Going through some old files, I found this short address I gave to a group of chaplains in Germany on July 29, 1998, the 223rd anniversary of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. It still seems relevant.
I don’t remember much about the first sermon I heard in chapel when I was in college, but I vividly remember the text and the notion that our stories are part of what make us who we are.
The text was this:
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. Isaiah 51:1-2.
The people of Isaiah’s day were shaped by the stories of Abraham and Sarah and all the stories of ancient Israel.
We chaplains, too, are the keepers and bearers of sacred stories from our respective sacred texts.
And we are the keepers and bearers of our common tradition in the chaplain corps, shaped by the stories of the chaplains and chaplain assistants who came before us.
When I was in the Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Monmouth, every time I walked into the “big red bedroom” of Pruden Auditorium, I walked by the burned chaplain’s kit of Chaplain Charles Waters. Chaplain Waters posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his courageous and compassionate ministry under fire in Vietnam. He was killed in action caring for his soldiers. That charred fabric bag and its broken contents told me who I was supposed to be as a chaplain and as a member of this corps. Our new “assault” chaplain kits don’t resemble the one carried by Chaplain Waters, but the kit I received at Fort Monmouth looked just like it.
As we get ready to celebrate the 223rd anniversary of the corps, I did a little reading about the corps 223 years ago.
Of course, we date our anniversary to 29 July 1775, because that’s when congress passed a law to pay chaplains: $20 a month, same as a captain of infantry.
They were doing more with less, even back then. In August, there were 15 chaplains and 23 regiments to cover. In September, 20 chaplains and 40 regiments. In October, 22 chaplains and 41 regiments; in November, 21 chaplains and 39 regiments.
It turns out, though, that most chaplains were having to pay their own replacements back at their home churches, and were losing money on the deal. So George Washington, a real supporter of the chaplaincy, asked congress to pay us $33.33 a month, and to justify it, we’d cover two regiments instead of one (since we were covering two, more or less, anyway).
There were surprisingly modern problems. Some of the Presbyterians didn’t like the preaching of a Universalist chaplain and didn’t quite know what to do with him. Some chaplains were called upon to help with improve relations with the Catholic population of French speaking Canada.
Military law encouraged worship attendance and provided that soldiers could be punished for indecent or irreverent behavior at a place of worship. It could cost you $0.17 and 24 hour confinement if you were rowdy in church. Also, military law kept the 18th century equivalent of the PX closed during worship services.
Chaplains not only led worship, they visited the sick and wounded. They buried the dead. They counseled soldiers, and not only about spiritual matters. It seems a lot of young soldiers had money problems.
In 1775, chaplains were present at the siege of Boston and on the move into upstate New York and Canada.
In 1775, chaplains were wounded by enemy fire. They died of disease, and at least one became a victim of PTSD. Abiel Leonard was a chaplain in 1775. George Washington himself wrote his Officer Evaluation Report – a letter to the Governor of Massachusetts saying what a good job the chaplain was doing. But the chaplain bore more weight than he could stand. He died of a self-inflicted knife wound. This has always been a stressful job.
That’s how we started. That’s one chapter in our story. And chaplains and chaplain assistants have written countless chapters in the succeeding 223 years. We’re writing the next chapter right now.
Funny thing about rocks: some are hard as diamonds, others are soft as sandstone and crumble in your hand.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn.
We were hewn from the tough, hard rock of our predecessors’ compassionate and courageous service in time of war. The anniversary of our corps is a time for us to look to the rock of our history and draw inspiration from it.
And to remember that somewhere down the road, some chaplain or some chaplain assistant is going to look at us as the rock from which they were hewn. Let’s give them something good and noble and honorable to live up to.