Sunday is my favorite day here at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
It’s the day I recharge my spiritual batteries. It’s the day traumas miraculously slow enough for 15 hospital staff members to come to the hospital chapel’s worship service.
It’s hard to describe what chapel service is like 7,000 miles away from home in a faraway land. The people who come seem to leave their pretense behind and bring a yearning to touch a sacred space.
From throughout our theater hospital, people arrive in ones and twos and sit quietly as our music team finishes its last-minute practice.
Before the service, I sit fretting about my sermon.
Maybe that’s surprising to many of you who’ve heard me speak, but this isn’t a crowd looking for the seminary standard of three points, a poem and a prayer. Each Sunday, when I look at the crowd, I know it is a crowd that reserves its reverence for the relevant.
The eyes of the people in the congregation tell me, “Chaplain, I pulled family pictures from the pockets of a dead soldier this week. Please tell me something that will get me through another week.”
In one pew sits a nurse who has momentarily left a cleft-lipped Iraqi infant in the care of a colleague. Behind her sits a doctor who has finished yet another surgery on the insurgent who killed an American soldier. Coming in late is a respiratory therapist who had barely finished the breathing treatment for the soldier with inhalation burns.
Another congregant sits looking at his shoes contemplating the
e-mail he received ending a lengthy marriage. He’s despondent, and he has an appointment to talk with someone later in the week.
I begin at the top of the hour with a nod to the physician sitting at the piano. I selfishly hope he won’t be summoned again to a patient’s bedside and leave us singing a cappella.
One congregant stands holding his bulletin, but he won’t sing. He’s a survivor of a horrific firefight that claimed several buddies. Another one stands gripping the chair in front of her and praying her friend returns from his patrol this week.
Soon, the songs begin. And with all the acoustical strength of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the small concrete room erupts in hope.
Am I exaggerating their musical talent?
But that’s the way I hear it in my soul. Their singing displays a synchronicity and harmony between their voices and their calling. The power of those two things brings us to a new level of worship.
As I look around the chapel, people are singing “Amazing Grace” with their eyes closed, not so much because they know it by memory, but it seems to be their prayer.
They sing “Blessed Assurance” and enunciate each word as they search for the assurance and the meaning found only in a personal calling.
Soon, it’s time for my sermon. I begin my brief talk with a story from life. I tell them that I’m a storyteller because I think that’s the way Jesus spoke to people.
Throughout the room there are various indications that people are hearing their own story in the words of the Scripture. People nod, they smile, and some say “amen.” They are present together in worship.
The service closes with Communion. Congregants take the cup and they break the bread in a way not commonly known to the average person in the pew. For these people know the true meaning of Jesus’ words when he said, “Greater love has no one than this: That he lay down his life for his friends.”
We say a prayer. We go back to our work stations and prayerfully use our “spiritual recharge” to charge others.