Beyond the Battle

My trail home from Vietnam began where my active duty had started, back in Quantico.  I had requested this duty station because I’d come to appreciate Northern Virginia during my year of training.  My assignment following overseas service was an office job, supervising education and training at the base.  It has since become “Marine Corps University.” This was a time for me to depressurize from combat, to race my new Camaro, to rub shoulders with other Nam vets, and to enjoy a huge sense of relief at having survived.

Released from active duty in 1971, I entered theological seminary to prepare to become a minister in the United Methodist Church.  Quite a transition, to say the least.  The authorities gave me the only private room on campus, because they’d heard tales of crazed warriors returning from a faraway hellhole.  My calling to serve God came to me during the monsoons of 1969, and that narrative will have to wait for another time. I’d heard that there was such a thing as “foxhole religion,” and now I was experiencing it.  After decades of reflection, I now believe that my trek to biblical theology was a search for forgiveness, meaning, and a stable foundation on which to build the rest of my years.  It’s not been surprising to hear hundreds of other pastors and priests recount similar experiences.

My quest took me to Ohio, where I served churches for twenty-five years in disparate settings; large cities, county seats, and small towns.  I was fairly successful, but only because of divine grace.  I knew from the outset that I had buried memories of Vietnam deep in my soul and that the smile on my face and the confidence in my voice hid the darkness within.  I married and raised three daughters, lived in comfortable parsonages, and enjoyed leadership in several congregations and communities.  All seemed to be going smoothly, and my vessel sailed with fair winds and following seas.

While I was pastoring my first church, I entered a graduate program for mental health counseling, and I told others that the reason was to develop better counseling skills.  But I soon realized, in a moment of piercing honesty, that my study of psychology would be a search for my own sanity and well-being.  And that’s what it turned out to be.

Another challenge during this fairly “normal” period of my life was alcohol abuse.  Although I had not touched a drop during active duty, I began drinking (socially, I’d tell myself) just a few years after my honorable discharge. It grew to become an issue in my marriage and home life, but I  chose to live in denial regarding this scourge and the accompanying PTSD.  The VA helped me find some answers to the stress disorder, but I was not yet ready to request their assistance with my addiction.  That plea would come many years later.

A coagulating storm of disease, depression, and despair led to a breakdown in 1998.  All the props that had supported me to this point were demolished at once, and I collapsed.  I lost my marriage, my ministry (career), my life’s meaning, and my self-worth.  For many reasons, I was led to Seattle to try to start a new chapter and to get my bearings.  The move was only partially successful, and I retreated to my Ohio homeland in less than a year.  This would have been a time of deadly defeat, except for something I found in the Pacific Northwest that I’ll cherish forever.

In the mist and drizzle of Mount Rainier’s shadow, I was blessed to find good VA counselors who helped me move toward a “new normal.”  A deeper understanding of post-war issues helped me realize that I was not insane. And on one visit for an appointment, I found a brochure about Point Man International Ministries, a ministry by veterans and for veterans with a Christian focus.  Soon I was surrounded by men whose journeys ran parallel to my own, and I felt a  strong sense of safety for the first time in many years.  Upon returning to the Midwest, I became an outpost leader in Central Ohio.

Many have asked what I learned through all of this, and how Vietnam helped to shape my thinking.  My first response is that I’ve come to appreciate the gift of life itself.  I think of Marines who didn’t return, and I know they would want me to enjoy a full and contented life. Second, I’ve followed sound advice and tried to fit Vietnam into my life story, so it has some purpose in the overall scheme of things.  This is my answer to what we heard so often over there, “It don’t mean nothin’.”  Third, I’ve found some answers, at least enough to keep me going, to the devils of guilt and grief.  Good counseling and a return to the faith of my childhood has been the path that has led to much healing, although the journey is far from complete. And finally, I’ve concluded that the past doesn’t have to shape my future.  Vietnam will always be there, like a phantom lurking in the inner corridors.  But I refuse to let it determine my destiny.

I’ve been blessed also to find a way to transform my trauma into a testimony.  Point Man has given me the chance to tell my story to many others and to listen with an understanding heart to the words of veterans trying to find their way home.  All the way home, to America and to God, as they come to understand their Higher Power. I would be derelict if I failed to mention the support of one person who’s always at my side as I walk onward.  My wife, Martha, has tried to learn as much as she can about Vietnam and PTSD, and her love and patience have brought me through many fog-shrouded valleys. I’ll be forever grateful for this gift from God.

March, 1970

The monsoons had lifted.  The torrents that hammered us senseless for several weeks were over.  But the water from above was replaced by the thick vapor that seemed to be in every breath we took. Heavy humidity, intense heat, and the oppressive nature of the terrain itself sapped our energy and drowned our spirits.  Morale was low, owing to the environment and the elusive nature of the enemy.  The VC had been active through the rainy months, with sniper fire, booby traps, mortars, and ambushes taking their gruesome toll.

Nights were especially treacherous; the enemy owned the hours of darkness, and our illumination rounds gave us only temporary respite from the frustration of being unable to find and destroy our nemesis.  We had so much firepower at our disposal, but poor peasants in pajamas were making us look like helpless giants.  Whenever we moved after dusk, we could almost feel hundreds of eyes on us.  The VC knew the terrain and it seemed they had the nocturnal vision of jungle cats.  Sleeping was nearly impossible for fear that a sapper would get through the perimeter and drop a satchel charge or slit a throat.

It was on such a night, while I was commanding a rifle company of Marines, that orders came from battalion or regiment to move into a blocking position a kilometer (click) to the north.  My first reaction was, “What kind of maniac would issue such a command?”  Moving over two hundred Marines through heavy brush right into an area of operation (AO) we knew was hostile seemed like a suicide mission.  But I suppose out of loyalty and duty, I sent the message to my four platoons, “Saddle up!”  And off we stumbled down overgrown trails right into the maw of perdition.

And then the evening was shattered by an explosion coming from the direction of my point platoon.  I had my radioman call immediately to learn what we’d run into, and I braced myself for the ugly report.  The voice on the other end gave me the grim news that I had feared: many casualties, one KIA.  And then the name came to us, in code: Lance Corporal Goldman had been blown apart when an AK-47 round had struck the anti-tank weapon he was carrying.  His remains were scattered in the mud and the murk.

I reported this to battalion headquarters and was told to stop our part of the mission, in order to get choppers to us in the morning, after the dense fog would lift and a landing zone (LZ) could be cleared.  Indian company set up our position in some of the worst and least defensible part of Quang Nam Province.  But we had no choice. Our navy medical corpsmen, may God forever bless them, did their best to attend to the needs of the wounded.  And we covered what body parts we could find of Corporal Goldman. I learned later that two of his friends had found his head after searching in the blackness…and had placed it near the rest of what they could retrieve.

I needed that night to try to be a comforter to those who had lost a brother.  His platoon commander and sergeant were grieving the loss of a good Marine and the injuring of so many others.  The unit had been decimated, and we would have to shift personnel to continue the mission after the choppers  came at daybreak.  I was also grieving, but I dared not show it.  I learned much later that the grief I buried at that moment would surface in horrific ways decades into the future.

My grief was exacerbated because Goldman was in my platoon months earlier, long before I took leadership of the company.  He was one of my favorites, always grinning, always walking (humping) with a good spirit, and always making friends.  I recall having to reprimand him on one occasion when he tried to befriend me, forgetting that there has to be distance between officer and enlisted. But I liked him, and I hope he came to respect and value my leadership.  I often long to know how much my men realized my care and concern for them, and my fervent desire to bring all of them home from Vietnam.  I suppose the emptiness I feel to this day is at least partially what the counselors now call “survivor guilt.”  Did I do enough?  Could I have made better decisions?  Would the five warriors I lost still be alive if my leadership had been more efficient?  Questions that will never find an answer on this side of eternity, and maybe not on the far side either.

When I’m in Washington, DC, I always make a trip to the Vietnam Memorial…and to the names I know.  My first stop is Sammy Wayne Goldman, and I linger there sometimes for several minutes to pay my respects, to thank him for being such a good Marine, and to tell him I’m sorry he couldn’t have lived to make it back to America, to get married and raise a family, to see his children and grandchildren graduate, and to savor the happy life that he deserved.

I also tell him I’m sorry for an incident that is burned into my brain as a haunting memory that I’ve lived with for fifty years, and one that I’ll carry to my shadowy grave.  When the sun rose on that scene of carnage, the choppers came and retrieved the wounded.  Before they took the remains of Goldman, my sergeant asked me if I wanted to go see the body.  Without thinking, I said, “No.”  And so he went alone and returned after a few minutes, describing what he had witnessed.  A shudder went up my spine, and a toxic flow of pain and guilt coursed through my veins and arteries; words cannot describe the agony of soul that I felt that morning as the searing sun broke through the canopy above our throbbing heads.  I had failed to pay my respects, I had cowered when my moment of leadership arrived, I had neglected the Marines who had gathered around their fallen comrade.  And I’ll never understand what kept me from rising to the occasion.

Oh, I’ve done a good job of making excuses and rationalizing for half a century.  I’ve told myself that I would have broken down in front of my men, and that would have erased whatever confidence they had in me.  I’ve tried to convince myself that I wasn’t able to see one more dead body; I’d seen so many in the eight months prior to that incident. And I’ve even attempted to attribute my behavior to early PTSD, a malady that would almost destroy my life twenty five years later.  But all these defense mechanisms fall flat when I’m alone at night, listening to the voice of my conscience, and trying to stay away from Jim Beam Black.

The only closure I’ve found and the only balm I’ve been given to soothe and heal my broken soul is the assurance that God forgave me long ago and gave me not one, but many new beginnings along the way.  I’m further comforted knowing that Sammy and my other brave Marines were taken on angel wings to their immortal home.  And one day, I hope to be welcomed by all of them, not as a commander, but as a fellow warrior who did his best for God and country.  May it be so for everyone who reads this faltering yet faithful story.

Vietnam

We wanted to be part of something important.  Our fathers and uncles had brought home a victory in World War II and an honorable peace in Korea.  We looked for something far more important than medals on our chest; we wanted our young lives to make a lasting difference.  Here was a tiny nation ten thousand miles away, struggling against Communist aggression.  So we went as “freedom fighters” and liberators, never seeing the possibility that we would eventually be viewed as imperialistic invaders.  How naive we were!

The learned soon that the enemy understood us better than we understood them.  They had dealt with the French for a century, and when those forces were soundly defeated in 1954, we took their place.  Our senior officers thought only in terms of conventional war, while the enemy fought a guerrilla war, mostly at night.  They knew the terrain; we felt lost on completely alien soil.  Most of us had never seen rice paddies and triple-canopy jungle, elephant grass, huge leeches, and a host of other oddities. Then came the biting flies and the mosquitoes, the snakes and the rats.  The heat and humidity beat us into exhaustion; the monsoon rains pelted and battered us from every direction.  I was never as hot or as cold as I was during my tour of duty.  Strange to admit it, but I often shivered all night in the mountains, lying on soggy ground while torrents of water cascaded from the mournful skies.

