Michael Milton’s long and varied ministry across the military, the business world and the Church has given him a unique framework for his role as army chaplain. Founder and president of “Faith for Living” preaching ministry, president and senior fellow of the D. James Kennedy Institute for Christianity and Culture, Milton also appears regularly on “Truth That Transforms,” a weekly national television program. Additionally, Milton has a long history with the PCA, as a founding member of Heartland Presbytery and member of the Administrative Committee and the PCA Board of Directors, as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church (Chattanooga, Tenn.), and founding pastor of both Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Overland Park, Kan.) and Kirk O’ the Isles (Savannah, Ga.). The author of at least 17 books, Milton was called as president and chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary in 2007, but retired in 2014 because of an extended recovery from an illness. Milton continues to serve as professor, writer, speaker, Army Reserve chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel), and currently serves as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School (Fort Jackson, S.C.).
You attribute much of your journey to military service—and to the chaplaincy—to your father. What role did he play?
My father was a naval and U.S. Merchant Marine officer in World War II. He died when I was very young and I was left an orphan. When I was a young man, I served in naval intelligence as an Albanian linguist during the Cold War. Several years later, after I heard the Gospel from D. James Kennedy, I decided I wanted to become a reserve military chaplain. I wanted to reach and serve both the confused young man trying to figure out what life is all about as well as the aging officer who knows very well what life is all about and is trying to make sense of God’s grace in the midst of failure. I saw myself as that young man and my father as that aging officer.
Not long ago, you wrote in a letter to a member of your congregation who was considering the chaplaincy: “I consider this particular call one of the greatest acts of Christlike service in all of the ministry.” Why is that?
First of all, because of the way Christ Himself dealt with soldiers. He said He had not seen faith in all of Israel the way He saw faith in a soldier. He was, of course, critical of the professional religious, but He pointed out the great faith in a Roman soldier who was doing his job. I see that kind of faith every day.
Second, those in the military are modeling for us John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And so to minister to that sort of spirit is a great privilege and a great honor.
Also, in the Profession of Arms, the chaplain’s role has historically been very important. As the medical doctor brings help and healing to wounded bodies, the chaplain brings help and healing to wounded souls. There is an open door for ministry in the military like none other.
What are the most common needs that you see in the servicemen and women to whom you minister?
Trauma is one. The effects of trauma are so many. Some will want to ignore it. Some will want to bury it. Some will want to compartmentalize it. A few will want to own it and hold it and make sense of it. Those are the healthy ones.
When anyone comes to a chaplain, then the chaplain has the right to share out of his faith, so that gives me the opportunity to teach and counsel out of the complete theological worldview that I subscribe to as a PCA minister. So just as I would with any parishioner, I would seek to diagnose, listen and learn before I would seek to treat. And for almost all of them, it involves the opportunity to share Christ . . . to share Him as the way of healing and redemption.
Tell us more about that. How does Christ offer real, tangible healing to someone suffering from Posttraumatic stress disorder, for example?
Since World War I, we have had to come face to face with what instruments of modern warfare can do to the human soul and what that leaves to those who remain. When you see the image of God obliterated in front of you, it’s repulsive. It touches that sensus divinitatis (“sense of divinity”) and sends a chill through your body when you see the image of God ripped and torn in front of you. It may be inexplicable to see the body parts of children or to see the body of a friend who was next to you one second and gone the next.
When I’m working with someone who has experienced this, I have found the pattern of the Crucifixion, Black Saturday and the Resurrection to be helpful. I want to move them from the Passion and the Crucifixion, and sometimes work them through Black Saturday where things just don’t make sense, but this is where God the Son is on a cold stone slab, and yet God is still in control and there is still a resurrection coming. My calling is to help that soldier, sailor, airman or guardsman to reconcile those things, or not to reconcile them and just recognize that they are living in the inexplicable, mysterious place that is known and unknown. Yet, there is a Resurrection Sunday and it comes, but there is still a Black Saturday and that day, too, is part of the larger Gospel story.
You have mentioned in your writings that you see one’s sense of the heroic as closely linked to one’s fervor for the Gospel. Can you explain that?
In the sense of the heroic, I think that anyone who desires to become a chaplain has to possess a sense of adventure, an idealism, a patriotism about the nation and about public service. I think that in this ministry of the chaplaincy—whether one is a citizen soldier (reservist) or active duty—there’s got to be not only giving yourself to the Lord but also to your country. I think there has to be a strong sense of sacrifice—selfless sacrifice—for something greater for the common good. If you’re a reserve chaplain, there is always going to be sacrifice as you walk that tightrope between serving the civilian church and the military. In order to do that, there has to be something that drives you onward. I believe it’s that sense of the heroic that includes patriotism, self-sacrifice and public service. Somehow that sense of the heroic must be captured in a single compelling vision, image, story or narrative. For me, I always go back to this: I am a chaplain so that I can seek to reach out to the lost young man and to the burdened, middle-aged officer.
But let no one say that I have sacrificed anything to the local church, the seminary and the military chaplaincy. I have really sacrificed nothing. I have gained all.