Year B; FB.Proper 16; 8.22.2021
One summer when John and I lived in New Jersey, he invited me to an outing with the New Jersey Vietnam Gun Truck Club. These Vietnam Army Veterans all had been gun truck drivers in Vietnam, and they had restored a vintage gun truck. John was an honorary member as a Marine because he helped them restore the truck. That summer we took an excursion to Carlisle, Pennsylvania where there is a well-known Army museum and library. We toured the museum, library and grounds and were led by an excellent Army historian. After that tour, he led us to the Vietnam Gun Truck waiting for us in the parking lot. We climbed aboard and drove 30 miles south to Gettysburg for another tour.
We rode in the back of that gun truck to Gettysburg and back. I remember how very hard the seats were, and that they shocked my entire body. I remember how the ride threw me around (no seatbelts!), even though we were on a smoothly paved highway. I remember the smoke stack spewing black smoke exhaust from the Diesel fuel. The smoke mostly blew in our faces
The tour of Gettysburg was excellent. But I mostly thought of Vietnam and how those soldiers fought and died and how the ones that lived came home to derision.
I’ve been reading about the chaotic, messy and dangerous withdrawal from our 20-year war in Afghanistan. War is hell. We enter them with a little too much ease. You may have seen a few years back the PBS documentary, “Going to War.” I watched it last week. Sebastian Junger, an award-winning journalist and director of many documentaries, teamed up with Karl Marlantes, a Marine Corps Veteran and author of the book, “What It is Like to Go To War” and the novel “Matterhorn” to produce an exploration of going to war. I watched with the eyes of a citizen of the United States and the heart of a Christian.
A woman Medi Vac pilot spoke about being excited to be called out in the middle of the night on a mission to pick up an injured soldier. She described the medical trauma of the patient and that he had coded by the time they picked him up. In the helicopter the medic brought him back with CPR, and they delivered him for surgery where he died on the operating table. She began to tear up when she said, “I was ashamed at my excitement at going on a mission because I realized that my mission meant that someone was having a really bad day.”
Sebastian Junger is an atheist with a soul for the tragic human cost of war. He spoke these words on camera, “War is incredibly sad….I mean, war is heroic, scary, horrifying. It’s all these big, bold emotions. But it’s also incredibly sad…sadness is a delicate emotion. When I really connected with how sad it is that human beings kill one another…just…there’s a bunch of boys on the hill trying to kill a bunch of boys on another hill…that basic fact just crushed me.”
War, weaponry, killing – it’s all crushing. Even for the most seasoned warriors, war is crushing. Christians are familiar with the metaphors from the Roman Empire the Apostle Paul and other writers use from the Empire’s militarism and nationalism, like “put on the armor,” “sword of righteousness,” “run the race, receive the prize.” I grew up singing, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war” and felt the marching cadence that directed us to spiritual battle as we sang. Looking back, I realized that, as a kid, I embraced the hymn as a hymn of American military exceptionalism. My family of origin would be considered “Hawks” back then.
So, in my young soul I thought “Onward Christian Soldiers” promoted “Might is Right.”
But that is absolutely the opposite of what the war metaphors mean. That is the opposite of what the apostle Paul meant when we wrote things in the Letter to the Ephesians like, “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” “Wiles of the devil” seems to us a dated and archaic phrase. Yet, to this day, the world is no less hostile, and evil forces are not yet vanquished. The armor for the followers of Jesus is meant to prepare us for a spiritual struggle in our lives surrounded by a hostile world.
As I watched “Going to War” and heard a tearful Marine Corps Veteran say, “War is an assault on your sense of what is right and wrong,” I realized that the Christian call to put on the “whole armor of God” and “the breastplate of righteousness” is to a holy living that strengthens us against the “assault on our sense of what is right and wrong.” We are called to stand firm against the “powers and principalities” of power-seeking domination that so easily tempts us all.
Power and domination aren’t just found in going to war. Power and domination are the temptations of commercialism, of our obsession with our “enemies” on Facebook and Twitter, of the divisions that the powers and principalities are creating between us in this country and this world, of anything that draws us from the love of God. These are strong metaphors that help the Church, Christian households and communities to withstand these tempting forces drawing us away from peace, unity and concord.
I recently read a story about children refugees in Europe after World War II. These children were lost and had no family. They were put in refugee camps after the war and given special care, adequate food, housing and human connection. There were thousands of them and they were frightened and insecure. One symptom of their circumstances quickly became apparent to the care-givers. The children had trouble falling asleep. They were restless and never were able to relax. A wise staff psychologist brain-stormed ideas with the staff of how to help these children calm down enough to fall asleep. They decided upon a strange idea. Bread. A piece of bread was the key.
After the children were put to bed, they were each given a slice of bread to hold. At mealtime, if they wanted more to eat, they received more. But at bedtime, this “bedtime bread” was not to be eaten – it was just to hold. That was the key. The children went to sleep holding the bread. Somehow, in their unconscious sleep, they felt that they would have something to eat in the morning. That was so reassuring to them that they began to have restful sleep. (“Letting God: Christian Meditations for Recovery,” August 21, A. Philip Parkham)
In a way, for the children the “full armor of God” was a piece of bread in hand in order to be at peace. That piece of bread “disarmed” the terror of those children. Something simple and yet powerful. The disarming of war is in the holding of the bread!
We follow a Savior who is our “bread of life,” whom we hold close to us as we live in these scary times.
My hope for us all is that we “put on the armor” of prayer and call upon Christ our Savior to help us live in righteousness, holiness and peace against the “crushing sadness-es” of this world.