Doing God’s Work in the Military - Russ Gehrlein (Podcast Episode 21)
Our guest today, Master Sergeant Russ Gehrlein, made his career in military service, where he not only discovered God's purposes for his work, he also realized he could feel God's presence at work on a daily basis. He is an operations officer for the US Army and author of the book Immanuel Labor - God's Presence in Our Profession.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (NRSV)
He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.(NRSV)
Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle (NRSV)
2 Corinthians 2:14-15
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (NRSV)
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. (NRSV)
Additional Resources Referenced
Immanuel Labor-God's Presence in Our Profession, by Russ Gehrlein
Your Work Matters to God, by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks
The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.
MR: I’m Mark Roberts
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
Can God work through you, no matter what kind of job you're in? What if you end up in a career you never planned out for yourself? Our guest today thought God was calling him in a particular direction, towards church ministry, but he ended up making his career in a very different line of work - in military service. In the armed forces our guest not only discovered God's purposes for his work, he also realized he could feel God's presence at work on a daily basis. Master Sergeant Russ Gehrlein is an operations officer for the US Army and author of the book Emmanuel Labor-God's Presence in Our Profession. Russ, thank you so much for joining us on the Making It Work podcast.
Russ Gehrlein: Thank you Leah. I'm just ecstatic to be able to be here to tell my story and put the spotlight on God.
LA: Well, we're excited to have you. So could you just start by talking a little bit about your own personal story, you mentioned in your book that there are factors beyond your own control that led you to leave a career in... You left a career in ministry and went into military service. Could you tell us just a little bit about that?
RG: Yeah, well, it's kind of funny as I look back, it occurred to me that my life could be characterized since I graduated from high school, into three distinct chapters all beginning with letter M ironically. So there was math, math education, I went to Colorado State University to become a math teacher and I actually did that for a couple of years in Colorado and when my wife finished school, we felt that we had to pursue the next M, and that was ministry. And we packed everything up and moved to Portland Oregon to go to seminary, and at that point in time, I was pursuing youth ministry and working in the church, but while I was in seminary, I had a lot more faith than wisdom going into it, and I had a $1000 in my pocket when I got there. I blew through that rather quickly in various jobs, and taking out student loans, it just... I just ran into one brick wall after another and when the daughter was born, God provided like I said through that job, which provided dollars for the birth, but I had really never planned to get through seminary and shortly after she was... Maybe four months old, the summer of '85, the church unexpectedly that I'd been serving in for a little over two years just let me go, and I was like, "Wow, time to really re-evaluate." And for a good six months, really unsure how we were gonna do this.
I got a couple of different full-time jobs, but it just wasn't really a long term plan. And so it became obvious... One of the choices, especially through the advertising of "Be all that you can be", back in the mid '80s got my attention, and I was looking into it at first... Into the reserves, but then it became obvious that if I'm gonna to join the army, I might as well just do it full-time, for just three years. And [laughter] I raised my right hand and signed the dotted line and shipped out not knowing that in three years later I'd be re-enlisting for six more and then five years later, six more. And then before I knew it, 20 years had gone by. So... But I will tell you that from the very beginning there was no doubt, that God had led me to join the army.
LA: And you say... You say in your book, even though you felt that God had led you to join the army, you felt a lot of guilt at that time about your career change, leaving ministry and joining the army. Tell me what that was like.
RG: Yeah, I definitely remember that very distinctly. When I was in high school, I graduated in '76. Those who joined the army, were those who weren't going to college, and think about that... While I was a freshman in high school we had just gotten out of Vietnam, so it wasn't something I was really looking into at all. So here I was 10 years later, after I graduated from high school and I was joining the army, so it felt like a humbling step backwards. But for one who felt called to ministry while I was a college student, and actually doing ministry, I was, I was a youth pastor, I was doing... And a junior high, senior high math teacher, I was doing things part-time as a youth director of a local church.
So instead of preparing for Bible studies and planning youth activities and retreats and leading Sunday night meetings and counseling kids. At the army, I was doing a lot of other things like training in the fields and maintaining equipment, and I felt like I... I truly felt like a second-class Christian.
LA: So what is it that changed for you in your faith, that allowed you to really embrace your career in the army as a calling?
