Monday, June 20, 2011

Lessons from Jonah

From Jonah 4:5-11:

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

In my last post I shared about how I had finally passed the accession interview and was approved for immediate appointment as a chaplain, thus reaching a goal I have been faithfully pursuing for the past seven years or so. But something happened that day that seemed to overshadow that event and rob me of the joy I should've felt in finally being able to wear the cross. Allow me to explain:

When I first came into the Guard as a chaplain candidate back in 2008, I was told that upon selection as a chaplain I would be entitled to a $10,000 "accession bonus," since chaplains were/are in short supply. It was an unexpected thing - after all, one does not become a chaplain for the money that's in it - but obviously it was very welcome news. As I neared my goal of finally becoming a chaplain (and as our financial situation was still very precarious), this $10k became kind of a big deal. We had already made plans on how we would use it - nothing extravagant, mind you, but it would go a long way towards paying some outstanding bills and maybe even provide some funds for a much-needed family vacation this summer.

So it was with no small degree of consternation that I learned that I would not be getting the bonus after all.

Picture the scenario: I'm sitting in a room with other future officers (doctors & JAG lawyers), having just completed my interview and slightly giddy from the realization that I've *finally* completed the last remaining hurdle to pinning on the cross. All we're waiting on now is for the last interviews to be completed so that we can all go take the oath of office and be sworn into our respective fields. All the other officers are busily signing their paperwork entitling them to various bonuses and loan repayment programs - which must be signed BEFORE you take the oath, or else you lose your entitlement to any bonus you might be eligible for.

Suddenly, one of the recruiters enters the room and asks me to step outside for a moment. When I do, he hands me a cell phone and says that someone from the recruiting office needs to speak with me. I take the phone and "Bob" tells me that they don't have the control number they need to qualify me for my bonus. Not only that, but he tells me that I was disapproved for a control number, and that the Incentive Program Manager had determined that I was ineligible for the accession bonus on account of having previously served as a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps.

I tell him there must be some mistake - I had been promised this bonus for the last three years, by every recruiter I had ever spoken with, none of which had ever mentioned anything about my prior service in the Marines. "I'm sorry," he said, "they shouldn't have promised you that."

After a few more minutes of futile conversation, I handed the phone back and went back into the room. Gone was the joy I had been experiencing only a few short minutes before, replaced by frustration, anger and indignation. How could they do this to me? That money was mine! Why would they wait until literally the last minute to tell me? How could everyone make promises and give me wrong information for so long and not be held accountable for it?

You know how in the old Peanuts cartoons there were times when Charlie Brown would have a little raincloud over his head, following him around wherever he went? That's about how I felt. And that black cloud hung over my head for the rest of the day as I continued to fume about the money I wouldn't be getting.

It wasn't until the next day, at my weekly coffee & Bible study with some close friends, that I was actually able to put it in the proper perspective. As I was sharing the situation with these guys, it suddenly dawned on me that I was just like Jonah in the passage above.

When God caused a plant to grow, Jonah was happy to have the shade. But when it withered, he was angry at God - so angry that he wanted to die! But why was he so angry? I believe it was because he had lost perspective about what was truly important (the salvation of the Ninevites) and instead was overly concerned with his own physical well-being. God rightly chastises Jonah by reminding him that he (Jonah) had nothing to do with the plant's existence - he didn't plant it, water it, or cause it to grow. God did that, and it was God's decision to take it away. What's more important, a plant that shades your head or 120,000 people who don't know the Lord?

It struck me that I had been more concerned about the $10k bonus than I was about being able to serve as a chaplain. I didn't earn that money - I didn't work for it, invest it, and cause it to grow. Yet I was angry when it was taken away from me. Instead of rejoicing over my newly approved commission to minister to soldiers in ways that would have eternal significance, I was focusing all of my attention on something that is temporary, material and fleeting.

I was Jonah.

We don't know how the story ends with Jonah. We don't know if God's gentle rebuke caused him to have a change of heart or whether he continued to nurse his hurt feelings (and scorched head). But I do know what happened in my heart that day: I ceased to be angry about not getting the bonus. I rediscovered the joy of finally being commissioned to do God's work as a chaplain.

So what things are there in your life that is causing you to lose focus on what's really important? There's probably quite a list to choose from, but I'll bet that if you examine them they pale in comparison to what we should be concerned about - serving God with the gifts He has given us to the utmost of our abilities. Don't waste your time and consume your thoughts and energy by focusing outward on temporary, earthly things. Money. Promotions. Possessions. Status. Turn your attention upward and let God remind you of what He has for you to do, because THAT is what's truly of lasting importance.

Friday, June 17, 2011

At Last!

I am officially a chaplain in the California Army National Guard!

Thursday afternoon I attended the Federal Recognition Board to determine whether or not I would be selected to become a chaplain. It was supposed to be a video teleconference (VTC), but somehow they were having connectivity problems, so it ended up being a phone conversation between me and several board members. They asked about my prior service in the Marines, and whether or not I understood what would be expected of me as a chaplain. They also asked about how I would support Army policies that I might find offensive or contrary to my beliefs (such as the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). Finally, they asked where I saw myself ten years from now. Apparently, my answers must've been satisfactory, for I was told that they thought I had what it takes and they were pleased to inform me that they were recommending me for immediate accession as a chaplain! Woo-hoo!

I must say, it's been quite a long time coming - and I'm nowhere near the end of my journey. But this is a pretty significant milestone and I'm thrilled that I can finally wear the cross and call myself "Chaplain Harvey" now.

Adonai is Semper Fi!