I suppose we were too idealistic.  We were proud to represent “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  We had heard President Kennedy tell us, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  We believed that our nation was worth serving…and worth fighting for.  The peace demonstrators didn’t bother us at first.  We regarded them as misguided leftovers from the beat generation of the fifties.  They were misfits who really didn’t understand the global scope of America’s interests, especially the fight against communism.  Many of us had practiced air raid drills, “duck and cover,” during our years in public school.  We knew about the Soviets’ hydrogen bomb, space program, and the Cuban missile crisis.  We also had read about the rise of China as a global threat to freedom-loving people in Asia.

And so we went across the Pacific as crusaders, and bearers of the American torch to enlighten the darkened races of Indochina.  But how quickly our outlook changed!  We learned that our foes were seasoned in battle, that they moved much faster than we could, and that they were committed to liberty as much as we were.  In fact, their leader, Ho Chi Minh, had quoted the American Declaration of Independence early in their struggle against the French occupiers.

We found ourselves bogged down in a quagmire, quicksand that started to pull us under from the beginning.  The other side resorted to atrocity to accomplish its purposes, and far too often we responded in kind.  History will never record the heinous brutality of that conflict; it was beyond the bounds of anything resembling humanity.  Our leaders kept telling us to abide by a code of conduct, and we tried.  Most of the time.  But potential My Lai massacres were in the ravaged thoughts and seared emotions of too many or our troops, especially those who had seen heads of friends blown apart right beside them.  Rage and revenge have a way of taking over a man’s morals at a time like that; the ancient Vikings called it “going berserk.”

I remember with painful clarity an event in October, 1969, when my platoon was commanded to seize a cache of rice that a village family was storing.  Our commander’s rationale was that this was more rice than that family needed, and the assumption was that they were keeping it for the VC to eat. I’ll never forget that old woman’s cries as we attached her rice to a chopper line and watched it disappear on the horizon.  For the first time, I felt disgusted by and ashamed of America’s treatment of the simple, common people of the country.

And then came more protests back home, followed by counter-protests and the chants of, “My country, love it or leave it!”

Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Thoughts and emotions raced through my head and heart as I watched episode after episode.  I knew the ending but tried to believe it would turn out differently…this time.

It looked like a disaster from the beginning.  Backing our French allies as they exerted their control over a fiercely independent populace in Southeast Asia.  Trying to prop up one corrupt regime after another in South Vietnam.  Not understanding the land or the people, the topography or the culture.  Attempting to stop the spread of global communism and halt what President Eisenhower called the “domino theory.”

Trusting our leaders in the government and the military to do the right thing.  But soon realizing that they had never understood the will of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to fight for their homeland.  We were impelled by the myth of American exceptionalism and justice : that we always did the right thing and we always won.  As the casualties mounted, our hubris kept us from quitting.  No president wanted to be known as the “one who lost Vietnam.”

The question has haunted many of us Vietnam veterans for decades, “Was it worth it?”  To keep our sanity, we’ve had to find an answer we could live with.  Mine was that I did my duty; it was not my decision to go to Vietnam.  The American people, through our elected leaders, were the ones who bore the responsibility for the outcome.  So many warriors of the sixties and seventies have felt the pain of betrayal for most of their lives.  “Why fight a war that was deemed ‘unwinnable’ almost from the outset?”  “Why wasn’t our nation told the truth about the action on the ground?” “Why were our faithful South Vietnamese allies abandoned as we withdrew to lick our wounds?”

I have found peace in knowing that my Marines and I accomplished mission after mission.  We can hold our heads high because we answered the call to service.  Of course running to Canada was an option that we considered, but a rich tradition of honor, integrity, and valor compelled us to move forward, whatever the outcome.  We came to realize that although historians label it a failure, the conflict of long ago can be of great value if we learn from it.  Fifty years later, I’m not sure we have.

 

 

Vietnam

It seems so long ago, and yet so near.  The fog that smothered our spirits, the rain that beat us senseless, and the death stench that covered the valleys like a putrid quilt.

And now someone wants me to speak about Vietnam and the effect it had on me.  They’re asking me to recall my symptoms when Post-Traumatic Stress came stalking me more than two decades after I left the rice paddies.  It’s hard to remember everything that happened while my life was careening out of control.  I balk at conjuring up the nightmares, the suicidal despair, the bursts of rage, and the weight of hopelessness that crushed me to the ground.

And these well-meaning people also want me to share my narrative of recovery, so that the story ends on a hopeful note.  I’ll be glad to oblige, in the hope that my recovery, though far from complete, might help another veteran who needs a ray of light in a dark hour.  For me, it was the support of caring men and women who loved me enough to listen to my pain.  They didn’t recoil in horror when I shared the images of blood, gore, atrocity, and betrayal.  They seemed to want to bear part of my burden, although I knew they would never completely understand the complexities of my suffering.

There were also wise pastors and priests who saw my spiritual battle unfolding before their eyes.  They prayed with me, and they gave me work to do in service to others.  They reminded me of the forgiveness and the renewal that our Gospel brings to empty broken hearts and shattered souls.  And they pointed me forward, far beyond the echos of combat and the cries of the dying.  Their message was that the past would always be a way to describe my life, but it didn’t have to define me.  I could find new meaning and could build my future on the lessons of those earlier years.

And so I’m traveling ahead.

Messages of Mortality

When the cancer diagnosis came, it quickly shifted my priorities.  Over the past few days I’ve asked myself two questions, “What’s really important?” and “What’s not important?”  I’ve come up with some answers, and I’m sure more will be added to each column.

My faith in my God and Savior, Jesus Christ, is at the top of the list.  Right after the phone call from the doctor, informing me that cancer was found in the prostate, I said to Martha, “Well, this doesn’t come as a shock to God!”  And I meant it.  Divine love always walks ahead of those who trust, and my life has been a testimony to that truth, even during times of doubt.

Creation is another manifestation of God’s presence, and I’ve decided to spend a lot of time outdoors.  Even more traveling to places of beauty, like Hawaii.  My bucket list is taking shape in my mind, and will soon be on paper.  I want to see more sunsets, mountains, rivers, oceans, and wildlife.  Maybe I just want to be a kid again!  The majesty of nature has always seemed to me like a glimpse of the Glory to come.

My family is also a priority.  Quite honestly, I haven’t given enough time and energy to the people I love most. My wife, children, grandchildren, brothers, cousins, and many others.  Family reunions mean more to me than ever, and our Memorial Day gathering in Pennsylvania was deeply rewarding. We’ve lost some precious souls in recent years, a reminder to share love while we still can.

And then there are my friends, my First Page People.  Some of them I’ve known since high school, others from the Marine Corps and the churches I’ve served.  Many are veterans, some are Happy Hour buddies.  Some are Christians, others are not.  But I’ve heard from every one of them since my diagnosis was announced, and all of them are praying.  What a great comfort!

Those are some of the items that I’ll focus on in the near future.  As I glance at the above, I notice that these are all relationships, not inanimate objects! That’s a lesson in itself.

So what’s not as significant to me right now?  Let’s start with arguments over political and religious differences.  How foolish!  And I’ve been as guilty as anyone in this category.  I’m learning that life is too short to waste it on discussions that never change anyone’s mind and never accomplish anything positive.  These verbal conflicts raise blood pressure, create ulcers, damage mental and spiritual health, and leave wounds that never heal. So I’m prayerfully trying to tone it down, especially on the social media.

What else seems less vital to me these days? Possessions (including books!), being noticed in a crowd, being considered important in the public eye, and fretting over matters that almost always resolve themselves, with or without my interference.  Trying to change people and mold them into what I desire seems much less attractive, and I’m going to love them just as they are and let God do the adjusting!

So, it’s time to get my house in order, keeping what’s essential and discarding the rest.  I’ll start in two places, I think.  My basement and my family storage unit over in Indiana!  Wish me well!

My Cancer

This is as real as it gets.  I’ll tell you the last part first, and I’m sure many of you will feel your own story emerging from your silent memory depths.

After a while, I came to the certainty of God’s love and the hope of an eternal home.  I began to see that this is not unusual for a man my age, especially one who was exposed to Agent Orange for a full year.  I started to think of lessons I could learn from this forthcoming journey through surgery and recovery: the fragile and ephemeral nature of life, the need to be thankful for the blessings I enjoy (“abundant life,” according to the scriptures),  the urgency of prioritizing and “getting my house in order,” the reminder that I am not in control of most things, and the importance of spending time with family and friends while I still can.

Now the way it unfolded.  The doctor’s voice and the message, “Russell, we have found cancer…”  The next few seconds were a blur.  I’m sure the conversation continued for a while, and I think I must have said something stoically, like, “Well, what are the next steps?”  But when that one word struck me, it felt like a dark shroud instantly covered my present and my future, and everything I had counted on was shaken like a seismic rupture.  There was a dread that descended on every part of me, and all of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief stampeded into my psyche at once.  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance raced through me like a Nazi blitzkrieg, and I lost all equilibrium.  A storm of thoughts and emotions darkened every synapse of my brain, as though Thor was unleashing his bolts of fire into every fiber of my being.

In those fleeting moments that felt like an eternity, all my hopes of longevity were clouded by a foreboding question mark.  My irreverent prayer was, “God, both my parents lived into their nineties!  Why not me?”  But the heavens were silent, at least in those searing seconds of anguish. My anger became rage, and an image from “Moby Dick” flashed across my mind’s eye.  Captain Ahab atop the monstrous white mass that tormented him for years and seized his very soul.  Plunging his harpoon into the malignancy that would soon take his life, while screaming, ‘Thou damned whale!” Yes, I saw myself attacking that morbid growth and venting my fury like a Marine assaulting an enemy stronghold.

That’s how it ended, although it’s far from over.  And that’s how it began. I’ll be sharing much more as time goes by and as the Spirit gently guides me through the tempest with the assurance that the God who launched my vessel is the One who will finally grant me safe harbor.

Government

I’ve lived for a long time, and I would say that this is one of the worst times I’ve ever seen in Washington.  Where are the leaders with courage and vision?  Why have so many of my fellow citizens lost faith in our way of government?  Where is the desire to “work for the common good?”  How close are we to a dictatorship?

Veterans

Lunch today with my veterans, sharing soup and sacred stories. Some call it camaraderie; we’ve taken the vow and done our duty to the land of our birth.  The years have treated us kindly, but we know that many have not been as blessed. So we began by praying for those  who struggle still with a past that grips them in its siren song.

Above the Battle

Wayward warrior, far from comrades,

Battered, beaten, calloused, weary,

Comes upon a hermit sitting

By earthen hut,

With mule beside him.

“True child of Nature,”

The soldier thought,

Simple life that welcomed all.

Man of war received as kinfolk

High upon the alpine meadow.

Combat raging far below

As armies clashed in hellish conflict,

Hatred boiling, devils’ cauldron,

Darker than the coals of Hades.

Old man pointed to the tumult,

Could not share the tongue of warrior,

Only gestures of confusion,

Silent protest of the thunder.

Dawning on the soul of Warrior,

“Recluse here on highest mountain

Has no sense of worldwide horror

Brought by those who hold the mantle

Of power ruined and kingdoms broken.”

Hero spoke to inner chambers

Of heart perturbed by senseless slaughter,

“Had sage and I the mother tongue

To speak and hear in one accord,

Neither could with greatest effort

Understand the cause of carnage

Down below in bloody valley.”

And so it is, the “Why” of war

Remains a mystery for all ages,

As questions asked of kings and statesmen

Stay unanswered to the end.

 

 

Some Thoughts By Sunset

The place of the wound is the place of the healing.

