Snowmageddon and Waking Up Before the Sun

“Snowmageddon” from my window…

I’m just about a week from being able to go home and be with my family.  I’ve completed two and a half weeks of Chaplain Initial Military Training (Basic Training for Chaplains), and have learned a lot so far.  Today is a day “off” (we don’t get days off… just more time to get work done) because of the ice and snow we received overnight. Down here, a little snow causes big problems. In Michigan, we don’t have much concern for this little accumulation but we have the equipment to move it around and melt it.

A few things I’ve learned this week:

  • In the Army, it’s always your fault.  Even if it’s not.
  • A haircut each week makes the day go much better (and keeps the sergeant happy)
  • Not getting a haircut means everyone has an opportunity to “learn” (do push-ups) with you. FYI I was not the one who didn’t get a cut, so not my fault (oh wait, bullet point one…).
  • Waking up at 4am means bedtime by 8pm.
  • Staying up until 11pm to catch the Grammy’s was not a smart move.
  • I am an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) hoarder…
  • The Army seems to enjoy making you do things, just because
  • I can rappel down a 40 foot tower and not die, pee, or poop in my pants
  • The commando rope obstacle is the spawn of Satan
  • Marching can be fun!
  • Left-face means LEFT-face (my other left)
  • Having chapped lips in the gas chamber leaves one speechless…
  • I am better at using a compass than I thought! (Thanks, orienteering merit badge!)
I am sure that as this week progresses, I will have more opportunities to learn.  Overall, this has been an awesome experience so far.  I hope that I can keep honing the skills I’ve been learning so that I can be the best Army Chaplain I can be.
Until next time!
Pro Deo Et Patria!

CIMT – Week 1 Done

As you may already know, I am serving in ministry as an Army Reserve Chaplain while leading my congregation full-time.  As a Chaplain in the United States Army, I am required to undergo basic training so that I am prepared to minister to my soldiers as a soldier myself.  I have heard people say that Chaplain school is “basic training lite” or that it’s “basic training for gentlemen”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While it is true that our training is not as intense as an enlisted soldier, the requirements are very much the same.  Chaplains are required to meet the same physical, emotional, and psychological challenges with the same fortitude as an E-1 Private (or, warrior as they are now referred to).

The first segment of training that an Army Chaplain is required to go through is called Chaplain Initial Military Training (CIMT).  It is during this segment that we are trained to think and act like soldiers.  Keep in mind that several of us have not had prior service or experience in the military.  This four-week course is designed to get us into shape and teach us the in’s and out’s of being a soldier and leading other soldiers as an officer.  
I have just completed my first week of CIMT, and I am feeling it!  This week included a lot of in-processing (paperwork for medical, legal, insurance, etc.) and several classes on various topics (How to fill out certain forms to get paid, differences between active and reserve components, and physical training standards).  I can say that there have been some low points where I have felt overwhelmed and very much unprepared for the weeks ahead.  I have also been learning that in the Army, a culture of accountability and responsibility are at the core of everything that is said and done.  We have been assigned a Battle Buddy, someone we are accountable for and to.  If you get to do push-ups, your Battle Buddy joins you (as I found out as my BB had his hands in his pockets).  It’s all good, because I’m sure that I’ll experience some of this Army “joy” at several points.  At the same time, I have experienced some great moments of real joy and affirmation as I stand side by side with my fellow Chaplain students and we recall our purpose for joining in the first place.  These affirmations are strong as we all come from different faith backgrounds and experiences, and as we share these experiences, we recognize a common thread of love for people and God.
I have surprised myself this week, running faster than I thought possible and engaging in more exercises with less exhaustion.  To be honest, this is an area that I have been nervous about as I know that I am not a strong runner and my upper body is in need of improved strength.  However, there has been great encouragement as I have been pushed to my limit, and I know that in the weeks to come, my limit will be stretched even further.  
I am thankful that God has led me to this ministry, and I look forward to serving in ministry to soldiers and their families.  I really believe that there will be a breadth to the ministry that God as called me to, both in the local church and in my “extended” congregation in the military.  
Thank you for your continued prayers of encouragement, strength, and protection for me, my family, and my church.
Until next time!
Pro Deo Et Patria – For God and Country!
Aaron

