“LIVING THE DREAM, SIR!” Three Things that Keep Ministry (and the Military Chaplaincy) Moving Forward

I am on chaplain duty today. I am ministering at the US Army Chaplain Center and School. I came to instruct, to give my testimony of why I continue to balance the life of civilian ministry: as a seminary chancellor elect, a professor and preacher, and the role of a US Army Reserve chaplain. I came to teach. But I was instructed instead.

I was instructed by a second lieutenant, chaplain candidate, Pentecostal seminarian, from Minnesota. The classroom was the “latrine.” Washing our hands, I just asked a simple question, “How are you doing today?” His reply suspended all other thoughts I had at the moment. He beamed and replied, “Sir, I am living the dream.” I laughed. I told him that I loved his answer. “Living the dream, huh Lieutenant?” He dried his hands on the paper towel, gave it a three point shot to the trash can, and said,

“Yes Sir! Living the dream! I am called to preach, called to be a chaplain and I find myself this very moment in chaplain school, preparing for ministry. I am literally living the dream.”

I had a presentation ready with a rather vanilla title, “Why I Am Still a Chaplain,” to be delivered to mid career chaplains. Many of them will make a decision to either continue with ministry as a chaplain, go on to Command and General Staff College, move up the ranks and finish their careers, or return to a civilian ministry. I wanted to encourage them to consider the spiritual power that would possibly keep them here in the US Army as chaplains. God knows, literally, God knows that our soldiers need them. Yet as I dried my hands and walked out with my Bible under my arm to give my testimony to these mid career chaplains, I had a new title and a new way of framing my call and enjoying my call: “living the dream.” How is it that I do indeed, continue, and how could it be said that I am living the dream of being a US Army Reserve chaplain?

Let me give you three ways:

The Spiritual Reality

I am a chaplain first and foremost because I am a minister. I became a minister out of my calling as a Christian. And I became a Christian out of the spiritual reality of being an undeserving sinner, unable to secure my own happiness, much less able to accumulate enough good works to overwhelm the sins I had committed and the sins committed against me. I was, in short, one messed up pup. And that pitiful pup was on a road to eternal Hell. Some of the flames of that dark destiny were already licking at my soul. I was haunted by the idea of waking up at the end of my life and having done nothing of any significance in the world. And I was haunted by any assurance of my eternal destination. I was dark, brooding, mistaken and making mistakes, lost and digging myself deeper into the woods, farther from the faith I had known as an orphaned child being raised by my Aunt Eva in the woods of South Louisiana. I finally realized, as a young Navy enlisted boy, that I was in need of salvation. Somewhere in my training as an intelligence specialist, an Albanian linguist and a cryptologist (a “spook” in Navy colloquial parlance), I knew I had to find my way home, using the image of the prodigal son (the story I knew, to my own shame and double damnation, that I was living out) to the father’s front porch, the place of healing, the place of acceptance, the place of grace, whatever that term meant.

It was grace that got me home. It was not my steps to God, but God’s steps to me, through the presentation of the Gospel by Dr. D. James Kennedy, that finally got me home to the Father’s house. I came to see that I was a sinner in need of a Savior and that Savior was, as I knew Jesus Christ. What I didn’t know was, like Peter, I could not boastfully bull my way into the House of God. I had to respond personally to His first step to me. He initiated my salvation. I responded. And even my response was His work, for I had been “dead in trespasses and sins.”

That is the spiritual reality that has led me to this place of living the dream, this place of ministry.

But there is not only a spiritual reality that had to be understood, and a response to that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, there was a powerful call that came to me. That is the second step that led me to living the dream of ministry.

The Sacred Encounter

All ministries must be born out of a personal, sacred encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are ministering out of something other than an encounter with the living Christ, then you are ministering out of your own strength; and you cannot run the race with that. It is pseudo-strength like a high from a Venti Starbucks in running a marathon. You are good for a while but it will wear off. So it is with religion. It is a pseudo power. It cannot give you the strength you need to endure the challenges of the Christian life, much less the ministry, which is in the bull’s eye of Satan’s program.

For me my ministry was born out of a personal calling to Jesus Christ, but also a sacred encounter with Christ to the ordained ministry. Jesus Christ called me, both internally and externally, through my own growing sense of a desire to preach, to administer the sacraments, to shepherd the flock of God, and to yield my life to His service in the ministry of preaching Christ and His grace to sinners. That calling was confirmed by my wife, by my session, by my presbytery, by my seminary and my professor-mentors, and ultimately by a call to become a church planter-evangelist in the Heartland Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. I can tell you, though, the reason that I wake up each day excited about the ministry before me is not because of some personality trait bent on optimism. It is because of the call of Christ on my life.

When the strong winds of opposition come again you there is only one thing you have and that is your call from Christ. It is what gets you through the rest of the inevitable trials of ministry and of the chaplaincy in particular.

“The chaplaincy in particular” is what I want to speak to now. For that is why I continue to balance these two lives: of civilian ministry and military chaplaincy.

The Special Calling

I became a chaplain because I had a special calling from God to minister in the military community. I do not see how any military chaplain can truly minister without that special calling. Military ministry is not only too hard, but too complex, with the increasingly pluralistic setting and civilian political tinkering with the military, not to mention deployments and stresses and strains (and enemies shooting at you!), to minister in without a special calling from God.

What is this special calling? I believe as I look at the life of Paul, for instance, that God does indeed do what we often speak of: “open doors and shut doors.” God shut the door of ministry to Asia in Paul’s life:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to (Acts 16:6-7).

Yet the sovereign Lord guided Paul to Europe as he had a vision of a Macedonian calling him for help (Acts 16:8-40).

So too the Lord guided me in several ways into this special calling to the chaplaincy. I will never forget that call and that special calling is also how I can say that I am “living the dream” when I put this uniform on.

First, I had and continue to have a passion to minister to mixed up 17 and 18 year old enlisted kids like me. I want to reach them with the Gospel because I remember what it was like to be there. I also saw my late father’s picture sitting on a shelf in our living room as I was growing up. In the picture, he is a fine young lieutenant in the Merchant Marine, about to be in the Navy as World War Two was breaking out. Yet his stellar career was ruined by wine, women and song. He later repented on his knees in the sawdust of a little rough hewn chapel in the woods in South Louisiana. Several months later he died. I remember. And I want to minister to officers who face the trials and temptations of life. I love them. I love soldiers and sailors and airmen and guardsmen, and their families. I love them because I came out of them. It is a most incarnational calling. So that calling worked its way, providentially, into the US Army Reserves (and that is another story which shows how God shuts one door [the Navy Reserve chaplaincy, which was my first choice] and how God opens another [the US Army Reserve, which has been my happy home since 1992 when I was commissioned]).

In my years of ministry, I have seen how God has sovereignly sown together experiences, passion and love to bring about special callings in pastors’ lives. This is how chaplains are made. God makes them out of the stuff of life. Other recognize that and say, “Come minister to us here.” That special calling cannot be ignored. I would challenge every military chaplain, indeed every minister, nay, every believer, to go back and remember your spiritual situation that God called you out of, your sacred encounter with the resurrected and living Christ, and His special calling on your life as He has gifted you, equipped you, given you open and shut doors, and a heart filled with burden and passion for a particular people or area or ministry. These are the things that keep us going forward in ministry, and faith, despite the hardships. These are the motivations for ministry. These are things that let us say,

“I am living the dream.”

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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