The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Michael T. Lembke's Blog

June 16, 2011

Closing this chapter

There's an old joke about someone who, remembering an Army promise that they'd see the world, added: "What [the recruiter] didn't tell me was that I'd be seeing it from the back of a truck!" Service in the military has given me many opportunities to experience the diversity and grandeur of the United States and the world.

When I signed into Fort Campbell, KY in 1986, it seemed odd to me that they'd call it "inprocessing." Why didn't they just call it "processing in?" Twenty-five years later, I'm on my 11th move and entering a period known as "outprocessing." The Army calls this transition as a Permanent Change of Station, which also seems odd since my next assignment will last two or three years — hardly permanent.

But maybe "outprocessing" is an appropriate term for this time of transition, considering all the "processing" involved: paperwork, briefings, conversations, waiting around and transporting more than 18,000 lbs of household goods to our new home. There is also the important work of processing the last three years' events, relationships and duty. I am enjoying this. While some prefer to leave the joys and regrets in the dark with little fanfare or notice, I prefer a more open exit, which can be painful in the short-term, but gives great benefit over the years.

And so I'm bringing this blog to a close. Back from Iraq for more than 120 days now, I am entering a new phase of the reintegration process — training and readiness.

Thanks to each of you for your thoughts, prayers, well wishes, faith, trust and partnership with me during the past 19 months. These relationships are a sustaining power for me as I follow the call to serve God and country. I am grateful to Bishop Roy Riley of the New Jersey Synod of the ELCA for his encouragement and support of military chaplains, and to Elizabeth Hunter, The Lutheran staff member who invited me to write this blog. To my wife Nancy, son Mike and daughter-in-law Sarah, to my daughter Heidi and fiancé Ben (with whom I served in Iraq), I offer thanks beyond words for the sustaining joy of family that gave me strength to serve overseas one more time. What a great gift.

Telling the Story and sharing personal narratives has brought me comfort and joy, healing and hope. Thank you for letting me share. 

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May 4, 2011

Legacy, lineage, liturgy and listening

My redeployment from Iraq continues on here in Texas. Last week we conducted a change of command and welcomed in a new 3 Star General to lead the III Corps for the next two years. We never know what the future will bring, but that does not stop the Army from planning, training, rehearsing and gaining all knowledge possible.

A change of command means looking back at the legacy and lineage of the unit. It's an old, old story. The band “sounds off,” in a tradition that reportedly dates back to the fourth century, when musicians paraded in front of Roman troops to honor them. Soldiers move the colors forward, play the national anthem, render honors and then ... pass the unit colors from the Command Sergeant Major to the outgoing commander, who passes them to the Officiating Senior Officer, who then passes them to the incoming commander. There is never a break in command continuity.

We also hear the unit story, which for III Corps dates back to World War I. The narrator recounts the campaigns, the timetable, the designations, the engagements and great moments of the Corps. It is akin to some biblical texts where the children of Israel recount their history.

Of course when the narrator reads the official history there is never any faltering or shortcoming … only the victories. Kind of like my scrapbook from high school track, where I left out losses, stumbles, injuries, leaving only the higher placing ribbons.

Now, a long way from my days at Tuttle Junior High School in Crawfordsville, Ind., I realize that filling out the narrative of my military service with the joys and sorrows paints a richer and deeper picture. Sitting among guys I served with, recounting daily struggles and realities, difficult personalities and the stresses of combat, enriches conversations and adds a reality to my coming home.

I enjoy telling my story. I know that it is important to listen to other’s stories as well. There can be a grinding obsession when any soldier is focused on his or her own story. When I offer to listen and tell, in equal amounts, I gain insight into my own reintegration.

This "coming home" time is a time of honest appraisal. This appraisal is made possible in the context of human community.  Yes I do some introspection, but the real joy of coming home is rejoining the circle of family and friends — and the circle of service to others.

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April 8, 2011

"Welcome home. Where are you goin'? When are you leavin'?"

The wind is blowing a lot of "life" around these days. The wind, trees and plants are all cooperating to distribute spores and seeds, moving life around.

Moving around is also the life of a redeploying soldier. While soldiers have much more definition and direction than these breeze-blown seeds, we do feel driven by gusts of necessity, which we term, "The needs of the Army." When soldiers return from combat, there's a desire for time to regroup, reorient and settle, but often the needs of the Army outweigh our individual desires.

And so I offer the above title. It is neither grammatically correct or in Army writing style, but this is how it's delivered in these post-deployment days. Just as "What's your major?" is ubiquitous in college conversation, "Welcome home. Where are you goin'? When are you leavin'?" is a standard question I'm asked in casual exchanges these days.

There is great joy in being needed in a new place and receiving a new mission. There is excitement about the prospect of increased responsibility and challenge. There is also the grief of leaving those with whom one has served, sacrificed and known.

Now my wife, Nancy, and I are getting ready for our 16th move. By no means is this a record for people who have been "in" as long as we have — so I claim no prizes. But it is another time of assessment, farewell, celebration and packing it up.

I think the important thing is to not be blown around by the winds of change but to be anchored in faith, family and know that one is "valued" by God and people. So we get caught up in the support and joy instead of being catapulted into orbit by administrative processes. Journeying through Lent is a great reminder of this. Jesus was not blown around by winds of rumor and accusation, but moved deliberately through his season of ministry on earth.

