Experiencing God’s Presence in my Military Service (Part 2)

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(Note: This is the second article of a two-part series on this topic.  In part 1, I reflected on five aspects of how I experienced God’s presence as I served in and with the U.S. Army over the past 34 years.  Here, I would like to continue to expand my thoughts by covering my next five observations.  You can read part 1 here.  This article was also posted on the Coram Deo blog.)

God used me to love my neighbors

Let me give you a couple of examples where my work was an act of loving my neighbor.  I did not see this at the time, but looking back now, I realize that God was using me in practical ways to increase the readiness of Soldiers, which directly met their needs and the needs of their families.

In my first assignment at Fort Stewart, Georgia, I was selected to be the commander’s driver and unit armorer, responsible for the maintenance of every weapon in our company arms room.  I had no idea that I could learn to set up and maintain systems to schedule and perform quarterly inspections, order parts, and repair several types of weapons.  God empowered me with the necessary aptitudes and skills to do this job well for one year.  Two and a half years later, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the Soldiers in this unit deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Desert Storm with these very same weapons I had fixed.  This reinforced the absolute importance of my work when I was there.

Flash forward to 9/11, when America came under attack.  In response, a number of Army Reserve and National Guard units were deployed overseas.  In God’s timing, I was assigned to a training support battalion in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose mission was to assist these units.  I provided technical training and logistical support to hundreds of Soldiers that were going into harm’s way.  I knew that my job provided an opportunity to love God and love my neighbors, since it directly involved taking care of Soldiers and accomplishing the mission of the units in which I served.

In addition to God using me through the work He had called me to do as a chemical NCO, my family and I had plenty of opportunities to minister and be ministered to through our local church or chapel everywhere we were stationed.  Several examples come to mind.

My wife and I started a college and career Sunday School class at our church in Tacoma, Washington.  While at Fort Hood, we directed a children’s Christmas musical at our church, and my wife served on the board of the Protestant Women of the Chapel.  In our chapel in Germany and in my second tour in Korea, I started a bi-weekly men’s breakfast, where we sang manly songs from Promise Keepers CDs and discussed men’s issues from a biblical perspective.  I also had the opportunity to lead our chapel council in Germany after several of our men got deployed to Bosnia and served on the board of the European Protestant Men of the Chapel.  I taught Sunday School in many of the places we were stationed.  We also provided hospitality in our home to many Soldiers and their Families.

God gave me understanding

Over three decades of prayerful reading and study on the theology of work, in teaching this topic with several adult Sunday school classes, during an independent study while earning my seminary degree, and in writing my book, God gave me a deep understanding of the eternal value of military service.

While on my first unaccompanied tour in Korea from 1988-1989, I read an amazing book, Your Work Matters to God, by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks.  God brought it to me at a critical time in my career. It was life-changing.  The authors tore apart the myth of “sacred” vs. “secular”.  They clearly explained the intrinsic and instrumental value of everyday work.  I began to see for the first time how God could use me wherever I was, whatever I was doing, as long as I did it for His glory.  For the first time, I felt that what I did truly mattered for eternity, that I was not a second-class citizen or wasting my time as a Soldier.  My work as a chemical Soldier in the Army really did matter to God!

Additionally, God helped me understand that a strong defense brings peace in the world. God is very much present in the work of Soldiers.  He needs them to be trained and ready, individually and as a team, prepared to fight and defeat the enemy when called upon.  He is very much present at Fort Leonard Wood, where I work and serve, through the drill sergeants, instructors, leaders, and staff members like myself who develop, coordinate, support, and execute the training that God provides to thousands of new Soldiers annually.  The OT prophets indicate that there will come a day when our Messiah Jesus returns and wars will cease.  (See Isa. 2:4 and Micah 4:3.)  But until that time, a strong offensive capability is one of the ways that God keeps peace in the world.

God was with me as I transitioned from active duty                    

During my twenty years on active duty, my wife and I learned first-hand how to trust God as we were sent to various duty stations around a world. A Christian in the Army needs to rest in the sovereignty of God; that He is in always in control.  He is an all-powerful, loving, all-knowing, and faithful God.  We knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Lord always had us in His hands.  When it came time to move to a new assignment, God knew where we needed to go, what we needed to do, who we needed to serve with, and when it was the right time that He needed us to be there for His purposes.  (I invite you to read an article that I wrote and posted on my blog on trusting God in new assignments.)

