LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–In the wake of the events of Sept. 11, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student Tim McKnight clearly understands Jonathan Edwards’ resolution to think often about death.
But the epidemic of terrorism that shook America on that eventful day set McKnight to pondering eternity for a reason that differs markedly from popular sentiment.
McKnight, a doctor of philosophy student at the Louisville, Ky., school, departed five weeks after the attacks for Germany as a member of the U.S. Army National Guard.
He spent nearly 10 months away from family, church and seminary while serving as a brigade chaplain in both Operation Noble Eagle and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“Death is much more of a reality for me now,” McKnight said. “That was probably the way in which this experience changed me most. It is one thing to talk about God’s providence and sovereignty and quite another thing to have difficult situations arise and then see God’s providence and grace in a time of hardship.”
Hardship began immediately after the call as McKnight pondered saying goodbye to his wife, Angela, and the couple’s twin sons — Noah and Micah — who were seven months old at the time. Though McKnight was not going to the front lines of the war on terrorism, he was headed for a country in which the threat of terrorism was deemed likely.
While bidding adieu to his family with danger looming wasn’t easy, McKnight learned a valuable spiritual lesson during his months away: to seek his ultimate delight in the Lord.
“I think the ultimate life lesson for me when I left was that I saw how secure I am in my studies and in my church home and in my family,” he said. “Leaving my family was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and it is only by God’s grace that I was able to do it.
“But God challenged me to delight ultimately in him. I am not to worship the blessings but instead the one through whom all blessings flow. I think that will be a lifelong lesson.”
McKnight’s studies were interrupted by his leaving on Oct. 21, 2001. He was in Germany until Aug. 5 of this year. McKnight’s job was not to fight terrorists with man-made weapons but to provide counsel for soldiers in the midst of the introspective spiritual warring that is part and parcel of such a profoundly stressful circumstance. He has served in the National Guard as a chaplain since 1996.
As part of his job, McKnight led Bible studies and preached weekly worship services for the soldiers deployed in Hanau. While he saw a few conversions, McKnight said he was greatly encouraged by the depth of discipleship that believing soldiers often carried out toward each other.
“I would go to witness to somebody with questions about Christianity or to start a Bible study only to find out that one of my soldiers had already shared the Gospel or started a Bible study,” he said.
“That’s the way New Testament Christianity is supposed to work. That was a very humbling experience. My soldiers did most of the ministry.”
McKnight said one of the most difficult aspects of his time overseas was not being able to share personal anxieties with another person. God eventually placed a fellow evangelical chaplain from Pennsylvania in McKnight’s path from whom he received ministering.
“In that situation you can only talk to the Lord because you have to remain positive for the soldiers,” he said. “That can be a lonely place. It is a real challenge for the chaplain and commander because he is in a position in which he can’t share much on a personal level.”
To keep thoughts of home from overwhelming him, McKnight said he took encouragement by reading John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn., or by listening to taped sermons by Alistair Begg, pastor of Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio. In addition, the wives of a number of World War II veterans from McKnight’s home church sent him encouraging letters. McKnight serves as associate pastor and youth minister at Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Louisville.
“One of the things that blessed me the most was how the seminary community and our church family reached out to Angela and the boys,” he said. “Church members and seminary friends babysat for her and helped us out in so many different ways.”
McKnight returned from active duty on Aug. 5. He has slowly become reacquainted with civilian life and recently received his discharge from service. McKnight has since been hired as an admissions counselor at the seminary.
In his job, McKnight travels and recruits prospective students for the seminary. He also teaches a class and has returned to his position at his church. Life is gradually returning to its pre-deployment norm for McKnight and family.
“I’m getting back to my studies and church work,” he said. “The ironic thing about it is that as a chaplain, I am the one who is briefing those guys [fellow soldiers] on acclimating.”
McKnight began at Southern Seminary as a master of divinity student in 1993.
He graduated with a master of divinity degree in evangelism, missions and church growth in 1996 and then enrolled in the doctor of philosophy program.
He is writing a dissertation on the theology and methodology of First Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield. McKnight recalls the anxious hours before his departure during which Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. prayed with him in the president’s office.
“That was a great encouragement to me,” he said “We are blessed to have a man like Dr. Mohler at Southern. He really ministered to me by taking time to pray with me. We are very blessed at this seminary. It’s good to be back home.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: TIM MCKNIGHT and A FATHER AND SON.