RG: It took a little while, I didn't see it until I left my first assignment, about a year and a half, I was at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Great time with my wife and family, then I went to Korea, for my first of two unaccompanied tours from '88 to '89. And while I was there, I didn't even know how we ordered books back then, I think it was something called a catalog, before you ordered things on Amazon. Right? But I ordered this book, Your Work Matters to God, and I remember reading that in, it's probably the second half of my tour, and my eyes were opened because I really had felt like a second-class Christian, I wasn't doing anything. As a chemical soldier, as a non-commissioned officer, I was doing great things for the army, but I didn't think it had impact on the kingdom of God. And this book by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks was really at a critical time, it was life-changing. They tore apart the myth of sacred versus secular which I had bought into.
Clearly all the things that I heard in church growing up, that the temporal things were not as important as eternal things, and that's why I felt like I wasn't making an impact. But they tore that apart and explained the intrinsic and instrumental value of everyday work, and that God, who was a worker himself, could use me wherever I was, whatever I was doing, as long as I did it for His glory. So I felt like my work as a chemical soldier actually did matter. I was meeting the needs of people, maybe not spiritual needs, but meeting real needs. And God thought those needs are important to equip a variety people to meet those needs.
LA: Yeah, could you tell me about what specifically you were doing in your work and how you realized that those met needs of other people?
RG: Yeah, I was sent to a military police company, but I'm not a military police soldier, I was a chemical soldier. So there I was, Sergeant Gehrlein, just one guy in the company and my job was to take care of everybody's protective masks and to teach some classes, and to maintain the other equipment, the decontamination equipment and radiac meters, keep everything calibrated and up to snuff and maintained properly and pass inspections and that sort of thing. So back then, I think as I began to understand these things, I could sense that I was... God was using me to prepare soldiers to be trained and ready, in case we needed to fight. This is in Korea and we technically were still at war with Korea, right? 'Cause of the armistice of 1955 and... I'm not much of historian, '53 maybe, we hadn’t ceased hostility. So this military police company, not so much there to fight the enemy but to take care of law enforcement mission with all the other soldier/sailors there and the marines scattered throughout the peninsula there. By doing that hands-on work that I was doing, it was taking care of soldiers and ultimately just kind of one small piece of the military's mission.
LA: And was there... You mentioned this book, Your Work Matters to God, was there a particular scripture, piece of the Bible that the author's elucidated that really came alive to you in a new way as you read the book?
RG: Absolutely. They started out in Genesis 1:26-28, where God created Adam and Eve in his image and called them to continue his work to expand and maintain the creation. God had work for them to do as the first man and woman, and we certainly as human beings continue that work. That shows us the intrinsic value of work, He's called us to be his co-workers to expand his kingdom. And the implication is that all legitimate work, to include my work in the army, was of value.
MR: I love your story, Russ, for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that you may or may not know that Leah and I actually get to work really closely with Bill Hendricks, one of the two writers of that book. It's amazing, that book came out almost 30 years ago, I think, and in its day it was really groundbreaking. I mean people didn't talk and think that way, and that book had a huge impact on many, including you.
One of the great things that has happened in the last 30 years is that that idea that was so radical in its day has become more widespread. Which is not to say the work is done and everybody's on board there, but at least there are a lot of, a lot more oars in the water with exactly what you've said. Helping Christians see that scripture actually affirms “ordinary work”, that we get to share in God's work in the world. And it's not the case that church ministry work is somehow better than sergeant ministry work or teacher ministry work or banker ministry work. And your story I just think a lot of folks relate to that of thinking, "Wow, you know, I really wish I could serve God with my life, but I guess I'm gonna have to go to work."
And to discover that, "Wait a minute, God can be served in a whole lot of different ways." Actually, I actually heard a man give a testimony once and it was basically, "I really wanted the serve God with my life but I couldn't go on the mission field, so I ended up becoming a doctor and I've been a doctor for 35 years. Now I'm retiring, I can finally serve God with my work." I'm thinking, even a doctor, I mean you were helping people get healed and well, and even then, you were raised in a church that so undervalued even that kind of work. It's just such an important message to get out.
LA: Russ, I would love to go back to the Scripture that you mentioned, which is Genesis 1: 26-28, where we see God create Adam and Eve in His image. Do you think this... God created people in His image and God Himself is a worker. Does that pre-figure even work, extending to work in the military?
