(Editor's note: This is a longer-than-usual newsletter. But I think you’ll agree it’s worth the read.)
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright ....” But it was anything but calm, anything but bright in my soul. Tears were streaming down my face, sitting 7,000 miles away in a little room in Iraq on that early Christmas morning. My mental mantra of “soldiers aren’t supposed to cry” failed me completely as I listened for the third time to believers sing this simple, powerful Christmas carol.
I’d been in Iraq for eight months, away from my wife and family for 11 months. The start of Operation Iraqi Freedom came as I was sitting in the chapel tent of Camp Virginia, Kuwait, only to displace to LSA Anaconda, Iraq, several months later. Soldiers, including reservists, repeatedly were extended in country until the final word came that we would all stay “365 Boots on the Ground” or “365 BOG” as troops repeated in military shorthand.
So Christmas came hard to us in 2003. It was there that I found myself in the chaplain’s office of the unit headquarters at 0030 hours Iraqi time early on Christmas morning.
A pastor-friend from the past had read an article I’d written for The Lutheran earlier in the month. He e-mailed asking if I’d be willing to call the congregation he served in Clear Lake, Iowa, during Christmas Eve services. He wanted something unique to tie the congregation to soldiers overseas. So he asked if I could greet members during their three evening worship services.
I agreed but explained the vagaries of the military phone system in a combat zone. He understood. And we agreed to try.
So 30 minutes into Christmas Day I called for the first time. Amazingly it took just 32 tries to get an open military line and an operator from Fort Benning, Ga., who put my call through to Zion United Lutheran Church. During the service my friend asked questions about life for soldiers in Iraq. I explained to the congregation that I had already done three candlelight services that night with soldiers, many of whom had never experienced a Christmas Eve service. I told them my Christmas Day would include a Lutheran worship in just a few hours, followed by a nap and the long-awaited holiday meal. I also told them that all was calm in LSA Anaconda, at least at the moment: No mortars or rockets from the enemy were falling. Only the tower sentries and the night shift were awake.
Then came the first of three experiences, intended as a gift from far away. But they came as gut-wrenching blows. The congregation sang: “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright ....”
“Soldiers aren’t supposed to cry, soldiers aren’t supposed to cry ....” I repeatedly told myself as the carol struck a lonely chord deep in the recesses of my emotions. But my soul felt otherwise.
Thoughts of home, of a spouse alone in an empty nest, of not being home to lead a candlelight service, of having yet to see my new grandson, of wondering if aging parents would be alive when I returned, of just plain loneliness even when surrounded by thousands in my military family. All these thoughts conspired to keep the fight against tears a deep struggle. But soldiers never quit, so I fought off the emotion until the phone disconnected.
The second service at 0330 hours only took 24 tries to connect to the U.S. operator. My eroding emotions became evident when Iowans again sang “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
By the third service I knew what to expect. It took a mere 18 tries to connect. A piece of cake—until after the interview. “Silent Night, Holy Night” came over the phone line again. This time I had no strength left to control my soul’s deep aching. Despite my reluctance, tears silently, freely streamed down my face until the last word of the final verse “Jesus, Lord, at thy birth” had ceased. I barely choked out: “Soldiers aren’t supposed to cry, so I’m glad you can’t see the tears steaming down my face. Apart from being home, you have given me the best gift anyone in war could receive. And thank you for looking out for my wife. Lord willing, I’ll see you when I get home.”
As I left the security checkpoint that night, gazing at the stars and contemplating the wonders of technology that could connect voices and hearts from 7,000 miles away, it wasn’t fear of the enemy that stalked the night that Christmas Eve.
It was, perhaps, like the shepherds who heard in fear that first heavenly message of the Savior’s birth. They traveled to see this wonder in Bethlehem and returned to their flocks, praising God.
It was on that dark night in war, a modern-day wonder not of technology but of the power and joy and hope of an ancient but wonderful gospel of Good News shining even in the hostile darkness of combat.
It was a thankfulness that flowed to the newborn King for the power of a simple carol of faith-and thankfulness for fellow believers halfway across the world who gave such a profoundly simple, powerful and wonderful gift to one old soldier among thousands of lonely soldiers, just as God had done so long ago in a humble, quiet town called Bethlehem.
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”
I guess soldiers can and do cry — at least on Christmas far from home.
Check out this week's articles:
The Christmas barn: (right) Before a tornado blew-angels flew & the cows went moo.
Celebrating the 12 days of Christmas with nary a partridge in a pear tree.
A Christmas letter: Some endings in '08, beginnings in '09.
Also: Passover this Christmas.
Also: Justice, not just us.
Tell us: How do you pray?
The Lutheran’s April 2009 cover story is on prayer. How does prayer sustain you? Have you tried new prayer methods (prayer journals, centering prayer, etc.)? What forms of prayer do you use now? What’s most helpful? Do you have a special place to pray? Do you have a story of the power of prayer in your life? Or how have your prayers on behalf of someone else contributed to healing or transformation in his or her life? What would you like to know about prayer?
Send your 200-300 word stories and comments by Jan. 16, 2009, by e-mail or to Sonia C. Solomonson, 8765 W. Higgins Rd., Chicago, IL 60631.
Extended: Why worship?
The following questions could be for you or for someone you know if you're willing to pass them along:
So you prefer the Church of the Holy Comforter (the one on your bed)?
• If you used to be a regular worshiper, what made you stop?
• How do you feel about your decision?
• If you go occasionally, what draws you?
• What do you miss or not miss?
• How do you tend to your spiritual needs?
• What would bring you back to worship?
Respond to any or all of these questions in 400 words or less by email or by clicking below. Deadline is Jan. 16.
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