“A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?”
Proverbs 20:24, ESV
“Great indeed is the power of memory! It is something terrifying, my God, a profound and infinite multiplicity; and this thing is the mind, and this thing is I, myself.
What then am I, my God? What is my nature?”
Grace and Identity
When I look back at the sometimes-wandering course that my life has taken, I could be tempted to ask, “How did I end up here?” or, given some of the more difficult periods in my journey, an even further query, “How am I still here at all?” The answer? “But God…” (Eph. 2:4). Apart from God’s work in my life, there is no telling where I might be today. Yet even as I reflect on the steps that led me to where I am now, my remembrance of these events does not fully capture what God was doing in them, nor the work that God did within me through them. I am left, in the end, resonating with St. Augustine’s probing prayer: “What then am I, my God?”
My identity, in one sense, is wrapped up with the story of my life. I am who I am today because of all that has occurred in my life up to this point. But it can often be much easier to describe my identity by means of titles or labels. Here, the answer to the question, “Who am I?” can seem quite straightforward: I am an Anglican priest; I serve as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain; I have a full-time job as a Department of Army civilian. At the surface, these would seem to give the reader a distinct picture of who I am – especially adding to these roles other titles that may help define me: husband, father, brother, son, and so on.
Yet this description may not paint an altogether complete picture. I never set out to end up in most of these roles, but in God’s Providence I am where I am, and by God’s grace I am what I am (as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:10). I grew up a shy Kansas boy – a non-denominational charismatic Protestant with parents who were from Quaker and Mennonite traditions. To say that my current lot in life is a far cry from my roots may be an understatement.
My father’s family were Quakers dating back to the mid-17th century and came to America on the same ship as the Quaker pioneer, William Penn. My father was raised in this tradition, and, although he did not raise us in this faith, its influence was strongly felt. My mother came from a Mennonite background, and similarly, though we were not raised in this tradition, it was deeply ingrained in us (as my wife attests every time, I save the last bits of leftover food to keep for some future culinary concoction). The deep pacifism of these traditions also meant that military service was all-but-foreign to my life experience. My father’s father was a conscientious objector in World War II but saw combat as a teletype operator in the Navy; my mother’s father was drafted in the Korean conflict but spent the war Stateside. Yet, ironically, it was not my military service that first broke the mold of family tradition, but rather Anglicanism.
A Faith Journey
I have had a deep Christian faith from an early age. I remember wanting to be a missionary from about the age of six, shortly after my profession of faith and subsequent baptism. My churchgoing experience was shaped by an evangelical Christian, often charismatic, tradition with varied expressions ranging from house churches to a megachurch. This foundation shaped me deeply and in many positive ways, such as by developing a deep love for God, spiritual disciplines, and an awareness of God’s nearness. Yet, as I faced the specter of clinical depression during my adolescent years, I did not fully find the resources to navigate this struggle present in my experience of this tradition. I longed for something more in my faith – and something that had greater substance and “rootedness” than what I had experienced. In my struggle with depression, my individualistic attempts to “pray more” and read the Bible more did not seem to be adequate for the battle; I felt deep down that there was a depth of resources within the Christian tradition that remained untapped.
It was in my freshman year at Wheaton College that I encountered the Anglican tradition, right during this struggle. The richness of the liturgy, a combination of Scripture and prayers grounded in thousands of years of tradition, became a “fixed place” among the shifting sands of my feelings. It was a relief that I (and collectively “we” as the Church) did not have to “make it up” each week to find new ways to be relevant. Instead, the “rootedness” of a tradition firmly fixed, not only in theology, but also in practice of worship, within the historical Church began to draw me to a depth of growth and spiritual healing. I became a part of an Anglican Church and was mentored by the rector, who was also a professor at my college.
It was in this context, after several years, that the military entered my story. Following graduation from college (where my freshman year roommate had been an ROTC cadet, and who I thought was crazy for getting up at 5:00 a.m. to go do “Army stuff”), my professor-mentor invited me to come with him to a seminary where he was going to begin teaching, Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. This was a serious stretch for me in several ways, and I very nearly backed out at the last minute. Growing up in Kansas, I had never been to Alabama and an eighteen-hour drive from home sounded quite far to me. Additionally, the idea of going to seminary frightened me. I wanted to be a missionary, not a pastor/priest. The idea of preaching was daunting (to say the least) to a very shy young man. Nonetheless, I decided to go, thinking that I would at least “try it out.” As is the case where God calls, at least in this case, He went before me and made the way smooth. Despite my eventual love for my seminary education, I still wrestled with what exactly God was calling me to. I had a number of “missions” experiences that I greatly enjoyed, but it seemed that God kept closing doors to long-term mission endeavors. It was at this point that my professor-mentor suggested that I investigate the Army chaplaincy. This was not something that I had ever considered, but as I researched it more, I felt a strong sense of calling to be with soldiers where they were, to go through with them the difficulties they were facing (especially in deployments, danger, and separation from family), and to minister Christ’s love to them. I kept considering the questions, “If not me, who?” and “Who else would be there to be the hands and feet of Christ to these broken and hurting individuals in their times of greatest need?”
