In this Sentinel Watch podcast from JSH-Online.com, adapted for print, Associate Editor Tony Lobl talks with former United States Army military chaplains Rob and Lauren Nofsinger. Rob is also a former Marine. Rob and Lauren share their individual experiences in the military and how they relied wholeheartedly on God through prayer throughout their service. Whether we are in the military or praying for the military, the invaluable truths of Christian Science brought out in the podcast will be a help to all.
Tony: Rob and Lauren, we want to dig a bit deeper into how we can really pray with and for the military. Because of your previous roles, maybe you could start by sharing how a life of military service can go together with a life of prayer and the desire to grow spiritually in your love and service of God.
Rob: I’m happy to. I think throughout this whole talk that we’re going to be having today, we will explore that. I have found in my experience, with the different hats that I wore in the military, that the military provided many different opportunities for me to grow spiritually and learn more about my relationship to God. Of course, military experience doesn’t inherently force you to do that. It’s only if you choose to do that. And so they were wonderful opportunities where I chose to grow Spiritward.
First of all, the whole military culture and environment is based around service. It’s focused on the collective rather than the individual. At every level the focus is on what they call “the mission,” whatever the mission is, and how the individual and the collective fit into fulfilling the mission.
The second aspect that is unique in the military culture, is the assumption of risk, because when you sign your name to the dotted line of your military contract, and you take that oath of office, you are volunteering your life to be put into harm’s way in defense of your country. So obviously, that is assuming what you would call risk. And not only the uniformed service member is doing that, but the family members are as well.
Theologically speaking, the underlying challenge, of course, with all of that, is the assumption that unlimited goodness, God, can be limited—that God, good, couldn’t possibly be all-powerful. So that’s the underlying premise, that evil can be present and overtake good. That, then, leads into how we address that metaphysically.
Lauren: As a person of faith and particularly as Christian Scientists, we have an opportunity to challenge that premise, since that’s not the premise that Jesus gave us. And it is certainly not the premise from which he worked and demonstrated healing in the lives of those people who were in need that he was ministering to. Challenging the premise of good and evil leads us to the question: What is God really? And I think that’s the fundamental place to start when we’re praying for the military or about military conflicts. Is God a temporal or a limited God? And is there a power apart from God that can challenge God’s authority?
The first four words of the Bible give us our answer. It says, “In the beginning God. . . .” And if we were just to stop there, that’s enough. Because from the very beginning of creation, there is God, and that’s it. If we start from the premise that God is, then by understanding His nature, we will realize there cannot be anything apart from God.
As we learn about God through the Bible, we’re given a pretty clear directive that God is the only power. The Ten Commandments proclaim that we are to only have one God. We also learn that God is a God that saves. In Habakkuk we learn that God doesn’t know evil—it says that God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (1:13). If God doesn’t know it, He couldn’t have created it. In Malachi we read, “I am the Lord, I change not” (3:6), so we know God is not a changeable God, sometimes good, sometimes bad. And so we see what God is telling us about Himself—that He is a merciful God, a loving God, a compassionate God, an omnipresent God, an all-powerful God.
In the textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, there is a chapter called “Recapitulation” with 24 questions and answers. And the very first question is “What is God?” It says, “God is incorporeal, divine, supreme, infinite Mind, Spirit, Soul, Principle, Life, Truth, Love” (p. 465).
I know there will be people who challenge this assertion of God’s allness. But if we start from the premise that God truly is the only power, then we can get to the answers that Jesus demonstrated for us of what is real and of God, and also who we are as God’s children. That brings healing and safety and wholeness and salvation from evil. And Jesus demonstrated those things in every instance of his ministry.
One of the things that was always helpful to me in my military experience was the fact that not only could I never be separated from God, but that God’s children, the children of infinite good, can never express evil.
Rob: In the first chapter of Genesis, soon after those first four words of the Bible that Lauren read—“In the beginning God . . .”—the text goes on to declare how God created man in His image and likeness. And that term man is used generically and refers to all of us, both men and women. So to understand God is directly practical and applicable to understanding our identity.
I think that’s probably the biggest question throughout all time for humanity, this question of who we are. Who am I individually? Who are we collectively? What is my place? What is my purpose? All of that. That’s all defined by our understanding of God. Our understanding of God directly defines our experience and what we express. And that’s why it’s just so important to start with God. If we start from any other premise, we’ll never get to the right conclusion.
