The sacred rite of service


            Forty years ago, I was ordained as a United Church of Christ minister. The Ordination service occurred right here in this sanctuary ( First Congregational Church Portland, Or ). My journey to ministry came from my involvement in church service programs, outdoor ministries and political and social justice outreach here in Portland during the 1960’s.

            I grew up in a single parent family with my mother and sister. My mother worked as an Auditor at City Hall for the City of Portland. City Hall and the politics of Portland have been a mainstay of my life

             One of my heroes was former Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, who despite his personal failings, was a strong leader and in (1974 ) helped to save our family home from being demolished by the then proposed Mount Hood Freeway.

             Here in Portland, I went to public school, university and I completed my theological education at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.

             When I got ordained, little did I think that I would be spending a majority of my professional life working in mental health and in the realm of trauma, especially with military service members  and veterans who have suffered the ravages of war.

              Jesus spent a good deal of time talking about the coming arrival and presence of the Kingdom of God. Luke states that Jesus asserts:

              “ But seek the kingdom, and those things will be given to us as well. “ ( Luke 12:30 ).

             “ For where your treasure is then your heart will be also. “ ( Luke 12:34 ).

                Forty years ago, when I started my ministry, the dominant narrative was that one could do authentic ministry if one were serving in a local church parish. The notion was that you might start out in a small church as solo pastor, then become an Associate Minister of a large church and then culminating as a Senior Pastor for a large congregation. This typology was readily accepted by the ecclesiastical structure in 1979. The idea definitely was:

                 “ Parish or Perish ! “


                Of course, my luck was such that this equation never really worked for me. Beneath the dominant narrative, I began to discover a lot of meta-narratives, different ways of interpreting experiences.

                I spent a number of years serving as a Navy Chaplain representing The United Church of Christ. Military service members, doctors, nurses, administrators etc. became my congregation.

                I went back to graduate school  and earned a Master’s in Social Work  ( MSW ) degree and the doors swung open for me to the world of Clinical Social Work and psychotherapy. I have never regretted that, but I have had to consciously work hard in also retaining my pastoral identity and continuing to develop my skills as a parish pastor.

                Luke writes:

               “ Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning. “  ( Luke 12:35 )

                    The whole process of working in mental health, treating the war, societal and developmental wounds of military service members and veterans from a religious faith perspective has not been an easy feat.

                    Over the years, I have seen service members  who have been greatly traumatized tell me that

                     “ all they need is Jesus.

                     I don’t doubt that, and I affirm that assertion completely.

                     Yet, these same people would have responded well to a good anti-depressant and some good psychotherapy.

                     It doesn’t have to be Jesus or Prozac, but it can be both and other interventions as well.

                     It didn’t help, at times, for military command officials to say to me regarding their service members:

                     “ Well, I think they should just get back to work, or they are malingering, and they just need to get over it.”

                      “ Drink water and drive on ! “

                      My favorite, however, was the commander who suggested that maybe what they needed was some “ beer, pizza and sex. “

                      I must confess that I once preached a sermon with the title

                      “ What Comes After Beer, Pizza and Sex ? “

                        My Yale faculty, Yale trained Clinical Psychologist, who worked for me at the time, responded:

                       “ Well Peter, you’ve got the frontal lobe covered on that one ! “


                        Chronic combat trauma and other forms of complex trauma i.e. sexual trauma, military and/or civilian, suffering domestic violence or some form of natural disaster: hurricane, earthquake, flood, tornado, fire, suffering from terrorism, mass shooting, being held hostage etc. – all of these manifestations of trauma aren’t just solely resolved by medication or for that matter therapy.

                         Instead, healing requires assistance and support from the family, the community and from the church, synagogue, mosque, religious or non-religious support community.

                         Trauma creates a psychic wound, make that soul wound. A military service member i.e. A Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, Marine or Coast Guardsmen may be ordered to shoot  someone i.e. an Iraqi family driving in a car that unfortunately doesn’t stop at a checkpoint because they don’t understand English. There maybe the service member who is a drone worker who guides the aircraft to focus with laser accuracy in killing the insurgent terrorist riding a motorcycle  on a winding road through the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. However, in the aftermath of this target being hit, it is discovered that a civilian Afghan family that was attending  a wedding has also been killed.  Here, the service member is left with the unintended consequences of their actions. They may feel that what they have done grossly violates their ethical and moral compass and thus they are left with experiencing Moral Injury.

                         For this described service member, it maybe even more incongruous. Their spouse may call and ask if they can pick up some milk on their way home. Then twelve hours later, they will return for their shift in the container unit on the Air Force base where they will operate their drone which is flying and attacking targets 8000 miles away.

                        Killing, even if it is remote killing, leaves its calling card and its wounds.

                        There has now been a lot of discussion, research, interventions regarding Moral Injury. Dr. Brett Litz, Dr. William Nash and others have developed therapeutic interventions like Impact of Killing in War ( Cognitive Behavioral ) and Adaptive Disclosure ( Prolonged Exposure, Gestalt) based exercises. Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University Fort Worth, TX  is the site of the Soul Repair Center which is dedicated to educating and training congregations and clergy and others regarding Moral Injury.

                        Luke observes:

                    “ If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. ( Luke 12:39 ).

                      As people of faith, we have to be able to a better job letting people know , who have been affected by war and trauma, to be able to tell their story without feeling shamed and damned.

                      Someone suffering from Moral Injury can feel less than and can express that they don’t feel worthy of acceptance, forgiveness, let alone happiness. If there is not a counter affirming message conveyed to them, including from the church, then the person is forever feeling bereft, lonely and not worthy; a perfect recipe for a life-long tragedy.


                       All of us need to be mindful that we are always becoming ready to continue to serve, as we proclaim the Kingdom of God and the new transformed and redeemed life made known in Jesus.

                      May we become ready to serve, and also to allow others to serve us, we pray in Jesus’ name.