And so I choose to move deliberately through this relocation season of my life as a soldier. I'm reminded of a phrase taught by my Greek professor at Valparaiso [Ind.] University: (translated) "Things that are difficult are beautiful."

Service in the Army is difficult and beautiful. 

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March 31, 2011

We need space

Spring can be an odd time of coming and going, up and down, calamity and calm. Here in Texas it was over 90 degrees yesterday. Today it was hardly 60. As seasons go, spring is perhaps the most unpredictable, providing us with reassurance that we aren't in control of as much as we think. But we do have some say in how we will greet each day, and springtime offers a great deal of opportunity for discovery.

Coming home from Iraq is also a season that offers ups and downs, nuance, discovery and winds of change.

This past month my wife, Nancy, and I went on a road trip. We visited family, covered more than 5,000 miles, crossed 20 states, saw the change of the seasons (including the tenacity of winter in Michigan) and heard some great music. Above all our trip created space between the mission behind and the mission ahead.

The U.S. Army provides a season of leave (30 days) as soldiers arrive back home from combat. Thirty days provides some much-needed space. Now, on the other side of that time and beginning to prepare for the next mission, I can report that this leave time is necessary—to breathe, stretch and revitalize.

Having space in one's life is important. All of us, in our own ways, understand that running from one event, thing or project to another is not a very full life; it is just busy. I've learned from others much more astute than me that making extended time for reflection, taking time to think and grieve, allowing one's thoughts to wander and drift is very, very important for a soldier's reintegration.

I remembered the importance of space while listening to jazz in South Carolina and Boston, a Bach B-minor Mass in Indiana, and blues and early strains of rock and roll in Memphis. Though I've been writing music for more than 30 years, I've only recently begun to appreciate the need for space in music. Early on I filled all parts of the music, every beat, all harmonies, all the time, creating a wall of sound. Later I was shown that "what you don't hear" can be as dynamic and moving as what you do hear.

So on our journey, I listened to jazz musicians play in response to each other. There was respect for each instrument and an understanding that silence, softness and restraint creates space in the music—places for the audience to enter and participate in the process. I observed the great dignity of the Japanese Bach Collegium from Tokyo (arriving in the U.S. only days after the earthquake and tsunami in their country) as they took us reverently through the Bach B-minor Mass. Only once or twice during the whole performance did all the instruments play and all the singers sing. For much of the concert only a small portion of the group was in action. Each musician had to wait, listen, absorb and restrain. In our lives and in reintegration, space is used not only for "hanging out" but for appreciating the renewing of the spirit it offers.

In Memphis we listened to a blues group that consisted of three pieces: guitar, bass and drums. Nancy and I sat 10 feet from the stage and had no trouble conversing. This music is felt, as much as heard. There is space to hear the individual notes, get a sense of the relationships and appreciate the deliberate precision of the guitarist. I learned again that blues is not necessarily misery and despair, but rather an expression of a broad range of feelings, not unlike the key of B-minor (of the mass) or the smooth playing of "Take Five" by a jazz quartet.

This space, this time to breathe, has energized me for the mission ahead. I will use this experience as I work with soldiers and their families, educating and empowering them as they go from mission to mission.

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March 24, 2011

Water brings perspective

Nancy and I are about 3,800 miles into a part of my homecoming I call our "Reunion Rolling Retreat." Another birthday approaches; I'm about to turn 55. As I sit and observe the gulls on the newly opened water of Lake Michigan, I consider the serenity and power of nature, revealed in living water.

During this trip, I've seen the beauty of a rushing waterfall buried deep in the Tennessee wilderness; the expansive, surging surf of the Atlantic sweeping ashore in South Carolina; a babbling brook turned torrent after snowmelt and rain caused flooding in New Jersey and New York; and the sheer awesomeness and majesty of Niagara Falls. I'm also aware of the tragic events borne by earthquake and water in Japan.

Being stationed in Iraq three times has made me profoundly cognizant of what life is like without water as well. Water is both peace and power. Water provides perspective.

Coming home is the hardest part of deployment. Anger, sleeplessness, depression and isolation can become a "squad" of daily feelings that accompany a soldier. I am grateful for the family and community support I've received in the past month since I returned home. These supportive connections are not unlike the various "waters" I've seen. Each provides passion and perspective for the way ahead, as well as an understanding of past events.

Being passionate alone is not as helpful as having my passion balanced by a broader perspective. Without perspective, my opinions, ideas and excitement for my personal certainties can quickly drive me down the wrong road, taking me far away from the quiet waters of perspective.

Right now, a whistling teapot, open water on the lake and lingering winter ice on the far shore are reminders that water can be liquid, solid or vapor. Without understanding all of the science involved, I can marvel at these mysteries and gain insight into the mission complexities facing our returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Just as water can take many forms, serve us in many ways and be a powerful and awesome force so, too, can life be lived, enjoyed and cherished in many different ways. Passion for life provides fuel for existence and, coupled with a broad perspective, can afford a returning military veteran a solid foundation upon which to build, grow and prosper. 

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March 9, 2011

Going the long way at the commissary

In late February, before I began a 5,000-mile trek around the eastern half of the U.S. to see family and friends, I visited the Fort Hood (Texas) commissary to stock up on trip "essentials."

