Prayers for the Fallen

Passage: 1 Chronicles 29:26-30
Date: May 27, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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A few years ago as I was rummaging through one of the many storage spaces in the church, I came across a very large plaque. It measures about 3 feet by 5 feet and weighs about 1,000 pounds and is hand-inscribed. On it are the names of Westminster members, men and women, who served the armed forces during World War II, with a cross by the names of those who died in the conflict.

There are familiar last names on that plaque – Boyce, Reichle, Yoder. Monte Macoubrie is on there, as is Ed Rynerson. Because of its size, I wonder where it once hung and why it was taken down. I wonder if there has ever been a plaque with the names of Westminster members who served in World War I, or Korea, or Viet Nam, or the Gulf War.

Tomorrow we recognize Memorial Day, an opportunity to remember those who died in war or in armed conflicts. The holiday traces its roots to the time of the Civil War and began as a day when people would decorate the graves of their beloveds with flowers and flags and notes.

The holiday has evolved, of course, and now more than a remembrance, it is a time to enjoy great sales and barbeques, which is the way of some of our holidays, something that makes me a little wistful. Memorial Day is not a church holiday, but because it is an opportunity to reflect on life and death and service to a higher cause, I think the church can enter into a conversation on this day.

I will confess to engaging in a bit of eisegesis today—eisegesis is when you pick a scripture passage that matches what you want to preach about rather than choosing a passage and preaching on what unfolds from the text. I had hoped to find some little delightful, obscure Old Testament story about a soldier returning from war, but I found none. Instead, I turned to the story of King David, who began his life as a shepherd, and then became a warrior, only to survive wars and battles so that he could become king.

This story tells of the end of his life, the end of one of the most remarkable lives in all the Old Testament. David has survived the madness of King Saul; multiple marriages and the family drama worthy of a soap opera; wars, battles, attempts on his life; political machinations; colossal failure; and a deep love of God. Today's story tells us of David’s death, his affairs in order, the succession to his throne clear, having riches and honor, his love for God intact. I would want that kind of end for anyone who serves in war.

I’ve been thinking a lot about war this week, and about soldiers, about those who have the courage to do what I do not have the courage to do. In our staff meeting this week as we studied this passage, we asked each other the question, “What good can come from war?”

It’s a good question, because my assumption—and maybe yours too—is that war is bad and should be avoided as much as possible, and all other means to end a conflict should be exercised before we send men and women into harm’s way and before we threaten innocent civilians with bombs and artillery fire and landmines.

What good can come of war? The staff had a thoughtful discussion about that. For some people, service in the military gives them opportunities for experience and education they would not otherwise have had. Because of the number of brain injuries and loss of limbs, medical technology responding to those injuries has blossomed. Soldiers often do humanitarian work, rebuilding infrastructure, bringing aid, feeding people. Beautiful art—music, poetry, painting—has come out of war. People do noble things in war. War can bring peace. War can end tyranny. War is also hell.

Many of you know Bud Frimoth, a retired Presbyterian minister who for years had a radio ministry here in the basement of Westminster. In his 90s, Bud now reflects often on his experience as a solider, and he gave me permission to share some of his reflections. This is what he wrote to me.

“One of the reasons I, and a whole lot of other students, returned from our service … to go into ministry is because we wanted to both create a better world and also overcome some of the often horrendous experiences that fashioned our lives and [that] we lived to remember….

“War was bad enough but perhaps the more profound and terrible experience was to clean out Dachau prison camp…where the Jews were kept in miserable conditions and tortured in mean and awful ways…

“War is an awful experience no matter which side you are on and the devastation is more than physical. I’ve been having a few flow back experiences as I’ve aged. I was just an 18 year old soldier …and most of my soldiering buddies were likewise 16-25 [years old]….I was in the field artillery and often we were really among the front lines in Europe. I came after the troops had landed in Europe so I was saved that horrendous experience of warfare. But there are times when I hear an airplane drone right overhead I feel like ducking into some place that seems safe even though I know it’s safe where I was.

