A Pastor’s Tribute to a Warrior
I recently had the sad honor of officiating at the memorial service of former U.S. Navy SEAL Jeff Reynolds, whose untimely and difficult passing was a shock to us all. The memorial service was unfortunately not recorded, and I have received many requests for copies of the message I delivered in celebration of Jeff’s chosen profession – that of the warrior. With permission of the Reynolds family, I have done my best to create a transcript of that message as I recall delivering it. We must never cease to honor our heroes.
Pastor Barry Mahler
Today is not an easy day. But then, as many of you here know only too well, it’s not about easy days. And it’s not about easy days because in our fallen world people become enthralled with evil ideologies, and when they do they inevitably turn to violence in order to spread those evil ideologies. And they brutalize, they oppress, they enslave and they kill.
This means that if free and noble people desire to remain free and noble, they must become as good at the issue of violence – or even better at the issue of violence – than those who would oppress or brutalize them. And so there must arise from their midst the heroes and the warriors – those individuals of unusual valor and commitment who train intensely in the issues of war and combat so that the men, women and children who live behind their backs may do so in peace, safety and freedom.
And in times of extraordinary threat, there must be extraordinary individuals of extraordinary commitment who train to extraordinary lengths in order to overcome that threat so that others may dwell behind their backs in peace, safety and freedom. This extraordinary commitment is exemplified by those who comprise this nation’s Special Warfare commands and units, and is embodied, of course, by that elite group of men known as U.S. Navy SEALs.
And if a people still has any virtue left in the heart of their nation, they are duty-bound to honor the service and commitment of such individuals, and today we gather to honor the extraordinary service and commitment of U.S. Navy SEAL Jeff Reynolds: a warrior and a hero, and a man who comes from a remarkable family of heroes.
But is a house of worship an appropriate place to honor the ethos (that which drives the heart) of the hero and the warrior? Yes, and for two very good reasons. The first reason is logical and historical, for the important Constitutional rights we enjoy here today – chief among them the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly – is a covenant delivered to the American people in blood. But it is not in the blood of the pastor, not in the blood of the politician, not in the blood of the professor, and not in the blood of the community organizer. Instead, it is a covenant guaranteed in over two centuries of the noble blood of the American warrior.
So yes, this is an appropriate place to honor that ethos. And so to all warriors here today – warriors past, warriors present and warriors future – please know that you are appreciated, you are prayed for, and above all, you are most welcome among us.
The second reason is simply this: the noble warrior is a servant of God. Oh, not like the kamikaze thought he was the reincarnation of the Divine Wind, or like the jihadist thinks he will inherit seventy-two eternal virgins by bringing Allah the blood of infidels, but in a far deeper and more noble way – by defending that which is humanity’s defining characteristic and most precious asset: the image of God.
The first mention of humanity in Scripture was done in conjunction with the first mention of the image of God, when in Genesis 1:26 God said Let us create man in our image, in our likeness. This makes the image of God the very thing that defines humanity, but what exactly is the image of God? I believe it is summarized for us in Philippians 4:8, where it speaks of whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. It is all that stirs the human heart and mind upward toward reason, honor and things dignified.
But this image (all that was true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy) was once lost upon Earth as described in the sixth chapter of Genesis, resulting in the cleansing of the Flood. And the day those eight remaining people of Noah’s family stepped off of the ark, things changed drastically, for there was now going to be a sheriff in town! Not a new sheriff, mind you, but a first sheriff, for on that day God imposed law upon Earth for the very first time, and through that law imposed the institution of human government. And when God did so in Genesis 9:6, He defined the purpose of human government – and of the law which is its basis – as being that of honoring the image of God and of protecting that image from extinction.
This has wonderful implications for the peace officer and also the military, for since God gave us the idea of the necessity of law, He also gave us the necessity of the lawman to see that the idea of law is followed and upheld. What this means is that the peace officer is every bit the servant of God that the pastor or minister is, provided the law he or she serves is just and noble. And there is no more noble a body of law than that U.S. Constitution to which the peace officer pledges his or her ultimate fidelity, and which in its wisdom and depth and beauty enshrines those just ideas that allow the image of God to flourish.
