8 months in the Middle East
By Chaplain Greg Uvila, US Navy
Christmas is sneaking around the neighborhood – colorful lights encircle the rooftops, palm trees ablaze with white shimmering lights, yes, the most wonderful time of the year is upon us. Just last night we were scouring Amazon for some “necessary” Seahawk paraphernalia – you know, critical presents for the family. Thinking presents, thinking presence, reflecting on God’s goodness in our midst, divine presence.
I’m fascinated by the idea of presence- full, primary color presence. As a CBA Chaplain, this is what gets me up in the morning, it is what gets my motor going, my synapses firing, this and a cup of “Joe” and I am good to go! Offering some sense of Divine presence is what gets me up also in the middle of the night – a Marine or Sailor in crisis- the privilege of seizing the opportunity to bring Christ’s presence to the hurting, to those whose hope is flagging, to those whose “hope tank” has been on empty for 63 miles.
Presence for the Displaced – “Of course there is a spot for you on the worship team, more importantly there is always a spot for you at the center of God’s heart.” These basic messages I sought to convey to one of our senior leaders on deployment. Recently she had been removed from her position at church as a worship leader. Why? She was newly divorced. She was hurting, let down, discouraged, the church and God’s people had disappointed her in a humongous way. By offering unmitigated presence (I hope) a God bridge was rebuilt to her heart, by which Christ was able to cross over and offer love and acceptance. By the end of deployment guess who was an integral part of our worship team in Kuwait?
Side bar- this is what is so, so, valuable as a Navy/CBA endorsed Chaplain, we don’t have the trappings of church policy to get untangled from, we enjoy the privilege to wildly offer the grace of God in the grandeur of red, and green and blue.
Presence for the Priest – Everyday almost exactly at 1640 (4:40pm) the priest from one of our coalition partners, in this case Poland, would stick his head inside my office door and say, “Good afternoon Father,” which I in turn would respond, “Good afternoon Father.” When this first took place, shortly after “Father’s arrival,” I thought about correcting him, bringing him in line with my theological views, but then I questioned myself, “Would Jesus really clarify?” Na, I thought, more important matters matter more to Jesus. So I received the honor and respect from a fellow priest, a priest from Poland. Presence empowering acceptance, presence empowering deferral. The result? I gained a friend, a comrade, a forever brother.
Presence for my body guard – Brad from Reno. As many of you know Chaplains are non-combatants. According to the Geneva Conventions (International laws for governing war) Chaplains are considered non-combatants and therefore cannot pack heat, carry a firearm. However, Chaplain’s Assistants can. My assistant for my 8+ plus months in Kuwait was Brad from Reno, at least that is where he grew up. He was actually on loan from the 11th Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton. Five years from now most of my memories about Kuwait will dissipate as quickly as the dust from the many “dust abouts” we experienced throughout deployment. However, there is one memory that will last forever, an eternal reminder of the tranquility which the presence of the Spirit brings when two people quiet their hearts before our Lord. How did we do this? Perhaps 2-3 times a week, sometimes more, sometimes less, we would sit down and read author Max Lucado’s “I choose love” a descriptor of what it means to live the Spirit’s presence on a daily basis. Divine presence offered to my assistant by simply, proactively, inviting him to sit with me and reflect, for a few moments, in God’s direction.
Praying and sitting in silence with Markus – As a Chaplain (Andy knows this all too well), there are many sacred moments we are called on to be there, to be fully alive there, present there, not somewhere else. These moments frequently show-up unannounced, stealth like. No warning, they just mystically arrive at your doorstep literally and symbolically. I had some of those while in Kuwait, one of them I will never forget. I was two hours or so deep in my sleep- dreaming of being back home in the great Northwest with family and friends. At any rate, my bedroom door boomed alive, the knocks I’m sure could be heard across the camp. “Chaps, S-1 needs you now, someone died!” I quickly scampered out of bed, with the same passion and frenzy of a fireman just hearing his alarm. As I headed hastily down toward the COC (Combat Operations Center) I remember thinking, how could it be so hot at 1230 am? Shortly thereafter I arrived. Our Gunny Sergeant met me at the door, “Markus just received news that his son just died…” as the words tailed off, ripe in sadness and regret, GySgt pointed across the street where Markus sat. His head was slumped over, buried between his knees. I carefully made my way over to my friend, stooped over, touched his knee, “Hey bud,” “Hey Chaps,” “I’m so, so, so, sorry Markus.” I don’t remember much more about that night- what I said or didn’t say. But what I do remember is just sitting with him, present with him, in his grief, in his sadness, in his absolute confusion and bewilderment, present in the unimaginable present.
Presence for the Chaplain – I will never forget those early runs, those solo runs, just me, God, and Hillsong radio worship- thanks Amazon! I followed the PT (Physical Training) trail as it wound out near the main gate- in the distance I could see the oil stacks of Kuwait burning, glowing across the eastern horizon, perhaps these were the same infamous refineries set ablaze by the Iraqis over two decades ago. When they invaded Kuwait and as a country we said, “Not so fast, not so much.” If I ran the path out and back, twice, it gave me a decent cardio workout and it provided much needed time to worship, to pray, to clear my head, to renew, and at times pour my heart out to the God who loves to be present when I am seeking His presence. Presence, the doorway through which God walks with us, talks to us, nurtures us, loves us, and blesses us.