“I think all who have encountered personal warfare have these things to deal with the rest of their lives. So at 92 I still remember the trauma of war when I was a teenager and soldier. Fortunately I don’t have nightmares, but just reminders from time to time of the experiences when I was but 18, over 80 years later.”

I am grateful to Bud for these reflections, and I am grateful to those who have served, even while I’m not sure that the wars they fought in were necessary.

Many do not return from war, and so we pray for their eternal peace. Years ago I was in Turkey and visited the site of the horrific World War I battle at Gallipoli. A memorial has been raised there, with these words: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives: You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

I would hope any nation would pray for the fallen of their enemy in the same way; perhaps in death there are no longer lines between enemy and friend.

Many do not return from war—but many do. Many, like King David. Many, like Bud Frimoth. Many, like some here today who served in the military during times of peace and times of war and times of armed conflict. I thank you all for your service.

But I look around at some who have returned from war or armed conflict and I am ashamed that we do not honor their service by acknowledging the trauma they might have experienced and helping them. Some veterans live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, because of what they saw when far away. Some veterans self-medicate to ease their trauma and are under the grip of addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Too many of our veterans are homeless, which is often related to issues of mental health and addiction.

One veteran who lives on the streets of Portland wrote this:
… I am a vet
was given medals.
Now I sleep in the rain and snow,
under street lights,
where I hear others cry
in the night;
see them beaten
while they sleep.
I fill my cart with bottles and cans.
I give respect
but receive none.
Is this what fighting for my country brings?
Was I carrying out
God’s wrongful mission?
God is kindness, love, and peace.
War is hate, hell and homelessness.
Where is my family,
friends, country?
What do I really have?....

As I said, I am not a big fan of war but I believe deeply that if we are going to ask our young men and women to go fight, to risk death, to possibly take the life of another human being, then we darn well ought to honor their service by caring for them when they return.

“In January 2016, communities across America identified 39,471 homeless veterans during point-in-time counts. Homeless veterans tend to be male, single, live in a city, and have a mental and/or physical disability, [and] Black veterans are substantially overrepresented among homeless veterans.

“Veterans face the same shortage of affordable housing options and living wage jobs as all Americans, and these factors—combined with the increased likelihood that veterans will [show] symptoms of PTSD, substance abuse, or mental illness—can [add up] to put veterans at a greater risk of homelessness than the general population.”

Because of this reality, the government, nonprofits, and private organizations have made a push to end homelessness among veterans. I think that is a great first step. We owe it to these men and women to provide the services they need to re-enter civilian society with a chance for a full life, with a chance to reach that mystical American dream of having meaningful work with adequate pay; of having a place to sleep every night; of having access to physical and mental health care; of having friends and community.

We work on issues around homelessness here, and in small ways serve troops and veterans. Just last week, Jean and Howard Thompson once again spearheaded the effort to provide phone cards for our troops. We have in the past used some of the monies raised by the Peacemaking Offering to support veterans in Portland who face myriad issues. That’s a start, and we can always do more.

Maybe the most important thing we can do for our future veterans is to employ every resource we have to the avoidance of war. Maybe we remind each other of the possibility of nonviolent solutions. Maybe we can encourage diplomats and ambassadors. Maybe we can support international aid organizations that alleviate some of the conditions of poverty and powerlessness that grow into conflicts that grow into war. Maybe we pass the peace of Christ to the entire world.

I’m too much of a pragmatist to be a pacifist. I don’t know how Hitler could have been stopped without going to war, but maybe my imagination is too small. If there must be war, then, let us honor those who walk into those battles.

Let us begin by praying for those who have fallen and now rest eternally in the hills of Afghanistan and the desert of Iraq; on the beaches of Normandy and under the waters of Pearl Harbor; in the jungles of Viet Nam; in Flanders Field and Gettysburg.

But less us also pray for those who rest at night in the stoop of a downtown storefront or in a tent along the river. And may our prayers turn into action and love. Amen.