Andy Menger, Assistant Rector at Good Shepherd and Vicar of St. Mary's reflects on his weekend retreat with families who have lost a family member in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This is Holy Week and millions of Christians are following the path of Christ as he enters into his Passion and Resurrection so that we might be saved. In all honesty, as powerful as the words of the gospels are in our ears, there is a disconnect between this glory and our experience. Neither I, nor any of you, have ever witnessed a crucifixion. We hear about the sacrifice of life but we seldom if ever have the actual experience incorporated into our actual lives.
Well, I am here to tell you that I have just been a part of such an experience and it was one of the most powerful and challenging times of my life. Weeks ago I was invited by Laurie Ott and the Wounded Warrior program to help staff a retreat supported by the Georgia National Guard and the SOS (Survivor’s Outreach Services). My response was immediately in the affirmative. However, as time passed I realized with some trepidation just whom I would be speaking to. My area of expertise is grief and loss and I am fairly well versed in the process of nurturing and guiding those persons who have lost a loved one. The fact hit me directly in the face that I would be confronting persons who had loved ones killed in the service of our country. My words would be shared with the family members whose loved ones had made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of our nation. All of the military personnel who had died were young. All were part of a family structure. All wore the uniform of our country, took an oath, and were faithful to that oath in a manner very few of us can even fathom.
Of course, I was not an actual witness to the deaths of these persons. What I was a witness to was the ongoing struggle still waged by wives, children, parents, to whom these soldiers were not just statistics but an integral part of their lives. As I listened and shared with the survivors I heard not one word of bitterness or histrionic anger. I did hear words of love, compassion, and most of all concern that the death of their loved one would not matter to the American people.
It is a bit disconcerting that the average American probably does not think nor pray about those men and women who every day in faraway places, put their lives in harm’s way for mission, comrades, honor, duty, and country. While we are concerned with the antics of Hollywood types or highly paid athletes who have been busted for drugs or tax evasion, American military personnel, the vast majority of them young, are concerned about what the pile of dirt on the roadside hides, or does the next hill or farm harbor a sniper? While we here at home focuses on what matters most to us, those young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are honed in on their comrades and their buddies. They know far better than any of us the value of true friendship and the price of being faithful unto death. For those incredible Americans such words are not high flung oratory; they are the real stuff of life.
What can we do for the families of Americans who have made that ultimate sacrifice? What they seem to want is not pity or trite words. If you read this blog, respond by seeking out those who still walk our streets and come to our churches and work alongside us, but who bear every day a vacant spot that was once filled by someone they loved and who died in this nation’s defense. Tell them that their loved one mattered. Ask how they are doing. Offer to help in simple ways, take a child to a baseball game since his father will never do so again. Cut the grass if it is a bit too high. Show up with groceries if needed. Best of all, just love them and show as well as tell them that the great sacrifice of their son, daughter, father, husband, mother, sister, or brother mattered and matters still. Pray for them in your faith community in every service. Welcome home those who come home and who often feel like the elephant in the room.
As a priest of the church, I have been enabled by my experience with those wonderful survivors of sacrificial death, to better understand the emotions and power of this Holy Week. I will approach the Cross and the empty Tomb with a bit more awe because I have truly been in the presence of persons for whom every day is both a crucifixion and a resurrection. These persons are living proof that death is not the final word. Many of those I met at the retreat were stumbling and struggling to put life back together, but others were already starting to soar. The winds of life are giving them lift and power to move into lives of service and productivity.
I cannot help but think of that rag tag group of Jesus’ family and friends who were certain that in his traumatic death that their world had ended. They were crushed by injustice, stunned by cruelty, and sickened by what they saw inflicted upon their beloved Jesus. They had to have asked, “Does any of this mean anything? Or, is it just all human cruelty and utter degradation?”
Military survivor families often go through identical questions. They must make sense of a death that often seems senseless and void of meaning. They must find new ways to “live” again. Overwhelming and shocking sadness, the lack of understanding from the world around them, and a recovery of hope and new ways of being are all part of their journey. All in all, these resilient and embattled persons have grasped well the meanings of sacrifice and resurrection. God bless them all.