RG: It's hard to see the direct connection, but when you look at the implications, that, you know... Here's what I figured out. God started Creation, but it was incomplete. It was perfect, absolutely perfect, but it was incomplete and needed man to continue the work of expanding and then maintaining the Creation. And I'm totally off-script now, but just from the heart. You look at Genesis Chapter 2. Rain hadn't started falling yet. When He was making the plants, they weren't growing much. He withheld the rain until man came along so that man and the rain could work together. What God provided, what humans were gonna provide, to be able to take care of the vegetation, to be able to harvest the crops, as it were. So, there was the, this partnership from the very being that was designed intimately.
And when you think about all the things that were... That God put in the ground, the minerals that we use now in our computers, the gold that we use for currency, the wood that we use to make buildings, the rock that we use to make bridges. I mean just all the things that man was going to need to expand His creation. And certainly, God had planned even from the very beginning to redeem sin. He knew that Adam and Eve were gonna make a bad choice and gonna experience some consequences of that, and that He would need a savior down the road to redeem us. But He also knew that man and woman would sin against one another in selfish ways, in violent ways. So I think there was certainly foreknowledge that some kind of defense, whether it be local police or military would be needed to maintain shalom in the world.
LA: I love your focus because you work in the chemicals field of the army, chemical engineering, so I love your focus on the actual chemicals, the materials that were in the soil that God put in directly giving you the support for the work that you do today. Now, you mention in your book, there are many other scriptures that you look to, pieces of the Bible that deal directly with work in the military.
RG: Yeah, let me bring us to Psalm 18:34. And this is interesting because I love the Psalms. I learned a lot about the attributes of God by reading the Psalms. And David, who you could argue was a soldier, was a General, certainly in charge of the Israelite army, he writes, He, meaning God, Yahweh, "He trains my hands for battle, my arms can bend a bow of bronze." This whole idea of God being the ultimate trainer for the work of defending the nation of Israel. 'Cause there were so many enemies that they needed to destroy to fulfill the covenant for Abraham in Genesis 12. And once they crossed out of Egypt into the Promised Land, as they began to destroy their enemies. There was certainly that value there. And the soldiers had a piece of that, and recognizing that God was the ultimate trainer for the soldiers to do their work.
And later in Psalms 144:1, David praises, he said, "Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who again, trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle." So, he ultimately gives credit to God. And certainly as a soldier, we're all about training. Basic training it starts and it continues. We're always training for the next mission. So certainly the place where I work, there are drill sergeants that train every single day. And I think I want these words to encourage them. And not only them, but those that plan the training, lead the training, and execute it, write the lesson plans and even provide all the training aids and work on the rifle ranges and everything else that goes into training to give them the skills and the confidence to use them if needed.
LA: And you take these words so specifically, which I love because I would read these Psalms and kind of just breeze over that and think of them, "Oh," Just as metaphorical for what I deal with. And you know, "God trains my hands for battle," so that means I have to be, I don't know, really, stalwart and sharp when I go into a business meeting. But for you, it's actually very concrete in your line of work. Mark, you jump in here, tell me how you've read these Psalms in the past.
MR: Yeah, great conversation. And I think one of the things this points out is that we need to think about the work we're doing. We tend to say that our work honors the Lord. I think it's more accurate to say that good work honors the Lord, the work that is right. So, when it comes to the question of military service, for example, one could serve in an army that was doing terrible things, right? And it would be hard to say, "Oh, well yeah, I'm doing God's work there." Or, one could serve in an army that was fighting for justice, for people and... So, it's a very different thing. And similarly, with other jobs, you can be an expert in finance and use that finance to advance God's agenda for the world in terms of developing the world responsibly and providing good jobs for people, and flourishing of individuals in the wider society. Or, you could use your finance to just advance your own cause, or even to do things that are immoral or illegal. So, I guess it's right to say work can be good and honoring to God, but each of us really have the responsibility to think that through.
Now, what I say about military service, this was actually one of the big debates in the early church because, of course, for much of the early church, military servicemen were fighting in the Roman army, and that was a mixed bag at best, right? And often is... It's not just a symbol but an experience of oppression and injustice. And so, they really thought about that. At the same time, we've got in the first few verses of Romans 13 talking about Christians' relationship to the government, and how God has entrusted the sword, i.e. military or police work, to the government for God's own good. So, the question we always have to be asking, wherever we're working is, "Is my work actually advancing the good of God in the world, or is my work something else?"