When You Know You’re Doing It Right

Andrew’s artwork titled “Joseph”
Sunday afternoons as a clergy family are interesting…
In the fall, I typically turn on the Lions and watch them (attempt) to play football.  Yesterday was no exception (at least for me – The Lions didn’t even seem to show up during the second half).  The boys will get out their Legos, monster trucks, and various other toys.  My wife will typically be seen watching a movie on Chicktime (Lifetime, that is).  Sometimes we will play a family game together, or just enjoy snuggling on the couch as we watch a family movie.  
Sometimes, the boys want to make things.  Usually out of play-dough or sand.  However, many of the gifts that I typically receive are in the form of artwork.  Andrew and Josh both enjoy making works of art and giving them away.  Yesterday, Andrew gave me this drawing of his interpretation of Joseph, from the Old Testament stories.  With a smile on his face, and a hint of pride in his voice, he said “Here daddy, put this in your office.”  Not thinking anything of it at the moment, I said “Thank you” and set it down (not my proudest parenting moment but hey, football!).  Andrew promptly responded by saying “Now go put it in your office”.
What is it about receiving hand-drawn pictures from our children that just melts our hearts like warm butter on a hot ear of corn?  I’m not sure, but I think it has a lot to do with the satisfaction of knowing that, as a parent, you must be doing something right.  And, I think that the reciprocated feeling of our children seeing the smile on our face brings them great joy and satisfaction that they, too are doing something that brings joy to us.
After all, is it not our job as parents to encourage our children and cheer-lead them on in their lives?  
Another thing… I wonder how God feels when we use our gifts and talents to honor him… I tend to believe that God puts on a humongous smile and says “Great job”.  And, unlike the earthly parent who decides to soak up just one more play from the football game, God gets up right away to put the picture on his wall.

A Quarter and a Thankful Heart

For the past several years, I have enjoyed shopping at Aldi for many of our grocery needs.  When we moved last year, I was disappointed that we would have a longer drive to the store we would typically frequent.  However, just last week I discovered that there is an Aldi in Ann Arbor, YES!

But, why do I talk about Aldi?  And, what in the world does this have to do with my journey with Christ?

Quite frankly, a lot!

For those who have never had the Aldi “experience” (and that’s what it is, let me tell ya!), let me elaborate on one of my favorite things about Aldi – You pay a quarter for your shopping cart.  That’s right!  But, you get it back when you return the cart.  Not only do you get to back out of your parking spot without the surprise that someone left a cart, just for you, in your blind spot, but the quarter experience is something you can pass on to someone else.  For me, it means leaving the quarter in the cart so that the next person can use it.  I have been the recipient of this gift many times, and it just makes my day!  How wonderful it is to leave this simple gesture of thankfulness and generosity for someone else to experience.

What if we were more aware of the simple ways we could be thankful for what we have been given, and be a blessing to someone else? This must be what it means to be “thankful in all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

The Shaker’s had it right when they wrote “Simple Gifts”.  I leave you with some of the verses from this great hymn…

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Maybe, if we learn to be thankful for all things, we’ll all come ’round right…

A New Adventure Begins

Signing the Oath of Office in my office

Those of you who have been following my blog and my social networking status updates know that I have been working toward commissioning as an Army Reserve Chaplain.  I have posted previously about why I want to be a Chaplain, and have also talked about my time going through the MEPS in preparation for Army Chaplaincy.  Already, the journey has been quite an adventure as I have had the opportunity to witness and experience God’s grace through meeting Army Chaplains and others who support this vital ministry.  Throughout the process I have been strengthened and challenged in my faith as I seek to honor God through this calling.

I am blessed to have the opportunity of knowing a brother in the Lord who is in my congregation and is also a retired Army officer, a Lieutenant Colonel to be more precise.  George had offered to swear me in when my oath arrived, and sure enough on 6 June around 1300, he did just that.  I am blessed because I know that my congregation is supporting me in this endeavor, knowing that there will be times that I will need to be absent to fulfill my Reserve duties.  In essence, I will be serving another church, yet this church will not have a church building per se.  This is one of the most exciting aspects of Army Chaplaincy that I am honored to be a part of.  Although I have yet to be assigned a unit, I know that God’s hand is upon the process.
Please continue in prayer for me and my family as we continue to navigate the continued process and as Maria and the boys transition to life as an Army Reserve family.  I know they are making a great sacrifice as well and they need to be recognized for their dedication to this call.  Again, I am blessed to be surrounded by such affirming people.  
I will do my best to keep you updated throughout the continued process.  Keep checking back for updates!
God is good!   All the time!
Until next time…
Pro Deo Et Patria – For God and Country
Chaplain (1LT) Aaron Kesson
(I’ve been waiting to use this!)

