Our philosophy of worship assumes that the true and living God has revealed himself; therefore, we can know what he is like and what he has done. We have been given four major revelations of this God. First, the true, living God is the Creator. We can know his eternal power and divine nature from what he has made (Romans 1:20). He created everything from nothing: the universe, the earth, the seas, the wind, all living creatures, including humanity, whom he made in his image. Second, the true, living God revealed himself in the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. In this redemptive act, God demonstrated his sovereignty over the nations of the earth, his choice of his people, his willingness to show mercy, his capability to bring justice with severity, and his power to set captives free. He is an awesome God. In the Exodus and subsequent events, this same God revealed his laws and commands, including the need for atonement for sin. He established a priesthood and temple worship in order to show that he himself directs how worshippers may access him. Third and most of all, God revealed himself in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:18). Jesus’ faithful life by the Spirit of God, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his priesthood, his kingdom, and his promised second coming make up the central activities by which worshippers can know God. Lastly, God himself has inspired his word, the Bible, as the written, authoritative record of his character and miraculous acts, even more numerous than recorded in this brief document. This book, written over the course of 1,400-1,500 years, has endured by God’s providence to inform worshippers in all ages and places how they might worship him. Therefore, worshippers need revelation. To worship apart from what God has made known about himself is to take upon oneself or one’s church too much autonomy and self-sufficiency.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
In April 2019, I attended the RHMA Rural Pastors’ Conference in Morton, IL. Stephen Witmer presented A Big Gospel in Small Places in anticipation of his upcoming book, to be published under the same title. The three these written below are his, followed by the notes and reflections that I made during the seminar.
Strategic isn’t always what we think.
You only have about 4–5 decades of ministry in you. Right? How did you get where you are now? Why do you remain there? Do you see yourself as strategically sent by the gospel? A lot of outreach models are based upon urban models; then they trickle down to small towns. However, without a shoehorn, they won’t fit. Reflecting on the gospel ministry of Jesus and the apostles, we find that the urban initiative to “influence the influencers” is not that prominent, rather the gospel sends in a way that is lavish and inordinate—to places and people that aren’t strategic from a human point of view (e.g., the Gerasene exorcism in Mark 5; the first converts in Philippi in Acts 16). Not everyone agrees that Paul focused on urban centers (e.g., Galatian theories). The best way to influence someone you love is to be with them. A call to a small place is the most strategic move to reach that place. The gospel is lavish and plenteous. You can give your life away to people who are not “influencers.”
Small is probably better than we think.
Our culture values “bigger is better.” Kruger calls this “the arrogance of the urban.” For a recent example, remember the comments of Andy Stanley about the rural church. He recanted, but even so. Rural pastors and churches may be deceived by envy, as we look online and feel like the J. V. team. Yet, the gospel doesn’t disdain small; it doesn’t “baptize” small either, but it certainly doesn’t despise small. In many ways, small is endorsed in theology (e.g., remnant theology) and in the apostolic mission (e.g., house churches). Big, of course, is endorsed too (e.g., the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 3,000 converts in Jerusalem on Pentecost). Use the “fish bowl” or the “bubble” to your advantage. We yearn for revival; but we mustn’t be lazy. We don’t have to have revival in order to faithfully do God’s work where we are. The gospel sometimes comes big, sometimes small, fast and slow.
Slow is often wiser than we think.
An example of a good kind of stationary is found in the spiritual principle of “abiding.” We often value slow-moving things in small towns. The gospel takes some sins away fast (e.g., immoral relationships or decisions) and some sins slow, over time (e.g., pride, anger). The gospel endorses slow; God does things slowly (e.g., the wait for the exodus, the coming of Messiah, the wait for Pentecost, the hope of the second coming, etc). Small town pastors can become restless, especially when it comes to church planting in other small communities. Even in urban centers, they are rebelling against the “fast food,” “processed food,” and “digital pastors.” God’s character is still on display in the things that are slow developing.
What can we locally give that people can’t find online? Relationships, presence, real-time talk in the word, knowledgeable prayer, comfort, hope, holiness & example, modest living, obedience, visible calling, holy ambition, local expertise, the practice of submitting to one another—to name a few. How does the Big Gospel distinctively shape our lives and ministries in small places? The gospel sends us to places, even small places, because of its lavish grace and because of its inherent logic and values. Small places do not hinder the gospel, nor do they divert resources to less significant places. No, the gospel of Jesus has plenty of sending and saving power for everyone in every place.