And so, as it often has been in my journey, I took a small step of faith. I became a chaplain candidate, which afforded me the opportunity to train with chaplains during my summers in seminary. I learned that I really liked this ministry, which seemed to suit me well (as my mentor had foreseen), and I eventually ended up on active duty as a full-time chaplain. Here my faith sustained me as I did the work of ministry, especially over the course of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was during my deployment to Afghanistan, while serving as a battalion chaplain with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), that my faith would truly be put to the test.
A Time of Testing
There, in the high mountain desert of Afghanistan, our outpost was the target of nearly daily attacks of incoming rounds of enemy indirect fire. The sound of the “incoming fire” alarm was an all-too-common feature of my waking and sleeping hours, leading to a hyper-vigilance later to be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And, for good reason. It was, in the end, an enemy 107mm rocket that arrived without warning which would leave the most lasting impression from this season. The rocket in question landed a mere twenty yards from me and, while I remained conscious in the aftermath of the explosion, I sustained a traumatic brain injury that would put me in the hospital for nearly a week and in rehab for nine months once I returned to the States. In the weeks following my discharge from the hospital, however, I still had to survive another six months of the deployment and bombardment.
During this time, my faith again featured significantly in my life, but not perhaps in the ways one might think. Given the circumstances, I had little time to reflect, or even to question God. I felt grateful to be alive, and in some small way also grateful to be there to minister to “my” soldiers, and to face the difficulties that we were all experiencing together. It was a joy to be with them, and even in some measure to know the difficulty associated with the sacrifice of this ministry. Even within a traumatic period, the rootedness of the Anglican tradition and worship enabled me to see my situation as merely a “blip” on the screen of Church history. The Psalms reminded me of the suffering of David, also a soldier; the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, essentially unchanged for centuries, evidenced that the Church has survived many wars; and the Holy Eucharist was a physical and sacramental reminder of God’s presence with us amidst our difficulty. It was clear that my ministry, and even my individual faith, was not only about me, in an isolated sense, but was caught up in the larger mystery of God’s work in the world through the Church throughout the ages. That realization was both a relief and a comfort.
A Renewed Calling
Once I returned to the States, rehab helped me regain a semblance of my prior functioning, and I continued with life and ministry as a chaplain. But I once again felt the “tug” of God on my spirit. During my own healing process, I found few in-depth theological resources to help me, or people in situations like mine, to understand and process the trauma. While my injury and concurrent family dynamics were precipitating factors in this decision, I felt God calling me to reflect more deeply on my experiences in a way that would be constructive and beneficial for others. I had long desired to pursue further education, and so I felt God leading me to leave active duty and enter the Ph.D. program at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom to reflect theologically on the role of the Gospel in resilience to adversity. My research focused on narrative meaning-making and how the narrative of the Gospel helps individuals navigate adversity. While studying in England I remained a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain, serving in Germany. Upon completion of my studies, I moved back to the States and did a combination of university teaching, research, and parish ministry – all the while serving the Army Chaplain Corps in a strategic capacity at the Office of the Chief of Chaplains in Washington, DC. Eventually I was afforded the opportunity to aid in starting a new graduate school for the Chaplain Corps – one focused on professionally developing and forming chaplains across their careers.
And so, through a circuitous path, I find myself where I am today – not at all where I had thought I would end up, but where, by God’s grace, He has brought me. I never could have planned nor foreseen what has transpired. I have merely sought to be faithful at each step along the way, sometimes with halting, faltering “baby” steps, but steps, nonetheless. My story has been one of incremental growth – of God’s patience as I tentatively step out in faith, not quite sure what is going on – of knowing that God is with me and leading me, even when I have no idea where I am going. In it all, God’s grace has sustained and gone before me, despite, at times, my own failings and lack of faith.
An (In)Complete Ending
This sense of uncertainty is why I find St. Augustine’s words so comforting. In Augustine’s own attempts to tell his story in the Confessions, he also ends up at a place of incompletion. He is left uncertain, even of the validity of his own memory of life. In narrating my own story, I am also aware that it might have gone much differently, and that, even in this telling, I am unaware of many ways God has protected and directed me. I sometimes consider what a difference a millimeter would have made in the initial trajectory of the rocket that nearly killed me. I am reminded that our lives are tenuous at best. But this realization only goes to display what has been true all along – that our lives are not our own; our very selves are dependent upon Another.
For this reason, a sense of incompleteness must turn to prayer. St. Augustine’s initial question – the dilemma with which I opened my reflection – gives way in his writing to another query, this time directed in prayerful dialogue to God: “What shall I do, you true life of mine, my God? I will go past this force of mine called memory; I will go beyond it so that I may draw nearer to you, sweet light.” Like St. Augustine, I know that my own recounting and limited remembrance of this story is but a halting attempt to testify to the work that God has wrought in me. But, also like St. Augustine, my prayer is that its telling may draw me, and others, closer to the true Author and Perfecter of my story, and of me. To Him be the glory. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Nathan White is the Associate Dean of the Graduate School for Army Chaplain Corps Professional Development at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and an Army Reserve Chaplain currently serving as a Strategic Action Officer at the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from the University of Durham (UK), an M.Div. from Beeson Divinity School, and a B.A. from Wheaton College. His work has been published by Oxford University Press, Routledge, SCM Press, NDU Press, and UNC Press and he has been featured in venues as diverse as Psychology Today and the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Journal.
 Augustine. 1963. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Mentor, Book X, Chapter 17, p. 227.