One of the things that was always helpful to me in my military experience was the fact that not only could I never be separated from God, but that God’s children, the children of infinite good, can never express evil. Evil is the age-old theory that there is a power apart from an omnipotent God, and that this power can somehow control God’s children. But Jesus so perfectly demonstrated the powerlessness of evil throughout his whole ministry. He even defines the devil as a liar and the father or source of all lies, and then he showed us this by healing every manifestation of evil that he saw. So in absolute Truth, God’s protection and love and goodness are just as inherent in our so-called enemies as they are in us. God’s protection is impartial and universal.
I actually had an experience that I thought was a perfect demonstration of this. In 2004, during my first combat deployment, I found myself in a part of Iraq that was very remote and separated from our base at the time. And we were preparing to have a long trip over treacherous roads to get back to base the next day. We received word through our communications that a large military offensive was going to take place the same time as our return trip. And we would be returning through a portion of that area where the conflict would be taking place.
So I got to work praying to know, again, that God’s presence is not partial just to those who pray, but God’s presence embraces all. The next morning when we got ready for this return trip, we did all of our military preparations and were prepared to engage in fighting if we needed to. As we approached the area where all the fighting was taking place, as we got to that portion of the road, all the fighting ceased, and we made it through that whole section without any incident whatsoever, and got back to base safely.
Everyone was, of course, very grateful for that. And I talked to one of my best friends, who was the intelligence officer of our unit, and he said he didn’t understand what happened, because some of the most heated fighting was happening in that area. And he commented on how it all stopped when we got there, and that we made it through perfectly fine.
Thank you so much for sharing that, Rob. So, Rob and Lauren, you’ve both been Christian Science chaplains, but you minister to anyone in the military who reaches out to you, don’t you?
Lauren: We do, Tony. And that’s one of the wonderful and beautiful things about the military chaplaincy. You are there to provide for the religious and spiritual needs of all of your service members and their families, not just those who are Christian Scientists or even just Christian. So it leads to really rich ministry. And it also helps you to see the power of the Christ. In Christian Science, we understand Christ to be “the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness,” as stated in Science and Health (p. 332). This Christ touches everyone, whether they realize it or not.
I was a part of a transportation unit in Kuwait, and we were charged with taking everything out of Iraq at the very end of the conflict. The mission was supposed to be about done, when our unit got a message that we were being tasked with a top secret mission where some of our soldiers would need to go back into Iraq. We were told there would be very little combat support for it, and we were not a combat unit. So this was very strange and out of the norm, and our soldiers were not mentally prepared for something like this.
The company commander who was in charge of these soldiers was my roommate at the time. We lived in big, huge bays with curtains, and she and I shared a curtain, and she and I had become very good friends. But she was an atheist and very strong in her sense that there is not a God. We had had lovely conversations and developed a great respect for each other. But there was never a desire on her part for prayer or for any Christian or spiritual support in particular.
Well, when this news came, she came to me clearly shaken and wondering what this was going to be like, and upset that she was going to have to lead these soldiers through this. She asked me to pray with her. It was really powerful to me for her to come and ask that. I got some of the soldiers together, and we all prayed. I was able to share a number of passages from the Bible with the soldiers.
Well, I prayed through the night individually for this situation and knew that if these soldiers needed to go in, God was going to be right there with them. And God was caring for and guiding the company commander as well, whether she was ready to recognize it or not. Early morning came, when they were supposed to gather together to head off, and a message came that in the middle of the night a diplomatic solution had been found. They wouldn’t need to go in. My friend told me later, after this experience was done, “I came to you because I know that your love and your care for everyone is powerful, and there’s something there, and I feel it. And I needed that care in that moment.”
Thank you for sharing that. In our day-to-day lives, Christian Scientists endeavor to work out solutions to problems through understanding the nature of God and the nature of God’s creation. And most of us, fortunately, do not have to do that in the heat of battle. Could you talk a little bit more about how you’ve been able to confidently turn to Christian Science when you yourselves have been in these dangerous situations?
Rob: I can share from my experience during that initial deployment to Iraq in 2004. I was in Ramadi, Iraq. And one afternoon I found myself on the second floor of our command building, just after lunchtime, and some thunderous explosions shook the building and broke up the silence. In retrospect, we found out that it was a rocket attack from local insurgents. Obviously, you’re not expecting something like that to happen. So shock and surprise are the first reaction, and you fall to the ground.
