God in Camo

I heard about Lone Survivor Marcus Luttrell on a radio programme and out of curiosity ordered up his story about serving as a Navy SEAL in Iraq and Afghanistan In July 2005, four US Navy SEALs were dropped into the Hindu Kush on the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, for a reconnaissance mission aimed at locating a senior Al Qaeda leader close to Bin Laden and leading an army of over a hundred Taliban. Only one of those SEALs made it out alive. The Amazon Blurb says:

This is the story of the only survivor of Operation Redwing, SEAL team leader Marcus Luttrell, and the extraordinary firefight that led to the largest loss of life in American Navy SEAL history. His squadmates fought valiantly beside him until he was the only one left alive, blasted by an RPG into a place where his pursuers could not find him. Over the next four days, terribly injured and presumed dead, Luttrell crawled for miles through the mountains and was taken in by sympathetic villagers who risked their lives to keep him safe from surrounding Taliban warriors.

A born and raised Texan, Marcus Luttrell takes us from the rigors of SEAL training, where he and his fellow SEALs discovered what it took to join the most elite of the American special forces, to a fight in the desolate hills of Afghanistan for which they never could have been prepared. His account of his squadmates' heroism and mutual support renders an experience that is both heartrending and life-affirming. In this rich chronicle of courage and sacrifice, honor and patriotism, Marcus Luttrell delivers a powerful narrative of modern war.

I was torn between two extremes of emotion reading this book. The first half of the story caused me deep concern, even outrage, at the torturous and unrelenting training programme a recruit - many are already experienced naval officers - must undergo to become Navy SEAL. I also frequently cringed at the fervent jingoism and radical belligerence of Texas-born Petty Officer Luttrell. But my responses changed in the second half, no doubt because the book was structured this way, so I had the measure of this corp of ultrafit passionately-patriotic men, at home on land or above, in or under the sea. I was awed, shamed and inspired by the story of the survival of this one man left alone in the Hindu Kush, surrounded by Taliban troops who had already slaughtered his three teammates. When Marcus was eventually helicoptered out, alive after unthinkable injuries and unfathomable hospitality from a Pashtun village, I literally cried.

The reason I'm starting my post with this story is because of the camouflage connection. The SEALs' experience made me aware of something about which I normally know little, he military's use of camo gear to obscure or conceal themselves on an operation, especially one in a hostile environment like the western Himalayas. Marcus Luttrell's memoir taught me about their desert browns and jungle greens, about face paint and growing a beard. Although his brown camo pants were literally blown off him by the rocket-propelled grenade that sent him over a cliff, there is no doubt that his jungle green vest, face paint and beard contributed to his ability to remain concealed while members of the Taliban hunted for him or his body. (The story for all its politics is worth a read).

So I had been thinking about these patchy fabrics made to blend in with the rocks and trees, and the paint that undercover troops daub on their faces when on covert missions. That meant that when our pastor John, a soldier in another life, mentioned camouflage in his sermon in Sunday, I could connect with his meaning. What he actually said was, "in the Book of Revelation, Jesus was no longer in camouflage." Aha, I could see what he meant. In the first Coming or incarnation, of Christ into our world, he came as Jesus, a real human being, the enigmatic Son of Man as he dubbed himself in the synoptic gospels. He blended into our world for thirty years when no one except his parents knew who he really was. (And even they must have had some questions). Then for a few short years he started to allow people to glimpse his true nature, when he stilled a storm, healed blind men, and spoke with piercing insight into people's lives. On the Cross the enigma deepened, the vision was obscured, but in the resurrection the curtain was drawn back to show who was really in charge. The Book of Revelation, which we are studying this month, takes the Story further. In a time of persecution and martyrdom, when popular religion confessed Caesar as Lord, John's people needed to find faith and hope in knowing who was really in charge. The Apocalypse - "revealing" - draws back the curtain. Jesus is no longer in camo.

When we think of drawing back the curtain, we may recall the moment when Dorothy does that with the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He turned out to be a funny little man working some levers, not a wonderful wizard at all. Or was he? Didn't the advice he gave each of Dorothy's companions bring them into a new way of life? When Jesus comes again, he may turn out to be very different from what we imagine. He will surely rule, but in my opinion not with the geopolitical battles envisaged in some commentators' attempts at a Last Days timetable.

What about us? We are called to incarnation too. Sometimes that will require us to be in camo. Today at a church conference I heard a message from a Baptist Army chaplain. He was literally in camo's. His role is to bring Jesus - explicitly at times yes, but more often by blending in - into his military environment. Our call as disciples is also to blend in, not at the expense of our integrity but so as to be like Jesus and make authentic connections with the people God loves.

To Chew Over: What will they see under our camo?

(Did you know there is a special verse of Eternal Father Strong to save for the SEALs?)
Eternal Father, faithful friend,
Be quick to answer those we send
In brotherhood and urgent trust,
On hidden missions dangerous,
O hear us when we cry to Thee,
For SEALs in air, on land, and sea.