August 9, 2015

Last month, I visited a psychologist. No, not because a few of my readers think I’m crazy, but as a routine visit in the VA process.

During our 45-minute appointment, the doctor asked me to recount the trauma I’d witnessed on active duty. I told him many of the stories I’ve told you, beginning in 1989 at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif.

This is where Patrick Purdy shot 29 kids and killed five — they were between 6 and 8 years old. I volunteered because of my Air Force training in mass casualties, so along with another pastor, I delivered the unspeakable news to the parents whose children were killed.

I told him of the search and recovery missions I’d been on, in particular wading into Lake Okeechobee in 1999 to recover the remains of a downed Air Force pilot. We sifted through the waterborne pathogens of pond scum, but found only parts of our comrade. With each discovery, someone called, “Find!” The mortuary affairs officer collected the “find” and placed the remains in a flag-draped ice chest.

The Florida weather was much like my 2005 deployment to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. As a chaplain I donned battle armor as I accompanied several armed patrols through the sweltering streets. Our mission was to knock down doors in search of looters, survivors and bodies.

I also recalled my time in 2009 at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq. I remembered a squad of three soldiers whom, despite our chaotic efforts to do everything, we just couldn’t save.

If we expected to lose a soldier, our chaplain team was determined that no soldier would die alone. We held the hand of each one, sitting with them until the end, no matter the hour.

But most of all, I spoke of the nearly 30 occasions I’d put on my dress uniform to drive to a town I’d never visited to deliver the news I never want to hear.

I won’t forget the home where an anguished father pounded the kitchen table as he railed against our government policies. Nor will I forget intercepting a family as they tried to go to their airport to pick up their son. He would never be coming home.

After the appointment, I sat thinking about the question the psychologist missed: How did I keep my faith through all of that? There are three reasons I can name.

First, I always find my God spot. That’s what I call the physical place where I feel God’s presence. On most days that’s a long morning run listening to contemporary hymns. Other times, it’s a field, a mountain, a space at work or place of worship.

Second, I look to my family as sources of faith. “Family” can have several meanings, but it’s mostly found in places of belonging. Maybe you find it in a gym, workplace, church or even a civic club. I best experience family among my wife and children, while the best definition of “brother” is my best friend of 35 years.

Finally — and this last one may surprise you — doubt.

To keep my faith, I’ve kept my doubts, as well. Doubting is not the enemy of faith; I believe it can be the fertilizer of faith. After all, God didn’t create robots. He made us thinking people. When you are honest with your doubts, faith flourishes.

Keeping my faith in the midst of trauma is no easy thing. I see faith as the clasp the parachutist feels when his harness tightens, or the grasp felt by the trapeze artist who’s snatched in mid-air by a skillful partner.

That’s why I know that at the end of the day, I can never really keep the faith — faith keeps me.