When you’re a Marine, and I’m sure this is the same for other services, your training kicks in instantly in a situation like that. You’re trained to do different things, as I said before, to fulfill and complete the mission, whatever that mission seems to be. At that moment, my duties and responsibilities were to be exactly where I was and to wait it out until the explosion stopped, and then carry on after that.
The second thought that came to me was, OK, what is your real job? And I realized that as a student of Christian Science, the most important thing for me to do was to affirm the allness of God. I like to think of the practice of Christian Science as simply the practice of God’s law. When in a courtroom trial situation, an attorney’s job, when they are defending a person who has been accused of a crime they didn’t commit, is not to make that person innocent, but simply to reveal to the judge and jury the innocence of their client.
In the face of the false testimony of the prosecution, that may seem overwhelming. The testimony may seem very hypnotizing, but a defense attorney’s job is to reveal the innocence of their client in the face of all that testimony. And I realized that I needed to do the same thing. On page 421 of Science and Health, Mrs. Eddy has a wonderful line that says, “Insist vehemently on the great fact which covers the whole ground, that God, Spirit, is all, and that there is none beside Him.” So that’s exactly what I was doing there on the second floor of the command building when the explosion started happening.
As it turned out, these were Chinese-made rockets that were descending upon our position from insurgents in the area. In the aftermath, we figured out what had happened. The first rocket that landed struck the building that I was in, but it was a dud. It didn’t go off, so it shook the building. It was very loud, but fortunately didn’t explode. All of the other rockets landed in areas that were in-between buildings in our compound and exploded and did damage to buildings, but didn’t hurt anyone. It was a direct hit. Militarily speaking, whoever fired those rockets got a bull’s-eye. But no one was hurt!
In chapter 8 of Romans, Paul has that wonderful section where he talks about how you can never be separated from the love of God. He said: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verses 35, 37–39). This inseparability from God is exactly what we keep seeing in these experiences over and over again. It’s the truth of the allness of God and our oneness with Him.
Lauren: You know, in the military, everyone experiences separation in some way. It doesn’t always need to be super dramatic, but it’s a constant thing. You’re either gone for training periods or you’re deployed. And those regular experiences of separation present different challenges at different times of people’s lives. Rob and I had 15 months of separation. He deployed to Iraq, and then I went to Kuwait and he came home from Iraq. Our schedules didn’t line up very well. As a result, there was a long period of time where we weren’t seeing each other.
We learned a lot through that. And I’ll share with you just two main points that were so important. The first is this: Because God is all, can we ever be separated from Him? He’s the source of our goodness. Rob read Paul’s statement in Romans, which I think is so important to be working with regularly if you’re in the military or praying for the military. When you’re in the military working with that daily, or if you’re a family member of a service member, really knowing where your good comes from, that it’s not personal, is a huge help. You realize more of the divine goodness that is expressed through all. God is expressed through each of us. But the source is not the person. The source is God. And we can never be separated from God.
The other point is thinking more deeply about the token concept in the military of service with sacrifice. The idea is that because the individual or family is serving, they are sacrificing for their country. But that comes from the premise that God is limited and that there is an opposite to God—that there can be evil such as loss and separation and so forth. So if we’re going to challenge that premise, we need to also challenge the conclusion that we are sacrificing. That you could ever sacrifice good.
Instead we need to understand that whenever we’re being obedient to God and doing what God is calling us to do, we are never sacrificing. We are offering our love and our faithfulness and our obedience. And in that offering, we can only be blessed.
There’s a beautiful line in a poem written by Mary Baker Eddy, which is set to music in the Christian Science Hymnal. It reads,
My prayer, some daily good to do
To Thine, for Thee;
An offering pure of Love, whereto
God leadeth me.
(Poems, p. 13)
I found that line so helpful and important to remember in that time of separation. The only thing we can ever sacrifice is a sense of evil. We need to sacrifice that all the time!
Rob: There is lots of sacrifice in Christianity, but it’s always a sacrificing of evil. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about plucking out the right eye and cutting off the right hand. That sounds horribly gruesome at face value, but Mrs. Eddy explains what that really means—it’s a sacrificing of one’s most cherished beliefs, if those beliefs are human and not divine, not in line with Christ, Truth (see Science and Health, p. 141). So what Lauren’s talking about is offering to God versus sacrificing good. We never sacrifice good, because all good is of God. In truth, you can’t sacrifice anything from God.