I make a point of speaking to all veterans who wear headgear (that's Army for "hat") that proudly displays their former wartime service. At the commissary, I approached a gentleman wearing a Vietnam-era ball cap, intending to shake his hand and say, "Thank you." Before I could say anything, he handed me a business card. On one side it read: "Thanks for your service!" The other side carried the name of his volunteer organization, a group that, every Christmas, places wreaths on all the Veterans cemetery graves. His gesture humbled me. I asked with whom he served in Vietnam, and we chatted for a moment before I continued shopping.

Part of the reunion process, part of coming home, is taking the long way — taking  time to stop and chat and speak to other soldiers, not only to honor their service but to inquire about their various homecomings.

At the commissary cash register I met a man, a sailor, who served in World War II. We, too, talked for a moment. Then I was out the door and on my way home.

Nancy and I are still on the road and enjoying the trip, with one wonderful reunion after another. At Christ Lutheran Church in Fairfax, Va., I had an opportunity to preach. Hosted by the Rev. Maggie Rourk, we had a fine time of worship and celebration. There, I met Larry, a man with whom I had served in Iraq in 2004. I met a woman who had served as an Army nurse in World War II. I was honored to see  Lloyd and Collette Lyngdal. Lloyd was the ELCA endorsing agent for military chaplains from 1988 to 2002. It reminded me of the continuity and connection vital to maintaining a balanced life and ministry.

During my homecoming, I have taken quality time to say thank you to the many who held me up in prayer and remembrance — those who carried the burden of war, those who sacrifice on a daily basis and those who gave up part of their lives in service to the country.

I will continue these homecoming updates until April 30. The army chief of chaplains recently announced my assignment to serve as the Forces Command Chaplain at Fort Bragg, N.C. So April 30 will not be a magical day ending my reunion time, but a milestone of transition as I prepare for the next mission.

These are the moments that Kodak, and Folgers, have been calling us to for years … to "savor" the moment, to engage the world around us, not as a pause but as part of the process of real living, real healing, real loving.

In the meantime, I am out on the road, seeing the country, enjoying the fellowship of family and friends, engaging life and giving thanks. Amen. 

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February 22, 2011

Welcome home, inside & out

Details about unloading a dishwasher, sorting laundry or dicing onions aren't normally opening paragraphs in a great novel. Yet such mundane tasks are a significant part of the joy of a soldier's homecoming. The rattle of pots and pans, the familiar squeak of a back door opening, and the creak made by the recliner in "lay-back" position, are all wonderful sounds of "welcome home."

After a year of working in military theater-level operations, assisting with strategies for healing sectarian strife, and addressing ministry needs of enlisted women and men, I find comfort in opening the refrigerator and cleaning the garage — at-home activities that allow a certain, albeit limited, sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. There is a great joy in being reunited with my family.

It's good to be home.

Mike Lembke and his daughter, Heidi, a 2011 graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, enjoy flute music played by family members at home in Mike and Nancy Lembke's living room.
Mike Lembke and his daughter, Heidi, a 2011 graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, enjoy flute music played by family members at home in Mike and Nancy Lembke's living room.

A major part of these first weeks is going through administrative, medical and personnel processes. Basically, I've been standing in lines and waiting around, but these are necessary activities. To update my current health status, I sat with a doctor who directed me to make some follow-up appointments. The next day I went to the dermatologist to inquire about a "blemish of concern." The nurse who led me to the examination room asked if I would like the doc to look at my entire body. I hadn't really planned on this, but consented: "Sure, why not?" Immediately I thought, "What if he finds something else?" But he looked me over and determined I was fine. What a relief. After my October 2010 kidney stone episode, the other follow-ups will include an ultrasound and CT scan — further invasions.

As much as the household therapy provides comfort and joy, the inspections of my body, inside and out, are also necessary. I didn't really want the doctor to look at my "whole" body, and it is rather inconvenient to have others actually look "inside" my body, yet that is part of a complete "welcome home." Homecoming is not so much about "getting back" to where I was as it is about acknowledging where I am and who I am. Those tasks demand mental and spiritual introspection as well as physical inspection.

I probably will find out some things I don't like, but what an opportunity for a full understanding of what has changed. What the Army calls the "reunion and reintegration" part of the deployment cycle isn't the most exciting or "flashy," but to my mind, it is the most important season for the soldier. 

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February 14, 2011

Home from Iraq, jet-lag is part of re-entry

Don't be unaware: there are many opportunities and challenges that come the way of the soldier upon return from combat operations. As the Greeks said, "No one can step into the same river twice." And as Calvin (a main character in the "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip) said, "Hobbes, you know what's weird? Nothing ever changes, but all of a sudden everything's different."

These days are ones of reunion, reintegration, re-set, retraining, the Reverse Soldier Readiness Program (SRP) and Deployment Cycle Support. Those many words convey the challenge and complexity of coming home after a year away. It's not all good, nor all bad. As Calvin said, "it's different."

I'm up this morning at 0430 because my body has not yet adjusted to being in the Central Texas time zone. Jet lag is an excellent reminder of the body's rhythm of sleep, awake and food intake. I got on a commercial airliner (pretty nice seats) at 1600 Feb. 8th in Al Asad, Iraq. We stopped over in Leipzig, Germany, then flew to Killeen, Texas. The flight was 16 hours and the total transit was about 24 hours. I arrived in Texas the morning of Feb. 9. My tour of duty was over. With the joy of 100 Christmas mornings, I was reunited with my wife, Nancy!

