First Church

The church says I can be a pastor
But first I need a place where
A pastor is sufficiently needed,
Else that promise goes unheeded.

I’ve lived in big cities and small towns
Cars, trains, and crowds make the sounds
I’ve grown up with and fallen asleep to
As summer nights prepare for dew.

The elder calls to ask three questions:
Would you come if we beckon?
Do you have children? We would like to know.
And can your wife play the piano?

I told them the truth – yes, yes, and no.
And figured we’d never go
To the small church in Hull, North Dakota:
No piano means no Dakota.

Hull doesn’t rate even a map dot –
A tiny, isolated spot
About four miles off US 83
In the middle of endless prairie

Just ten houses, a church, and some barns
Where farmers retire, spin yarns
Of days and men now faded and long gone
When ev’ry heifer calved more than one.

There used to be a gas station here
Gone now, but an old slab bears
Witness to the industry that once marked
Former lives and hopes now decades dark’ed

Progress has not been good for this place
But that’s okay – folks like space
And their kids found work - Bismarck - nearby.
Besides, not much point to asking why.

Like the winds that rise and fall across
The open sky need no cause,
It just is, and we just are, so we
Need a pastor. Would you serve here, please?

I'm basically a city boy.  I've lived in small towns a few times, but mostly small to moderate sized cities.  So when I was called to Hull, ND - a town of 9 occupied houses, one abandoned house, a church, and some barns and sheds between the Missouri River and US 83 - I went with some trepidation.  I was there four years and they were four good years.  They're used to breaking in newly minted pastors and they were gentle with me and my mistakes.  I left when I joined the Navy in 1995. 



My grandfather was a preacher.
I never knew him.
He grew up in Sheboygan,
The one in Wisconsin.

My own father was a teacher.
I sort of knew him.
Grew up in parsonages
In states not Wisconsin.

But before he was a teacher,
Father went to sea
On LSTs and oilers
With the U. S. Navy

I remember a day when I
Was just 5 years old,
Walking with him on the pier;
Gray ships tied up, stark and bold.

I thought, “I want to go to sea
On ships great and gray –
Sail out on the water,
The bow cutting through salt spray.”

I tried hard to make it happen
But God kept saying,
“Not now. Maybe later”
In answer to my praying.

I had to learn a few things first
About faithfulness –
And obedience, too –
Before God would grant my wish.

But finally he let me go
To stand on the deck
Of a mighty warship
At sea, on the Atlantic.

Like my grandfather, a preacher
Known to my children
Like my father, a sailor
Walking the pier with my son.

So now my son is off to sea
Child of proud fathers,
And in the midst of salt and spray
The generations gather.

Last May, my youngest son graduated from the Naval Academy and I was privileged to put new ensign shoulder-boards on him.  My older son is in the Navy Reserve and considering whether God has called him to the priesthood.  In my sons, the heritage of preacher, teacher, and sailor combine in different, even startling, ways as the old is made new again.  I am grateful to God and proud of my sons.


Still Here

I’m awoken by the call about midnight
An IED on the roadside
Hit one of our patrols – hit it hard
Casualties incoming, so be prepared.

I pull on my boots and tie them tightly
Thanking God this isn’t nightly
And head for the BAS to wait
For whatever is coming, however late.

The gunner is the first to arrive here
Screaming, gauze wrapped all around his head where
Ugly pieces of shrapnel arise
From sockets that used to hold his eyes.

They bustle him into the docs waiting
Who go right to work, his pain abating
But the screaming continues, gets me.
My helplessness angers and upsets me.

It’s obvious, I need something to do
The docs have me block the folks at the door
There’s more to come as the screaming subsides,
Because one more, outside the wire, still lies

What strikes most forcefully when he’s brought in
Is how white his teeth are in grisly grin
But everything up above those bright teeth
Is red, gelatinous goo – his brain unsheathed

That was over a decade ago
But through the years the screams yet echo,
Reverberating, bouncing through old tears
And me still helpless, still upset, still here.

Nor can I escape that toothsome grin
It comes in the dark, bright and unbidden.
Thinking of these men and their families, I say a prayer,
But I’m still helpless, still upset, still here.

God.  I just don’t know what to pray for –
I don’t want to forget, don’t want to remember.
Will you think of these men, their families, our prayers?
Are you listening, upset? Are you here?

I desperately want to make sense,
To contain the pain within my intelligence.
But really, I want you to come into our night.
Just hold me, hold my men – just make it right.

