MESSAGE FROM KUWAIT
Pastor Lance Kittleson of La Grande's Zion Lutheran Church, with 26 years in the military, is a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain lieutenant colonel serving in Camp Virginia, Kuwait.
Kittleson recently shared his thoughts on the baptism of a soldier in an e-mail sent to his congregation. Kittleson has been at Zion Lutheran for two years.
By Lt. Col. Lance Kittleson
The message on the board outside the chapel of Camp Virginia, Kuwait, besides announcing the religion schedule for today, was an oft-used quote by a 17th century English soldier about to go into battle. He said "Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me."
These are words spoken by a soldier to soldiers of every era. There are many of them here in the desert of Kuwait awaiting the unleashing of the dogs of war. It will no doubt be soon, as the pace and intensity of everyone's life increases in proportion to the approach of the order to "cross the line of departure and attack."
Camp Virginia is a sprawling base with dusty,windblown sand and not a tree in sight; just the kind of place the Army seems to love to put its soldiers in.
As war approaches so does the contemplation of many soldiers' souls. Today a young female soldier comes to be baptized at the large tent that serves as the Camp Chapel. A briefing by a commander to his leaders about the impending operation takes place on one side of the chapel while I, the camp "pastor" and the soldier are by the altar at the other end.
The altar is two cobbled wooden shipping crates with no paraments. The last altar was permanently borrowed and has not reappeared. So we dug the crates out of the dump and put them together. "Adapt and overcome," the troops say.
At the altar I quietly read Ephesians 2:8, 9 to the soldier in her battle dress uniform. We'd talked several days before when she came into the chapel and asked to speak with a chaplain about her fears, her background, her many sorrows including the sorrow of the pastor from her home church telling her she was not worthy to be baptized in Jesus' name, that she was not pure enough.
Apparently in that tradition, baptism is a reward for good behavior and not a gift of God's grace.
But on the eve of war, this young trooper wanted to know that Jesus was for her and not against her, and she wanted to be part of His family.
My Lutheran hackles rose and I announced to her that where I come from, baptism is a gift of God, and none of us can ever be good enough for it. So I read to her the words of God through St. Paul, "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so no one can boast."
Looking into her eyes, I quietly said, "This is God's gift to you because He has always loved you. He will never love you more or less than He already does."
Then, in perhaps the most unusual baptism I have ever done in over 20 years of ordination, with no font and only a congregation of quizzical onlooking commanders and staff officers, I poured the promise of God in Christ out on her head from a liter container of bottled water.
Three times the water of grace flowed off her head, down her cheeks, mixing with her own tears flowing onto her uniform and some splashes hitting the chapel floor.
Wiping her head with my red farmer's bandanna, the words "You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever" were spoken over this new member of God's family even as the baptismal water was quickly drying up on the plywood floor and the desert sun reached its zenith.
But I knew that God's grace would never dry up in the baptized believer's life and certainly not in this young soldier's heart.
As I put on my Kevlar helmet with desert camo and a cross sewn on the front, snapping on the web gear, and grabbing my ICE Pack Â— Individual Chemical Equipment Â— that goes with the gas mask that never leaves a modern-day soldier's side; and as I prepared to trudge through the dusty streets of Camp Virginia in the wilderness of Kuwait, I can't help but think that like that gas mask, God's Spirit will go with that young soldier everywhere this life takes her as she too leaves the chapel.
"Never will I leave you or forsake," God promises. And as I waddle along with my 25 pounds of equipment, I carry a liter of bottled water taking a good gulp every few hundred meters, and it is only down the road that I realize I'm drinking from the same bottle of water that just baptized a new child of God.
Maybe that, too, is a parallel of the believer's life in Christ. Baptism is a one-time event, but it is also a daily gulping of the gift of God's love as we trudge through our own deserts of life, whether in Kuwait on the eve of war or in our own joys, sorrows, struggles and busyness in the mountains of Oregon or the corn and bean fields of Iowa or wherever God's people may find themselves.
For in taking those gulps of daily grace we can be assured that no matter what our battles may be, God will never forget us or forsake his children of grace through faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord.