I’m a Lutheran: Howard Stendahl
October 28, 2016
Retired two-star general, chief of chaplains of the US. Air Force
I pray all the time; seriously, I do. I think of prayer like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, whose daily life and chores were constant conversations with God. All the time I need to ask God to forgive me, guide me and help me side with those who may not have an advocate.
I answered the call to become a chaplain when we used to dress up in my dad’s military clothes and play “ship.” Even as a preschooler I wanted to be in the military, and all my life I wanted to be a pastor. The joke in the family is that I’ve been taking up offerings since I was 3 years old.
The church can help returning veterans by listening to each individual and meeting them at their point of need. Veterans differ in their levels of combat experience and how it has affected them. Do more than say “thank you for your service.” If they need a job, hire them or find them one. If they have family members and loved ones, invite them into your home and listen to their needs.
An issue I’m fighting for is racial justice. It’s incredulous to me that people would be offended at the affirmation that life created in God’s image matters. It’s important that I understand, as an older Caucasian man whose life and well-being have never been threatened merely because of my race or gender, that others have suffered and died because of theirs.
One thing most people don’t know about chaplains is that they are faithful pastors. We do the same things other pastors do, but in a specific context directed toward a discrete group of congregants, be they military members, those sick or in prison, or those in their last days or hours of life. Occasionally some have inquired of me when I might be “returning to the ministry.” I have never left and hope to continue as long as I have breath.
I believe kindness to be the greatest hope for spiritual community. I believe Jesus took sides. He consistently sided with the poor and the oppressed, and calls us to do the same.
When I was chief of chaplains of the U.S. Air Force, I was responsible for the religious freedoms of nearly 700,000 airmen and their families. The ministries of 2,000 Air Force chaplains and chaplain assistants served airmen from a great variety of faith backgrounds or no specific religious faith. We need each other in this inclusive, diverse military community. The mutual respect that grows from this dependence and trust in one another informed how I led the Chaplain Corps.
My favorite memories as a chaplain are when I was privileged to provide direct ministry to those in combat, sharing their location and risks, bringing a message of reconciliation and hope. In deployed settings, it’s a privilege for the chaplain to accompany people at greatest risk and provide a physical reminder of the holy in a context of deep moral ambiguity.
I struggle with intolerant people. I can get riled up with those who grow rigid and doctrinaire, and then fail to see how those who differ from them just might have something to teach them. Our intolerant age would do well to read the Hebrew prophets and know that listening is the gateway to reconciliation and trust.
I share my faith as a way of life. The church will grow, in my view, not so much with elaborate programs or impressive architecture (though these are important) as when each member of the community of faith reaches out to another with the lifestyle of invitation.
When people say the church is dying, I listen. They must be concerned for the church and have noticed that ELCA numbers have decreased. I want to hear their concern and assure them that the gospel is not dying. Our specific community of faith may be transforming—and perhaps it ought to transform, reaching people who may have no background in religious/spiritual matters at their point of need. All baptized people are called to this ministry.
One thing constant in military life is the itinerant lifestyle, guaranteed to move an individual (and family, if married) frequently. With this itinerancy there is also an inclination in the military community to establish friendships and trust quickly. Members of the military and their families come to trust the chaplain from the very first visits.
I’m a Lutheran because I didn’t have a choice! My mother and father took me to church, even when my brothers and I would’ve chosen to do otherwise. How grateful I am! I wasn’t born to them by my choice, but by God’s grace. I wasn’t baptized because I chose to be, but by God’s grace. I am merely a recipient of the life-giving gospel and have enjoyed a lifetime of pastoral opportunity to say thank you.