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2019 WLC Memorial Day Devotion

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While I know something about soldiering in the spiritual realm, I am not a military man. I don’t know what it’s like to wear the uniform. Each year about this time, I try to make an attempt to climb inside the mind and heart, the soul and faith of those who have and do wear the uniform for our country and people. What spiritual treasures can we find in the soul of a soldier that may indeed be beneficial for all of us and our spiritual walks with Jesus Christ? Over the years of giving this devotion, I have discovered that the men and women who wear the uniform, serve our country, and especially those who have served in combat, they at some point journey into a spiritual and ethical complexity that’s difficult for the civilian with which to relate. Their training, their decisions, and their experiences have shaped them into people of depth. Now, sometimes, this depth remains buried, and I think that I can imagine why that may be. However, for those soldiers who have attempted to put words to their depth, we thank them, and we benefit from them.

Chris Plekenpol is the current pastor at Wells Branch Community Church in Austin, TX. He graduated from West Point in 1999, and he was deployed from South Korea to combat in Iraq in 2004. He was a tank company team commander, having the rank of Captain, and was responsible for 100 soldiers and 85 million dollars worth of military equipment. Captain Plekenpol attended Dallas Theological Seminary while I was there. We were not friends, merely acquaintances. I did receive a copy of his “Soldier’s Journal,” which was published in 2006 as Faith in the Fog of War: Stories of Triumph and Tragedy in the Midst of Battle. I have been reading through Chris’ Journal leading up to today—trying to get a better handle on how a follower of Jesus Christ navigates the realities of war and soldiering. 

I have gained four truths from my time in Chris’ Journal that I would like to share with you today. These are truths from God’s word considered through a military Captain’s combat experience and filtered through your rural pastor’s shepherding experience. 

  1. Enemies expose us. In the Bible, we think of Goliath—how his presence exposes Saul, his army, and David’s brothers in a negative way, but how he exposes David in a positive way. When the Holy Spirit drove our Lord Jesus out to the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan, we learn of what kind of Savior he is. Captain Plekenpol tells a story about a tense time during the assault on Fallujah. Car bombs became an increasing threat. One day, a would-be attacker rammed his explosive-laden car into a tank in his company. However, the collision rendered the insurgent unconscious before the explosives were detonated. Through the next several series of activities to attempt to dismantle the explosives, the car eventually did burst into flames, awakening the insurgent, who attempted to escape the inferno, but struggle due to his injuries. Captain Plekenpol shares—both in the book and in his “I Am Second” testimony—that there was a brief window where he could have saved him, but he discloses that he was unwilling to risk his life or any of the lives of his soldiers to rescue his enemy. Like Chris, our minds turn to Jesus Christ, who died for sinners. He loved his enemies. Our enemies expose us, who we really are. Chris and you and I are thankful that God loved his enemies and sent his Son.

  2. Fog focuses us. Chris recalls his very first operation in command of his company. Some of his men made a bonehead decision — crossing a non-passable median that created a dirt and dust cloud that blinded the drivers behind them resulting in a collision and a halt toward their objective. He was embarrassed. He had a tank that was damaged and needed to be replaced in order to complete the mission. For a time, he didn’t know if anyone was injured. Plus, a whole list of other overwhelming details. He called it — the fog of war — mounting decisions on his shoulders, people coming to him for answers. He recalled the words of Jesus in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” For the Christian, we need focus to carry on in the flurry and fog of life. As the song says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Chris was able to regain his focus in the fog and get things back into order.

  3. Conflict reminds us. Captain Plekenpol recalled a situation where he verbally and publicly stripped down a Staff Sergeant for a matter that later he found out was not his fault. Every time he went to prayer, he was reminded of Matthew 5:23–24, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.” The pastor who married Aimee and I would often tell us a related truth, “A good marriage is not the absence of conflict, but rather a good marriage is able to work through the conflict.” Chris went to his fellow soldier and confessed his wrong-doing, to which his friend, who was also a follower of Jesus, replied, “I knew that you’d do the right thing.” Conflict reminds us that eternal things are important—people and the word of God.

  4. Testimonies outlive us. In this tragic journal entry, Captain Plekenpol tells the story of the first soldier “Killed-in-Action" under his command. It was a surprise attack by the enemy. As the clouds and flames billowed from the friendly tank, chaos quickly turned into an orderly return attack. Chris’ company soon gained superiority in the firefight, and engaged in a thorough search in the village for enemy insurgents. After 7 hours, they found nothing and no one. Upon returning, Captain Plekenpol circled his team and asked if anyone would like to share anything about Staff Sergeant Gary Vaillant. After a period of awkward silence, a PVT began to speak. This man remembered waiting for transportation with SSG Vaillant in South Korea during the rains of monsoon season. As they waited, they decided to sit back-to-back, Forrest Gump and Bubba style. The PVT recalled, SSG Vaillant started talking about Jesus. After a while, the PVT told the SSG that he was getting tired, but he just kept on talking about the love of Jesus, this amazing love of Jesus. Even though the PVT tried to stay awake in the drizzle, he eventually succumbed to sleep. He awoke about an hour later, and SSG Gary Vaillant was still talking about the greatest love of his life, Jesus Christ! I think we would all agree with Captain Plekenpol’s comment on this story, “I want to be remembered like that.” The apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:20–21, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Your testimony will outlive you; what will it say?

What has an enemy exposed about you lately? Has the fog of life overwhelmed you, disoriented you? Has a recent conflict reminded you of what is truly important? What kind of testimony are you building to outlive you?

  • Learn and adjust from enemy exposure. Don’t get discouraged.
  • Focus on the mission of the Commander in the fog.
  • Let conflict accomplish its value-centering aim in your life. 
  • When you die, people will tell stories about you. What will the chapter headings be? “For me, to live is Christ."