Holy Fire

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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday (May 24,2015) by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector.  For attributions, please see the PDF version.

Pastor Steven Dundas is a Navy Chaplain who served a tour of duty in Iraq, returning in 2008. He says this about who he was before going to Iraq:  “I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review . . .

“But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before.”

He goes on to say this: “My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy. . .

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life…. I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.”

Devin Jones, a Marine who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, was one of several men of his company interviewed by 60 Minutes for a segment that aired a couple of months ago. Jones recalls the death of his friend Lance Corporal Dennis Burrow, who was killed by a land mine. When asked by Scott Pelley, “Did you sometimes think you’d like to trade places?” Jones replied, “Every day. Every single day. How do I deserve to be here?”

And there was Nick Rudolph, sent to war as a 22-year-old Marine who found himself in a desperate gun battle outside Marjah, Afghanistan, and in the midst of the hot, nine-hour battle, shot and killed a 13 year old Afghan boy. He’s lived with it for more than three years and the telling still catches in his throat. He says: “He was just a kid. But I’m sorry, I’m trying not to get shot and I don’t want any of my brothers getting hurt, so when you are put in that kind of situation … you have to, like … shoot him. You know it’s wrong. But . . . you have no choice.”

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. The day we remember those who have died serving in the military. We remember those who died on battlefields to which we sent them. And we remember others. We remember those whose experience of war led them to take their own lives once they returned home: the 22 veterans who each day die by suicide. We remember and honor those who continue to struggle after they’ve returned home, whose lives have been irrevocably altered by their experience of war, who are soul-shaken.

Memorial Day’s meaning to Christians

I’m not here to talk about the politics of war in general or of particular wars. That’s for another time and another place. I also want to suggest that how we feel about a particular war is beside the point when it comes to how we care for those we have sent into battle. Nor am I speaking of the government’s obligations, another important conversation for another time. I speak today, on this Memorial Day weekend, about what it all means for us as Christians.

The three men whose stories I’ve retold briefly are examples of what is coming to be called “moral injury.” It is what experts are coming to identify as the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation. It is similar to, but not quite the same as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Moral injury is “a bruise on the soul, akin to grief or sorrow, with lasting impact on the individuals and on their families.” Moral injury comes from having to do something that in any other context would be understood as wrong, and the internal struggle that comes from it. It is the common experience when you witness innocent noncombatants getting killed. Or when your comrades die and you survive, like Devon Jones. Or simply, killing itself. As Marine Nick Rudolph said, “you know it’s wrong, but you have no choice.” This creates a deep discordance of the soul. It can and often does feel like abandonment. The loss of what you though you knew about what is right and good.

Some, of course, come to a place of peace and acceptance. I did what I had to do, and I did it honorably. But many, many others struggle on, often silently, and without an idea of how to go about becoming whole again.

What is our response as Christians?

I know what a Christian response is not. It isn’t denial. Or judging. Or moralizing.  Or offering cheap tokens of appreciation. And it certainly isn’t shame or avoidance.

There are some efforts by people and organizations that are raising awareness about moral injury, and we do well to acquaint ourselves with them. Sr. Cassandra and Florence are involved in a group called H.E.R.O.E.S Care, which, while secular, has adopted the principles of Stephen Ministries in caring for veterans. I recently learned of a ministry called The Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. They work with people who have had their moral foundations pulled out from under them. They breathe life into dry bones. This gives me hope.

I have to admit that I didn’t know a thing about “moral injury” until four days ago. I’m rather startled by this, because once it is named it is so obvious. War necessarily and inevitably presents a moral paradox. Even wars where the necessity is clear, victory comes at a terrible cost to human lives. And even wars we believe are futile, wrong or unnecessary show us examples of the best of human nature: bravery in the face of mind-numbing fear and danger.

Laying down one’s life for another. Deep comradeship. Sacrifice. Veterans have had to face moral paradox more starkly than most of the rest of us have in fighting our battles.

The Spirit of Truth

But we – I mean the big “we” – don’t like moral paradox. We like nice bright lines between right and wrong. And the more blurry those lines get, the more adamant we tend to get in defending them. But who here of a certain age hasn’t had the experience of having to do something we felt was wrong, but all the alternatives we could see were worse? This is the messiness of life, and nowhere is this more apparent or more intensely experienced than war. To acknowledge a moral paradox is not to be morally flaccid, as in “ok you say it’s right, I say it’s wrong, whatever. You do you.” It is why when we come here we proclaim the spirit of truth, humility, the need for self-awareness, forgiveness and compassion. And all of it bathed in God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ farewell discourse to his friends, he speaks of the Spirit of Truth. Perhaps this is what Jesus means: the Spirit of Truth helps us acknowledge our own moral struggles. Moral injury is many things, but it is certainly a crisis of the spirit. Pastor Steven, the first veteran I mentioned, found his faith again. He found it in ways he can’t quite explain, except that it happened one night when he was praying with a dying man, another military man, in the hospital. He said the prayer of commendation and anointed him, and felt the presence of God. He was on the path to healing.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the birth of the church. Note that the church did not begin by a bunch of guys going into a room lugging sheathes of parchment and hammering out a creed and an organizational chart and signing their names to it. It wasn’t like that at all. They were together, praying, and the Holy Spirit descended upon them. It was the wild, untamable, presence of God. Speaking in all languages. There was holy uproar. They were undone and disoriented. It moved hearts. It empowered people, and it empowers us, to be Christ to each other. We step into the space and God takes over.

It is not to deny the reality of material needs to say that it is the presence of God that saves people. “A human’s best chance of finding God is to look in the very place where they abandoned God,” said Meister Eckhart  “God is waiting right there in the experience of your falling.”[1] That’s the place. That place of suffering and struggle is the holy crucible where God is to be found.

It is a sad reality that veterans have been abandoned by the church from both sides: the pacifist churches have scapegoated veterans and failed to relate to them as needy fellow humans, and the war-justifying churches have lauded them, telling them they are heroes when their own hearts are telling them that they have been morally damaged in life-threatening ways.[2] It’s time for that to change. If the church can’t be or won’t be with people in their deepest pain and struggle I don’t know that it is good for much. It is what we are for. And, we honor the dead by how we treat the living. We don’t have to have answers. In fact, I’m not sure our answers are especially helpful. What is needed is to hear the truth of others’ experience, to practice humility in the face of our own moral struggles, and to care. God will do the rest. This is the church, fully alive. We go to people in their pain and we meet God there too. May it be so. Amen.