Nothing changes, but everything is different. A year is forever, yet not that long. I'm thankful that the Army as an institution and the "Army family" as a support system understand this reunion cycle. Just as my body (based on past experience) will experience jet lag for a couple of weeks, my mind, emotions and spiritual self will respond to being back in Texas in a slow and not always predictable way. Thankfully other soldiers, family members, commanders and care providers understand that dedicated time and space are necessary for those returning from combat operations.

The Army's Deployment Cycle Support and the Force Generation process take six months. In the first two months, returning soldiers are prescribed time off. They attend classes, have opportunities for counseling, resume regular physical training and go on leave. The next two months involve individual and small group training. The final two months are invested in large unit training, refitting and resetting for future missions. By the end of six months, the unit is ready to begin training for the next deployment. The Army has learned tough lessons about moving too quickly or downplaying the effects of deployment on the force. It now favors a measured process of accountability, self discovery and a continuing commitment to the values of duty, honor and country.

Coming home is a mind, body and soul thing. Rather than try and fool my body into getting into the time zone too quickly, I go to sleep when I am tired, get up when I'm awake and appreciate the joy of being home. The jet lag reminds me that I am not yet fully "out" of Iraq and that I must consider the effects of combat operations on the mind and the soul as well.

I appreciate your willingness to stand with me all these months in prayer and support! For that I say thank you very much. This spiritual connection we hold is a tangible feeling of solidarity, hope and the joy of coming home. 

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February 7, 2011

Going home: advice for returning soldiers

I left the office this morning at 0630. The sunrise was a beautiful pink and orange and the evening star was clear and bright. I wasn't leaving after a tough night of duty but after watching the Super Bowl. The end of football season also marks the end of my duty here in Iraq.

The mission now, for those headed back to the States, is to reunite with family, friends, regular office hours, evenings and weekends, and fewer Skype sessions. As a chaplain, I'm one of those involved in conducting classes, briefings and counseling sessions that both empower and encourage soldiers to see redeployment as a deliberate process—one that involves as much self-understanding and preparation as the pre-deployment training phase.

After nearly 25 years on active duty I've come to see three critical parts of the reintegration process: expectations, relationships and responses.

What do you expect?

I encourage soldiers to work on articulating their expectations. "Write them down," I say. "Talk about them before you go home. Try to be realistic." In my experience simply saying, "I have no expectations," is unwise and can rob the reunion of joy and satisfaction. It's much better to acknowledge both the joy and the sorrow of the past year. Some aren't sure ... won't doing this create problems? I disagree. Acknowledging all of your expectations allows space to "breathe"—space that is so necessary in reunion.

Returning to wearing civilian clothes, cooking food, going shopping, commuting to work, not hearing helicopters and generators, and needing to find parking spaces at the mall can come as a shock to a returning soldier. While we all look forward to relaxing, it's hard to know exactly what that means after you've spent a year constantly aware of the lethality of your environment. Figuring out your expectations is a real help in the homecoming process.

Relationships evolve

Life is not on hold. People change. Relationships evolve. As chaplains, we encourage soldiers to ask questions, listen and avoid assuming that everything back home is the same as when we left. It's one thing to admit intellectually that people change. It's another thing to sift your feelings about this through heart and soul, for it is the heart and soul that are the essence of homecoming. We increase our joy and wonder when we process our feelings and actions and learn to share those feelings with those we love.

How will you respond?

We have to learn appropriate responses to complexities, misunderstandings and changes. Learning how to respond is key to a good homecoming. When soldiers skip the listening and processing (going back to previous assumptions and actions), anger, frustration and isolation can ensue. On deployment soldiers develop deep, close relationships, routines and rituals. Sharing these stories with those you love will help you make a good homecoming.

Please continue to pray for our returning soldiers. Our worshiping communities, the word and sacrament and our hope in the gospel offer great encouragement for resilient and joyful reunions. And I'll keep updating you during my reunion time, to let you know how it goes. 

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January 27, 2011

Running and remembering in Iraq

The rain came yesterday. Today it was in the mid-60s. No coat necessary. We just walked in the sunlight and enjoyed the moderate temperatures and favorable winds.

My dad says: "Make the days count; don't count the days." It's a good saying, but with only a couple of weeks left in the mission, I believe I can both count the days and make them count. Yesterday I welcomed my counterpart and began a process  we call the "Right Seat/Left Seat Ride." It's kind of like, "I'll do it; you watch. Then I'll do it; you help. Then, you do it and I'll help. Then you do it."

I've been thinking of things I've not thought of for months. I'm remembering all of the people with whom I have worked, who've come in and out of my life: sailors,  Marines, airmen, Department of State officials, diplomats and Iraqi nationals. These days before redeployment are an opportune time for reflection.

I decided that participating in our unit's 7.35-mile "Farewell Run" would be another good way to reflect, while on the move. The last time I ran that kind of distance was with Headquarters Company, 4-7 Infantry, in 1991. But I went anyway, with support from three other soldiers. We made a long loop around part of Victory Base. While I didn't break any records, I didn't do too badly, finishing in 1 hour, 5 minutes.

At a farewell for our command sergeant major, I offered the prayer and was the only officer present, which meant I was pretty nervous about my uniform appearance,  haircut and military bearing! I recognized one soldier there that I had served with in 2004 with the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One). At dinner, we shared memories from our former time of service. It was a nice time, and then his group leader announced that they had to leave to catch their flight out. I had turned to say something to someone behind me, and when I turned back the guy I was talking to was gone. No goodbyes, no promises to stay in touch, he was just gone, back to his duty. Yet it was still a good time of renewing our service together.