Give up the illusion of who you’re supposed to be, and be who you are.

“I believe Christianity, because it is a religion you could not have made up.” C.S. Lewis

Regarding a pipeline across Native American holy ground, when any of life is disrespected and destroyed, the entire chain is broken, and the sacred is lost.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.” Rainer Maria Rilke

“By admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.” Brennan Manning

By portraying ourselves as perfect people on Sunday morning and at other times, we have three problems: (1) It’s not true, (2) It isolates us from normal people, and (3) Depth of personality comes only through failure and recovery.

Projection is when I transfer my terrors and my darkness onto other people and groups. When I shun and exclude others, I discover the hidden, feared, and hated parts of myself.

We worry too much about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with!

“There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up.” Frederick Buechner

“In a sacrament, something holy happens.  It is transparent time, when you can see through to something deep inside time.” Frederick Buechner

 

 

 

The River

Why not consider looking at spirituality this way.  We’re standing beside a great and lovely river, almost feeling it flow right through us with its currents and surges.  Imagine that the river is God.  Look to your left to see where the watercourse originates, then to your right to follow it cascading toward the sea.

God has been moving in our yesterdays, and He’ll keep streaming toward our tomorrows. But He’s also right in front of us, on this very day, at this very moment.  As we breathe the moist air and feel the spray on our faces, and as we hold our hands in the living water for a while, it’s as though the River fills us with its beauty, its power, its cleansing, and its very soul.

And we are changed by this water.

 

Love God, Love Others

I recall hearing a minister from South Africa describe his nation’s struggle to end apartheid and how the Church was instrumental in that nonviolent revolution.  I was deeply impressed by his call to justice for all God’s children, especially the ones who’ve been oppressed and shunned for generations.  He said, “If your prayer is ‘Jesus, come into my heart,’ His answer will be, ‘Not unless I can bring my friends: the poor, the weak, the disabled, the foreigner, the stranger, and the refugee.'”

I’ve held onto that image for most of my ministry.  Following Christ is not only for the wealthy, the successful, and the prominent.  In fact, usually these favored folks are the last ones to understand what it means to need help and salvation.  When our Lord blessed the outcast and the alien, He was reminding us that His eternal Kingdom belongs to the ones who know they’re desperate enough to reach up for a rescue.

That leaves us with the truth that our faith cannot be a private and exclusive ticket to the hereafter.  If we claim to love God, then it follows that we’ll embrace and welcome His children, all of them.

Random Thoughts

Here are a few gleanings from my recent reading and meditating:

Jesus was never in a hurry, according to everything we know from biblical history.  So why are we, especially when we claim to be doing His work?  I’ve seen more frenetic, impetuous activity in churches than I care to recall.  I believe it was Gandhi who said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

I’ve often thought of God as someone who knows me better than I know myself.  But do I really believe that?  Far too often I think I have a firm grip on everything about me, only to discover, much to my chagrin, that I really don’t understand my attitudes, biases, motives, and unconscious drivers at all.  It was Oswald Chambers who wrote, “We have to get rid of the idea that we understand ourselves; it is the last bit of pride to go.”

Psalm 120 seems to be describing how I feel toward politics, the media, and most self-proclaimed “authorities” these days.  The Hebrew poet wrote, “Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.  Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.  I am a man of peace, but when I speak, they are for war.”

Thomas Merton once prayed a prayer that is beyond the reach of most of us. “O Lord, let my eyes see nothing in the world but your glory; let my hands touch nothing that is not for your service.” I can’t even begin to imagine how I could do this, but it’s a goal worth striving for.  So I’ll try to see the handiwork of deity in nature and also (more difficult!) in human nature. And I’ll commit myself to random acts of kindness each day, even if those actions are only a smile to a stranger or a text to a faraway friend.

Geographical Solutions

I used to think that the answer to the stress of life was to “get away from it all.”  Traveling to a lovely spot away from the city, surrounded by the wonder of the natural world, was almost always refreshing, but it never quite measured up to my expectations.  This happened time after time, and it began to weigh heavily on my soul.  So I consulted with one of my mentors, who told me, “Russ, your problem is that wherever you go, you always have to take Russ Clark with you!”  He called my escape routine a “geographical solution,” and he kindly informed me that this never works.  Oh, he admitted that walking a mountain trail or viewing a gorgeous sunset have their value, but the real answer to the issues that trouble me and everyone else is found within.  In the deepest place of my soul, away from all distractions, addictions, diversions, and denials, there is a quiet spot with room for only God and myself.  And until I can see the wisdom in this, I’ll be paying a lot of money to resorts and retreat centers that offer something they can’t deliver.

Estuary

Here in Florida we can look down upon the spot where Eastern Lake, a fresh-water coastal dune lake, meets the Gulf of Mexico.  The waters intermingle and create a marvelous and rare ecosystem, filled with plant and animal life that seems to thrive on this shifting balance and imbalance of Nature.  We’re told that the fish who swim these waters have to be hardy and resilient in order to survive, as they’ve done for thousands of years.

I see this as a parable.  The Gulf is the sea water that covers the earth with its vast reach and boundless flow; the lake is a body of brackish water that spans acres rather than miles.  The Gulf is the immeasurable realm of the Spirit; the lake is our limited and tainted life on this planet.  And we are at the point where they meet.

What happens to us in this meeting of the waters?  We hear the call of the ocean and we long to move in that direction, but we also realize our limitations, many of them self-imposed, and we settle for the safety of the small rather than risk a step toward the breakers.  I wonder if this is what St. Paul meant is his letter to the Romans, when he wrote, “I have a desire to do what is right, but I cannot carry it out.  I keep doing what is wrong.  What a wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me?”  And he then comes to the consoling conclusion that only God can do that.

I’ll write a lot more about this in the days and months ahead.  It seems to describe my quest, especially as I try to live a life that pleases God and also makes a difference in my circle of family, friends, and community.

Ordinary Time

We’re in a season of the church year that many call “Ordinary Time.”  It is observed after the Feast of the Epiphany, in January, and again after Pentecost Sunday, in the late Spring.  The term used to bother me, for reasons I never could quite explain, even to myself.  But as the years went on, I began to feel at peace with this liturgical expression, and it seemed to be a good reminder that most of our days are lived in ways that are quite mundane.  Oh, by the way, that word “mundane” comes from the Latin which means “world.”  And so it is; there are times when we’re lifted by Christmas carols and by the memory of the great acts of God.  But most of the time, we’re so earth-bound that it makes our feet (and our souls) ache.  And yet, it is only in the commonplace where we can see if any faith we claim is able to pass the test of relevance.

Resolutions

As the old ends and the new begins, lots of people are making promises to themselves of how they want their lives to change in 2017.  I’m not one of them, because my track record on all of  this is less than exemplary.  I’ve been told that  my experience is not unique, that many of these commitments are broken within a few days.

So this year, I’m following the wisdom of one of my mentors, Richard Rohr, as he writes in his devotional for year’s end:

“If you want others to be more loving toward you, choose to love first.”

“If you want a peaceful outer word, reconcile your own inner world.”

“If you are tired of cynicism and negativity our there, cultivate hope in here.”

“If you wish to find stillness in the world, find the calm within yourself.”

And then Father Rohr concludes with the words of Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I want desperately for the world to be more loving, for peace to prevail over violence, for negative words to be replaced by images of hope, and for a sacred silence to give us time to remember that we’re all in this together. Maybe it’s time for Russ Clark to become what he wants the nation and the world to be. Whether that’s called a resolution or not, will you join me?

 

End of Year Thoughts

Some of us are apprehensive about 2017, fearing that our culture is slipping into a chasm of calamity. We wonder if we’ve chosen the right leaders to lead our nation and the world into the future.  We want to have hope and to believe that we can build a better world, where peace, compassion, and justice are the air to breathe and the north star to guide.

In my morning reading, I came across this prayer, “God, let me be someone who leans into the future.”  I like that, and I need that message.  Too often I have dreaded what is ahead, and I’ve blamed my fear on the tragedies and  losses of my life, when dreams were shattered and promises broken.  Of course, I could also blame Vietnam for planting a dark imprint on my mind, but I refuse to do so. The war left its mark, as everyone should know by now, but it also reinforced in me a will to live and to create something good out of even the worst.

So the months ahead beckon to me and I’m already feeling my body, mind, and spirit surging forward, bolstered by a faith that the Lord is blazing the trail I am to walk.  Please come with me!

Merry Christmas!

Here’s a wish for all veterans and those who love them.  May 2017 be a year of peace for all of us, and may there be no tears of farewell or grief among those who’ve been called to defend freedom around the world.

Today

The sun is shining.  God is present in this world, so all will be well in the end.

In the meantime, we trust and work and try to make life  better for ourselves and those around us.  We have hope, in spite of all the signs of calamity.  We believe there is a Master Plan unfolding through the events of everyday life and ordinary people.

So if the headlines make make us joyful or sad, we don’t gloat nor despair.  The pendulum swings, as it has for thousands of years, and the scales always seem to balance after the dust settles and the last sentence has been spoken.

Peace to all.

Mortality

I just lost another high school classmate.  I remember Doug the way he was, and I smile.  I’m sorry the ravages of age and disease took him from us too early.  Or is it right to say, “Too early?”  Who are we to determine how long life should last?  The Psalmist tells us that our years are numbered…”threescore and ten,” as I recall.  That’s 70, and that’s where a lot of us are, who were born when our fathers came home from World War II.  The answer, of course, is to live every day responsibly and joyfully, as much as we can.

But the death of someone my age strikes me.  The existentialists tell us that each human being has to grapple with the reality of “non-being” until he or she comes up with a solution that keeps us out of a psychiatric ward.  Many of us have found peace in knowing that this life is only a brief span when seen in the breadth of eternity.  We even believe that the One who has gone before us has already conquered death itself. And we trust Him to bring us home.

Before I travel, which I’ll be doing in a few days, I always seem to need the kind of secure bedrock that I’m describing.  In a day of global terrorism, I have to get my “house in order” and my final chapter prepared.  God is the one who promises protection and provision…or strength to face unanswered prayer and the suffering that comes with it.

So I say, “Rest in peace, Doug. I hope you found an anchor in the storms of  life, and I pray you’ve discovered safe harbor on some sunny distant shore.”

Ramblings

Since I’ll be away from this blog for a while, I’ll leave you with a few paragraphs that capture some of my thoughts.

I have much anxiety over the upcoming political conventions.  We’re divided as a nation, and I see no one on the political horizon who can bring us together.

My hope is more and more for a spiritual renewal across our land.  I’d like to see this happen in all the religions who have the right to practice their faith in our nation, where freedom of religion is a basic right.  That includes those who claim no religion.

Law enforcement has been battered recently.  I think we need to support the police in almost every case.  When officers become the perpetrators,  they should face the same due process as any other lawbreaker.

Our military is plagued these days by lack of combat readiness, limited budgets, and low morale.  Political correctness has made it harder and harder to maintain the high standards of honor, strength, courage, and discipline that many of us knew in the old days.

Many Christians, I fear, are going to vote for a pompous, impulsive, megalomaniac because he’s the only alternative to the Clintons, whom they hate with a fervor that separates them from New Testament Christianity.

I’m going to try to remain hopeful for our nation, but a columnist this morning reminded us that we’re probably as broken as the headlines claim. There’s more bigotry, racism, and disunity than I can recall over the past few decades.

More to follow…

 

Our Hope

The boldest headline I ever saw on CNN.com struck me this morning.  “Who Can Make It Stop? Is There a Leader Who Can Stop the Chaos and Heal America?”  I immediately wished I were preaching tomorrow morning.  What a great way to address the current fears of many congregations and communities! And a perfect segue to the answer found in most sacred scriptures.  Only God can meet the deepest human need and give moral guidance to enable us to build strong bonds between individuals and groups who have hated one another for generations.  We can’t find that kind of leadership in most Republicans and Democrats who are vying for high office this year.

In a devotional book I peruse from time to time I read recently that if government were the hope of the world, Christ would have come as an Emperor…in the line of the Caesars.  Instead, the Son of God came as a Friend of Sinners, a Healer, Teacher, Guide, and Savior. We need to remember that when we struggle for an answer to CNN’s question.  As I’ve written before, we tend toward idolatry when we place all our aspirations in one candidate or one party.  Anything human is eventually going to let us down and fail to deliver on the promises made on the campaign trail.

One more thing about idols.  A wise friend once told me that anything or anyone I love more than God-even a good thing or person-is a false deity.  He also said that if we love them too much, we’ll be torn with terror when they are threatened and we’ll be crushed by despair if we lose them.  Finally he gave me these words, “Until you identify your idols, you can’t understand yourself…and you can’t follow the only Leader whose word is eternally true and whose character is entirely trustworthy.”

He alone is our hope.

Strength in Weakness

In our younger years we all have a sense of invincibility.  We feel strong and energetic, with our future wide open and our self-confidence bubbling over.  But as the stresses and strains, the pains and the pounds start accumulating, we begin to wonder, “Do I really have it all under control?”

My dream world came crashing down thirty-five years ago.  On July 6, 1981, I noticed a sudden weakness in my arms and legs, and I quickly went to my Cincinnati doctor. His diagnosis was that of a crippling neuromuscular disease, and he admitted me to the hospital within an hour.  I remained there for twenty-five days, wondering if I still had a chance to live a good life and to provide for my wife and daughters.

I’ve never been able to adequately describe the fear and helplessness of those awful hours.  For the first time in my life, although I was at the peak of physical condition, I couldn’t control my own body.  I had to be fed by someone else; I needed assistance whenever I used the restroom. It was embarrassing and humiliating, and I remember calling out, “God, why? Please tell my why?”

And then came some answers, slowly and almost imperceptibly, but enough to send a beacon of hope to my soul.  Under the wise care of Drs. Warren Webster and Jim Anthony, good friends from the church whom I was now trusting with my life (as though I had a choice!), I began to realize my need for something outside myself for my very survival.  This should not have come as a shock to me, since I’d been preaching this message for a decade.  But it was a truth I’d always directed at others, never at “self-reliant, self-sufficient Russ Clark!”

I also came to a much deeper love for my wife and children and other family members who surrounded me with their support, encouragement, and prayers.  The congregation of Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church rallied around us and offered help of every kind.  One member was quite creative in his approach when, as the son of a physician, he borrowed his father’s medical bag and smuggled a six-pack of Budweiser into my room.  Of course I was forbidden to imbibe, but I’ll always remember Larry’s act of kindness.  (I wonder what he would have done if a nurse had intercepted him and said, “Doctor, we need you in this room right now!”)

Another discovery was a passage of scripture I’d referred to many times in helping others understand why life sometimes flattens us.  The ancient sage, in describing his own thorn in the flesh, wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”  What on earth did he mean by that, I often questioned.  Then one night, alone in my room, it came to me, “He’s not talking about muscle power at all.  He’s saying that when we come to the end of our rope, when all the props are knocked out from under us, then we can find that the only power that really matters is inside us.”  The conviction and confidence that God is with us, in spite of our frailty.  When our little sand castles crumble, we can turn to a more authentic trust in a Creator who will help us rebuild on solid rock.

That was half my lifetime ago, since I’ll reach age seventy in just a few days.  So I’ve seen that time in Deaconess Hospital as a turning point and a change of course.  Oh, I still continued on the same career path with the same loved ones around me, but I was a different person.  You might say I’d been “born again,” except that those words carry too much baggage these days.  Let’s just call what I’m describing “The Midlife Miracle.”

Or simply “Strength in Weakness.”

 

 

Passing By

This week, many priests and pastors are preparing a sermon on The Good Samaritan.  The biblical text is found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, and it’s so familiar that many miss the message.  It’s the story Jesus told of a man traveling down a road, when  he was suddenly attacked, robbed, beaten, and left for dead.

As he lay bleeding by the roadside, two religious snobs passed by and ignored him.  These were the men who knew the scriptures by heart and added a few hundred laws of their own.  They were so busy acting holy that they failed to recognize human need.  Sound familiar?

I’ve often cringed when I’ve read this narrative, because all too frequently, I’ve been the one who kept going when I should have stopped.  I’ve tried to study hard and come up with all the right answers, while falling far short of the Great Commandment…to love God and to love my neighbor as myself. I’ve been in such a rush to make it to the next meeting that I forgot that “the greatest of these is love.”

Human need is all around us, isn’t it?  Many who’ve been broken by bigotry and oppression are lying on the berm as we race along the highway to “success,” assured of our spot in some inner circle of favor.  We might feel pretty smug until we find that our Lord made the “one who showed mercy” the hero!  And the one who stopped to help was a foreigner, a half-breed who was regarded with disdain by the religious folks of that day.  This man went the extra mile after bandaging the wounds; he took the battered pilgrim to an inn for rest and healing and then promised to pay for the stay.

May we be alert to the cries for help we hear every day…and often in the night.  Someone needs to know we care enough to stop, to listen, to speak words of  healing, and to dig deep into our resources to offer whatever we can to make a difference in another life.

God doesn’t want us to pass by.

 

Reflections on the Fourth

I remember July 4, 1991, when our plane landed in Los Angeles.  We’d been on a long and hard mission trip to India and were exhausted.  But I’ll never forget the relief and the comfort I felt to know I was back in America.  I’m sure many of you have experienced the same emotions.

America the beautiful, flawed in many ways, but still our homeland.  Our nation’s politics are the joke of the world right now, and yet most of us wouldn’t change our form of government for any other.  We know our systems are imperfect, because the men and women who lead us always fall short of the mark. This is nothing new. Democracy is not the search for perfection; it’s the art of the possible.

It’s also the best way humans have found to give dignity to all and to strive to provide a good life for every human within our borders.  Our history is marked and marred by occasions when we ignored our founding documents and trampled on the rights of minorities, but in my lifetime I’ve seen us move to correct our mistakes and to make amends in many ways.  So the USA is still a land of opportunity for millions.

Some of us have fought and bled for our freedom and the liberty of other nations.  I’ve told many who’ve thanked me for my military service, “It was a privilege, and I wish I could do it again.”  That is from the depths of my soul, for this land has been good to me.  I’ve had to work hard and to suffer hardships, but I’ve always been aware that the nation whose birth we celebrated yesterday is a gift from God.

Let us give thanks for this treasure.

Coming Back

Reading a couple of articles today on writing…and realizing that I must return to telling my story…to help me sort through the themes to find the common threads.  And perhaps to invite others to connect with my peaks, plateaus, and valleys on their own journeys.

After all, we’re in this together, aren’t we?

Mom

She prayed night and day while I was in Vietnam. Now all her worrying is over, and she’s at rest. Mom, I’m probably alive because you wouldn’t give up on me.

The Road Ahead

Leaving the iron grip of the past, but always remembering.  Content with the present, and wondering about all the tomorrows.  Confident that the Good Shepherd goes on ahead, preparing the way.

Tired of War

The saber-rattling continues, the tension is in the air…again.  The beheadings have shocked America like very few things have done.  We’re angry, which means we’re afraid…of another terrorist strike on our soil.  Our leaders seem to be waiting for some other reason for military action.

I hate brutality…in whatever hideous form it takes.  I despise those who torture and butcher in the name of their religion.  And I’m almost ready to march to the recruiter’s office to sign up for an overseas tour.

And yet.  Is it really our battle?  Does our nation have the will to fight another long and costly war….and care for those who are wounded as a result.  And what about the families who’ll be left grieving?  And the mental and spiritual scars that will remain for a lifetime?

No easy answers.  No quick solutions.  We’ve been in these places before, and by God’s grace we’ve managed to defeat evil empires and global thugs.  We’ve given freedom to multitudes around the globe, and we’ll probably keep doing it, because we’re Americans.

So when they reject me for re-enlistment, I’ll help those who return in need of a listening ear.  I’ll thank them and direct them to places where they can get the help they need…and deserve.  I’ll also be praying that the world become a safer place, especially for the weak and the oppressed.

These are some of my evening thoughts.  There’ll be more to come.

I’m Still Here

Still caring about veterans.  Still struggling with my own PTSD.  Still trying to live in God’s grace, without the burden of “keeping the law.”

Still worried about loved ones who are lost in the aftermath of their own choices.

Still needing the contact with friends I’ve met along the way.

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Alaska

We’ve had another good winter on the beach, in spite of illness and interruption.  Now it’s time to follow the compass northward.

But my growing (and surprising) wanderlust won’t stop in Ohio; we’re planning to return to the land of the Northern Lights.  I still cannot explain how I’m so strangely gripped by that frozen Valhalla.

“There is one word of advice and caution to be given those intending to visit Alaska for pleasure, for sight-seeing. If you are old, go by all means; but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of the kind in the world, and it is not well to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first.” Henry Gannett, “General Geography,” Harriman Alaska Series

O Lord My God…How Great Thou Art

 

 

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Toward Lent

Thomas Merton is one of the authors I study every morning.  The compilation of many of his journal entries are in a daily devotional format entitled A Year With Thomas Merton.  Here is his entry for today:

“It is on the Cross that God has known us: that He has searched our souls with His compassion and experienced the full extent of (our) capacity for wickedness: it is on the Cross that He has known our exile, and ended it, and brought us home to Him.”

Yes, when our guilt has carried us away from our sense of His presence, we are indeed in exile.  That was once my life: shunned, abandoned, and separated by what seemed like a vast, empty chasm from all that was good.  It was the dawning (or redawning) awareness of His suffering with me, born out of a love that I will never fathom, that ended my exile and led me home.

For all who are in that faraway land of darkness this morning, my prayer is that you’ll see the Cross of Christ as a sign that He knows your homesick pain and is holding out His nail-scarred hand to bring you back.

 

 

 

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Morning Thoughts

Welcome back.  Sorry I’ve been away so long; a lot of sickness this winter.  Congestion, weakness, etc.  They’re calling it “non-specific rhinitis, and I’m on some high-powered drugs that seem to be working but are accompanied by rough side-effects.  More sensitivity now for those with chronic breathing problems (I thought I’d already had that sensitivity training…more than a few times!)  Oh well…

Valentine’s Day.  How thankful I am for finding love in this world of broken promises and dreams!  When our love is grounded in God’s grace, forgiveness, and new beginnings, then we can give and receive what the Bible calls agape, that unconditional acceptance that we desperately need in order to be human.

