A decade ago, on an early December day, I received a call from the local funeral director. A man from the neighboring town had died after an extended illness. He was a Vietnam veteran who had long suffered symptoms of trauma from his war experience. The family had no pastor: was I available? I was grateful for the opportunity. Meeting with his family, I received a deeper sense of the man, his substance, the impact of his life on those closest to him.
What I remember most vividly, however, are his memorial service and the viewing that was held the night before. The latter took place at the funeral home, and was filled with fellow veterans. They were transparent in their woundedness, comforting the family and one another. The depth of their bond was obvious, as was their common love for their friend. They welcomed me in; I remember being introduced to a counselor that many of them saw: “He’s helped a lot of us.”
The next day we gathered for a graveside service, the wind whipping across the open space. The same people formed a protective embrace around the family members. I read from John Chapter 14, recalling Jesus’ words of comfort and hope to the disciples as he prepares to go on before them. The passages concluded with verse 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I took a deep breath and looked into the eyes of those who had seen and lived through things God never intended his children to have to experience. I told them that my time with them the previous evening had touched me deeply, and had taught me much about the life of their friend. The word that came to mind was “fidelity.” If Jesus’ disciples had practiced the same kind of faithfulness that I have witnessed among you, I told them, the story would have been a different one; at the very least, Jesus would not have died alone.
Prior to becoming a pastor, my vocation was psychotherapy. I worked with a number of veterans over the years. From them, I learned the awful burdens and untended brokenness that so many bore. It was only after a strong atmosphere of trust had been created that they were freed to open up vulnerably. This was true even among veterans of “winning” wars, those who had received medals, parades, and the “thanks of a grateful nation.” More than once I’ve heard a veteran say, “I’m not sure I want to be thanked.” For many, the full story of their experience was too painful to speak aloud or two difficult to be heard and accepted, even by their loved ones. As I pastor, I have been entrusted with these stories in a particular way.
The graveside communion strengthened my conviction that the church of Jesus Christ must become a sanctuary for war veterans, a place of grace and welcome, of careful listening and healing. A congregation committed to the gospel of peace must be a community willing to receive, not only these beloved children of God but all that they bring, even when their testimony lays painfully bare our own complicity with the powers.
About half a dozen years ago, something very important happened in our congregation. One of the deacons, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, expressed his desire to share his faith witness with the congregation. He spoke of being the first generation of his family born in the United States, and how eager he had been to serve the country that was his home. He shared the formative nature of his service: (a) he had learned to be part of a team, to work together (b) he had learned to entrust his well-being to his fellow soldiers, and to receive such trust (c) and he had been trained to kill. He deeply valued the first two lessons; he struggled mightily with the third. In his quiet voice he described basic training, and recited some of the marching songs he had been taught, including those with recitations of killing civilians, even children. There were audible gasps in the congregation. Some may not have been aware; others were, but had never heard such testimony being spoken aloud, especially in church. You are taught to dehumanize the other, he said, so that you are able to kill your “enemy” upon command. But something happened to him, our friend said. A medic, he encountered Iraqi prisoners of war, and had come to see them as young men not unlike himself, eager for battle to be over, longing to be home with their loved ones, taught that their “enemy” was less than who they truly are in the eyes of God. His subsequent faith journey had led him on a sojourn with Jesus; the command to “love your enemy” was taking on new meaning. He asked: “Can I be faithful to God and trained to kill?” His authenticity was both challenge and gift. Our deacon humbly asked our church members to be a community that would truly minister to war veterans, and be willing to be ministered to by those very same. Afterwards, a multitude came forward to thank him.
Initially, a gathering hosted by the deacon and I, where we sought to explore more deeply the substance of ministry with wounded warriors, drew a very small group. We watched the movie The Ground Truth, a searing and heart-rending documentary about veterans returning from the Iraq War. Our effort struggled to gain its legs; we were nevertheless encouraged by the presence of a Vietnam veteran, a former Marine who served in Special forces and who bared his soul to us. It is God’s grace that we be evangelized by someone who has borne the weight of our collective sin yet loves us so generously.
Nearly six years later, after two members of the congregation attended The Journey Home from War Workshop at The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, a fresh wind of the Spirit moved the congregation perceptibly. A wave of curiosity, compassion, and new sharing lifted us. Inspired, we are expanding the ministry of pastoral care, reaching out to veterans organizations, networking with other ministries and service providers, partnering in the development of Healing Circles, committing to the good, hard, vulnerable work of becoming a context for mutual healing and transformation, and–very importantly–having conversations and developing relationships that we were long-reluctant to engage. This is a time of deep discernment.
Luke 13:10-17 tells the story of a woman who had borne the weight of a spirit that had bent her double for as much as much as half her life; she had been “bound by Satan for eighteen long years,” Jesus says, and is quite unable to stand up straight. Jesus calls her from the margins, where she has been consigned, out of her silent suffering, and brings her to the center of the worship space. He declares her “set free” from that which has bound her. His hands lift her to her full stature, where the two of them can look each other fully in the eyes. She praises the God of peace, for she is experiencing the “peace of Christ” that the world doesn’t give, perhaps for the first time. He identifies her as a full child of God’s promise. When the leader of the house of worship complains that this is neither the time nor the place, Jesus is resolute: she will no longer carry the burden on behalf of the community’s distorted life. If he insists on a burden, he will now bear it. But a promise is written between the lines; he, too, can be set free. Lay your burden down. The people rejoice.
For many years, churches in my tradition have “honored” veterans with explicitly religious language, extolling those who risk the “ultimate sacrifice” and are willing to “lay down their lives for us.” But we have not welcomed the fullness of their stories, or of Jesus’ story, and the way that Christ might transform all of us in the sanctuary of authentic sharing. We have been so schooled in sacrificial theology that, apart from the new life in Jesus Christ, we may have been willing to let them “sacrifice” for the rest of their lives. The polarities of our “just-war vs. antiwar” battles have only bound us more. I thank God deeply for the communion we are sharing, and know that God’s fidelity will continue to set us free for the peace, “face-to-face,” for which we have all been made.