God helped a serviceman overcome many obstacles to his faith life to lead him closer to his Savior.
Military service requires bravery. Service members put their lives on the line for others, and that willingness for self-sacrifice is often a part of the military ethos that inspires so many men and women to join. With such high stakes and incredible responsibilities, young service members mature quickly but can struggle to maintain that discipline after separating from military service.
Justin Burk, a member at NorthCross, Lakeville, Minn., discovered this truth the hard way. “You’re in this bubble where it’s sort of hard to get into trouble. There are always people to catch you and sweep you into your room. You’re watching each other’s backs and making sure they stay out of trouble. I acted like I still had that net,” he says.
However, a series of wake-up calls reminded Justin of how he had strayed, putting him back on track—in his faith and his life.
Justin joined the U.S. Marine Corps in January 2008, while still a student at Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) in Milwaukee, Wis. He had graduated from Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School, New Ulm, Minn., and attended WLC to study vocal and trumpet performance. As it became daunting to consider more student loans and tuition payments, Justin remembers floundering and feeling unsure of his future career path. This college student said to himself, “I’m gonna let someone else make my decisions for a few years and get any future college paid for.”
While financial possibilities motivated the final push, Justin had long been interested in a career in the military. As a child, he was inspired by military values of honor and brotherhood as well as the examples set by family members serving in various branches. When he began Marine recruit training in San Diego, Calif., Justin encountered many people who did not share those same motivations, beliefs, and values. Although reality differed greatly from his expectations, he felt the accomplishments of completing recruit training, boot camp, and combat training, before beginning job school in Pensacola, Fla., for a year and a half.
Justin completed his schooling to become a radar maintenance technician. “It’s funny, because I left to get out of school and ended up getting basically an associate degree,” says Justin, laughing. He enjoyed his time in school and working on field deployable radar systems, which he describes as “the kind of stuff you can drop in the middle of a desert and turn into an airfield.” Justin remembers training for high-intensity situations at school and described how he would practice live troubleshooting and finding alarming circuits while supervisors smacked pool noodles on the table in the middle of his workspace.
After serving on a watching detachment, a position for already existing air stations, Justin hoped to go overseas. He soon got his wish. A moving crew came to put together his things, label them with his Social Security number, and pack them on a C-130. He was stationed in Japan for the next two years as a radar station maintainer, simultaneously training on a civilian system. He helped oversee facilitating and installing processes, signed for multimillion-dollar equipment, and checked that everything was up to standards and working properly.
While living in Japan, Justin appreciated experiencing the culture and playing rock music both on- and off-base. But as he became comfortable with military life, it became all too easy to be negatively influenced by his peers. “My faith walk was pitiful during service,” says Justin. “I made some really bad decisions that changed me for the worse. I strayed pretty far, but I always had Jesus in my heart.” Though he attended church on a regular basis during his training, Justin says that at the time it was often simply an escape from the rigors of training.
When Justin’s service in Japan was over, it was time to move on to his next station. Justin put in a preference for the West Coast, with hopes of returning to the area near his childhood town. At the time, one of his friends was traveling all over California as a musician. Justin hoped to go with him and fulfill his rock star dream. Instead, he returned to Pensacola as a barracks manager. Although it wasn’t his desired location, Justin enjoyed the benefits of being one of the higher ranked Marines on base and had fun completing room inspections and spurring on many young Marines to rid their rooms of trash bags and pizza boxes as quickly as possible after waking from a deep sleep. After a quick promotion to sergeant, Justin separated from military service one week later.
Justin soon began working as an installation tech for a company in Franklin, Wis., traveling all over the country. He says he didn’t feel the transition of missing his comrades and coworkers because he maintained a lifestyle of constant movement and travel.
However, he also carried the guilt of wrong actions and decisions made while in the military. During his struggles, Justin remembers going back to WLC to visit his sister in college, where he attended chapel with her from time to time. He states that no matter how difficult life got, “I always had Jesus in my heart.” Still, he describes living in a dangerous “nothing can touch me” phase and becoming comfortable with living in gray areas.
During that time, Justin was working for a company that gave him the opportunity to move to California. It looked as though he would finally be able to pursue his music dreams. But the week before he was scheduled to move, Justin received a DUI when returning home from a party.
Justin felt as though he had received a message from God: “This dream and what you want is not what I have in store.” Although the years that followed were difficult, Justin says he remains thankful to God for setting him back on track because following his own plan would have likely consumed his life.
Justin used his GI Bill benefits to attend the Institute of Production and Recording in Minnesota to learn about lighting and sound for film. He got connected with NorthCross Lutheran Church and says it felt like home as soon as he started to attend. “A few times sitting there really hit hard. A couple Sundays [there were] tears and wondering, Who did I become? ” he says.
