For the past five weeks, I have gathered with an assorted group of soldiers over Thursday's lunch hour. My lunch partners come from a variety of religious backgrounds. Our ages range at least thirty years, and most of us, at one time or another, have been on “the ins” of a faith community, even if as an unwilling participant, sleeping through worship in the balcony pews. Our differences- gender, class, education, political affiliation and ideology- are likely greater than our similarities.
I was a little nervous the first time our faith-based “book club” met to discuss Martin Thielen’s recent publication, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian? I chose the book months ago, before we even left the US for Afghanistan, in a desperate scramble to find theologically sound reading material which might be enticing enough to peak the interest of younger, perhaps even doubtful, soldiers. Announcing the book title out loud in church one Sunday, I realized that there could be a number of Service Members put off by its pithy ring. When I picked the book, I didn’t think I would care. Yet, facing my small but faithful early service congregation, I realized that there wasn’t much room to loose members by being offensive, even if unintentionally. I finally understand many a pastor’s dilemma when introducing something that might be considered even the slightest bit “edgy.”
The group was open to anyone on camp, including civilians and third country nationals, which could have proven to be another disaster altogether. In fact, during our first lunch discussion, one of the younger female soldiers pulled me aside, a little worried that one of the other, older soldiers, might not be as open to some of our theological ideas and conclusions. She had been in a Bible study with him earlier in the year which was far from open-minded. As I set my tray down at the table and greeted the crowd, I wondered if I was in way over my head.
In the five weeks that we have met, we have covered perhaps the most challenging issues and debates which face the church-- hell, homosexuality, and hatred to name a few. To my utter surprise, our conversations have been some of the most refreshing in my short stint as a pastor. I could not have asked for a more thoughtful or open group, so much so that I have come to look forward to Thursday lunch as a time of renewal instead of just another laborious chaplain duty. We have never argued with one another or left lunch in a huff. Instead, this random crew has found a way to hold the hard things in both hands.
As we sit together in the large tent which serves as our “chow” hall, nibbling on some kind of mystery meat, I marvel at this seeming religious anomaly. We were each introduced to Jesus in vastly different ways, from the austere worship of the Church of God to the trendy vibes of a mega church, yet we have all arrived at this same place along the path toward Truth. Despite the baggage we carry, notions of which sin is worse or who will be saved, we have come together, realizing that God is bigger than any fear which threatens to shackle us. We may be engaged in war in Afghanistan, serving in a variety of capacities from prison guard to intelligence collector, but we all see the immense need for honoring Afghanistan and her people, including her understanding of God, despite the risk of hurt or harm. In some ways, by family members or even through church teaching, we have all been taught that openness and tolerance may take us down a dangerous road, but, here, gathered around cardboard tables, we have decided to trust that in our Divine seeking, no matter where it takes us, God will guide and guard us. Really, we have nothing to fear.
Though our book was finished this past week, we decided to meet again next Thursday. Throughout the afternoon, after returning to our respective duty posts, different members have emailed various theological articles for next week’s discussion. At first, I jokingly announced that we would be revisiting the topic of salvation- heaven and hell- since this was the theme of our reading materials. I realized, though, that may be a better description for our discussion topic-- God’s continual grace for creation, all of us included, despite all the ways we thwart justice, mercy, and love. Thursday won’t come soon enough.