Trespassing on Sacred Space – Or, What My Four-Year Old Taught Me About the Presence of God

“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

I am a Christ-follower who prays using the trespasses/trespass version of the Lord’s prayer (no big theological issue with debts/debtors, sins/sin, etc. just what I’m used to).  I am a firm believer that it does not matter to God what method we use to pray, just as long as we are praying.  I know there is varied theological depth to the different words we use, and I appreciate the various ways that others commune with God in prayer.

Just a few weeks ago however, my eyes were opened to a new way of understanding what trespasses could mean for those who claim Christ, from the eyes of a four-year old.  As with many deeply theological lessons I have experienced in life, this one also arrived in the form of one of my boys.  Fridays are daddy day-care days with Josh, and also my day off.  On this particular Friday however, I had a hospital visit that could not wait one more day, and I knew that Josh’s smile would be the right medicine, so with Bob the monkey (Curious George) and blanket in tow, we ventured out to the hospital.  “The one where Jesus lives in their hearts, dad?” Joshua asked.  (Like many Catholic hospitals this one also has a large cross on the building’s exterior). 

After spending five minutes going around and around in the automatic rotating door, we finally entered the hospital where Josh noticed a security guard at the information counter.  Josh approached the man and immediately said “Sir, do you have Jesus in your heart?” to which the man replied with an awkward stumble in words and finally, “the room you’re looking for is 903.”  Not one bit satisfied with that response, Josh said “you know, if you hit your chest too hard you’ll hurt Jesus because he lives in your heart.”   The man could not escape the question this time, so he replied by saying “Maybe I need to think about that a little more.

I don’t know if the security guard went home that day pondering what Josh had said to him, but I know one preacher whose mind and heart were stirring with joy and a hint of challenge.  I thought to myself

“How many times do I trespass- get in the way of someone’s experience of God, either by judging them or being critical of their life?

Jesus lives in the hearts and lives of God’s people.  Who are we to trespass on that sacred space?

Relationships Matter

Canterbury Cathedral – Accessed from http://www.sxc.hu/photo/818434

Remember the song, “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open up the doors and see all the people”?  I still enjoy doing the hand motions along with this song as I sing along with my children.

This song gives a clear message – The Church IS the people.  Another truth is blatantly clear - If you go to church, you will run into people (hopefully!)  

Read the gospel accounts of Jesus hanging out with people.  Who did he hang out with?


religious people
people who don’t care about religion
people who had questions
people who thought they had answers
people who thought they had it all
people who had nothing
marginal people
good – hearted people
hard – hearted people
healthy people
hurting people
ordinary people

Chances are, these people are in YOUR church!
How we interact with one another is central to the kingdom of God.  Relationships matter!

Even when we disagree with one another.  Especially when we disagree with one another, relationships matter!

Much like our churches today, the Corinthian church was dealing with some heavy disagreement and division.  Paul reminded them that God is the source of their lives(1 Corinthians 1:30), and that believers are to boast, not in our own power, but in the power of God.  Earlier in the letter, Paul encourages believers to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10).  I don’t believe Paul was suggesting that the people were going to agree on everything, or that they were even going to be in agreement on the “big issues” of their day.  Rather, agreement that the source of life and grace, peace and love, is God alone.

Putting disagreements aside, and instead focusing on how we relate with one another is more important than coming to 100% agreement on the issues of our day.  

The fact of the matter is that our churches need to be places where all people are invited into relationship with the living God, regardless of how we feel about them, or how they live their lives, because we remember that God is the source of grace, forgiveness, salvation, and life itself.  Not us.
How do you relate to people in your church?  How about the surrounding community that your church serves?  
I ask myself on a daily basis, “have I related with others in genuineness and Christ-like love?”
How about you?