Furthermore, since the military is simply the idea of law enforcement on a grander scale, this means that the warrior is every bit the servant of God that the pastor or minister is, provided the cause served is just and noble. And here we must remind ourselves of the oath we once took, for whether that of enlistment or of commissioning, that oath contained this common phrase: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. It was not an oath to defend the United States. It was not an oath to defend a man. It was not an oath to defend a political party, and it was not an oath to defend a piece of land. It was an oath to defend the defining document of this nation, and thereby to defend the principles therein.
But ultimately you know a tree by its fruit, and so let’s examine some of the fruit of the U.S. military. Seventy years ago many of our men and boys headed west and – at a tremendous cost in blood, limb and life – freed the entire Pacific theater from the oppression of imperial Japan. At the same time, others headed east and did the same in Africa and Western Europe, freeing those peoples from the scourge of the Nazis and fascists. Now we understand that we had help from some stalwart allies in the cause, of course, but it is also understood that we were the prime mover in the effort. And after having accomplished this monumental feat, the U.S. military had a tremendous portion of this planet under its control, and the potential for empire was truly staggering.
But while empire beckoned the troops stay or even advance – and no military in history had ever walked away from such an opportunity – the Constitution bid that they return, for the Constitution was safe. And so in perhaps the greatest mass act of nobility in military history, they came home, and loved their wives, and raised their children, asking only for enough real estate to bury their dead.
And so from the shores of Normandy and Iwo Jima to the jungles of Vietnam, to the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, to the skies above and across and below the surface of the seas, and in a thousand small and unknown places and ways about which we will never know because of the nature of what many of you do, that noble military – though comprised of fallen and imperfect people – has time and again broken the teeth of evil and has kept the Darkness from covering this earth.
That Darkness fought by the military is the same Darkness fought in the house of worship, for Darkness has but one source. We are therefore allies and comrades-in-arms, and any legitimate house of worship is a place where the ethos of the hero and the warrior is honored. Let us never forget that out of all of the great servants of Scripture, only one was honored as a man after God’s own heart: David the warrior.
And we can honor Jeff Reynolds the warrior by continuing on as heroes and warriors who never give an inch to the Darkness. We can honor Jeff Reynolds the warrior by honoring and encouraging the heroes and warriors in our midst. And we can honor Jeff Reynolds the warrior by teaching the ethos (the heart) of the hero and warrior to our children and grandchildren so that they might live in freedom and dignity upon Earth. There is no better or greater legacy for a Navy SEAL than that.
We can also honor Jeff’s life by reminding ourselves of the dangers involved for the hero and the warrior. A few years ago I had just sent my wife off to work with her coffee in hand (six years in the Navy was definitely not wasted – I learned how to make some good coffee!), and scarcely had a minute passed before she called to tell me that my buddies were at a house around the corner. I was a chaplain with the Sheriff’s Department then, and so I put on my jacket and walked over to the house where the squad cars had gathered. There was a Marine who had moved into the neighborhood a few months before – I hadn’t even had the chance to meet him yet – and he had ended his life in his garage the night before.
I stayed there for some hours with one of the deputies, and we both took this one hard. It was unfortunately not something all that uncommon to see in the law enforcement business, but it just seemed to really affect us. The Marine’s Gunny eventually showed up, and we were able to learn about this remarkable man. He had been in the Corps for over twelve years, was very intelligent, spoke at least five languages, was well liked and had thus far had a fine career. He had already done seven tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was scheduled for his eighth.