Veterans, a huge part of your healing will be in making this discovery.  You will need to trust, and that may take a long time (as it did in my case).  I know you’ve put armor around your heart, because that’s what you were trained to do.  You had to steel yourself against all emotions in order to function in hard and horrid circumstances, but now is the time to “stack arms,” to find a safe place, and to try opening yourself to human affection.  It will require the same kind of courage you displayed while on active duty, and it may be a long hump (journey), but I know you can do it.

I’ll be praying for you…and for all who need to know beyond all doubt that they are loved, not for what they do, what they possess, what medals they’ve earned, but for who they are.

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Morning Thoughts

How good to be silent as the day awakens!  To listen for the still, small voice that whispers  between the rolling waves and the scudding clouds, in the pages of Holy Writ, and in the hidden depths of my heart.

I was once terrified to hear the fateful alarm of dismal doom, even after I became a follower of the Light of the World.  My sins and rebellion had crushed my spirit, and I felt unworthy to receive even a scrap from the banquet table.

But now I await the love song from Heaven, still painfully aware of my shortfalls, but assured of pardon and peace spoken from the parched lips that prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Thanks be to God for the timeless tidings of my acceptance.

And yours.

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Power

I love these mornings when jet fighters from two Air Force bases and a Naval Air Station are roaring overhead.  It gives me a feeling of being protected, and I thank God for the assurance that there are those who watch over me and keep my enemies far away.

But then I look at the mighty Gulf of Mexico and the soaring clouds overhead, the overwhelming displays of God’s ineffable greatness, and I realize that all earthly pomp and splendor are like raindrops in the ocean of our Lord’s dominion.

It’s a thought that forces me to bow my head in gratitude and humility on this Christmas Eve.

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Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Thoughts

“No priest, no theologian stood at the cradle in Bethlehem.  And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of all wonders, that God became human…Theologia sacra arises from those on bended knees who do homage to the mystery of the divine child in the stall.”  from A Testament to Freedom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is one of my heroes, a German pastor, professor, and theologian who was executed for his passionate and Christ-centered opposition to the Nazis. He has taught me to use my mind to study the unsearchable truths of God, to employ the intellect He gave me to find solid grounding for my faith, and to offer my voice to articulate these verities to a doubting world.  But he’s also mentored me to realize that all my searching will accomplish nothing until I humble myself at the manger…and the Cross…and the empty Tomb.

May these pages speak words of compassion and truth to all, especially to those who’ve been broken by battle, whatever form it has taken in one’s life.

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Memory

I remember Christmas Eve, 1969.  My platoon was guarding an artillery unit on a high, barren, shell-scarred hill called LZ (Landing Zone) Bushwhack.  The weather was dark and cloudy, our mood was dimmed by nostalgia, and we were in a survival mode, the high and lofty purpose of the war long forgotten.  Then over Armed Forces Radio came the sounds of Handel’s Messiah, and some of us, at least for a couple of hours, were lifted toward Heaven in our thoughts and dreams.  It was the most poignant message of “Light shining in the darkness”  I’ve ever received.

Let’s pray for all our men and women in uniform today and tomorrow.  Many of them are far away from their loved ones and are feeling as desolate  as we were in Southeast Asia long ago.  May the holiness and hope of Christmas bring them at least a moment or two of joy.

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For Veterans

Dear Friends.  I invite you into the chapel this morning.  There are a few things I need to say, including words of apology for being away so long.  I have no excuse; just a confession of my neglect.  This is an important place for us to gather, and we need to meet here on a frequent basis.

I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  I really mean it, and what I’m saying is more than a holiday card slogan.  I’ve spent many of these “family times” all alone…by choice.  I’ve been afraid to be with people who smile and drink too much, when I’m lonely and sad inside, remembering Vietnam, grieving the Marines I lost there, and feeling the darkness inside my soul.  The counselors have said that when you seen the worst in combat, it leaves a “death imprint” on your mind and spirit.  So I pray that you’ll let some light into that darkness, and that you’ll find some joy in the next few days.

Also, I read this morning that there are three ways that trauma (any traumatic event) can affect your thinking.  First, it can destroy your sense of being safe.  Second, it can undermine your self-worth, leaving you with a lot of guilt and self-hatred.  And third, being involved in traumatic events can drive you to doubt that there’s any meaning and order to this world, this universe, this thing we call human life.

I want you to think about something.  Maybe Christmas holds some answers to these problems.  The Bible tells us that everyone was afraid back in the days when Jesus was born.  Afraid of the Romans, afraid of leprosy, afraid of demons and devils, and afraid of death.  And then a Savior came into our world to bring us the promise of security and eternal safety.  By trusting in Him, we’re told that we’ll never be alone, that we never need to fear anything.  Even death was defeated by this Man, who promised that we would be alive after death…in a place where Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan could not touch us.

The message the angels  brought also assured us that we are precious in the eyes of our Creator.  The good news first came to lowly shepherds, who were at the bottom of the social ladder.  When we feel like nobodies, forgotten even by the nation that sent us to fight for freedom, we can know that we’re not cast aside by the One who made us.  When guilt creeps in to make us feel awful about ourselves, we can remember that the baby born two thousand years ago died for all our wrongdoings, even (maybe especially) the ones we only imagine.  By His death in the Battle of Mount Calvary, he payed the penalty that we deserved and He cleansed us from all that inside dirt and darkness.

The final message from my morning reading was that war (or accidents, sudden illness or loss, etc.) can shatter our belief that there’s a purpose and a reliable structure to everything that happens.  The Christmas message is that there’ll always be events and circumstances that won’t make sense, but by trusting that God sees and knows all things, we can be certain that it all fits into His master plan.  I’ve come to believe that my horrible moments in Southeast Asia were used by the Lord to accomplish His will for my earthy journey. I hope that you’ll be able to come to this same conclusion.

This little talk was longer than I thought it would be.  I guess I have much to share with you.  More in the days ahead.

May God bring healing and hope to all.

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Advent

A candle burning. A baby crying. The sounds of God approaching.

A time for stillness, quietness of soul.  A time to listen for the chorus of angels.  A time to watch the night skies for that star.

A time to repent, to turn from wicked ways and wretched thoughts.

This is the moment to change.  To stop sleepwalking through life.  To wake up and see that God has come to earth, not only to make us feel good once a year, but to take our lives and mold them into what they were meant to be.

Lord God of this great morning, I thank you for coming to this world, not just to visit but to invade.  To break the slavery chains of sin and death, of guilt and bitterness…and to set all captives free.

For the sake of Thy Son, the child of Bethlehem who was, is, and forever shall be our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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Charles Dickens and Stress

Charles Dickens was one of the great writers in the history of the English Language.  Toward the end of his life, he was also a victim of what we now call “Post Traumatic Stress.”  He wrote about being “curiously weak…as if I were recovering from a long illness,” after a traumatizing railway accident in which the front of the train plunged off a bridge under repair and killed ten people while injuring fifty others.  Dickens wrote in letters to friends, “I begin to feel it more in my head.  . I sleep well and eat well; but I write half a dozen notes, and turn faint and sick.  I am getting right, though still low in pulse and very nervous.”  The author also wrote about being unable to travel by rail, because he kept getting the feeling that the train carriage was tipping over on its side, an image which he called “inexpressibly distressing.” He was never as prolific after this incident, and he died on the fifth anniversary of the crash.

In our Point Man Ministry, we offer a listening ear to combat veterans and to anyone else whose life has been shattered by brain-searing memories that can’t be purged.  We are not able to heal, but we can point the sufferer to a Man who can.

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Mentors

The friends I brought with me are my teachers and guides.  You’ll perhaps recognize some of the names:  Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Timothy Keller, A.W. Tozer, Oswald Chambers, Frederick Buechner…

I can’t imagine my life without books.

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Oswald Chambers

One of my oldest and dearest friends is a man who died thirty years before I was born.  He was a brilliant Bible teacher, an avid outdoorsman, an artist, and a chaplain to soldiers during World War I.  Mr. Chambers wrote this in March, 1915:

“A parenthesis is a sentence inserted into an otherwise grammatically complete sentence, and if you want to understand the author, pay particular attention to the parenthesis. God puts a parenthesis in the middle flow of our life; the life goes on before and after, but if you want to understand the life, read the parenthesis, if you can.”

My Master has placed many parentheses in the chapters of my journey, and as I look back I can see (and hear) what He was trying to teach me. I am now in another one of those insertions, and I’m keeping my eyes and ears (and all my other senses) open to find the meaning of this time and place.

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Morning Thoughts

Done with traveling for a while.  Finding some peace now, in a place of rest and beauty. Thank you, Lord.

The morning headlines are filled with tension, conflict, and gloom.  That’s why I need to read the latest from the world’s chaos, and then go to the sanctuary of my books.  These are the friends who inspire me, uplift me, and turn my thoughts away from the problems I can’t solve and toward the God of my faith who has the universe in the palm of His hand.

I think this is a good balance. (I speak so often to various groups on “The Balanced Life.”  I wonder why it’s so hard for me to find it for myself.  “Physician, heal thyself.”)

I must write much more while I’m in this shelter of serenity.  So much to say.  So much to share.

More to come.

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Morning Thoughts

It’s good to be back.  Much traveling, with more to come.  Alaska was breathtaking, beauty beyond words…a holy place where Nature’s majesty silences all hubris.

I’m tired of the conflict over the the government shutdown.  Need to back away from Facebook for a little while, at least the political arena.  I’ve dropped a wedge between myself and people I care about, all over different ways of seeing the problem and trying to find solutions.  Words often can hurt deeply, so I need to remember my Quaker friend’s advice,  “Ask three questions before you speak or write, Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

Love seeing the photos of my new grandson.  Thank you, Heavenly Father, for little Cass out there in San Francisco.  I share the frustration of a lot of grandparents: I wish there weren’t so many miles between us.  He’s precious, as are all babies.  Some say he looks like me.  That brings a lump to my throat.

I’ll be writing more about veterans later today.  Finally have some free time.  Spoke to an attentive group of ladies yesterday, telling the Point Man story (as well as my own).  They were more receptive than most audiences, and they threw me a curve during the Q&A time when several of them said, “How can we get involved?”  They were willing to sign up right then and there to volunteer to visit the troops and to put their time and energy into this veterans ministry.  How gratifying!

Life is good.  Long-time friends tell me that marriage is agreeing with me.  They’re right.

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Don’t Let the Enemy Win

Hello, veterans.  Come into the chapel for a little while; I have something to tell you.

Just as I am, you are still wounded from the war, wherever and whenever that was.  Europe, the South Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else your nation sent you to defend freedom. Thank you for serving, and welcome home.

I want you to get the help you need for the healing of your body, your mind, and your spirit.  There are more resources today than at any other time in history.  We’ve learned so much, often from our mistakes, about the aftermath and the continuing trauma of combat.

The enemy, whoever they were or are, wants you to remain broken and miserable.  That means victory for them.  Please don’t let that happen.  Get the help you need.  That’s what I did, finally, fifteen years ago.  I was tired of being a “victim” of the Vietnam War, and I made the decision to try to get out of the cave (tomb) I’d been in since 1970.  It wasn’t easy, but it saved my life.  And it meant that the Viet Cong no longer could list me on their body count.  I chose life over death, and I’ll thank God for each breath I take until my dying day…and then long after that.

I want the same for you.  You’ve suffered enough, and you’ve been on the casualty list too long, just as I was.  Our nation needs you to learn to manage your PTSD symptoms, to rise above them (though they may stay with you for a lifetime), and  use your experience and your skills to rebuild America.