Tragedy and Callousness

Ever since hearing the news on Saturday afternoon that Rick Warren’s son, Matthew took his own life I have been wrenched in my heart and have experienced heaviness upon my soul.  It has been difficult to sleep and to focus on things that, for the time being seem so insignificant compared to the deep mourning and sadness the Warren family must be experiencing during this time.  I have spoken many prayers, in silence and out loud for the Warren family and many others who have experienced (and continue to experience) this pain.


I also feel sick to my stomach, not only in hearing of this tragedy, but in witnessing the responses of many who claim to be brothers and sisters in Christ.  Not long after reading the news on Twitter and Facebook, I began reading responses from readers, many encouraging and uplifting as they offered prayers and virtual “hugs”.  However, as I read further I began to see other comments that stank of judgment, callousness, darkness, and spewed hate-filled venom, all in the name of some god these people claim to follow.  I felt like vomiting.  I don’t know where these “Christians” get their theology from, but I’ve got a pretty good idea that it’s not from the God I follow.  

I follow Jesus Christ, the Son of the life-giving, ever-loving, always-reaching, grace-filled, second, third, fourth, one hundredth chance giving God who so loved the world that he gave of himself for me, and you, and the entire world.  And for Matthew Warren.  And for all the Matthew’s out there who find themselves in the pangs and darkness of depression amid the sea of suicidal thoughts.  

In his blog post about the tragedy, Frank Viola shares 

If you are a Christian and you’re heart doesn’t go out to this brother and his family, something is wrong with you spiritually.  I don’t care what you think about Warren’s theology, his books, or how he combs his hair. The fact is, he lost a child. Few things can be more painful and nightmarish in this life.” – Frank Viola

“They will know we are Christians by our love…” The great hymn that we have sung thousands of times, is more than sentimentality.  It’s a way of life.  When the world looks at Christians, what do they see?  Fighting among our ranks, devouring one another?  Or do we reflect the great love of our Savior as we extend that very same grace?

I highly recommend you read Viola’s post as you offer prayer and support to the Warren family and so many others affected by suicide and mental illness.

Prayerfully,

Staying Alive – or How I Survive Holy Week

Alive! Stones in my office
Andrew has been helping me out.
A proud dad moment.

Throughout the season of Lent, I have been preaching a series on the Journey of Stones, based on a book and series of the same name by Steven Molin.  The stones represent our failures and sins in trying to follow anything but God’s ways.  The Journey of Stones has been a great way for our church family to experience the importance of self-denial and taking up our own cross in following Jesus.

Now that it is holy week, and Easter is approaching at light-speed, I experience what I am sure many other pastors experience during this time – stress. More than stress of deadlines for printing bulletins and preparing the worship space, I’m talking about the stress of practicing what I have been proclaiming from the pulpit.  Over the past five weeks, I have been immersed in and living in the space of metaphor, allusion, and symbolism of the stones that have been laid at the foot of the empty cross in our sanctuary.  Week after week I have placed my stones in the burlap-lined basket, seeking the God of love and grace.  In the same manner, week after week I have witnessed the humility and worship of young children and seasoned believers placing their stones in the basket, seeking the very same forgiveness that I have sought.  The experience has been a powerful reminder that our sins have already been forgiven and that God has given us a new lease on life, no longer to live for ourselves but for the sake of others.  The stones have become symbols of what has already taken place!

During holy week, we experience the spiritual roller coaster as we journey with Jesus from the celebrations of Palm Sunday, stepping over the dried out palms on Tuesday through Thursday when we experience Jesus’ observance of Passover with the disciples, and culminating in the humiliating and dehumanizing death on the cross on Good Friday.  With all that has to be done, and all that is to be experienced this week, it is easy to forget one thing… the importance of staying alive.

The capstone of the Journey of Stones is, surprise!  Easter Sunday!.  As we approach this celebration of resurrection (which we should do EVERY Sunday, even in Lent), we know that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty.  The Lord has arisen indeed!  We will experience the awe and wonder of the women as they go to anoint Jesus’ lifeless body, and find that he is not there.  We will see the empty cross in the distance as a reminder of what has taken place.  And finally, we will actually be taking stones home instead of leaving stones here.  On this day, we will be reminded that God has taken our stones of failure, our stones of suffering, our stones of rejection, and our stones of hardened hearts, and has rewritten his love on these stones to remind us that just as Christ as been raised from the dead, we too are alive in Christ!  What we do with these stones is up to us.  Will we accept our being made alive by the power of God’s Holy Spirit in what Jesus has done for us on the cross?  Will we share our resurrection stories with others as God continues to raise us to new life?

Remember, Sunday is coming!  Resurrection is coming!  Jesus is Alive!

And so are you!

Because He Lives!

Ashes, Sidewalks, and Mortality – My Experience with Taking Ash Wednesday to the Streets

This year for Ash Wednesday, I participated in taking the ritual of the imposition of ashes to the parking lot and sidewalks of our local community.  Together with a clergy colleague, we set up shop at the corner of our church yard where parents on their way to work were dropping off their children for school (they use our parking lot daily as it is directly next to the elementary school).  With coffee in hand, and a bowl of ashes with anointing oil in another, we set out to offer an opportunity for busy folks to pause and remember their mortality before God.  Mostly we received many waves and smiles back as we smiled and waved at folks driving by, also alerting them to the sign that read “Ashes to Go” and “Receive Ashes Here”.  Over the two hour period, we had three people actually stop in to receive ashes.  A man walking by was invited to receive but he declined and offered his greeting for a good day.

Stoles in hand, ashes and oil secured in the back seat of my car, we set off for bustling downtown Manchester (bustling, at least for rural Michigan!)  We set up on the sidewalk on the main street where we were greeted by many smiles and waves from passerby.  Some people, when noticing us asked if we were the people “on the hill” earlier in the morning to which we affirmed.  We were encouraged by some who stopped by and said they had already received ashes at mass earlier that morning, but thought what we were doing was great.  Another man stopped by to inquire of our practices, and although declining to receive ashes proceeded to engage us in a thoughtful conversation about the Church.  We were blessed to talk with this man as he shared difficulties he has had in the past with churches, and yet conversing with us further on the possibility of attending our church sometime.

There were a few folks, however that were not as affirming of our practice.  One passerby recognized our stoles and the ashes, proceeding then to tell us that she had never received ashes from a stainless steel bowl and that she never will.  She seemed to have been suggesting that using a stainless steel bowl rather than a wooden pyxis was not faithful to the ritual.  As well, a man walked by and gave some fairly concerning glances of disdain, no conversation, just glances.  I am not sure if he is one who has been burned by religion in the past, thought that we were religious nuts who couldn’t mind our own business, or thought that what we were doing was sacrilege.  Either way, a bit of introspection began to take place in my heart – am I being faithful to the sacramental nature of this ritual?  Am I somehow diluting the meaning of the ashes?  Is the message being proclaimed appropriately?  Am I engaging in supporting “cheap” grace?

These questions are what has prompted me to write this post… Originally I was going to simply report on the experience in general, but thought it would be good to seek out thoughts from you as well.  I have had a few trusted clergy colleagues bring to mind the possibility that this may not be an appropriate practice for it may not incorporate the community aspect of confession, repentance, and realization of our mortality in the sense that it was originally intended.  I agree with this statement, to the degree that our culture is so focused on quick and easy solutions that do not interfere with our plans.  However, I do believe that we are called to be ambassadors of God’s grace outside the walls of the church.  Of course, there are ways other than Ash Wednesday to do this, but what better way to remind people of God’s grace than to remind them of their mortality?  My thinking is that they may miss out on Ash Wednesday services due to their job or other obligations.  Sure, they could “make time” to reflect, I get that and strongly proclaim that.  However, maybe they don’t get it and someone needs to come beside them to walk beside them to aid in their understanding.  Let me say right here that I do not believe the “drive thru” ashes concept allows for the exchange that needs to happen between people and God, BUT receiving ashes, even in this manner may prompt them to think about it more than if they had not received ashes.  I just don’t know.  Before I get to rambling on and on, let me hear from you.  What do you think about the Ashes to Go concept?  How about Drive-Thru ashes?  Should this ritual be reserved for a service inside the walls of the church, or should it be taken to the streets? Is there any loss in meaning or cheapening of grace?

I look forward to your thoughts!

Peace,
  Aaron