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‘I learned in a war zone that God dwells in my heart’

Church member, Army reservist reflects on how his worship experiences during a deployment to Iraq changed his attitude toward worship back home.
While worshiping in Iraq, I learned to take God with me. I learned thathe is no farther away than my elbow from my body. Many times I wasunable to attend worship due to mission duties.
But, because of thedepth of worship I took part in, I knew he was there with me in thathot Humvee or on the streets when I was pulling security duty. Ilearned in a war zone that God dwells in my heart.
Our “churchbuilding” was a one room, 13-by-13-foot concrete structure builthalfway underground. I couldn’t tell you what its intended purpose wasbefore its acquisition by the U.S. Army. The walls were cracked andpeeling. It had one door and one window. At the very most, we had 26people show up for morning service — on average, nine.
The acousticswere terrible, but for a soldier who can’t carry a tune it didn’tmatter. The hottest day I saw over there was 137 degrees Fahrenheit. Wedidn’t get an air conditioner until halfway through our tour. Yet, tome that was one of the most beautiful church buildings I’ve ever beenin.
God was right when he told David that he does not dwell in a house.
When we would enter the church in Taji, we went through a disrobing ceremony, if you will. I welcomed every chance I got to get rid of all the gear a soldier has to wear.
The first thing that would come off was the heavy Kevlar helmet. You weren’t allowed to remove it until you were inside the building. Next, my weapon, an M16 rifle, was placed in an open corner. Then came the flack vest with all the essentials for combat — ammo, compass, medical kit, more ammo, knife, and the list goes on.
Once all my gear was dropped, I could relax and let my body rest while my soul was fed.
This is a ritual I try my best to continue as I enter worship service back here in the states. Too many of us enter worship still encumbered by all our combat gear. We leave our helmets on because someone might find a weakness or try to get to close. We lay our weapon across our lap so as to return fire as soon as we are fired upon. Our vest stays tightly in place because it protects our hearts from being hurt — or we fear the member in the pew behind us might attack our lifestyle. We stay at the ready for action with our heads on a swivel to detect incoming.
We get so wrapped up in the fight for survival that we can’t take refuge in our God. I say this from experience, for I was just like this at one time. I guarded myself from everything so I wouldn’t get hurt.
But it is only after we become vulnerable that we can stand strong with Christ. To put it in Army terms, “Move out and draw fire, soldier.” Soldiers are taught to identify a true enemy before they engage. And failure to engage that enemy could be the downfall of the whole unit.
You’ve heard the term “friendly fire.” That is the wrong term. Death of one soldier by another soldier is fratricide — friend killing friend. I was engaging the wrong targets and putting on the wrong armor before church. After worshiping in a war zone, I now can identify the real threats to worship — complacency, lies, rumors and the list goes on.
Christ taught that at all times we should remain ready for his coming. In the comforts of our air-conditioned homes, cars and offices — with the world at our fingertips — we fail to see how close the end is. Not until a loved one is called home way before their time or a friend meets an untimely death do we consider how fragile life is. Then in a moment we are back at work, back into the swing of things with no thought of what comes next.
In Iraq, I did not have that luxury. In war, death is ever-present, always reminding you to ask yourself, “Are you ready?” It forced me to find refuge in something. Thankfully, the Lord is my refuge and my fortress. Instead of becoming morbid or callused, I looked upward and found faith that would carry me back home.
I am ever grateful for my experiences in Iraq, for they have shaped the Christian I am today and the Christian I will be for eternity.
Sgt. Steve Valentine is an Army reservist and a member of the Southgate church in San Angelo, Texas. He worshiped with the Taji Church of Christ during a 15-month deployment to Iraq. He is scheduled to serve in Afghanistan in 2007.

Filed under: People Staff Reports

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