If you think I can be your guide, please contact me.  I’m here and on Facebook and at rmclark46@aol.com.

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Tears of Grief and Gratitude

When I see Old Glory rippling in the late summer breeze, calling me to remember that freedom is a costly gift, granted to me by others.

When I sit in Saint Joseph Cathedral and hear the choir’s heartsong soaring to heavenly mansions.

When memories flood my mind, often at night, to drown me in regrets of the past, and to indict me for the pain I brought to the ones I loved.

When I relive the flight out of  Danang in 1970 and the journey home…through Okinawa, Anchorage, Seattle, San Francisco,  and then on to Indianapolis and the cornfields I knew so well.

And when I see a sick little boy or girl at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and witness the fear and anguish on family faces around the tiny bed. Please, God, heal this baby and comfort these loved ones.  We have nowhere to go but to You.

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When Tears Well Up

Robert Frost once said that most of his poems began with a “lump in the throat.”  Frederick Buechner later said the same thing about his novels and sermons.  When some event, some  some sight or sound or sigh makes my heart hurt or skip a beat, and I know I need to somehow share that moment with whoever cares to read or listen, then that is what I must do.

This morning I pondered.  What has brought a lump to my throat lately?  And here are the images that surfaced.

One of my daughters stranded at night in a broken-down vehicle.  A sunrise so glorious that I could almost see the Throne of Heaven. My grandson ready to enter the world in San Francisco, my own flesh and blood bringing something of me with him.  Watching God at work in my life, often in retrospect…since I was clueless when the miracles were happening around me and within me. The frightened and haunted look of a veteran who’s been carrying the pain of war with him for decades and is just worn out.

And the list could go on and on.  If fact, it has to…and it will.

 

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Passion

I went last night to a meeting of the Disabled American Veterans; I’m a life member of this veterans service organization.  Capital City Chapter 3 has been a group I’ve admired for a while, because they actually DO something for our military, past and present. Some gatherings of vets, I’ve discovered, seem more interested in having a good time around a bar than in helping their comrades in arms.

The meeting was a lot of business, with laughter interspersed.  A good spirit in the room.  There were a few heated conversations, but I began to realize that the rising blood pressure and the reddening faces meant that those men cared deeply about what was being discussed.  Every one of them was passionate about the group’s mission: to make sure that those who’ve been wounded by war receive the best our nation has to give.

And then I remembered that it was a DAV chapter out in Seattle that welcomed me on a cold and dreary September day in 1999.  I was at my lowest…one of the deepest, darkest places I’ve ever known.  I’d been through a year of losing just about everything I thought I needed to survive.  And as I staggered into that office in the Pacific Northwest, I felt the compassion as the members listened and guided me to a safe place.

Last night, I sensed that same spirit, as the group addressed one issue after another.  All related to problems and challenges facing veterans of all ages, but especially focused on those still on active duty, many of whom are trying to transition back into civilian life.  The warriors and their families bear the scars of battle, and my chapter almost shouted their support and their passionate concern for the well being  of the ones we’ve sent to defend freedom around the world.

As I drove home, I thanked God for my DAV chapter.   And I prayed that this same enthusiasm and commitment would mark the way  we all treat those coming home from war…or service anywhere.

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A Good Sunday

Started the day with a morning walk.  Martha and I love the cooler weather and the first signs of Autumn.  Blessed to live in a peaceful, quiet neighborhood, with only the early-rising birds and a few still-sleepy dogs greeting us along the way.

Rounded the familiar bend in the road and froze in our tracks.  Two male deer, young bucks, were sauntering down the street.  We think they’d come up from the deep ravine that runs through the northern part of  Clintonville.  What a majestic and wondrous sight!  There was communion between us as both we and they stood still for a few seconds.  Then they apparently concluded (if animals other than humans can “conclude.”) that we were too dangerous to share company with, and they ran down the hill toward home.

Worship service was OK.  The best part was seeing our friends, those with whom we share so much, especially a faith in God the Creator, Savior, and Comforter.  The praise choruses were lively and meaningful, but we both miss the old hymns and Gospel songs we grew up with.  Another blessing was conversing with Point Man veterans who had attended our organizational meeting on Saturday.  There’s growing enthusiasm for forming a military support group and also for being trained to talk with National Guard units  on their drill weekends.  What an opportunity!

This afternoon we rested and counted our blessings.  I’ve never met anyone who does that often enough.  Amid all the struggles and the worries over money, family, and health, most of us still have much more than billions of people on  Earth.  Gratitude is an essential attribute if life is going to be anything more than drudgery and bitterness.

Watched “Duck Dynasty” for a while.  I’m finding myself liking it, despite my earlier aversion.  The Robertsons represent what most of us long for.  Basic values, prayer at the dinner table, humor, family love, and simple living.  I have a feeling that they’d hold to these qualities even without the millions of duck-call dollars they’ve earned.

And so the day comes to a sweet end.  The looming war against Syria (yes, if we attack…we’re at war) bothers me, as do concerns about loved ones and friends who don’t seem to have life figured out yet.  But all I can do is pray for them and leave them in the hands of the One with whom we began this day, accompanied by the wild deer and our fellow believers.

Thank you, Heavenly Father.

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Dry Land

Moving through some desert, through which I’ve traveled before.  Haven’t had much water to share of late.  But, ah, I see an oasis, and I know it’s not a mirage.

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Morning Thoughts

I’ll be with people today who’ve known me most of my life.  My father’s youngest sister, Aunt Esther, knew me before I was born.  The older generation is passing away (“walking on,” as some tribes say).  I have memories of them, and I smile as I recall their laughter, their kindness, the simplicity of their lives (as opposed to the hectic pace that Baby Boomers and our children chose to follow).

Family reunions are good, for they help me remember who I am, and where I come from.  These people are of the same flesh and blood as I am.  We share DNA.  We may not like each other as much as we should, but nothing will change the fact of our oneness.

Many who will gather in that picnic pavilion follow the same faith.  Aunt Esther will bring song books, so we can sing the hymns of Heaven, just as we’ve done for over fifty years.  It will be good to hear those familiar voices (some more melodious than others).  The harmonies will reflect our common beliefs and hopes.

It will feel like “home.”  When I returned from war in 1970, I wondered where I would fit in.  The country had changed; the war was hated by most (and so were the men who fought in it).  But I came back to a family who loved me, unconditionally.  And they shed tears of grateful joy to know I was alive and unscathed (at least as far as they could see).  They welcomed me with open arms (and hearts), and I felt that old sense of belonging. How I wish that today’s veterans would find the same warmth, and the same light in the window awaiting them!

Maybe that’s where we all enter the picture.  We as a nation sent them into battle, and now we’re their family (“blood relation” in that the blood they shed and caused to be shed is our responsibility).  It’s our moral obligation to welcome them, to embrace them, to listen to them, and to help them make re-entry into the life we’ve been enjoying while they were serving.

That’s why this Point Man Ministry is where my heart (and the rest of my life) is.  I was blessed to have a loving family to bridge me (yes, I’m using it as a verb) back to where I belonged.  Many of today’s military will not have such a gift, and so it’s up to us.

Let’s welcome them to the table.

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Moral Injury

I just learned that another young veteran has taken his own life.  A recent report indicates that 30% of our post-9/11 troops have contemplated suicide.  The VA informs us that 22 veterans per day decide to end it all.  Something is horribly wrong, and most Americans are not concerned enough to address this epidemic.

Why are the mental, emotional, and spiritual struggles of our defenders driving them to stop the pain, once and for all?  Answers I have found include guilt, grief, personal and family issues, substance abuse, and isolation brought on by the belief that no one cares nor understands.

I would suggest an even deeper reason: a dark chasm in the “heart,” the innermost part of our being.  War leaves a blot, a “death imprint,” a mark of evil that is so embedded in our psyche that no light can enter.  Some have called it a “loss of Ich” or loss of Self. This soul wound (or soul obliteration) derives from the programming (brainwashing?) that our warriors receive and then implement on the battlefield.  We are trained to dehumanize the enemy, to regard him as something other than human.  It’s always been this way…in every war from the beginning of time.  Knowing that it is difficult to kill when we see our target as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives, our leaders have conditioned us to view the adversary as Japs, Nips, Krauts, Gooks, Ragheads, etc.  The “other”  becomes less that homo sapiens, and we can then destroy him.

This makes it convenient, of course.  But the truth that no one has really faced honestly is this: you cannot dehumanize anyone without dehumanizing yourself.  And so our warriors lose themselves in the wars we send them to fight.  And when they return, we have a hard time understanding why they can’t “just get over it” and go back to normal living.  We need to remember that there needs to be a long process of affirmation, validation, and restoration before our military men and women can find themselves again and rejoin our society. We have a moral…and sacred…obligation to help them.

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Yesteryears’s War Wisdom

As our veterans agonize over the probability of military strikes against Syria, I’m sharing some words from heroes of the past.  These were giants who once stood among us, with piercing knowledge of warfare and wisdom to face evil with resolve, tempered with equanimity.  They admonish us to tread forward with restraint at a time like this.

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.  The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

Sir Winston Churchill, British statesman who guided Great Britain through World War II

There’s no difference between one’s killing and making decisions that will send others to kill.  It’s exactly the same thing, or even worse.”

Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel who led her nation through wars and terrorist attacks.

And this dialogue between two of our Founding Fathers, who argued that only Congress should have the power to send  troops into combat.  In a 1789 letter, Thomas Jefferson expressed hope to James Madison that the Constitution would restrain “the dog of war, by transferring the power of letting him loose from the executive to the legislative body.”  Madison, in turn, made clear his belief that the Congress could end wars as well as start them.  He even suggested that the Commander in Chief couldn’t be trusted with that responsibility.  “Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued,or concluded,” he wrote in The Federalist Papers.”

Perhaps we need to listen to our pathfinders.

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Drums of War…Again

Dear Veteran,  Many of you are as troubled as I am over the call to arms we’re now hearing from our leaders.  We are planning to attack Syria, in spite of the fact that the Russians tell us they’ll defend their ally.

I’ve heard this bugle many times, and sometimes for good reasons.  But too often we’ve sent our military into places where our national security was not at stake and where the fate of the nation or tribes (as in Afghanistan) or factions (as in Syria) should have been left in the hands of the indigenous people.

One of the quotes I’ve used many times is that of General David Shoup, Twenty-Second Commandant of the Marine Corps.  He won the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Tarawa in the South Pacific, and he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War twenty years later.  In 1966, he wrote:

“I believe that if we had kept and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own, and if unfortunately their revolution must be of the violent type because the ‘haves’ refuse to share with the ‘have-nots’ by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don’t want crammed down their throats by Americans.”

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Prayer for Holy Rest

I first heard this from a Navy chaplain.  No one seems to know its origin.

“O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world lies hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then in Thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.”

Good night, dear friends.

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“Platoon”

I don’t see many movies about war; too many triggers.  But once in a while, Hollywood comes close to being accurate when it portrays combat and its aftermath.  Here are the closing words of the Charlie Sheen character in “Platoon” as he is being flown away from the carnage:

“Those of us who did make it have an obligation to teach others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning to this life.  The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, for the rest of my days.”

