"He has a wound that will never heal," said Gandalf, the good and wise wizard of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. "He will carry it the rest of his life. It is a burden he should not have to bear ...." If you're a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's adventure series, you already know how fantasy stories can mirror real life, which is, I suppose, why we love them. They reveal a portion of our souls even in characters that never existed.
"He has a wound that will never heal. He will carry it the rest of his life." The words jumped out from the movie script as if its authors were writing to soldiers of any age, soldiers in combat now.
There are few winners in war. Soldiers know that better than anyone. Only the wounded who have lived through its horrors know that even in the midst of good causes, the baseline of combat is that all those involved in the fight bear deep scars by the very act of fighting and destroying the enemy.
It's a wound that never fully heals despite denial and forgetfulness through alcohol and drugs. A wound to the soul is much like an old football injury, which was endured because it brought "glory on the gridiron" but now, along with the trophies and medals, is ever-present in arthritis and aching joints.
Some scars appear healed on the surface but are never fully mended. In days past, soldiers went off to war and committed unspeakable acts for their country believing it was for a greater good. They came home, spoke little and increasingly manifested behavior that destroyed those they loved while denying they were anything but normal.
Such denial of the deep wounds merely leads to all sorts of indecent behavior consciously or subconsciously. Like water always seeking to escape its container, combat's acts of inhumanity ever seek a way out — even if it takes years to accomplish.
A seminary professor and friend told of an airport experience when a fellow traveler discovered he was a pastor. The traveler made his confession that as a soldier in the Vietnam War he had done horrible things. He admitted all that had been destroying his conscience for 35 years. In an act born of the Spirit, the pastor pronounced the absolution over him: "In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I pronounce the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
This soldier's only response was to weep like a child, a wounded child of God whose mental scars had followed him daily for three decades. His wound would never fully heal. But with absolution and forgiveness, it would no longer prevent him from living life in joyful service to his Redeemer and Lord.
Some wounds never heal. Yet the gospel declares that they need not destroy — as often happens in soldiers who have no absolution, accept no forgiveness or have no hope that their deeds in war can be put past them.
To those in grief, whether in war or the losses of normal life, I suggest as a pastor that all pain is like being in the ocean surf. A big wave knocks you down. When you regain your balance, you think the worst is over. Without warning another wave slaps you down. This dynamic continues until by a word of grace, forgiveness and with time, the waves become smaller, less volatile and less able to flatten one's psyche and soul. The waves always are there, yet they don't incapacitate.
War changes us no matter how much we try to be normal and return to the way things were. The task of pastors and congregations is to accept and love the wounded warrior and to honor his or her desire to serve. Their task is to seek not a conspiracy of silence, shame and forgetfulness but an openness that says, "When you are ready to receive and accept the forgiveness of the Lord on the cross, we are ready to hear and receive your confession and to accept your sacrifice — to point you to healing, to say, ‘You have borne wounds for us all that should not have been yours to carry. But we commit ourselves to walk with you and carry your burdens for as long as it takes, for you are one of us, our wounded brother/sister.' "
Then and only then will the tears of release, forgiveness and hope flow to soldiers returned from war — and offer new life just as the good news of Jesus Christ offers.
This week's front page features:
Troubled by stewardship: It's time to redefine our understanding, to refocus our actions. (Photo at right.)
God's garden planet: Caring for creation goes beyond stewardship.
Swirling waters: A sacred resource and a human right, water is vital to life. What do we do about scarcity?
Also: In creation, find hope
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1. Worship: What do congregational members want? What do worshipers need?
2. Worship in ELCA congregations varies but essential elements remain. What are those elements for you?
3. How do we both honor traditional liturgy and make room for other worship styles?
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Please include your congregation, city and state.Or respond online ...
This week on our blog:
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