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January 20, 2011

Inspiration, perspiration, desperation... plus celebration and collegiality

Each of these words has poignancy, representing the best of times/worst of times perspective I see in my work and ministry here. In these days of transition I'm spending a lot of time watching, reading, analyzing, decreasing, increasing, providing guidance, delivering word and sacrament and experiencing great collegiality.

Yes, I am watching football and the weather, but I'm also very interested in watching and reading about the process of the formation of the Iraqi government. There continues to be both progress and regress in the bold experiment of democracy. Our forces are focused on empowering the Iraqi Armed Forces and police. The U.S. Forces do a great job of structuring training, setting milestones and teaching basic techniques that develop sound leadership, discipline and integrated learning. I'm inspired by the unfolding story of our work with the Iraqis, and by the Iraqis who undergo this training in pretty austere and demanding environments.

This training takes a lot of perspiration as well. Amid the good work, amid tough realistic training, is an ever-present threat of violence by extremists who seek to undo any gains in democracy, good governance or the delivery of basic services. It creates a desperation on many fronts as people (Christian and Muslim, Arab and Kurd, Chaldean and Yazidi, and many others) are displaced, uprooted, terrorized and otherwise driven from anything normal, usual or familiar. Ignoring this fact is unwise. At the same time, I believe a broader wisdom will prevail — a wisdom that can be seen in the presence of interfaith conferences, long-term business investment and the coming Arab League Summit (hosted in Baghdad).

There is reason for celebration. I read with interest that the Iraqi National Soccer team won its first game in the Asia Cup, beating the United Arab Emirates. This national team is a sign of nonsectarian promise. I've also read about a gathering of poets, suggesting a blooming of the arts.

Recently I joined others in our compound to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. We heard a moving dramatic reading of King's "I have a dream" speech. It was not lost on me that the struggles of the civil rights movement are not unknown to the people of Iraq. The event stirred my desire to work more fervently for justice and self-determination.

I also met with chaplains on another base. Experiencing such collegiality always boosts my morale. When I get out and see what's going on in other places, I find a spirited acknowledgement of life's joys and sorrows. I see other chaplains' fervent desire to connect the dots of life through shared experience, pastoral counseling, and the word and sacrament in worship. I see also the chaplains' abilities to meet many needs of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from many (and no) faith traditions.

All of these words stir up a complex of feelings, emotions and actions that aren't an impossible puzzle but a mosaic of opportunity. When these many facets of the soul are bound together, acknowledged and acted upon, they equal a joy of duty and a strong purpose of mission. 

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January 12, 2011

Duffle-bag drag

It's 5 a.m. It's dark. The air is chilly and damp. We're here for the Army's time-honored tradition of welcoming new arrivals to a combat theater.

Rummaging around in the shadows, we flick tiny flashlights on and off as we search the 100 or so duffle bags and rucksacks set out, at random, in the parking lot. Rain threatens, so we're moving with some urgency to identify the bags of the newly arrived chaplain and assistant.

I'm focused on finding these bags, but I can't help but be reminded of many other mornings I've spent in the dark, in the wind, in the dust and in the rain, searching for my bags. I hear muffled voices and smell the cigarette smoke and diesel fumes from the bus. These, too, trigger memories of service, separation and camaraderie.

Once we find the bags we go back inside the building. Leaders brief the newcomers. And there they are, where I've been many times: three days in transit, up all night, in a new place, no coffee, no breakfast.

"All right, listen up!
"There are two forms in the folder on your chair. Fill them out.
"Keep the noise down!!"

Another hour of briefings ensue and then:

"All right, listen up!
"Get in line and we will assign you billeting space. Then you are released to your sections."

Now the first order of business is breakfast. Bacon, scrambled eggs, grits, gravy, biscuits and coffee. It's a ritual that's practically sacramental. Emerging from the mess hall, we see it's now light, 8 a.m., and the beginning of the newcomers' first day in Iraq. They drag their bags to their lodging and unpack.

Meanwhile, my bags sit in my room, mostly packed, ready for me to drag back to Texas. 

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January 8, 2011

Star quality

The weather these days is pleasant, with an early morning chill and 65-degree afternoons. The rain comes pretty regularly as well, which is very good for the Iraqis. Iraq has emerged from a five-year drought and I am hopeful that the government will fully form soon, bringing the people some much-needed relief in basic services and security.

As much as I enjoy Iraq's bright sunshine, I also enjoy the moon and stars. During this season of Epiphany, I like to sit outside at night and ponder the importance of the Star of Bethlehem, the Star in the East, the Natal Star—the cosmic phenomenon that announced the bodily reality of Jesus.

My Epiphany observance has been enhanced by two interesting events. I recently met with The Gospel Keynotes, a singing group, originally from Tyler, Texas, that performs bluesy Christian songs. In our pre-concert meeting (we were invited by our command sergeant major to greet the band) I was told to bring my "shoutin' shoes" and be ready for "church." Well I wore my boots, but we sure did move around—singing, dancing, jumping, waving. The concert was the kind of motivation that creates an Epiphany star "quality" of joy and expectation in the manifestation of Christ. The group's leader said that at this time of year they're usually performing at a jazz festival in Italy. He told us how proud he was to be here in Iraq, serving and singing. It was a true testimony of service. The Gospel Keynotes didn't have to be here, but they came anyway to be with us.