Now, the qualification I'll make is that all work participates in fallenness, that no work is perfectly good. I was a pastor for 25 years of my life and I'm hoping and trusting that much of what I did was good, but I'm quite sure that I was involved in my own self-seeking, or pride, or that I used my position at times to hurt people. In other words, what I'm saying is, just because I was a pastor doesn't mean it's all good. And so, even if you're in something that seems to be closely connected to God's mission in the world, we need to be asking for wisdom and seeking scripture for wisdom, is the work I'm doing actually good work?
RG: Absolutely, yes. And just, knowing that it’s really God working through you. 'Cause I see this connection between God's presence and work, and it is me doing the work for His glory. But it's the other perspective, which I think is more biblical, is that God is working through me. God wants to meet people's needs. And I am a vessel wherever I am, in church, in service, in the restaurant, I'm a vessel, so God can work not only in me, but through me in the place that He has put me.
MR: Yeah. And that includes all different kinds of work when it's good work. Think of the fact that God came as a human being in Jesus and spent most of his adult life doing what we would call ordinary work. And I trust that he was making good furniture, charging a fair price, serving people well through that work. And that was literally God in the flesh, doing work, and similarly God is at work through us.
LA: Yeah. And Mark, you mentioned the early debate in the Christian church, about whether or not it was appropriate to serve in the military. Russ, in your book, you have a great quote from Martin Luther that picks up this question of whether or not it's appropriate for Christians to serve in the military. Could you lead us through that?
RG: Oh gosh, yeah, thanks for asking that. So, I was really surprised by Martin Luther, 'cause Martin Luther very much had a lot to say about the link between God's presence and work. And there are things that people are called to, and that God connects... It's the mask of God, is I think is how he terms it. It's... We're all instruments of God, the mothers are instruments of God to care for His infants. And so, he talked about... In the book Callings by William Placher shed some light on that about Christians serving in the military.
And he says this, and it really shook me 'cause I hadn't thought about it quite this way, "When I think of a soldier fulfilling his office," and sometimes that involves punishing the wicked, he says, "Killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love. But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honor and peace, and I see how precious and godly this work is. And I observed that it amputates a leg or a hand," by getting rid of the evil, right? "So that the whole body may not perish. For if the sword were not on guard to preserve peace, everything in the world would be ruined because of lack of peace." Wow. That really hit the nail on the head for me.
LA: Now Your book is about experiencing God's presence through the course of your work. Could you tell us a little bit about how you've felt that happen for you in your work? How you've experienced God's presence?
RG: Oh absolutely... I read when I was in college The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. And it really impacted me, and I had no idea how much that would play into my experience decades later. And certainly in the book, the idea that every day, that's really in a nutshell what the Christian life is all about.
LA: Yeah. And we'll pause just for listeners who don't know, The Practice of the Presence of God is a short book. It's a series of letters written by a 17th century monk. A monk named Brother Lawrence, who had come up with a way to feel God's presence through the course of his normal work. He worked in the monastery kitchen, he ran errands for the monastery, and he... Instead of just feeling God's presence in his prayers, when he... In his devotions, he felt God's presence through the course of his work and his supervisor asked him to write a series of letters to explain to others how to do that. These are now in the Creative Commons. You can find them online for very little money. If other people wanna reference them. Sorry to interrupt you, Russ. Go ahead.
RG: So, I experience God's presence every day. Going into work, knowing that God has placed me there. God not only has provided this job to meet my family's needs, but he's got a purpose for me being there. So I start the day, I obviously pray and practice His presence and ask for God to give me wisdom as I go in. This is an ongoing prayer as I go throughout my day.
So here's a good example of how I experienced God's presence. I mean, I'm the operations officer and military operations covers pretty much everything except for the supplies and the personnel. A big thing that we do every year is an annual event deemed the regimental week. So the Chemical Corp came into existence in 1918. So guess what, in 2018, and it's the last week of June, I think it's the 27th or 28th of June, so we celebrate.Wwe celebrate this birthday celebration. So in June of 2018 it was the 100th anniversary of the Chemical Corps. The US Army Chemical Corps was established in 1918 as a result of World War I and the trench warfare and the chlorine attacks. So we came out of that to teach soldiers how to defend themselves against that. So we had a week-long celebration and we began planning in earnest 10 months out. And I sensed God's presence from the very beginning, as I knew I would need extra wisdom, extra endurance to be able to handle all this pressure. And talk about pressure. Being a general officer in charge and giving guidance and having to make coordination and supervise a team of people. So we had planned an entire week of activities that soldiers would be involved in.