Even before I arrived at Fort Leonard Wood in 2004, I knew that my wife and I had a decision to make.  After much prayer, we decided that this was going to be an ideal place to finish out our time of active duty service.  I began to prepare myself and my family for life after the Army over the next two years.  It was a big step of faith, but it was made with relative ease, as we looked at various opportunities to work.

At first, I thought I would go back to teaching math.  I began working on a master’s in education at a local university that would allow me to get my state teaching certificate.  I applied for a position at the middle school that about a half-mile from my house.  I was offered the position.  However, the starting salary for a new teacher was not enough to match what I was going to lose going from active duty to a retired status earning only 50% of my base pay.  I believed God had another job that would actually meet our financial needs, so I turned it down.  (See article on compensation that I posted on my blog.)

Two to three months before my retirement date of October 1, 2006, I received a job offer as a lessons learned integration analyst. It was a contract position that paid a lot better than the teaching job.  I did this job for a year and a half until I applied for and was offered the position that I currently hold.

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God provided a position that fits my unique skillset

Since March 2008, I have served as a Department of the Army civilian at the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School as a member of the Commandant’s primary staff.  As the Operations Officer, I provide continuity and management of the school operations section.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says repeatedly that everything is meaningless, especially work: “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3). However, in Eccl. 3:12-13, and 22, we find a curious admonition.  Despite the thorns and thistles associated with our jobs that make work seem meaningless, when he considers the fact that God is in control and has “made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11), Solomon states that men should “be happy and do good while they live . . . eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God . . . there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot.”  I have found that satisfaction.  (For more thoughts on this topic of personal job satisfaction, see article I posted on my blog here.)

It took me a while to fully appreciate the gift that God gave me, but after doing this same job for the past twelve years, I can honestly say that it is a great fit.  God had clearly prepared me for it by giving me consistently good experiences doing operations at a variety of levels while I was on active duty for thirteen of my twenty years.  Moreover, God equipped me with the right skills and aptitudes that fit well with my responsibilities.  I am uniquely qualified to do this work that daily brings me joy.

God continues to use me      

I have a good example of how God has used me in this position in the planning of a special event.

In June 2018, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps celebrated its 100th anniversary on Fort Leonard Wood.  Our week-long celebration consisted of a variety of events.  We held a seminar that brought together a select group of senior chemical leaders from around the world, a technology exhibit, an espirit-de-corps two-mile run, sunrise service honoring our fallen heroes, a ceremony to honor veterans that served from WWII to the present day, and culminated with a formal ball.

We spent over ten months planning these events in great detail.  I want to give all the glory to God, as its success.  His unseen Hand protected and provided extraordinary strength, wisdom, and peace as I worked in His presence and for His kingdom.  During the entire process, I was “leaning on the everlasting arms”.  I constantly depended on God to help me meet the unique challenges and high expectations of the leaders I was commanded to serve “as unto the Lord”.  There were many days I was overwhelmed by the thorns and thistles brought on by the curse.  At these moments, I would remember that God’s grace was greater.  His peace that passes all understanding came at the right time when I needed it most.  I clearly saw God work in and through me every step of the way.

I believe that these events had a lasting impact on the veterans, leaders, and Soldiers who attended.  After key leaders met with our commandant to discuss issues and solve problems, they went back to their assignments a more unified team, committed to support the Army as a whole.  Our veterans’ recognition ceremony inspired young Chemical Soldiers and leaders to strive to achieve great things with their own Army careers, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before them.  Celebrating our 100-year history will better prepare the enterprise to meet the challenges of the future in defending our nations and allies against weapons of mass destruction.  Our efforts here directly increased common grace throughout the world, which is something that our Lord Jesus desires for us.  (You can read more about this event in an article I posted here.)

Closing thoughts

My main purpose in writing these two articles was to give glory to God as I reflected on more than three decades of experiencing His presence, seeing His faithfulness, and knowing He has worked through me during my Army career.  It has truly been a spiritual journey.  God will do the same for you, as you keep your eyes open to how He has led, provided for, and used you to love your neighbors at work.

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

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