The other interesting meeting took place over a dinner at the embassy with a couple of chaplains and two of our Iraqi cultural advisers. We heard one of the advisers share his story of studying in the U.S., then returning to Iraq to help his family in 1980. He was imprisoned for 60 days, then forced to leave the country. I was spellbound. "So why did you come back to work for the U.S. in 2004?" I asked. He said he didn't get involved in 1991 after the first Gulf War, but didn't want to sit on the bench this time. He wanted to use his talents to serve.

There is strength, not sadness, to his story. His  narrative carries a vision and passion that moved and motivated me in my mission. As one who is constantly seeking people who live resilient lives of meaning and purpose, I listened intently to his words and observed his actions in his current job. He is joyful, thoughtful, well-spoken and a true delight to be around. He also makes great chai (this Iraqi tea tastes so good, he said, because of the cardamom).

Both experiences had an Epiphany "star" quality. The gospel group and our adviser shine in their own ways, bringing light and direction to many others. After all the Epiphany star didn't just shine. It provided direction and guidance—the way.

This time after Christmas is the true time of gifting. It's when we notice the star quality of many, to give and forgive, bless and encourage, thank and love. Joy to the world. 

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December 30, 2010

Clean and serviceable, as 2010 ends

I took my Christmas decorations down today. I will observe Christmas through Jan. 6 and always look forward to the Epiphany season, but I had to take the decorations down. We're loading out some of our gear in preparation for redeployment. Some weeks still remain for our mission here in Iraq, but the "hurry and wait" of the Army is telling me to get organized and get ready.

We also heard that we ought to be in new uniforms for the redeployment trip back to Texas. I suppose this is OK guidance. It's proper to look one's best in the homecoming. But I'd also make the case that it would be proper to wear the uniform I've worn all year. It is clean and serviceable — meaning not dirty and not torn or frayed. These uniforms are, however, worn and faded from wear and the sun.

Like the officer who once told me he always goes into a new situation by setting up his office when no one's around — that way it appears he's always been there, thus skipping the "I'm the new guy part" — wearing a new uniform might suggest that I haven't been away for a year. It would ignore the personal wear and tear that happens. I'd like to wear the uniform I've worn all year. It's comfortable and faded. It helps me acknowledge that I've been gone a year. It reminds me of the joys and sorrows, the grief and other memories of these past days and months.

It seems that we ought not ignore time's passing and possibly skip or miss the growth and strength that has come with this deployment.

In the next weeks, we'll spend a lot of time preparing ourselves and our troops to go home. It's a process that involves many conversations, self-assessments and lifting up unanswered questions. To me, wearing a new uniform somehow suggests moving on and putting the deployment in the past.

Many soldiers already know when their next deployment will be. Others speculate on timelines. Still others carry the weight from two deployments ago. In these next weeks, we'll have a great opportunity to look inward and discover how we have  faded, where we are worn and if we have frayed. It's not an easy process. So chaplains will conduct redeployment conversations with soldiers, offering techniques and ideas for making the most of this redeployment time, both in theater and back home.

I suppose it doesn't so much matter what I wear on the outside. It's what is on the inside that counts. Through weekly worship, personal devotions, thoughts for the day, mess hall conversations and moments of emotional exploration we'll be able to  acknowledge the good and the bad of the last year. And here at the end of 2010 we will have opportunities to make some reasonable resolutions for hopeful change or personal affirmation.

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December 23, 2010

One story, many stories

We are not only approaching the end of the calendar year, but many of us here in Iraq are preparing to turn our mission over to a new group of soldiers.

Ending the year

Part of the transition process is writing our After Action Reviews. These AAR are instructive in many ways. The Army method is to ask, "What was supposed to happen?" then "What went well?" and "What did not go well?" and finally, "How can we improve?" It's a good method in that it helps us remember where we began, prompts us to dwell on the positive and has us seriously, deliberately reflect on that which fell short of the goal. This method winds up with a commitment to carrying on with renewed vigor to improve self, team and organization.

Along the AAR path there are "pull-overs"—lamenting a shortfall or downright failure; recalling bold statements of intent that went forgotten or ignored; and simply wishing things could have been different. It's a lot like confession at the beginning of worship, a time when we set ourselves realistically before God and our brothers and sisters and admit our situation. And it is also a time of forgiveness and of renewal to carry on, to remain committed, to not give up.

The AAR process helps us tell our story.

Telling our stories

Again this Christmas we read and remember the One Story that informs our many stories. This One Story, the story of Jesus' birth, is not a review but a reality. We read Luke 2 as both history and a present-story.

As I look back over the past year, I remember the many stories I've been privileged to hear. Many stories were painful in the telling and in the hearing. I grieve for the many Christians who are persecuted here in Iraq—to the point of having to cancel their Christmas worship services for fear of attack. I remember in prayer many Iraqi people whose loved ones were killed in the past year. I think of our own families who have been affected by war, loss and separation. I also consider the joys, the personal triumphs and the depth of relationships forged in combat. It's a lot to ponder.

Away from home

Mary and Joseph weren't "home" for the birth. They weren't surrounded by family. They could have easily succumbed to fear or despair. Yet their story inspires us and we consider the bringing together of a broader, more inclusive family that included shepherds, visits from angels, and much singing and rejoicing. All individual lives and stories, influenced by the One Story, the story of the Word made flesh.

Away from home at Christmas I find great comfort in remembering that shepherds were out in the field, wise men were on the move, Mary and Joseph were pretty much alone, and their shared response was joy, wonder and worship. It is more than encouraging. It is invigorating and energizing.

This Christmas in Iraq, we will spend time telling our stories. We will hear the one story of Jesus—the true Christmas story. I wish for each of you the opportunity to tell your story and to live the One Story.


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December 14, 2010

For many, Christmas is about home

The sun is streaming through the window this morning as I write. I've been enjoying a couple of weeks of R&R in Texas. Tomorrow I head back to Iraq to resume my mission. Because I have a great staff in Iraq, I've had very little need to contact them during my time of rest and renewal. I did send them a simple closing report upon my safe arrival in Texas: "I am home."

Home. It's one word, yet a complete sentence. In my mind, home is both a noun and verb. (Please, no quibbling from English majors. Work with me!) Home is body, soul and spirit. Home is about relationships and people, not a place or locale. Where Nancy and I live in Texas is our 13th address in 31 years of marriage. While each dwelling has been fine, we know buildings don't make a home. People make a home.

Lembke with his wife, Nancy
Nancy and Michael T. Lembke at home.

For many, this time of year, Christmas, is about home. In my work, I encourage soldiers to assess their "home" connections. Home is about relationships, not the remote and the microwave. Life is all about relationships, and many soldiers I deal with don't have much in the way of relationship — or if they do, the relationships are bad.

Christmas often intensifies the feelings of home and the pain of relationship. So I encourage soldiers to think their way through these memories to a more hopeful understanding of how they can begin to build new, more positive relationships and thereby have a home that is welcoming and supportive.

At the end of the day, we realize that home really is about structures. Home is  relationships that have a sure foundation of trust, honesty and love. Home is relationships where the walls hold hope, joy and love—and aren't used to divide but to provide helpful boundaries, including doors for access. Home is relationships that provide windows of vision, that offer a future of expectation, and that let in the light of the good news. Home is relationships in which people enjoy room for creativity, fellowship, rest, cleansing and education. Home is relationships that provide a roof of protection, security and warmth.

I don't believe it's over-sentimentalizing to state that home is being in the arms of those you love and being held in the arms of the One who came to earth.

Merry Christmas.

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November 28, 2010

Spiritual Thanksgiving

There is no smell of fallen leaves here in Iraq, but there is a noted crispness in the air. The past three weeks have been clear and pleasant. I've mentioned this before, but like other things I don't take for granted in the desert (hot water being another), the lower temperatures bear mentioning again.

And we've just celebrated Thanksgiving.

We have ways to celebrate this season even while deployed. The true joys of life are the intangibles. For most of November, I've been thinking about the transcendent and "soulful" aspects of life. We wrapped up our time with pastors Chrys Parker and Glenn Sammis. They were here in Iraq for the month, experiencing the joys, sorrows, privations and exhilarations of being around soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. If you visit http://www.dvidshub.net/ and search for their names, my name or the Spiritual Fitness Initiative, you can read about their time with us. They trained, taught and engaged 150 chaplains and assistants and about 50 soldiers.

Sitting in the mess hall on Thanksgiving, so much of the conversation was spiritual. We talked about the past, memories and how sights, sounds, tastes and smells can activate the soul and bring to life mental images that give us a warm sense of remembering, cause us to laugh out loud or bring us to tears.

For those who think that the spiritual, esprit de corps, the soul of life is for cloistered quiet types, I direct your attention to the recent Green Bay-Vikings game. Even watching it on TV, I could get a sense of the momentum on the field and the flagging "zeal" of the Vikings. People were screaming and pointing and agonizing, generating great passion and expression that can only be described as spirit.

Let us not be timid in expressing, naming and sharing our own spiritual journey. The real fun, the moment of true experience, comes when we hear other's stories of spiritual journeys; our engagement with the infinite, eternal; our journeys inward to the soul. These are the discussions I've been having over the past month. For these moments of spiritual touch I am truly grateful.

The Army chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Doug Carver, visited us. It was his fifth Thanksgiving in Iraq. He shared his thoughts on service, sacrifice and the joy of being around troops.

As you launch into this coming December, I encourage you to fully engage all aspects of life (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual), learn, listen, activate and enjoy. Amen. 

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November 22, 2010

People of goodwill

Pope Benedict XVI recently renewed his call for peace in the Middle East, saying that while peace may be a gift of God, "it is also the result of efforts by people of good will and national and international institutions."

Tonight at one of the Iraqi-run restaurants on the base, 14 of us joined in one of the remaining traditions in the military—a "hail and farewell." And there was plenty of goodwill. We said "hello" to a sailor and an Army staff sergeant. We said "farewell" to our noncommissioned officer in charge and one of our officers. We spent time talking about each one, where they're from, their families, what they like to do and then, in saying farewell, shared funny things each one did and celebrated their accomplishments.

In such moments of goodwill, we realize it's not just about those arriving or departing, but about every one of us. We get to celebrate, elaborate and remember that the mission is more than just a bunch of tasks. There is purpose, depth, joy and sorrow. We recall the moments when others were there for us and we strengthen the goodwill.

Where does goodwill come from? It certainly isn't a raw material. Goodwill, like all attributes of depth, comes from careful and thoughtful cultivation and trust and sacrifice and vision. There is a selflessness to goodwill that is part of the great intangible—the spiritual side of life.