Sometimes it’s challenging for an institution to move on from things that have been established for a long period of time, things which at some point might have seemed totally logical, but time moves on and thought shifts. Lauren, you’re not the first woman who’s been in the military chaplaincy. But it’s not been that long since the chaplaincy has been open to women, let alone the military itself. So how have you observed or experienced these shifts in your years serving in the military?
Lauren: It’s a good question and a good connection to so much of what we’re looking at right now in the world in terms of institutional change. First of all, I have to say, I had some amazing mentors that helped me work through this issue. A lot of women who came before me in the military chaplaincy paved really important and helpful paths in addressing this. When I came into the military, I had the benefit of an institution and environment that had changed quite a bit and had progressed a lot. There was a lot more appreciation for women serving.
I had an experience during my very first year as a chaplain that was so instructional for me, and how I needed to approach any sense of pressure that I needed to personally prove my worth as a woman. The first unit that I served with was an airborne unit, and that means that everyone was trained to jump out of airplanes. I had a female commander, and she was wonderful. I really appreciated learning from her, working with her.
This woman had been very successful in her career so far, and there was very much a sense that women needed to come together and prove that we were just as good as the men, especially in a community such as the airborne community, where machismo and manliness is a big deal.
My commander advocated for me to go to airborne school, which I was excited about. But there was very much a pressure—not outward, but it was implied—that I’d better be sure to make it through airborne school, because not only was she sending a woman, but also a chaplain, and there were no other female chaplains there on the base that had airborne training. So this was a big deal.
I was very physically able, so physical fitness was not a problem for me. I went to airborne school confident that I was going to make it and that I was going to graduate. But at the end of the first week of training, before the really hard stuff had even started, I began having some internal challenges where I would have shortness of breath and feel like I was going to black out. This happened on Friday, and I was able to make it through the day without attracting any attention from anyone else or having any serious problems.
As Rob and I were driving to go get some dinner that evening, I told him I needed to stop and call a Christian Science practitioner. I didn’t have to go very far in explaining to the practitioner what was going on. He stopped me and said, “Lauren, why are you there? Are you there to prove that you can do this, or are you there to glorify God and express God and show God’s glory through all of this?” He got right to the heart of it. He knew exactly what was needed: a correction of my sense of identity.
I was not an individual who is separate from God, with some strengths and some goodness, and then required to go and prove that goodness. No, I was the image and likeness of God, as we read in the first chapter of Genesis. And as God’s image, I was God’s expression. There was no separation, and there was no personal I that was going to go and do any of this. There is only one I, the great I am, and that’s God.
That whole weekend, I really worked hard to sacrifice a sense of self, of a limited, material, and mortal self. That is the appropriate sacrifice to be making—to sacrifice that false sense of self and really humble my understanding of what I was there to do, and to be satisfied with whatever God had for me to do there at that training. It wasn’t about graduating and proving myself.
That physical condition completely dissipated. By Sunday evening, it was not occurring anymore. It has never reoccurred. And I started Monday training no problem, finished airborne school, and yes, graduated, but with a totally different sense of why I was there as a woman and as a chaplain. It was never to prove my own personal worth; it was always to glorify God.
In subsequent experiences I had where individuals would question or push back or attack my ministry because I was a woman, I was able, because of that experience in airborne school, to address those circumstances with much more grace and love for those individuals—never with the sense of having to prove or defend myself, but rather with a desire to express God and bring healing to everyone. This resulted in some wonderful experiences and very clear progress for the other individuals who were questioning why I was there. I was so grateful for that.
As we approached the area where all the fighting was taking place, as we got to that portion of the road, all the fighting ceased.
Well, I think we’ve come full circle. Thank you. I think this would be a wonderful place just to wrap things up. Rob, I believe you’re going to conclude with a passage from Mrs. Eddy’s book Christian Science versus Pantheism.
Rob: It’s quite striking how pertinent this little book that Mrs. Eddy wrote is to our time right now. Mrs. Eddy wrote it a long time ago, but it’s worth thinking about the times we live in right now as we read it: “May our Father-Mother God, who in times past hath spread for us a table in the wilderness and ‘in the midst of our enemies,’ establish us in the most holy faith, plant our feet firmly on Truth, the rock of Christ, the ‘substance of things hoped for’—and fill us with the life and understanding of God, and good will towards men” (p. 15).
Amen. Thank you so much, Rob and Lauren. Thank you for your service, and thank you for your service in pursuit of Truth here, sharing your ideas on Sentinel Watch. I really appreciate you both joining me for this call.