I’d say this is a good message for all veterans, and I share it especially for our new generation and their loved ones.  You made it.  By the grace of God, you still have your life.  The war will always be with you, and you need to weave it into your life story.  Don’t try to isolate it or numb it with alcohol.  Find a good counselor (free counseling available at www.giveanhour.org), and get the help you need to make the memories tolerable.  Then you’ll be able to join us in teaching a nation that still doesn’t understand the long-term effects of warfare.

Also, I pray that after you are on the road to recovery, you’ll find that there’s still a lot of goodness in this world (and inside yourself).  Please try to notice children playing and people smiling at you on the sidewalks and in the mall.  Maybe you should get a dog or a cat…or a horse (my Vietnam buddy says his horse is the only one who understands him!)

I also want you to find a meaning to it all.  One of the most common expressions in Nam was, “Don’t mean nothin'”  It was spoken almost as a curse and a cry after some horrific event.  We didn’t have the luxury of anything emotional, so this was our way of denying the truth that everything over there did indeed matter.  Sooner or later, most of us found some purpose in the war, as it taught us hard lessons that we couldn’t have learned any other way.  So I hope you OEF and OIF veterans find that your tour (or tours) of duty made a difference, no matter how the conflicts turn out.

Finally, I hope you’ll find a meaning in your life now.  You were spared for a reason, and your life can now be devoted to living, not killing.  Please find something beyond yourself to live for and to give yourself to.  A mission, a loved one, a church, a youth center, a disabled veteran…someone who needs you in their lives.  Just as you’ll come to need them to write your own happy ending to this story.

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Morning Meditation

Good day yesterday.  Oldest daughter’s birthday, middle daughter’s baby shower, and Mom’s return to her apartment after two months of rehab.  Also, sharing the quiet of a late summer afternoon with Martha. The old Sunday School song I learned was “Count Your Blessings.”  I need to do that more and more.

The privilege of going to church this morning, another of the gifts our military gave us by winning and preserving our freedoms.  Looking forward to seeing our “family” as we gather for worship.  I’m getting to know some other veterans in the congregation, and we’re talking about starting a new support group.  The need is so great; too many of them have suffered in silence for years, even decades.  I believe one of the reasons is the fear that no one will care about nor understand their stories (and their deepest terrors). We’re trying to convince them that we know a lot about what they’ve experienced.  The realities of war haven’t changed much since Cain killed Abel.

I scan all my news sources, and I find myself worrying about (and praying for) our nation and the others nations of the world.  Perhaps it’s just media “hype,” but in my many years of living I’ve never seen such rancor, conflict, turmoil, and despair.  Oh yes, there are scattered enclaves of harmony, but the overriding theme seems to be hatred between nations, races, religions, political parties, and other categories that we let divide us.

How we need to find common ground, but more than that, a change in our minds and hearts that will lead us to love and respect those who are different!  To be honest, I haven’t found much hope for this anywhere except in the Christian faith (when it follows the ways of Jesus and not the path of judgmental arrogance and condescension.

These are my ramblings.  There will be more.

 

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Stop, Look, and Listen

Henry James was a literary giant of a hundred years ago.  He once told young writers, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”  In other words, pay attention to life as it carries you along.  One author whom Martha and I heard on an Alaskan cruise calls himself a Noticer.  Andy Andrews even wrote a book by that title. He also is urging us not  pass by without  seeing what’s happening around us.  If we’re in a hurry, we’ll miss the things that life is all about.  Another of my mentors, Frederick Beuchner, starts a daily devotional book with this message, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is…Touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it…for all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

So I’ve tried to follow these signposts by gazing through my office window and seeing the lush summer leaves waving againt the steel sky.  And I’ve witnessed the muffled sorrow on a friend’s face as he told me that his wife’s cancer had returned.  I’ve paused to study the magnificent wood of our furniture.  Oak and cherry, grown and nurtured in God’s great forests…and then lovingly shaped by Amish skill and sweat.  And, oh yes, I relished the boyish charm of my 87 year old World War II buddy as he described a fishing trip that he and other vets had enjoyed the day before.  “We all caught our limit by 11:00!” he almost shouted in the hushed sanctity of our Baptist church.

And finally, as I was driving down the freeway in rush-hour traffic, I actually found myself admiring the flow and  rhythm and, yes, the beauty of the cars and trucks sharing the highway with me.  I’ve heard others narrate this stunning epiphany (that is barely believable), but it actually happened to me on that hazy late summer morning.

Let’s remember to thank God for what we so often take for granted or sleepwalk past.

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“Veterans Chapel”

That’s the name that’s been in my dreams for years.  And now it’s a reality.  Why this nomenclature?  Because the blog, grafted to Point Man Ministries, is intended primarily for those who’ve served in our military and are dealing with issues related to that service.  We also invite spouses, parents, children, and other family members to come to the chapel.  My intention is to post with this audience in mind as well.  Further, I believe that Post-Traumatic Stress affects human beings who’ve been involved in any traumatic event.  I’m hearing from victims of accident and crime, from rape survivors and those who’ve been abused in other ways, and from men, women, and children who’ve been battered by natural disasters and by personal calamities like a divorce or the death of a loved one. I invite all  these “tempest-tossed” souls to know they’re included here.

 

“We’re all broken,” our pastor said last Sunday.  How true.  We all are in need of healing and recovery, and I want these pages to offer hope and a pathway toward restoration.  Here is where the “chapel” part comes in.  I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve tried many gimmicks and roads to find answers to the innermost questions of the soul.  My own journey took me through Vietnam, a month-long hospitalization when my body shut down with a neuromuscular disease, and a torturous divorce.  And to cope with these agonies, I cried for help in directions that turned out to be futile.  Then I returned to the religion of my childhood, a mature version of the Christian faith  that offers forgiveness, cleansing, peace with my Creator, a feeling of “at-home-ness” in this beautiful world and also in the World to Come, and a welcoming and affirming community called The Church that kept me safe and secure while I was stumbling through the first steps of recovery.  The Chapel became a haven, a hiding place, a sanctuary of love, and a “family” in all the best senses of that reassuring word. And that is what I want this blog to be.

So, my friends, welcome to Veterans Chapel.  I’m glad you’ve come to spend some time, maybe even a lifetime.

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Homecoming

Dear returning veteran, Welcome home.  Thank you for your service.  Many of us who’ve served in the past are eager for you to meet with us and tell us your stories, when you are ready.  We share many of the experiences that you’ve survived, and we’ve learned ways to handle the memories…and the nightmares. We want you to trust us, but we’re aware it will take some time.  It took me twenty-five years to realize that I needed some support from other vets; I don’t want you to wait that long. Some of us have gained wisdom over the years, and I want you to know a couple of things (that we’ve learned the hard way):

Your nation has a short attention span; many of your countrymen are tired of the war and don’t want to talk about it. Thank God they don’t blame you for the unpopular wars in Southwest Asia, as they blamed some of us for the nasty war on the other side of that continent.  Your family, neighbors, and friends will welcome you home with banners and flags waving; please be grateful for this.  But most people will not want to hear your stories, because either they’re afraid of what you might say, or they know they won’t really understand.  Civilian life and military life, especially combat, are worlds apart.  Always have been: always will be.

Some folks will try to put you in one of two categories.  They’ll call you either a hero or a victim.  Don’t buy into this phoniness.  If you are indeed a hero, the medals on your chest will speak for themselves.  You did the job your country sent you to do, so be content in knowing that.  When you try to wear the label of “hero,” you’re cheapening it…and stealing valor that doesn’t belong to you.  On the other hand, there are many who (because of their hatred of the current wars) will treat you as pitiful victims of either Bush or Obama…or someone else who sent you into battle against your will.  This is also hogwash.  You’re not a victim unless you choose to be.  You volunteered to serve your nation, and you can hold your head high.  If you need help with some physical or mental wound, get it.  And then move on with your life.  Your  community and nation need the experience, skill, and character strength you’ve developed while wearing the uniform.

I’ll have more advice along the path we’ll walk together.  Again, welcome home, brave warrior.

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Writing

This will also become a familiar stream, for it’s where I am (and where I’ve wanted to be for a long, long time).  Some of the best words I’ve ever read on this craft are attributed to Ernest Hemingway, Red Smith, and a few others:

“There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter, open a vein, and bleed.”

I take that to mean that good writing is more than “speaking my mind.”  It has to come from the heart, from the innermost part of who I am (or think I am), from the deepest reaches of my soul, my Unconscious, my Self.  It also means I’m willing to pour out my life into the veins (and arteries) of the reader, taking the risk that the “thoughts of my heart” might be misunderstood, mishandled, and used for misguided purposes.  It means that the transfusion might not “take” at all.

But as courageous journalists, novelists, columnists, and others know, it’s worth it.

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Homecoming

I’ll come back to this theme many times; it’s a dream of all who’ve been away at war…and those who’ve been in some other “far country,” fighting the demons and dragons that dwell within.  That includes us all, of course.

A message I sometimes share with veterans who are returning, often very slowly, to a “normal” life is in the form of a question from Phillips Brooks, a Nineteenth Century Episcopal minister and writer.  (He wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”)

“Why can’t we, slipping our hands into His each day, walk trustingly over that day’s appointed path, thorny or flowery, crooked or straight, knowing that evening will bring us to sleep, peace, and home?”

There are no sweeter words than those three to one who’s been gone.  The promise is that we have a Companion to help us get to our place of belonging, no matter where we’ve wandered or what our struggle has been.

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Moral Injury

For the past four years, mental health professionals within the Department of Veterans Affairs have been addressing a concern that was beyond their scope for decades, even centuries.  They’ve begun talking about “wounds of the soul,” in addition to their interest in the centuries-old effects of war on the body and the mind (and also the culture).  The technical name they have attached to this malady is “moral injury,” which stems from traumatic events that involve “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”  These events may involve killing or harming others (especially innocent civilians), witnessing death, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders perceived as gross moral violations.  Anyone who’s been in hard combat knows that, in the fog of war, terrible things happen and that the warrior doesn’t have the luxury (not to mention the time!) to make thoughtful and careful decisions. 

Many of our younger vets, when they finally feel safe enough to trust us and talk to us, are describing their tortured consciences and their anxiety that what they’ve done is unforgivable.  “How does God feel about what I did or what I failed to do?” is a question we often hear.  This cry for help is usually accompanied by deep guilt, isolation, shame, low self-image, self-condemnation, an overwhelming sense of loss, and nihilism (in which nothing matters any more. In Vietnam, one of the most common phrases was, “Don’t mean nuthin'”.)

For decades, Point Man has been seeing these “spiritual” symptoms and hearing the plea for relief.  We believe that the answer is found in several steps: (1) validating the veteran’s experience, assuring him or her that these thoughts and feelings are normal, (2) allowing them to tell the story, to “confess” whatever is troubling them, (3) to point them to the One who can forgive them, and to create rituals of absolution that will confirm the truth of this forgiveness (i.e. Communion and Baptism, etc.) (4) making amends to those they’ve hurt, if possible, or find others to help (survivor mission).

I’ll be writing a lot more on this topic, since it weaves together the three themes of my life over the past half-century: the Christian message of redemption, the insights of modern psychology, and the grusome reality of warfare.  Stay tuned, dear readers.

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Deep

Martha heard someone describe me as “deep” a while ago.  And of course I took it as a compliment, although I’m not exactly sure what  my admirer meant. (I think it was right after she’d seen a Carl Jung book on my shelf.)   But it set me to pondering.  If being deep means that I want to look beneath the surface to see what’s really happening inside human minds, even to the ocean bed of the Unconscious, then I accept that adjective.  If she meant that I like to read books that draw me into the matrix of thought, dream, vision, and myth, then I agree with her.  If she meant that, because I’ve seen life at its best and worst…and have been in a few near-death moments, and now have little tolerance for the trivial and superficial, then she’s right on target.  If “deep” means appreciating the Wind of the Spirit and the ways in which God enters our lives through the beauty of Creation, the gift of conscience, the blessing of family and friends, and the ability to say, “Thank you” when I see a golden sunrise over the blue waters of the Gulf, then  I am indeed a deep man.  But not because of any effort of my own, for even the desire to go beyond and beneath the drudgery and the monotony of everyday living is a Heaven-sent gift to be treasured.

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Night

The darkness was one of our worst enemies over there.  The VC knew where everything was; they could travel fast in their own territory…just by smell and touch and sound. In many ways, they owned the hours between dusk and dawn.  We would send out “night acts” to ambush them on their trails, but we failed more than we succeeded.  The blackness was one of the deepest I have ever seen, like being in a cavern…far underground.  No one dared to shine even the smallest light; a mere flicker from our position would become a target for their deadly mortars. 

And so we waited for morning to come.  Or sometimes we didn’t, and the results were horrendous.  I was once ordered to move my company of Marines in the middle of the night.  Think of it: two hundred men with heavy packs and equipment trying to walk quietly through the dense jungle.  Charlie of course heard us coming, and we lost three good men.

One Leatherneck at Khe Sanh wrote this on a C-ration carton:

“Stay with me, God.  The night is dark. The night is cold: my little spark of courage dies.  The night is long; be with me, God, and make me strong.”

Probably a good prayer for most of us.  Because we all have fears of what we cannot see…from our earliest years.  Only God can give us enough light to comfort us and keep us strong until the Morning Star signals the dawning of a new day.

 

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Writer’s Block

Please don’t tell me you don’t know anything about this.  Anyone who’s tried to transfer thoughts to keyboard (or good old paper) knows what I’m talking about.  It happens to the best…and to the “far from the best.”  When I sit staring at a blank page, feeling I have nothing to say (or anything that any sane human would want to read), I recall the words of Ernest Hemingway.  He and I share the same date of birth, and he celebrated (as only he could!) my arrival on his 47th birthday.  Here is what he wrote in A Moveable Feast:

“But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made.  I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.’  So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.  It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

The truest sentence I can write this morning is, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

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“Skipper”

Some are wondering who this person is who’s doing all the posting.  Skipper is the nickname given to me way back in 1970, when I became the commander of India Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines.  It is of course  a Navy term, meaning “Captain,” and since the Marines are in the Department of the Navy, the moniker was borrowed by our branch as well. 

I’ve always liked to be called “Skipper.”  And I’m pleased that several of my Marines still call me by that name when we gather for our reunions every couple of years.  It’s a term of endearment, but also one that implies respect for the rank and the position of leadership.  When I hear it, or even think of it, I thank God that I had the privilege of leading over 200 of America’s finest on a mission to secure the freedom of a faraway nation. 

How the war turned out…and how we’ve dealt with that “defeat” are topics that I’ll cover in the days and weeks ahead.  I’ll do so, because many troops returning from recent wars will have to find similar answers to the question we faced, “Was it worth it?”

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Perfectionist

A friend brought up this topic on Facebook this morning.  And, yes, I am one.  Case in point: I spent part of last night scolding and berating myself for double posting on this blog.  “How stupid of you, Clarkie!”  “You’re an educated man.  Why the #%@* can’t you figure out how to operate a simple site?”  And so on…ad nauseum.

As I was once ranting about my faults and foibles, a colleague asked, “Is that the way you’d talk to a good friend, someone you cared deeply about?”  Of course I said, “No way!”  And then she responded with that look counselors must study to perfect somewhere in their training, “You just did that to yourself. Why not treat yourself with the same patience, compassion, and overlooking-of-mistakes that you offer to others?”  And I was silenced, which is usually what happens at the end of a lesson-learning session.

So, why don’t we all follow this advice today?

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Soul Survival

It took me twenty-five years to get the help I needed after Vietnam.  I really never understood why I waited so long, but I’ve vowed to share my story of fear, mistrust, and bravado with this new generation of veterans…and also with those who’ve never really come “home” from World War II, Korea, Nam, Desert Storm, and many other man-made hells.  Our prayer in Point Man is that God will give us opportunities to intervene, so that our nation’s defenders will turn from death to life, from destroying to building, and from killing to loving…themselves, others, and God. 

Of course we know this will take time and patience, but we are flesh-and-blood evidence that it’s possible.   Sometimes  the transition begins imperceptibly, when the soldier realizes that others care enough to listen.  Often the change that God works is like the one described in the American classic The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. Here is the way The Youth moves from darkness to light:

“He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle.  The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war.  He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks- an existence of soft and eternal peace.”

It’s time to let the gentle breeze of God blow in your face, brave warrior.

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My Last Fifteen Years

And now in age I bud again.

After so many deaths I live and write.

I once more smell the dew and rain

And relish versing: O my only Light!

It cannot be

That  I am he

On whom Thy tempests fell all night.

George Herbert (1593-1633) British priest and poet

 

 

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My Last Fifteen Years

And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write.

I once more smell the dew and rain

And relish versing. O my only Light

It cannot be

That I am he

On whom Thy tempests fell all night.

George Herbert (1593-1633) British priest and poet

 

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Sounds Around the World

I remember talking to an old missionary many years ago.  He was a man who had traveled to over a hundred countries, sharing the Good News as he went along.  I was fascinated by his description of the various and disparate parts of the earth he’d had the privilege of visiting.  One particular thing he said has stayed with me ever since.  His words were, “All around the globe there are three sounds that are always the same: a rooster crowing, a dog barking, and a baby crying.”  I’ve thought about that many times, as I ponder the mystery of what we call life.  All those sounds are means of self-expression, which I consider to be the  need of all living things.  The old rooster says, “It’s morning!  A new day is beginning!  So get up and start making the most of it!”  The dog must say, “This is what I do to let people and other animals  know that I mean business.” And the dear little infant is proclaiming, “I have arrived, world!  You need to notice me, make room for me, and pay attention to the sound I’m making.  I may grow up to be somebody important, but even if I never see my name on an office door or in the headlines, God placed me here to make make a difference.  So I’m starting right now!”

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Signs of Recovery

Someone asked me recently, “What do you look for as a sign that the veteran is making progress?”  Some answers I’ve found include: (1) When he or she begins to laugh again.  War shuts down emotions in so many ways, and it often takes a long time for any feeling to return.  If the vet can start to smile…and then laugh, it’s a marker on the path to healing.  (2) When the man or woman feels the need to create something…to write, to draw, to paint, to build, to express themselves in positive and constructive ways. (3) When they are able to begin integrating their war experience into the narrative of their lives.  Often the time served in a combat zone is a piece of horrible memory that doesn’t “fit in.”  When it can be woven into the fabric of a veteran’s life, it is “owned” and no longer denied or repressed. ((4) When he or she can begin to trust again and show affection for someone else, perhaps another group member. (5) When the warrior begins to have enough energy to work, even if it’s gardening or light woodworking.  Often, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder saps all the strength and the will out of a person, so when…through therapy, medication, and a support group (plus a good regimen of diet, exercise, and sleep), the veteran gets strong enough to get busy, it’s a promising sign. (5) When the pers0n begins to develop a mission, a life calling, a new direction and a new purpose.  This gives a young man or woman the “will to meaning” that Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote so much about when he founded the school of logotherapy after World War II.

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Homecoming

I’ve been working with veterans for twenty years or so, the last eleven as an outpost leader with Point Man Ministries.  Along the way, my group and I have learned to see and to hear the red flag indicators as we listen to the stories from our returning troops.  Some of the classic cries for help come in the form of agitation, anger, numbing (often with the help of drugs and alcohol), insomnia, depression, isolation, flashbacks and nightmares, startle responses when “triggered” by a combat-related sight, sound, or smell, and a host of other symptoms.  In other words, we know from our own experience and from these stories that war (and especially combat) leaves a lasting mark on the mind, the emotions, and the  soul.  A starting point in meeting these needs is to offer a safe place where the vets can learn to trust again.  Then we encourage them to tell us what happened to them and what they felt when it occurred.  There can be no pressure on the soldier to get him or her to open up.  They’ll talk when they’re ready.  When the words start coming, we offer careful listening and compassion, and then encouragement as they walk the journey toward healing.  One of our messages to these men and women is to refrain from mind-altering substances, which many of us have used in the past to numb the pain and to forget the horror.  We gently share with the veterans our own stories of the wrong ways we have taken, with the hope that God will use our testimonies to let our younger warriors know that we understand.  Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail.  But we’ll keep trying, because for many of us, this is our “survivor mission” and our answer to the common question, “Why was I spared when my buddies were not?”

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Lessons from the Zoo

We spent a great day at our Columbus Zoo, one of the best I’ve ever seen.  I was reminded of something I first thought of many years ago; that the animals there seem to be enjoying just being themselves.  A bear doesn’t try to be a lion, a manatee is content to be a manatee, and a bonobo has fun doing what comes naturally.  I observed this again today, and my mind then did what it often does in these situations.  I wondered why, among all the creatures on earth, human beings don’t seem to enjoy being and doing what the Creator put us here to be and do.  I’ve been to social gatherings where it seems that many folks are trying to be something…or someone…they’re not.  They want the rest of the crowd to think they’re more than they really are, that they earn and have more than they really do,  and that they have only success in what they try to accomplish.  In other words, we humans play a lot of games with one another, and we are miserable when we consider what we really are.  Maybe we need to apply the words of St. Paul to our lives, “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. ” (Philippians 4: 11)  The Apostle could say that because he found his identity and sense of self worth in his faith in Christ, so he found contentment and inner peace that didn’t depend at all on the values and opinions of others, who chose the rat race that leads to nothing but despair.  Gentle beasts, our brothers and sisters in the zoo and in the wild, please teach us to be more like you.  If we do so, God is sure to smile and say, “Ah, at last they understand!”

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Gratitude. August 9, 2013

I’m thanking God this evening for my wife, Martha, who is walking with me on my journey of recovery from PTSD.  She is patient beyond what I deserve and eager to learn as much as she can about my war experience…and how it has  shaped my life for the last four decades.  My heart goes out to veterans of any war who feel isolated from the ones they love most.  My prayer is that those who fought for our freedoms will find the listening ear, the caring heart, and the assuring hug that they deserve.  For many of us, this is a moral imperative.

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Welcome to Vet Chapel. August 9, 2013

I’m pleased to welcome you to Vet Chapel, the blog of Pastor Russ Clark.  I’m a Marine Vietnam veteran, a retired United Methodist minister, and a volunteer chaplain and counselor with Point Man International Ministries (www.pmim.org). I intend for this site to be my opportunity to share what God has allowed me to learn over the 67 years of my life.  The themes will be Christian spirituality, war and its impact on all of us, and the ways in which the science of psychology can be used to understand the human mind and spirit .  My graduate degrees in Biblical theology and mental health counseling have equipped me to blend the great historical truths about human nature that God has permitted mankind to learn.  To Him be the glory!