opportunities for ministry and more and more administrative and bureaucratic politics with a promotion to Colonel. It was over the course of that last three years that I realized that God had called me to be a pastor, not an administrator. So on 30 June 2011, I took off my uniform for the last time and hung it up in the closet. I symbolically kicked the dust off of my combat boots and drove off base. It was time for this Padre to move on to where God was calling him to serve. I look back fondly on my Air Force career and value the vast majority of it. However, it was time for me to go when I felt like I was not able to be a pastor any longer.

The phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” has been around a long time. Typically it means that a tough person keeps slogging on in the battle while a weaker person gives up. In the case of the instructions by Jesus to the disciples, I believe it meant something different. Jesus could have weakly bowed to the pressure and become whatever his hometown people wanted him to be. He could have knuckled under and gone back to being the carpenter son of Mary and brother to all of his siblings. However, his toughness came from the call of God in his life. God said, hit the road, Jesus, knock the dust off of your sandals. I will lead you to where you will make a difference. Jesus said the same thing to the disciples.

Have you hit a brick wall? Are you treading water? Does it feel like you are simply existing? I would urge you to look deep within and seek the Lord’s voice and guidance. Is he calling you to knock the dust off and head out where you can do what you have been called to do? When the going gets tough, it is time to seek out the Lord and discern where he is calling you to do his work.

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  1. On this Fourth of July, I thank you for your service. My own dear Steve served in the Air Force for eight years, being RIFed in 1992. Ever grateful that he saw no combat, I am also glad that he – and you – chose to follow your hearts and serve. Your combining of your story leaving Uzbekistan and Jesus sending the twelve two by two, is wonderful. I have felt the calling out of my own spirit from serving in my church on staff. And I am at peace with that, not with the reason, but with the calling away.

    As you are a pastor – and one who is shepherding me through your posts – I thought I would share this undated poem that I wrote on a staff retreat based on that same scripture passage. My mentor and shepherd at the time is now in glory, cancer claiming him November 24, 2012, right after I returned from Iraq for the second time to be an encourager of the church there. My favorite part of that passage is that Jesus tells us to take nothing! – except one another. Good words for us all. We are not in this alone, unless we choose to be.

    God bless you, Padre!

    Calling the Disciples – undated
    “Come gather ‘round” is what he said
    And so they came, it’s what we read
    “I know you’ve tried all night to fish
    But come out again and just do this.”
    So over the side the nets are thrown
    And soon enough the boat does groan!
    As fish and fish and fish and more
    Are hauled inside, and then to shore.

    Somehow they see – I want to so!
    This is the Lord, oh, don’t you know?
    “Just leave your things and follow me
    Together we will take this journey.

    And by the way bring only you
    Not a hat, and not a shoe
    The way is hard, this way we walk
    There will be stones, there will be rocks.
    Some will smile and offer thanks
    Some will have their guns and tanks.
    You might be welcomed into a home
    To share the words of God’s own son.

    but always go with one another,
    A sister’s good, and so’s a brother
    And where there’s two remember this
    His math is better! Because there is
    Three – Him plus one and not just you,
    Father, Son and Holy Spirit too.

    • Thank you so much, Julie… For sharing your life and your story… Your poem and reply brought tears to both our eyes!

      I came on Active duty in Nov 1990. I well remember the RIFs of the early 90’s… And several others during my time in service. Steve was like a lot of exceptional women and men… To the higher ups, a number… To this Padre, they were someone I knew by name.

      Denise has her own story of how our dear friend Toby Mueller touched her life during a very low period. Toby also touched my life as well at the same time. The three of us were at Cursillo together. I was a pilgrim and they were on staff. The passage and your poem speaks to that journey for both of us and the one we are on right now.

      Dona Nobis Pacem, dear sister…

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