The pope is calling for goodwill. Perhaps he's calling for the kind of dynamic intention that creates opportunity in the midst of crisis. The recent upsurge in violence against Christians in Iraq is alarming. You might be saying that it will take more than goodwill to gain security and good governance in Iraq. My belief is that goodwill is exactly what's needed as a foundation for more concrete actions.

Yesterday, Nov. 21, was the last Sunday in the church year, Christ the King. The Gospel reading from Luke is the crucifixion of Jesus. It's hard to imagine that goodwill would be living in this scene of death. But there it is, as Jesus forgives those who hate him and crucify him. He receives one of the thieves hanging next to him into paradise: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Perhaps goodwill is created when we remember our limitations and our need for human community. I'm thankful for the great team I have here in the USF-I Chaplain Office. I also pray, with the pope, for people of goodwill to find each other here in Iraq. And I pray to be a person of goodwill myself.

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November 12, 2010

Direct sunlight

I buckled into my four-point safety harness and watched as the soldier across from me checked his ammo magazine, oriented his rifle to the floor, and gave a thumbs up to the driver. The turret gunner stood up to take his position and the convoy began to roll out of the operating base south of Baghdad to head up to Victory Base.

This was the beginning of my day today ... taking off on what would be a routine convoy. I usually travel by helicopter but decided today to go by ground. The sun is bright these days, but the temperature is moderate and I enjoy being in the sunlight. As the convoy took off, we rolled past agricultural land, small herds of sheep, some cattle grazing in the grass, reeds waving in the many canals and families out tending crops.

This area of Iraq is one farm after another. It was a pleasant ride, albeit it was from inside an armored personnel carrier and with the awareness of roadside bombs that still inflict their damage. This is how I started today. Ah, but yesterday.

Yesterday was Veterans Day. It was my fourth Veterans Day on a deployment, and it was certainly the best, most meaningful and fun. I began the day providing music to open an awards ceremony where the commander presented 30 Combat Action Badges and promoted five second lieutenants to first lieutenant. Later I attended a re-enlistment ceremony where about 60 soldiers signed up to stay in the Army. Here it is the second month of the fiscal year and already this unit has almost met its retention goals.

At noon we had a barbecue. There is nothing like the smell of hamburgers on the grill to bring "home" a little closer. I joined four other musicians to play some blues, folk and rock. We had fun.

I was at this operating base to escort doctors Chrys Parker and Glenn Sammis in their presentation of the Spiritual Fitness Initiative, a wellness program that helps soldiers increase their awareness of the spiritual dimension and to seek healing, develop coping skills and to acknowledge that which is greater than themselves.

It is as if we are putting life in the direct sunlight of truth, openness and higher power. Chrys and Glenn have a ton of experience in working with trauma victims and have done extensive research on the impact of spiritual insight to overcome life's most difficult circumstances. They have come to Iraq because, like me, they realize that the true impact of the process and program is felt while deployed, rather than waiting to go home to begin the healing process.

Yesterday the direct sunlight renewed my soul, just as being part of this spiritual initiative brought many "things" to light. To quote the motto of my alma mater, Valparaiso [Ind.] University: "In luce tua, videmus lucem"—"In Thy Light, We See Light (Psalm 36:9).

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October 18, 2010

Seeing the forest and the trees

It was said of Gen. George Marshall, chief of staff during WWII, and his great ability to lead and inspire, that "he could see the forest and the trees." When faced with difficulties and trials, many of us "lose" the forest for the trees and become  overwhelmed by myriad issues, complexities and competing demands.

This past week, my office hosted a conference for 12 chaplains and assistants from all over Iraq. We worked to see the forest and the trees as we discussed the broad topic of religious advisement. As personal staff officers to the commander, chaplains are charged with advising our leaders on matters of religion and how those matters affect the mission.

What a person believes dramatically affects how they respond to a situation. The practice of one's religion is a visible expression of those held beliefs. In Iraq, in many ways, these "held" beliefs "hold" the country in a political and religious standoff that is making the formation of the government very difficult. Ethnic rivalries, geographic disputes and intense concerns over oil rights are also major factors slowing the seating of a government.

The Army has always charged chaplains with an advisory role, in addition to providing for religious support to the troops. Traditionally, chaplains have worked with local religious leaders, orphanages, hospitals, widows and the disenfranchised. Here in Iraq, religion is infrequently seen as a catalyst for common goals, more often it is reduced to a way to divide people.

Military chaplains often get involved in meeting with local religious leaders and governmental officials and have conversations on topics of mutual interest. The role of the chaplain is not to convert, coerce, promise or offer. Our role is to listen, learn, converse and engage. By doing so we are participating in an ongoing process that can enlighten the prospects for positive change or, at the very least, demonstrate a single act of goodwill in a war-torn environment.

So our group discussed the many-sided topic of engagement and advisement:  Should chaplains engage at all? What are the boundaries of such engagement with local religious leaders? What are the best strategies for holding constructive conversations? How do we share information with our commanders in ways that don't compromise our religious support mission?

Opinions differ on all these questions, and those of us at the conference did our best to maintain an open, professional dialogue. It's different, it's difficult and it's dynamic, and the work demands our active persistence and avoiding the temptation to give in to the cynicism that can wash over us as we engage day after day in this uphill activity.

We are admonished in the words of Luke 18:1 to be persistent in prayer and faithful in action. With these words I am encouraged to carry on. I value your prayers as we, as chaplains, strive to both advise our commanders and minister to the troops. 

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