Have you ever wrestled with how to reconcile closed doors that conflict with God’s direct calling on your life? In her interview, Dr. Juliana Lesher, former director of the VA National Chaplain Service, shared with ASM’s Paul McCullough about her own personal trauma as a young adult that brought her to faith and the fulfillment of God’s calling. She explained how she got involved with ASM and how her experiences equipped her to be the architect and author of the popular ‘God Understands’ series.
Dr. Juliana Lesher and the God Understands Series Story
God Understands is an eight-part scripture series that was written and designed for service members and veterans that are facing intense challenges as a result of their service. This scripture-based series uses video and written testimonials from other service members with similar experiences dealing with topics from anger, to depression, to guilt. Dr. Lesher gave us some background on how this project got started:
“So in conversation with the American Bible Society, it became apparent that we might want to develop some booklets. A booklet on each one of the spiritual injuries that could be used by the Chaplains in ministering to the Veterans—and that would also be meaningful for the Veterans. So I was brought in as a consultant to be engaged in what these booklets might be like and was then asked to be one of the two writers for the eight [booklets] of the God Understands series. So out of all these conversations about the spiritual injuries scale, it was decided that there’d be eight booklets; one for each of the spiritual injuries on the spiritual injuries scale, and that I would be writing four of the booklets.”
Dr. Lesher, along with a fellow Chaplain, Chaplain Dick Millspaugh, would go on to co-author the eight booklets that makeup God Understands featuring real-life stories of veterans who had been through the challenges represented on the spiritual injuries scale. The series was also constructed using accounts from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, allowing the booklets to be used by both Christian and Jewish Chaplains as they saw fit.
So, what exactly is the spiritual injuries scale and how does it fit in the God Understands series?
The Spiritual Injuries Scale, and Developing God Understands
The Spiritual Injuries Scale or Survey (SIS) was developed in the 1980s by Chaplain Gary Berg and his associates to help assess Veterans in VA hospitals. It became the inspiration for the content as well as the actual topic titles in the God Understands series.
Within the SIS included questions about feeling guilt over past behaviors, feeling hopelessness, or even fearing death. The subjects, therefore, became the topics of the God Understands program, so that Chaplains would be able to use the individual books to help with whatever situation a patient was experiencing. Here are the topics in the God Understands series:
The SIS has been assisting Chaplains and Counselors since the mid-1980s and continues to be a valuable resource in VA Hospitals today. Since the publication of God Understands in 2008, the SIS has served a critical role in aiding mental health and spiritual leaders, like Dr. Lesher.
From a Court-Ordered Feeding Tube to an Advocate for Suicide Prevention
Dr. Lesher’s background and childhood were both intense and inspiring as she shared her personal story with Paul McCullough during the interview. She began by sharing about the calling she felt God had put on her heart at a young age:
“Well, I actually have known since I was seven years of age, that all I wanted to do was share about Jesus and share about the Gospel… I gave my heart to Jesus when I was five years of age, and some of that stems just from really having experienced living with pain ever since I was a little child. I was born with Congenital Scoliosis. At a very young age, I just really felt that Jesus was the one who could bear our burdens and bear our sufferings. So really, at the age of seven, I said I wanted to be a pastor and be ministering in the church.”
As Dr. Lesher continued to pursue what she thought was God’s will in her life, doors began to close:
“I will say, over the years that has been a challenge, because all the churches where I have worshiped have been not open to women ministering as pastors and preaching and teaching.
So when I was in college, I finally accepted that the church wasn’t going to be an open door, so [I decided] I would go to the mission field. Unfortunately, at the very last moment, that didn’t work out because they did not want a woman to [go teach] the Bible in that particular situation. I was really disillusioned in my early twenties, and that’s when I actually did try to take my own life.”
Multiple attempts at taking her own life through self-starvation led to years of court-mandated force feedings along with medical and legal help. Through love, support, and experiencing God’s grace, she was ready to look again for an open door:
“I went then to pursue Military Chaplaincy because I thought, ‘Well, the church isn’t an open door and the mission field is not an open door so I’ll be a Military Chaplain because the government would let me minister.’ Unfortunately, I applied for medical waivers with every single branch of our Military and was denied on all accounts because of the full-length spinal fusion and some nerve damage in my back. And so, closed doors again, and finally, I’m in seminary, and the professor says to me, ‘Have you ever heard of clinical pastoral education?’”
God’s calling had finally been revealed.
Dr. Lesher became a VA Chaplain—returning to the hospitals, not as a patient, but as a spiritual healer for 26 years—tending to the wounds of the spiritually suffering.
God’s Plan Further Revealed: Dr. Juliana Lesher’s Role as the VA National Chaplain Service Director
Dr. Lesher loved the work she was doing as the Chief of Chaplains in South Texas, but God had other plans for her. Ironically, she struggled with the next door opened to her which was to become the National Director of VA Chaplains in Washington, D.C. There, she would oversee the work of VA Chaplains from across the country—a great opportunity to promote positive changes. However, she shared her hesitancy and her ultimate obedience:
“I never wanted to be the national director. I loved being in South Texas, I loved always ministering to the patients and being with the hurting people… So in 2018, when I was asked to come as the national director (I call it now my ‘Garden of Gethsemane experience’), I kept saying, ‘God, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. Please pick someone else.’…But I really felt a conviction by God that there were certain things that needed to be done for the VA Chaplaincy…So I prayed to God and I said, ‘God if you want me to go to Washington D.C., I will go…’”
And go she did, drastically transforming the coding system for how the VA Chaplains program was funded by Congress and changing their (Chaplains) professional status from “administrative overhead” to “clinical staff”. This would forever change the perception of the Chaplain in hospitals. Her obedience to God’s will made way for VA Chaplains everywhere.
How God Can Use One Willing Person to Impact the World
It’s the incredible story of how God uses the broken and the suffering to reach out and minister to others who are broken and suffering. God in His grace and love lifted Dr. Lesher out of a very low place in her life and transformed her into a passionate VA Chaplain and national director who affected the lives of Chaplains and Veterans across the country. He used that same position to leverage her experiences and skills for God Understands, which continues to serve as a tool for Chaplains and a resource for Service members. Anyone can access the God Understands series online at: godunderstandsmilitary.org
For Dr. Lesher, the doors did finally open—because she chose to trust and obey, and because God is faithful to those he has called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28).
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV)