By Chip Fowler
The conversation went something like this:
“OK, God. I am completing my education, and now it’s time to get a job. I have preaching experience, a master’s degree (finishing well up the academic ladder at somewhere in the middle—eh, maybe a little lower), so I’ll just wait here until you send that long line of megachurches wanting a young preacher who will stay awhile. Or maybe a Bible college looking for someone to impart his newfound wisdom and experience to a bunch of young preacher wannabes. . . .
“Well, God, I’m waiting. . . . I’m still waiting . . . and still waiting some more! Ahhh, now I’m hearing something! . . . You want me to do WHAT?”
Well, it didn’t go exactly like that, but it could have. I had known for years that I was going into the ministry. It was confirmed to me on a Sunday night at First Christian Church in Orlando, Florida, when the youth were in charge of the service. Our youth minister, Larry Bowden, had selected me and two others to each give one part of a three-part sermon. I was hooked. (Or was it “called”?)
But now, all the preparation for ministry was almost over; it was about time to fish or cut bait. I have come to believe partially in a “theology of interveners.” During my last year at Emmanuel School of Religion, one of my “interveners” helped set the course for my ministry.
I worked part-time with the development office. A newcomer to the operation was Charles Trinkle, the son of O. A. Trinkle, the great Restoration preacher. Charles was a retired chaplain with the U.S. Army.
One day, as a means of striking up a conversation and getting to know him a little better, I said, “So, you’re a retired chaplain, huh? Just what is a chaplain and what do they do?” (I was almost completely ignorant on the topic!) As he talked about his experience and ministry in the Army, I became more and more intrigued.
Now, I also hold partially to a “theology of open doors.” Since no long line of megachurches had formed to seek my services, my wife and I agreed I should sign up for a hitch as an Army chaplain.
It was the only “open door” I had for ministry at that time. In 27 years, I have sought no other.
The first day I set foot on a military installation at Fort Hamilton, New York, I heard the words “This is home” as clear as if someone was standing next to me. Maybe Someone was there, for I have never felt more sure of what God wanted me to do than to be a chaplain in the U.S. Army.
When I was in high school, we had an interdenominational youth meeting at which a representative from each church would give a little talk about his church’s history and doctrine. It was intended to broaden our understanding of each other. Larry Bowden asked me to represent our youth group, and gave me a copy of Christians Only to help me prepare my remarks.
I appreciated reading and learning about my Restoration history, and became quite intrigued with some of its tenets, this one in particular: “We are not the only Christians, but Christians only.” I had always wondered just how true it was in our practice and in our relationship with other believers who hold a little different view of things from us.
As an Army chaplain, I wanted to test the validity of that Restoration principle. To my great joy, I have found it to be quite true. While respecting the traditions and views of others, yet maintaining integrity to my own heritage, I have discovered a great many brothers and sisters in faith and co-laborers in the vineyards who just happen to come from a different tradition. And in that multidenominational setting (which includes several nondenominational “denominations” like us), I have been free to preach Christ “in season and out of season.”
Meanwhile, I have also heard from non-Restoration colleagues hundreds of sermons that would make the Campbells and Stone and “Raccoon” John Smith mighty proud! I have never been asked to baptize anyone other than by immersion; and I have been free to share the body and blood of our Lord anywhere and anytime I so chose.
Rather than “leaving the ministry” (as one of my pre-chaplain colleagues lamented me doing), I have found the ministry in the Army to be the most dynamic I could have ever imagined. I think that’s because God wanted me here.
Talk about a megachurch! The Army is the world’s largest youth group, whose members are craving spiritual nurture (in often nontraditional ways). The Army is also the world’s largest corporation, whose leaders demand and rely on strong moral and spiritual leadership from chaplains. What a magnificent opportunity to share the simple, life-giving and life-changing gospel with all those on whose shoulders the awful burden of war rests . . . and to help them make sense of it all in the light of God’s will and Word.
Every one of us travels a different path along life’s road. And it is no different for chaplains in the Army. I have been richly blessed by many “interveners” who have influenced my journey and led me to experiences I would have never imagined. In recent years, their influence led me to the extremely humbling experiences of being the Command Chaplain for the Stabilization Forces in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and the Command Chaplain for III Armored Corps at Fort Hood, Texas, with duty as the Command Chaplain for both the Combined Joint Task Force 7 (under Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez) and the Multi-National Corps—Iraq (under Lt. Gen. Tom Metz).
In both Bosnia and Iraq, I oversaw and coordinated a religious program that included chaplains from many nations, making friends around the world. In Bosnia, I had the opportunity to lead 47 chaplains with 10,000 parishioners (soldiers). In Iraq, the opportunity expanded to include 275 chaplains with 165,000 parishioners. (Who could have ever dreamed of a megachurch that big?) The opportunity to bring the “good news of great joy” to soldiers in hazardous and demanding conditions has brought me tremendous personal and professional reward, beyond my imagination.
And the reward doesn’t stop there. To be able to kneel next to a newly naturalized American citizen whose appreciation for his new country caused him to serve as a soldier, and later to pray over his lifeless form, given as a sacrifice for his new nation, gives me awe at how much people can love the promise of liberty.
To stand at the head of a seriously wounded yet conscious soldier while the doctors work to save his life, and to pray with him for comfort and healing, and to hear him say, “Thanks for being here, Chaplain; I couldn’t have made it without you; I know the Lord is with me,” provides reward like nothing else can.
To have a young boy pass a handwritten note to you during the greeting time at church that says, “Thank you. Because of you I know who Jesus is,” assures me that the voice was right: “This (the Army) is home.”
I can tell stories forever: of preaching an English service in a Korean church; of pastoring an international church in Sarajevo whose members represented 11 different countries, including an Iranian woman and her children who fled persecution from her country; of preaching in the church in Peover, England, where Gen. Patton made his headquarters, celebrating his 100th birthday, and having his American flag flying beside the pulpit; of baptizing soldiers in rivers and swimming pools; of overflow crowds for worship in Baghdad and of two or three gathered in his name on times too numerous to count; of mentoring new and very young chaplains (or am I just getting old?), encouraging them to remain true to the Christ they serve—the list goes on and on and on.
I guess remembering and telling such stories is the plight of those whose day is coming to a close. And some day in the not too distant future, it will come to a close for me—there are limits on how long a soldier can serve.
But I have to wonder: how can such an average Joe as me be so blessed? I guess it’s because God is just so good! Katharine Graham asked the question, “To love what you do, and to feel that it matters—how can anything be more fun?” Despite frequent moves, separations from family, and various hardships and tragedies, military ministry for me has been fun, rewarding, and a great blessing.
Chaplain (Col.) Gene “Chip” Fowler serves in the U.S. Army, presently at Fort Hood, Texas, where he is the III Corps Chaplain.