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Boots on the Ground

Dr. Doug Hardy
Professor of Spiritual Formation, Director, Doctor of Ministry Degree Program

As the U.S. Congress debates military intervention in Syria, the phrase “boots on the ground” keeps popping up in the news media. It serves as short-hand for the physical presence of soldiers in a battle zone, and some politicians use the term to argue that having boots on the ground should not be a necessary or desirable part of American military strategy in this instance.

We know from experience that getting involved “on the ground” is not only costly but often leads to deeper commitments of involvement. And so we hope that there might be a way of making an attack, making a point, and thereby winning—from a distance. Fly in, strike, fly out.

I don’t know about the wisdom of this approach in war, but I do know there are other areas of life where it simply does not work. My marriage, for example. I cannot truly love my wife unless I am willing to be physically present with her, involved in day-to-day life with her. Marriage requires boots on the ground. Occasional drone attacks of love-from-a-distance will not cut it.

Could it be that all of us—married or single, male or female, soldier or civilian, young or old—have to come to terms with a temptation to avoid committing boots on the ground in an area of life where it seems easier, safer to simply foray from a distance? And might this temptation help us to see where the call to discipleship is leading?

Theologically, the starting place for me is the Incarnation. In Jesus, we see a God who insists that any salvation requires boots on the ground: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NRSV). No revelation-from-a-distance. No disembodied, spirit strike. No faceless good will.

Likewise, the Church—the Body of Christ—must be a boots on the ground force in order “that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10, NRSV). There is no substitute, no shortcut for incarnational ministry following our Incarnational Lord.

So, let me invite you to join me in considering these questions for reflection, personally and in your community of faith:

  • Where is God calling you that it is hard to put boots on the ground?
  • What “alternative” approaches of keeping a distance might signal a reluctance to take the incarnational path?
  • What might a first step look like toward a more grounded discipleship in the contested places of your world?

The ground on which we humbly place our boots in faithfulness to the God who calls becomes sacred ground, holy ground. On it, we experience the ever-important “threefold relationship between God, his people, and place” (John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place; Ashgate:2003, 46).

Reader Comments (7)

Doug, thanks for this helpful insight. It led me to think a bit about those places where I have tried to pastor from a distance - for example, my reluctance toward visitation. The ministry of presence matters. Right now, our fellowship is involved in several ministry relationships that demand physical connection - it is simply not enough to say we care, we need to purposefully, physically connect, to have "boots on the ground." Ministry to the sick, the shut-ins, the homeless, the emotionally in distress, even to those who look fine, but who are hiding great pain - and wondering if we can be trusted enough for them to reveal the hurt.
Thanks for the reminder.

09.17.2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike Schutz

You're welcome, Mike. I hear you. This can be a significant challenge to those of us who are introvertish by nature & shaping and who, therefore, value certain measures of "distance". This is why we need others to help pull us beyond ourselves. Wesley understood this and so framed things like visiting the sick, prisoners, and poor as a "means of grace". Blessings on your church in these important initiatives.

09.17.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Hardy

Ah, Dr. Doug . . . "drone attacks of love from a distance." Too funny! The image that conjures up . . . .

But seriously, thanks for a good and thought-provoking article!

09.21.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Herbert

Dr. Doug,

Wonderful example of a missional approach to all areas of our life, not just inside the walls of the church. Incarnational living forward of Christ as being sent as "boots on the ground." We are the continuation of that being sent incarnationally into this world. Thanks for the reminder.

09.22.2013 | Unregistered CommenterGarry Edwards

Many thanks for this insightful, incarnational and challenging reflection! I'm passing it on to my little "CLC" (Christian Life Community) at St. Francis and to others whom I believe will appreciate it as I do.

09.22.2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy N

Your statement that the starting point for you is the Incarnation, reminded me of this story:

A Catholic priest asked permission from his bishop to resign his suburban parish so he could work among the poor and homeless in the inner city. The bishop granted permission. But some of his fellow priests asked him why he wanted to do that. He replied: "Because I believe in the Incarnation."

09.22.2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob Staples

Great reminder that life change does not happen from a distance! It did not happen that way for any of us and it won't happen to those we are trying to reach with the Gospel. Why is it then that so many of our Evangelism and Discipleship methods are more like "drone strikes" than boots on the ground?

10.2.2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Fink

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