Advent is a holy time for me, as we prepare our hearts and souls to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.
A few years ago now, I left congregational ministry to enroll in the Canadian Armed Forces as a military chaplain. Since then, I was posted to Edmonton, completed my training, and sent to serve 1 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Until recently, I have served the soldiers of 1 PPCLI — 600 or so incredible young women and men — as “The Padre.”
I say, until recently, because I am currently deployed overseas. I can’t tell you where I am, but I can tell you something of what I am doing.
You see, as we are busy preparing our hearts for Christ’s coming on Christmas morning, there are military personnel busy preparing to come home. Over the last year and a half, thousands of our soldiers, sailors, and aviators have been serving in various capacities overseas. In many cases, “serving overseas” means working, on average, 16 hours a day, under considerable stress, and in places where violence is a daily occurrence.
I invite you to take a moment to reflect on that — working more than 16 hours a day, every day, on missions where failure is not an option, and in places where the potential to witness or experience violence is high.
Imagine yourself a soldier for a moment — this is your job, your calling — the profession of arms. The military has trained you and now given you a mission. So you do it, and it is an honour to serve! You do this for six, eight, 12 months straight, virtually without break, and then it’s time to go home. Every mission has a start and an end. Your ticket has come up. It’s time to go.
Many years ago, the Canadian Armed Forces recognized that to go from being literally involved in missions and operations one day, to arriving at your front door the next, was simply too hard a transition to make.
So, “TLD,” or Third Location Decompression, was created. What is TLD? A few days of focused rest and relaxation in a safe place, some in-between time, before going home. Our military personnel leave their missions, come here for a few days and then head home. TLD allows them time to take a breath, to rest, to do normal things like go out to dinner or simply walk without restriction or without concern for one’s safety.
Most importantly, it is a focused time designed to help our military personnel to reflect. TLD is aptly called “decompression” because that’s exactly what our soldiers are doing.
Sometimes, as these often young women and men decompress and reflect on everything they have done and experienced they begin to realize that their service has taken a toll. Some of them come home wounded, in ways that cannot be sutured in a hospital.
So, when these soldiers come and participate in TLD they are met with a small army of military health professionals, social workers, doctors, military medics, and so forth. They also meet me, their chaplain.
My task is quite simple; its execution complex. My task is to actively engage these soldiers in order to provide pastoral support through active listening and to help them find meaning and purpose in what they have experienced. In short, I am their spiritual advisor and guide. And believe me, our military personnel are intensely spiritual. The very nature of their service has them daily reflecting on the big questions of life, death, morality, and their part in it all.
Some are anxious about going home. Specifically, making the transitioning back into the lives of their families or friends. Time and experience changes us all. For our military personnel, their service overseas has changed them, just as it has changed their families who have had to learn to cope and thrive without their loved one. Soon they will have to adapt, learn to be a family again.
It is incredibly hard work, reflecting on an overseas tour of duty. Hence, it is a tremendous privilege to support these soldiers, to assist them in making the transition from theatre to Canada: to help them go home.
It is Advent, here, too… not too long ago I had a little bit of free time to attend a local Catholic church, and listen to the service. The language was foreign to me, but the music, the carols, the ritual, it all transcends language. When the priest walked up to the Advent wreath and lit the first of the candles, the Candle of Hope, while speaking the words from Isaiah 2:1-5, I couldn’t help but be moved by the synchronicity.
In theatre, everyone, save the Padre, carries a weapon. Here, our young men and women are learning and re-learning that their hands can hold things other than weapons — like the hands of their spouses, friends, and children. Perhaps, even an Advent candle.
Isaiah chapter two, verse four reads (and I paraphrase), “There will come a time when they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, a time when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore.”
I long and hope for that day when war will cease and peace will reign in every heart, home, and nation. Until that day, the truth is we need willing men and women to keep the peace. And then, when it is time for them to come home, we who have asked them to serve have a responsibility to help them learn how to come home: to lay down their arms and to free their hands of their swords in order to free them to hold the hands of those they love. That is my hope for this season of Advent.
May God bless you and keep you this Advent season. May it draw you nearer to God, friends and family. I have but one small request: when you pray, please remember our military personnel and their families. Like the holy couple, they are in transition. They have not reached Bethlehem yet, and the road is rocky and long. We know how this story ends: in new life and hope and light! Until then, we will continue to journey with them as they make their way home. They are not alone. Thanks be to God.
— Padre (Captain) Tyler Powell, United Church military chaplain, is Task Force Chaplain for the current Third Location Decompression mission which will last through the holidays and into the new year.