Now we don’t know why he took his own life, but I have my suspicions. When talking with the Gunny, I totaled up all of the time this Marine had spent in the hostile theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it turns out that he had already served more time there than it had taken this nation of ours to prosecute World War II from start to finish. And all of that time served while facing the most vile kind of enemy. The kind who fight from behind houses of worship and who cry foul when you fight back. The kind who use women and children as shields, or who would just as easily blow up women and children without a second thought just for the privilege of killing you. And all of that time facing the possibility that every doorknob may be booby-trapped, that every rock may be an IED, or that every child may be an IED. And all of that time being forced to fight under truly hideous rules of engagement imposed by our politicians. It’s a wonder that anyone is able to keep their sanity under such conditions – and he was scheduled to go back for more.
You see, Al Qaeda and the Taliban never got to my neighbor, but I think that the Darkness eventually did. As a pastor and a veteran, I beg – I plead – of the hero and the warrior: do not do yourself the disservice of believing that you can peer long and deeply into the heart of Darkness and be unaffected by it. And you must peer long and deeply into the heart of Darkness in order to fight it, for you must know what you are fighting in order to defeat it. It will stain you, it will corrupt you, it will steal from you – that’s what it does. And it will leave you lost and hopeless and broken.
In my post military life I became a pastor. This shows that God definitely has a sense of humor – and if you’d heard the way I talked for my last two years in the Navy, you’d know just how great that sense of humor is! And in this post military life I soon noticed that there was a Special Warfare command operating all around me, only the Operators were the most unlikely group of men – they were pastors!
They were pastors who with ferocity battled the Darkness day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. Who with ferocity battled the Darkness in prayer, who with ferocity battled the Darkness from their pulpits, who with ferocity battled the Darkness in study and in ministering to the lost and the broken and the hurting and the dejected and the disenfranchised. And they did so without ever losing their way or their hope, for their foundation was secure and their destination sure.
I surrounded myself with such men – I surround myself with such men to this very day – because you want the best around you when it starts going down. I once picked a fight with a Navy SEAL, and it was Navy SEAL versus Navy Nuke. He was gracious and let me live, and didn’t even hurt me very much. And he gave me a wonderful introduction to the carotid restraint. Truly impressive and efficient. You see, my Navy training had me splitting atoms. I could push the aircraft carrier through the water, I could make your water and electricity and give you steam to launch planes, but combat obviously wasn’t my thing. Which means that when it came to fighting, you didn’t want the Navy Nuke by your side. You wanted a Jeff Reynolds. You wanted the men trained by Jeff Reynolds. You wanted the Navy SEAL, the Marine, the Ranger and the infantryman.
My point here is simply this: let us help you! We are some of the pastors in your communities and some of the chaplains in your commands. You’ll know us by our words and our deeds and our hearts. We’re not asking for your membership or your attendance. We’re not even asking you to believe what we believe. Of course we pray for you in the general sense, but we would love to know you and pray for you by name. And for your family. And if anonymity is needed, we can do that too. What we’re asking is simply the opportunity of relationship, and to allow us to have your backs in the way that we do best, because we live behind your backs in peace, safety and freedom. That’s something we never forget.
So let’s wrap this up. I have a confession to make: I love my Commanding Officer. The one above my wife. When I was in the Navy, this is a confession I never would’ve made, of course, as my fellow sailors would’ve looked at me funny. Today, however, with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it probably wouldn’t be an issue. But I do love my Commanding Officer. He is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Great I Am. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is Immanuel (which means God With Us), and He is most commonly known as Jesus.
He is a wonderful Savior, an unsurpassed friend and comrade (who will never leave a man behind), and is the finest Commanding Officer I’ve ever had. He alone can award that campaign ribbon most desired by all the living – the campaign ribbon of eternal life. It is a simple, dark red ribbon – red with the red of His blood, with which He purchased forgiveness for all humanity. And He freely awards it to all those who willingly serve under His command.
There is room for all in that command – especially for the hero and the warrior – for just as the Darkness has but one source, so too does the Light served by the warrior as he or she defends all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.
And my Commanding Officer, well, He is the Light of the World.
Pray with me please…