Justin surrounded himself with people grounded in Christian values and soon found himself making more positive choices. He volunteered to run the soundboard during worship services and built his job résumé, providing audio services at different venues. He married his wife, Jessica, in 2021 and is the proud father of a son, Maverick. “No,” Justin assures, “not after the movie [Top Gun]—well, maybe a little.”
Eventually, his pastor notified him of a tech position at the church, and Justin accepted. “I was happier than ever,” he says. “You could see God’s hand in all of it. . . . It’s cool to see the finger of God in your life like that sometimes.” In addition to serving as technical director at NorthCross, Justin continues to use his musical talents by singing at services and playing country music at local shows. He also assists with NorthCross’ Starting Point class, a ten-week doctrinal class for new attendees and members.
Although serving in the military presented many obstacles for Justin’s faith life, God overcame those obstacles to lead him closer to his Savior. And because of the skills Justin gained, both through school and military training, many at his congregation are blessed by his talents and work.
Justin urges anyone considering military service to stay connected to faith and family: “Put on the full armor of God before you learn to put on physical armor.”
The Lutheran Military Support Group, a non-profit providing Christ-centered support to WELS/Evangelical Lutheran Synod military service members, veterans, and their families, first published this article. Find out more about the organization at lutheranmilitary.org.
WELS members in the United States Armed Forces (including those in the National Guard and the Reserves) are not alone in their spiritual walk. WELS Military Services provides spiritual support to those stationed in the United States and abroad through a full-time civilian chaplain in Europe, a national civilian chaplain and liaison to the military, and a network of WELS military contact pastors across the United States.
But in order to offer that support, WELS Military Services needs to know where WELS members are stationed. Paul Horn, WELS’ national civilian chaplain, stresses the importance of active-duty members registering with WELS Military Services. “A lot of our WELS members are missing out on opportunities for worship, Bible study, and fellowship with other WELS members while they are deployed or moving around the world with the military because they just don’t know about WELS Military Services or what we offer,” he says.
By registering, active-duty members will receive a spiritual deployment kit filled with resources to keep them connected to Christ. They also will be added to a database so WELS Military Services can connect them with other WELS members in the unit or a nearby congregation. WELS Military Services also will work with active-duty members and those in the National Guard to get the necessary military approval to have access to the closest WELS military contact pastor. Finally, WELS Military Services offers training to WELS members in the military to lead worship when their unit is deployed.
Author: Natalie Lendt
Volume 110, Number 11
Issue: November 2023
- My Christian life: Perspectives from a lay missionary
- My Christian life: One serviceman’s faith journey
- My Christian life: Navajo shepherdess finds joy in Jesus
- My Christian life: One woman’s gratitude for being excommunicated
- My Christian life: Making music as a family
- My Christian life: Engaging the church’s youth
- My Christian life: Leading as a Christian in the business world
- My Christian life: Fulfilling physical and spiritual needs
- My Christian life: Raising a child with special needs
- My Christian life: Premature twins defy medical odds
- My Christian life: College student recovers after rare diagnosis
- My Christian life: The reality of being a Vietnam veteran
- My Christian life: When vocation and ministry collide
- My Christian life: From Air Force sergeant to staff minister
- My Christian life: Faith provides firm foundation after cancer diagnosis
- My Christian life: From prospect to pastor
- My Christian life: The unique path of embryo adoption
- My Christian life: Turning tragedy into blessing
- My Christian life: A Malawian Christian committed to serving others
- My Christian life: Pen pal shares faith with prisoners
- My Christian life: Born deaf to a hearing family
- My Christian life: A single mother finds a new beginning
- My Christian life: Finding real Christmas joy while in the hospital
- My Christian life: Holding up the prophets’ hands
- My Christian life: One man’s battle with anxiety
- My Christian life: Heart transplant inspires a life of service
- My Christian life: Finding true peace through Psalm 23
- My Christian life: An incredible harp-playing journey
- My Christian life: Highlighting the Scriptures through art
- My Christian life: Serving in retirement as a vacancy pastor
- My Christian life: A man of truth
- My Christian life: The sign maker
- My Christian life: Once a detective, now a pastor
- My Christian life: A Ukrainian mother chooses life
- My Christian life: Teen faces difficult medical diagnosis
- My Christian life: Music as a companion on life’s journey
- My Christian life: WELS nurse lives out faith through her vocation
- My Christian life: A teacher retires full of memories
- My Christian life: On the front lines of a pandemic
- My Christian life: Dealing with mental illness
- My Christian life: Camp BASIC
- My Christian life: Battling cancer as a teenager
- My Christian life: Spencer Beach
- My Christian life: Mission opportunities in South Asia
- My Christian life: Haiti adoptions