Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your families.
Men’s Easter Breakfast speech – Southside United Methodist – 4/11/2009
DISCLAIMER — This is an emotional spiritual testimony, and I’m a somewhat uncomfortable witness. If you think you’ll be offended by this Christian message, stop reading. Otherwise, I’m happy to share my story.
I’d like to thank Dale for asking me to speak today, and everyone for coming, including my son Brandon, and my father-in law Les Bennett. Many of you know me, but for those who do not I’m Jon Singleton, a member of Southside Methodist, along my wife Candace and children Brandon and Emily. We live several blocks up the road here in San Marco. I’m a local Realtor, and also, as I’ll elaborate on, a Commander in the Navy Reserve.
It’s a strange irony to be standing here speaking on Holy Saturday, because I’ve always had a problem with serious Christians, and never really understood this whole Faith thing intellectually. Although I’ve spent most of my life in one form of limbo or another, I’ve always maintained the illusion I’ve been in control. I’ve seen Faith as a crutch, as something for people without confidence in themselves or their abilities. Or, more pertinently as the dogma of those without the ability to think and discover for themselves.
Part of the irony is that my father was a Presbyterian minister, although not by the time I was old enough to really start to know him. He was drawn to the clergy by a strong calling to help others, and spent time fighting bookies in the East Bronx, and later battling racism in Birmingham, where I was born. By the time I was 6, he was at odds with his white congregation because of his activities in black churches in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Although still ordained in the Presbyterian church, he left organized religion, and unfortunately was not able to share it’s positive attributes with me. I grew up attending churches infrequently, and without much spiritual foundation. When I was 13, I moved to rural North Georgia, and was surrounded by people who were convinced I needed saving, but who couldn’t adequately communicate the reason with me, and didn’t really understand it themselves. I felt they were small minded folks merely parroting the rote drilled into their heads. I now realize I just wasn’t ready to hear their message.
As I said, I’ve always been in control, or at least thought I was. Though life has continued to present obstacles and setbacks, those minor failures always catalyzed new resolve for me to overcome them with vengeance, and greater success. I’ve always felt I was the guide, and my confidence and ability to conquer hardship was all I needed. In college I faced my first major challenge by almost failing and losing my Navy scholarship to Vanderbilt in my Freshman year. I persevered and graduated on time. I later left Naval Aviation under a dark cloud, and was sort of excommunicated to the Middle East for a couple of years. I returned to a great assignment at the Pentagon. I then left active duty and moved to Jacksonville, and struggled to find a new career. I finally hit my civilian stride and rose to the top 1% of the real estate profession. I started buying investment and renovation properties, and putting together bigger deals. In 2005, I purchased (and mortgaged) a million dollars worth of real estate in Springfield, and was projecting hundred of thousands of dollars of income for 2006. God had a different plan.
I’d never understood how God’s plan might be different from mine, or why he would be particularly concerned with me, or whether he was a specific entity, or how it all worked. I also never really understood Christ, as the son of God, or man. I always suspected that maybe some Roman or Greeks, or Germans, or Brits had used his story to garner power for themselves. I’d never accepted Jesus Christ as MY personal savior. Instead I’d gleaned wonderful philosophical lessons from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddism, Hindu, and Shinto, but hadn’t really grasped the big one. I’d confused morals with ethics, and didn’t understand you’ve got to have FAITH, and it’s based on SPIRITUAL not intellectual belief. And, maybe you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to believe, and stop focusing on external influences. You’ve got to know, that there is a plan. I always thought relying on faith meant losing my choice and free will. I thought it meant giving up and giving in. I now know it means I can release the anguish anger and anxiety and actually live.
On February 4th 2006, I got a phone call around 10:30am. It was one of those great Saturday mornings with the family when you’re trying to figure out the funnest thing you can do with the kids. We’d eaten and were caffeinated, and the day was ours to explore. The voice on the other side of the phone said “Commander Singleton, you’re being mobilized to go to Afghanistan for at least 12 months… and then he said a bunch of other stuff… it’s and IA assignment in support of OEF for NAV ELSG… Commander, do you understand what I’m saying?” At that point Candace, who knew it was a phone call from the Navy, and had seen the color drain from my face, asked what in the world was going on. I waved her off (one of the few times in my marriage I’d actually done that), and digested what I’d been told. As a reserve Commanding Officer, I’d made that phone call to a number of Sailors, but not for a 12 month deployment, and not to Afghanistan. The country is landlocked, and is 650 nautical miles from the nearest navigable body of water… and I was going 6000’ above sea level to a mountainous desert carrying a rifle. It didn’t make sense to me.
The next 4 weeks were a blur, as I cancelled every commitment I had in life, and then on March 5th, I said goodbye and left. I joined 174 other unhappy Sailors in Norfolk, all shell shocked and confused, angry, sad, etc. Of all the Navy friendships I formed and forged, 2 were particularly remarkable on my path to Christ. On about day 3, I discovered that Sam Roundtree had received only 3 days notice to come from a very senior civilian position in Japan (which he was able to extend to a little over a week with considerable effort). I asked how in the world did he manage to deal with this. “Jon, we cried about it and prayed about it, and I realized, I guess God’s got something I’ve got to do in Afghanistan”. I’d never considered prayer to deal with things, and this thought and message bounced around my head for, well, several years now. The second was Kevin Bivens, who helped me gradually wrap my mind around Faith and Fate in guard towers, hunkered in bunkers, around campfires, on the road and under fire. Through him I came to understand the quiet trust and calm that only He can bring.
Many of you know of some of my specific experiences in Afghanistan. You can see the pictures of the slideshow and can read my day to day journal online. Looking back, the most significant part seems the enormous chunk of time it involved, to which my son and father-in-law in the audience can attest. As the pictures on the screen show, I was engaged. I was in the neighborhoods and the villages. I spoke Dari and Pashtu with the Afghans, and poor Spanish, German, French and Italian. I was completely engaged in the military, driving Humvees, and bearing big weapons (although they never did give me grenades for my launcher). I interacted aggressively with the coalition, and was a reasonably good Soldier. I realized I was there for a reason, though unsure what it was.
Although, I received awards for my military and humanitarian service there, I don’t know that that’s why I was sent. I do think I was able to do some good for both the Afghan Army and the refugees, and was able to raise awareness in the U.S. of their plight through my email journal and clothing drives. I don’t know that that’s why God really sent me, though. I think it may have been in part because I was never able to understand Faith in a book, or release control on my own. I suspect it may have been to start a year long journey that would lead me to the top of a mountain in Afghanistan on Good Friday 2007. We could only scale the 1,500 foot climb on Fridays because the Gharib Ghar was located on a huge shooting range in our backyard. So COL Lyman arranged for a Good Friday service instead of Easter Sunday, and Chaplain Werner came from Camp Phoenix, and we started climbing around 6am. At the top, Chaplain Werner started talking about Jesus and the cross and the dry desert and mountains around Jerusalem (where I’ve been). And the people wearing robes, and persecuting those who believe in other Gods, and the lack of electricity and convenience, and the goat herders and shepherds, and we were transported back 2,000 years. He talked about Faith in God and forgiveness of sin, and I was filled for the first time with an immeasurable amount of love and hope and faith and acceptance that I was here for a reason and that it was to serve my Lord. Some of us are thicker than others, and I couldn’t hear it here, so He sent me there. And then clearly back here so I could share it with you.
It’s changed everything. I have trouble with some of the praise songs and sermons now. It’s just that when I hear “When I’m found in the desert place/Though I walk through the wilderness/Blessed be your name” or when Bruce preaches from Psalm 23 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I will fear no evil,” it all hits a little close to home, because it’s not a metaphor for me… I’ve wandered in the desert and have been in the valley of the shadow of death, see, I have pictures to prove it! But the message helps, and it does because it helped so much in Afghanistan. There were times when I’d talked with my family, but was about to go on a convoy on a mission. We’d hear a large explosion in one direction, and double checked the mounted weapons on the HUMVEEs and ammo. We briefed the crew and rolled, waiting for an attack, but praying we’d come through it. I realize at that point I had finally developed a deep faith, because I’d accepted that God would bring me home. At some points I wasn’t entirely sure whether it would be my home, back to my family, or His home, but I knew it would be alright. That feeling has stayed with me as I’ve faced financial fear in the past year as my profession’s been hit by the global economic meltdown. I know it’s going to be okay. Now I’m not sure about the specifics, about my car, or house, or health. But, I know God will bring me home. And since my wife is now at my side spiritually too (or I’m finally at hers), I know we will be fine together. Praise God for bringing me to Him, and for letting me share this with you. Thank you.