Presence for the congregation – Such rich worship we experienced at Al Jaber Air base in Kuwait. This occurred in large part thanks to my Air Force counterpart, Chaplain Rob Pitts, from Tacoma, Washington. Under his kind, “all are welcome leadership,” the U.S. Air Force so graciously allowed us to use office spaces as places to counsel and worship spaces as spots to enjoy the presence of God and the presence of one another. As we faithfully showed up, so too God. The simple chapel was a place where we witnessed uniformed men and women worship and proclaim a new-found faith in Christ. This was a home where we were honored to watch four Marines get baptized. This was a place where tears were shed, prayers were offered, hugs shared and embraced, and communion received.
Presence for the “Be Back” – As a Chaplain we are called to care, care for all, seeking to bring His presence in a variety of times and places. Sometimes showing unmitigated presence can be a challenge, usually the hardest times are the unexpected arrivals where you need to be “game on” in seconds, not minutes. I just had finished preaching, chatting with folks, enjoying their friendship and relieved that the sermon was now in the hands of God for Him and the Spirit to do their work. I glanced across the Chapel and there he was the “be back.” In my flesh I thought he’s back again? Not now! I’m spent! But the 30 year old Marine was sobbing, deep sighs, uncontrollable crying- I had to respond, my fatigue and frustration was quickly laid to rest, much like a football player who tosses his warm-up jacket aside when his number is called, it’s game on! I quickly grabbed a chair, placed my arm on my friend’s shoulder, “What’s wrong?” “Chaps! Nothin’! I’m just leaving Tuesday and I’m just so moved by our times together, the fellowship I received at the chapel here, my new-found friends, I’m going to miss it, miss you, miss everyone.” I was dumbfounded – amazed at God’s good grace in the midst of our sessions together and worship together- embarrassed too by my initial response to my tender brother. Presence, you just don’t know its power and impact on others.
Presence with the Colonel – Deployment was long. What made it especially long was not only the length but the lack of liberty. We had none. However, we did have an officers’ social “Professional Military Education” with the Colonel which was very close to a liberty night in Kuwait City. We got dressed to the eights “that’s close to the nines” and had a great time out. It was amazing how close (within two hours of the air base) the real world existed- taxis, buses, high rises, hotels, malls, camels, people, people, some more camels and more people. Did I mention camels and people? At the conclusion of this “training exercise,” at the four star restaurant, with bellies bulging and appetites completely satiated, we were invited upstairs for a night cap “Turkish coffee.” I thought Starbucks was on the strong side, right!
Allow me to digress. For most of us we are familiar with the traditions within the military. It is a community replete with formalities and hierarchies. As a Chaplain I am called to minister across all ranks- from the most junior to the most senior Marine, including the Colonel. This night I had the honor of sitting next to the king, I mean the Colonel. (No one was sitting next to him and I refused to see him go through the awkward seconds of nobody sitting with him, so, with his permission, I took the chair on his right flank).
So there we sat, making small talk, Colonel and Chaps. Much to my dismay, as this part of the evening played out and wound down everyone got the special coffee but the Colonel. At one point, I asked the Colonel if he wanted some of the brew and he said, “Ah, don’t worry about it.” But I knew better. Further, you never leave the king, uh Colonel out. Shouldn’t he have been served first? Or at least been offered the first cup? Seeking to be present with the boss (ya think?), I watched the attendants with the same undaunted attentiveness my German Shepherd, Tank, watches me as I deliver his biscuits. Sure enough, the servers finished serving those seated on the North side of the room and then escaped, unquestioned, back into the kitchen. “Not on my watch I thought.” I got up and casually sauntered to the host and discreetly pointed the Colonel’s way, muttering discreetly but emphatically, “Uh, excuse me, you forgot someone, the Colonel!” Moments later I was back in my seat with a server hot on my tail.” “Coffee, Sir?” I heard the Kuwaiti ask my boss. “Why of course, thank you.” With a twinkle in his eye he turned my way and said, “Cheers Chaps,” to which I happily returned, “Cheers Colonel.” Not a big deal, right? Wrong! Being able to receive a whole-hearted “Cheers Chaps” from the king-uh, that’s right, Colonel, was an incredible culmination to a challenging deployment, and a most awesome personal perk.
You know, going in, when we are with others at coffee, at breakfast, on the subway, at the gym, in the car, we never know the potential impact on others when we genuinely, sincerely, seek to be present in the present with them, right? Hey, what about this Christmas? How about offering the King a present? The gift of our presence, it is the greatest present we could ever give Him and it is a beautiful and glorious gift we give one another.
CBA Chaplain Greg Uvila was deployed to Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, from December 2016 to August 2017 with U.S. Marines and U.S. Air Force Airmen in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). Greg and his wife, Nancy, have been endorsed by CB America since 2009.
For more stories on the impact of CBAmerica chaplains, go to www.cbamerica.org/chaplaincy