So I was literally leaning on the everlasting arms to go to Him. I was just depending on God to meet those new challenges and the high expectations of leaders that I had and serving as unto the Lord, because it was important. So there were many days I was overwhelmed, but I knew that God was greater. And there's that peace that came at just the right time to get me through every step of the way. So the looking back, when it was done, and it was a huge event, everything went extremely well by the grace of God. And again, it was not a solo effort. There were a lot of people involved, but I was, just based on my position where God has placed me, I was right in the middle of it. So I think we had, I can honestly say, we had a lasting impact on the veterans and the leaders and the soldiers who attended.
We had a conference with key leaders from around the globe. So after they met with our comandante, one-star general, to discuss issues, they were back to their assignments as a more unified team committed to support the army. We had a veterans recognition ceremony. We went through and recognized veterans from even World War Two and Korea and Vietnam. And I stood up when they came to the Cold War, because that's the one that I can claim involvement in and certainly Desert Storm. So we recognized these veterans and that was great. So I think it's just that, being our 100th anniversary, just we're prepared to meet the challenges of the future, again defending our nation and our allies against weapons of mass destruction. So certainly it tied in with that shalom we talked about earlier, is that God wants shalom. And to have shalom in this world, in this fallen world that we have, we need a strong defense and we play a small part in it.
LA: Yeah. That's such a fantastic story. What I hear in that story, Russ, is your work being part of a great history of the work of the folks that have come before you. That God has set out this work, the work of defense, the work that all, and by extension, the work that all of us do in the workplace. None of us is alone in our work. You didn't carry the Army Corps of Engineers for 100 years by yourself, right, but you got to participate. You had a significant role participating in the work of it, in this century. So, it's a take-home message that I could pertain to my own work. I don't work in the military. And certainly you're cut out for it and I'm not, but I can see, I can see my work as being a part of the work of other people over time.
RG: Yeah, it's that connectivity. It's being part of the team. That's what I really like is that there's that team aspect of it. And I tell you, my heart desire, Leah and Mark, is that...
Look, there's people who were listening, most of which in the community, folks that would listen to this podcast who are interested in faith at work. Most of them are probably not military. So what I wanna tell them is I tell this story about how God used me in my kind of milestone event here for this thing. Some people have a lot of responsibilities. Some might oversee a multi-million dollar construction project. Others might be... Like my son used to put on the high school musical. Some may be negotiating a deal. Students are completing research papers, and then there's just the host of stay-at-home mothers and fathers who are raising a handful of children to be responsible and compassionate adults. And they need to know that their work is significant. And they may not get the recognition that I get at my job. But they need to know that their work is important to God and will have long-lasting impact.
LA: I love it. Mark, do you have a take away from our conversation today that you could share for folks who are listening. Folks who may or may not be in the military.
MR: Well, I mean, I just think this is a great example of listening to someone who is really, no pun intended, working out the biblical theology of work in a particular area. And I just think that's a great example and encouragement. So, I mean, there are going to be folks, as Russ said, there are going to be folks in very different work context, very different challenges and opportunities. But this notion of really taking the biblical truth that our work matters to God and that God created us for work, and that's not just church work or whatever, and then really faithfully, consistently, over many years. Working on the question. So what does that mean? How do I work differently, because of this? How do I see my work differently? How do I value my work differently? And Russ, what you're doing is just a great example of the sort of thing that all of us need to do. Those are questions that are equally relevant, whether you're a master sergeant, or a teacher, or an attorney or a doctor, or a craftsmen, or a sales person. Whatever it is you do. What does this mean now, for my work, with my life.
RG: Absolutely. Can I read a quote, from Tom Nelson?
RG: This is the thing that kinda just ties in with my theme so much. So, Tom Nelson in "Work Matters", says, "The Holy Spirit brings the power and presence of the trying God, with the believer, to work every day. The Holy Spirit works in the worker through his or her vocation, He permeates the workplace with the fragrance of Christ." In quoting 2nd Corinthians 2: 14 to 15. And then I conclude, "Just like the tabernacle, where God's presence resided, as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, til they entered the promised land, we too can experience the presence of God as we enter into the wilderness of our workplaces, over a forty year period." That's powerful.
LA: It is powerful stuff. Russ, thank you so much, for joining us and sharing your work today.
RG: You're welcome. I'm extremely grateful for this opportunity.