I’ll Be Home For Christmas

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This old song title was made famous during World War II. It was the dream of every member of our vast military of that war. Many had served for years in the military that was at war; they had not seen their families, heard from family only intermittently, and had lived through some of the most violent battles of that war. So as the war went on and finally began to end, the mellow voice of Bing Crosby carried their dream over the radio waves with two songs: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

I’m dreamin’ tonight of a place I love
Even more then I usually do
And although I know it's a long road back
I promise you

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents under the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
If only in my dreams

On Friday, October 21, 2011, President Obama announced that all the troops serving in Iraq will return home by the end of this year. He said that ensuring the success of a complete troop withdrawal in Iraq has been one of his top national security priorities. His goal was to see Iraq to the point where it was secure and independent. He was assured that the nation had reached that point. “Today, I can say that our troops will definitely be home for the holidays.”

What does this mean for the churches and our worship during this holiday season? What kind of person is coming back from these wars? Is there a calling to the church from our Lord at this time to make our worship and ministry meaningful for these warriors coming home for Christmas?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The number of our military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury is larger than what the resources provided to the military medical departments or Veterans Affairs Treatment and Hospital Centers can accommodate. The numbers vary, but if you search on your computer for PTSD you will find some 15 million entries.

The estimates of Vietnam Veterans with PTSD are 30 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women who served. The estimate for the short Persian Gulf War was nine to 24 percent. The United States incidence of PTSD is about 7.7 million citizens. By 2008, the number of military personnel who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in treatment for PTSD was 67,717. The number of those not seeking or not accepted for treatment in military or VA facilities is thought to be many times higher. Most of the troops serving in these wars are from the Reserves or National Guard. These personnel do not return to military bases but return to communities, like yours, in the civilian sector, where there are few with a knowledge of what they have experienced, nor are there enough facilities to treat them. The incidence of PTSD is compounded by a high suicide rate in the military, which is now about twice the national average. These figures alone should cause the church to pause and seek ways to help the returning service men and women.

There is an opportunity for the church in one important area

Moral Injury

In December 2009, Veteran’s Administration (VA) mental health professionals described, for the first time, a wound of war they call “moral injury.” They define it as the extreme distress brought about by “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” They suggest that it contributes significantly to clinical depression, addiction, violent behavior, and suicide, and that it may sometimes precipitate or intensify PTSD.

Moral injury is different from PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress is a fear-victim reaction to danger and has identifiable trauma symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and dissociation. Moral injury is an inner conflict based on a moral evaluation of having inflicted harm, a judgment grounded in a sense of personal agency. It results from a capacity for both empathy and self-reflection. Judgments pertain not only to active behavior, such as killing, but also to passive behavior, such as failing to prevent harm or witnessing a close friend being slain. Moral injury can also involve feeling betrayed by persons in authority. Even when an action may have saved someone’s life or felt right at the time, a veteran may come to feel remorse or guilt for having had to inflict harm that violates his or her inner values. Just having to view and handle human remains can sometimes cause moral injury.

Moral injury is a complex wound of the soul. VA studies suggest moral injury originates in an inner sense of agency by which soldiers make choices in life-threatening situations. They then measure those choices against their core personal values as having failed those values. These feelings are indicative of the profound crisis that moral injury presents, and processing them requires spiritual guidance and theological and ethical reflection. Healing requires access to a caring, non-judgmental moral authority and welcoming communities that can receive the testimony of veterans, provide means for making restitution, offer forgiveness, and sustain their long-term community service and ties.

In basic training and at war colleges, the military teaches guidelines about the legal and moral conduct of war, including the need to protect noncombatants and to refrain from torturing prisoners. Under traditional rules of combat, the extremities of war frequently present morally anguishing ambiguities and choices. However, the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan especially blur the lines between civilians and combatants; even women and children can be dangerous, or they can be used as shields for combatants. The absence of clear battle lines makes every situation of interaction with civilians potentially lethal for combatants and noncombatants alike. The confusions of roles complicate actions based on the reflexive shooting methods the military teaches.

Religious values and ethical precepts lie at the core of every person’s sense of humanity and of meaning. Chaplains and religious leaders have long been trusted confidants of men and women in the uniformed services. Veterans who ask moral questions and express grief, contrition, and shame are usually referred to chaplains because the formal training of mental health professionals does not include theology or questions about evil or faith.

A Call to the Church

The call to the churches is to be sensitive to military persons and their families. In our worship we should take very serious our moments of confession and hearing the Word of God that speaks forgiveness. The coming of Christ, the King of Peace, may sound very strange to a believing young person who tried to love his enemy in a war that is very morally ambiguous. It should be a challenge to every person who plans worship and proclaims the joy of Christmas, that for some returning from the war, they only want the idealized memories of their pre-war experience: family get-togethers; mistletoe; chestnuts on an open fire; turkey with trimmings; decorated homes and trees; and memories of past joys. But what they really need is the ability to know that there is a God and a community ready to listen to their pain that only can be groaned or dreamed of nightmarishly. For most soldiers who carry the moral wounds of war, absolution is an intensely private matter, because we have devalued public confession and pronouncement of forgiveness.

Joseph, in his decision to not put away Mary, must have suffered his own moral woundedness, struggling with his love for this young maid and his concern for her sexual morality. He needed a divine intervention to help him solve his moral struggle.

At Christmas time, we remember all those on the fringes of society who God privileged to proclaim a witness to the miracle of God’s Love for us, in becoming a weak baby. Many of our returning service men and women feel marginal to a society that acts as if there is no war going on. For the returnee, the reality and the morality of war is too real. The shepherds and women who witnessed this baby’s birth were blessed by a call to witness. Call the returning vets to witness to the things they have seen and heard.

Some coming back from war have experienced something that tore a hole in their heart. Like Mary, they are pondering in their hearts the morality of what they have done in the great cosmic war against sin.

I ask your sensitivity to those coming home for Christmas from the horror of Iraq. Love them with non-judgmental warmth and positive regard for them as image-bearers of God. Allow them to realize you are willing to wait with empathy for them until such a time as they will allow you into their struggle for forgiveness and absolution. Give them time to again find joy in their hearts.

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