Acts 1:8: How one military chaplain is sharing Christ among comrades

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U.S. Army chaplain James G. Burke (Jay) remembers the night the Lord got his attention.

After a dare by his military friends to swim 50 meters in one breath, he took the challenge with gusto. However, 25 meters in, Burke could not sustain the length of the swim and began to drown. At the bottom of the pool, unable to swim back up, Burke distinctly felt God calling out to him, “Jay, stop running from me.” His friends did not realize at first what had happened to him, but they soon came to his rescue. The next day, his chaplain, David Wisdom at The Citadel, shared the gospel with him, and Burke came to know Christ. CH (COL) David Golden (RET.) began discipling him that same year in 2006. 

At Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), more than 100 students are pursuing theological training in order to be equipped for military chaplaincy. From 2009-2012, Burke was one of those students, pursuing a Master of Divinity in Christian ministry. Burke has passionately pursued his ministry as a military chaplain for the past 11 years as a Reserve and active duty chaplain. In the same way that the Lord used chaplain Wisdom in 2006 to share the gospel with Burke and disciple him, Burke now hopes to see more come to know Christ through his chaplaincy. Burke took some time to share his thoughts on military chaplaincy and the unique joys and challenges this ministry brings. 

What prompted you to pursue military chaplaincy?  

The military is consumed with the fear of man and I wanted to share with soldiers a way to experience true freedom from that fear because I was once consumed with how others viewed me in training. 

How has your education at Southeastern prepared you for military chaplaincy? 

The experiences with the professors and the life-on-life discipleship and fellowship with other believers on campus, in chapel and on mission trips made all the teaching, classes and countless papers worth every penny. I was not a bookie and barely passed a few classes due to demands, but the relationships I developed grounded my spirit and soul in the word of God. 

What has been one of the most challenging aspects of serving as a chaplain?  

Losing soldiers in combat or by suicide. I buried five soldiers and family members in five months at my first battalion as a chaplain—four were suicides. A lot of soldiers are deeply wounded spiritually or physically from divorces, adultery, drug/substance abuse or addictions. These soldiers are overwhelmed by guilt, shame and hopelessness, and many decide to take their own lives as a result. It can be a very spiritually-dark place getting into the trenches with some of these soldiers who are at that point. 

What has been one of the most encouraging experiences of your time as a chaplain? 

In Iraq, I had a soldier come to me one night as I was walking around my Forward Operating Base. He shared those feelings of hopelessness, guilt and shame of things he had done to his family. I stopped him, we prayed and read through John until 3 a.m. The next day, he repented and experienced a showering of God’s grace and forgiveness for his sins. He ran to me as I was walking to a guard tower and with tears in his eyes thanked me, and we praised Jesus together. The next night he read through Matthew and, after that, Mark. This was not a new infantryman; this was a highly decorated infantry combat veteran who had been in the Army for 18 years and now worked at the Pentagon. He said he had never talked to a chaplain or set foot in a chapel. The next chapel service, he was on the front row on the edge of his seat because he experienced the love of Christ. God healed his heart, his marriage and his family over the next several weeks. 

How can the local church better serve military families? 

Hospitality is huge. If local churches simply look up the names of battalions on the post near them and call their battalion chaplain, then the church can partner with that chaplain and adopt a platoon or squad. The way to a soldier’s heart is through his stomach. You give a soldier a fresh home-cooked meal, and he will pour his heart out. Jesus broke bread with some rough people, and there are a lot of rough soldiers that need to experience the love of Christ through local church hospitality. 

*This article was edited for length and clarity

From our local community to the outermost parts of the world, Southeastern students and alumni are reaching people with the gospel by fulfilling the Great Commission. Using the model of Acts 1:8, we want to highlight these stories of how our Southeastern family is serving in North Carolina, North America and around the world. Acts 1:8 Stories create a collective and consistent way to tell the story of Southeastern, one person at a time. From local pastors to missionaries among the unreached, God is doing a great work among students and alumni. Where are they now and where are they going? We can’t wait for you to find out! 

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