The incident happened in August 2004.  It is, perhaps, one of the most vivid images of that time to remain with me.  I don't get worn out with flashbacks or any of the stuff people associate with PTSD, but there are some pictures we never get out of our minds.


Now That It's Me

I got the email on 11 July
“This morning, your Dad died.”
It was kind of expected
After 17 years with MS

I stared at the screen of the laptop
Pondering what I ought
To do with this sort of news
Now that it’s me, not the troops

Emergency leave is the standard
When one’s deployed and your
Family back home gets hit
With a loved one dying like this

I told the XO I wasn’t sure
If I would head homeward
Then the Skipper came down
Not much inclined to hear me out

He cut off my “yeah but’s” and “what if’s”
And said, “I’ll settle this.
You’re going home, that’s an order.
You’ll not make your mom a martyr.”

So off I went, first down to Kuwait
Then to Paris – De Gaulle –
Caught a flight into Detroit
And a rental for the last bit

I got the email on 15 July
“This morning, your Marine died.”
It was kind of expected
After 17 weeks in Iraq

I stared at the screen of the laptop
Pondering what I ought
To do with this sort of news
Now that it’s me, one of my troops.

I went home on emergency leave when my Dad died, and the first email I received when I got home was a note from my enlisted aide that one of my Marines had been killed.  The weight of death hit me hard, and the desire to be in both places at once broke my heart - one of the most difficult days in my life.


Our First KIA

His squad brings him in
To the Aid Station tent,
Lay him on the deck.
In the back of his neck
A small, little hole rent
The dust and skin.

A leader of Marines
A brand new sergeant –
Over him, the doc
Examines and takes stock
Through the blood and the scent
Of death we’re in.

“Chaplain, say your prayers.”
Hov’ring, knees bent –
A psalm, a prayerbook,
A life that someone took.
Searching for grace, I vent,
Hoping God hears.

I can’t help asking,
“Is there really a point,
Or is this hopeful dreck?
These words won’t move a speck
Of dust or blood spent
By my Marines.

“Is there much reason
That I was sent
Out here among the dead?
Is it just my own head,
My own discontent
In its season?”

I’d tell them in class
“God doesn’t make sense”
But even if he did,
My sergeant’s still dead.
The rest is pretense –
A braying ass.

I recite the psalm
Then say a prayer.
Doc signs the paper,
Zips up the wrapper,
Briefly we kneel there
Then send him home.

I wrote this reflecting on the first of our battalion to be killed in action.  One wants so much to fix it, to bring hope, and at the same time, the reality before us challenges our beliefs.  At such times, the prayer of the hopeful father - "I believe. Lord help my unbelief!" (Mk 9:24)- is my prayer, too.


This Could Be It!

Holy shit!
This could be it!
Yeah, I mean,
I'm a Marine,
But if that bullet
Has my name on it
It's still a grave
Even for the brave.

I've got a baby
And think maybe
I could see her - 
Not leave this dirt.
'Cuz if that bullet
Has my name on it
It's still a grave
Even for the brave.

Why not be,
Well, cowardly?
What's there to gain
From all this pain?
Back in Loveland
Folks won't know and
It's the same damn grave
Even for the brave.

I wrote this remembering conversations with many of the Marines in my battalion before we went to Iraq in 2004.  We all went, but don't think it was easy, or that we didn't really understand what we were getting into.  We knew we would not all come back.


Camp Suicide

The place is a mess –
A down-right mell of a hess
Raw cinder block walls
Surround these halls
Of skeletal buildings
With their rusted gilding

The ground is rough, broken
Pools of old oil a token
Of the work once done
By men now gone
On rotting yellow hulks –
Machines that now sit, sulk

This is Camp Suicide;
Zaidan, Iraq sits astride
Secondary roads
That carry loads
From one sad backwater
To another, hotter

It’s an ugly old place
Wearing an uglier face
That poverty and war
Together mar;
North of the Euphrates,
One half step from Hades

Amidst all this rubble,
In its own little bubble
Stands ravishing beauty –
It’s lone duty
To remind all of us
Caught up in this fuss

That God is our maker.
And the world’s caretaker
Refuses permission.
With derision,
When we would eliminate
What he would create.

In the middle of war
This vast, barren scar
Stubbornly overcome
A seed, a mere crumb –
Not all of our power
Can stop beauty aflower

(The above was written as I reflected on a beautiful, flowering bush in the middle of our camp, set up in the rubble of a site once used to maintain the equipment used for the irrigation system along the Euphrates southwest of Baghdad along one of the routes to Fallujah.)