Forever Changed #16: Religion v. spirituality in the war zone

One thing I have learned in Iraq is maybe another rendition of the age old adage – there are no atheists in foxholes. Or it could just be the way chaplains try to negotiate the pluralistic world we live in.

A meditation group has recently started at the hospital which spurred a discussion among the chaplains as to whether or not the meditation time was a spiritual event. Maybe you have wondered what constitutes something as religious and when is it idolatry? Well let me change our language for a minute. Stay with me, I promise I am going to relate this back to my experience in Iraq… I don’t like the word religion/religious, I prefer spiritual. God is a spirit and being a spirit is something that distinguishes God from humanity – we are physical beings. So being created in the image of God is a spiritual idea since our physical form has nothing to do with God’s image.

When I pray at a convoy brief, or for a pilot before his combat sortie, is that act a spiritual one if those taking part are not believers in God? Another way to phrase the question is: does God honor the prayers of those who do not profess faith in Him? OK, maybe that is just what goes through my mind when I offer these prayers.

I have come to believe that the practice of prayer at these events depends greatly on the motivations of the individuals involved. You see many pray with the intention that God would just do something for them; protect us, provide comfort and peace to our families, etc. I found that early on most of my prayers had this intent in mind. I wanted to pray that way because I wanted these things for the people I was praying for. Lately, what I have found is that I am praying thankfully for all God has done and acknowledging that the same God who acted then on our behalf will go on to act on our behalf. So for me the goals of my prayers has been to differentiate true spiritual searching and an ego-centered exercise in ascetics masquerading themselves in spiritual garb.

So, is meditation spiritual? I guess it depends on the dedication of those participating. Meditation, like prayer is nothing more than a device, a tool. What makes it spiritual is whether or not I am performing it as a consecrative act of love and dedication toward God. Authentic spiritualism, for me, has to be at the level of the heart. Thus the answer to the question, “Does God honor such prayers from those who do not profess belief in Him?” I’ll let you answer that. For me, I think God honors the heart who is wholly directed toward Him. In the convoy brief, you listen as those participating in the convoy review actions they will take when the enemy shows his head. They talk about their responses in case fired upon. This can take 30-40 minutes. I love praying last in the convoy brief. It gives me reason to start out by saying, “After that discussion, I think we need to pray.” You see guntruckers may have many plans and actions they take on contact; so does the enemy. But all my guntruckers know the same thing every student knows. That once the planning/studying is done there is a need to go to God.

On another front… Since the war started in Iraq, I have watched many parents react to the news that their son or daughter was killed in combat. We see them on the news, and many get lots of press. One I saw today on Fox News is picketing in Crawford, Texas because her son was killed in Iraq. One I remember seeing said it was President Bush’s fault his son was killed. I can’t imagine what a parent goes through who loses a child in the war on terror. I think I would have mixed feelings, pride that my child died doing something so honorable, and yet sad for my loss at the same time.

Recently, I was moved when I got to know one of the people who I see on the flight line on a regular basis whenever we load remains or wounded on aircraft. This man is a civilian. His son was a Marine who died during the invasion of Iraq. When his son died, he and his wife decided that his death would not be the end to the story. They chose to honor their son, by continuing the dream that their son died for. This wife and husband quit their jobs and took jobs with the contractor who hires people to do the jobs they are both currently doing here. This husband-and-wife team do the exact same thing — he is here and she is in Kuwait. When we send remains back home to the states, they are processed from here through Kuwait and placed on aircraft where they will directly return to America. He ensures they make it on the plane on this end, and she is in Kuwait receiving those remains and ensuring that each one of them is taken care of until they are loaded on aircraft back to the states. What a better way to honor your son’s memory than to take his place in the battle. What a special couple. Please pray for them that they will find peace with their son’s death, and for all those who have lost someone in this war.

Okay, well my Band of Brothers is about to begin. My guys are arriving as I write so I better close. Thank you to all of you who have sent goodies our way. Blessings to you.

ABPnews will publish one entry a week from the journal then-Capt. Charles Seligman kept while deployed to Iraq as an Air Force chaplain in 2005. Now a major, Seligman currently serves as the deputy wing chaplain for the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He is endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

You can read more of his story published September 11, 2013. You can also read older journal entries from Maj. Seligman. Watch a video documentary of the ER where Maj. Seligman served – he’s even in the video for a few seconds!

Chuck Seligman

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