‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30) 1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The strongest recurring theme of the Psalms is a pealing cry for help. Though largely authored by one individual – King David - the anguish-racked words of the Psalms echo the tormented cries of the hearts of every modern day soldier. Written by one who himself was a soldier and who understood only too well the rigors and hardships of war, the Psalms could well be said to be the universal soldiers’ memoir – as relevant today as the day they were penned, poignantly encapsulating the ordeals and traumas of a soldier’s tortured heart.
Psalm 22 could be said to be the archetypal petition of the military heart because it captures movingly several powerful conditions of the heart in perfect chorus: desperation, despair, entreaty, humility, repentance, hope, faith, trust, thanksgiving, and praise.
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of .
4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
8 "He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him."
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother's breast.
10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother's womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of
13 Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.
19 But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it.
It is important to identify that which sets the modern day soldier apart from the rest of humanity – choice. Slavery is abolished – soldiers are no longer compelled into the front line. Conscription is obsolete – service cannot be imposed upon free will. The soldier of today chooses service and it is this choice that elevates and ennobles them because they choose freely and knowingly to embrace the possibility of death in the commission of protecting the lives and liberties of their nation.
Today’s soldier places ahead of their own personal safety – ahead of their own life – the lives and freedoms of those they swear an oath to protect and both Christian and non-Christian alike are familiar with the biblical quotation ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13). And let it be remembered that this verse relates to laying down one’s life for a friend – a soldier is willing to lay down their life for a complete stranger, someone whose name they will never know, someone who can never thank them, someone who can never hope to repay them. They are prepared to lay down their life – and so often do. Thus so much more righteous becomes the sacrifice.
Today as in yesteryears, often our youth enter the military because the camaraderie it offers grants a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose lacking in their own lives. The Army has long been a haven for those without family or alienated from family. The structure, discipline, responsibility and culture of community is so appealing that it becomes an active soldier’s family. Surroundings may change, countries and continents may change, conditions may change but being a part of something requiring a sense of loyalty, allegiance and reliability remains the same and fills a void missing in many young soldiers’ lives.
So what happens when our troops are exposed to war? They witness the very basest of human depravity, they experience first hand atrocity on a scale unimaginable to the human condition, they see horrors no soul should ever have to behold. The vileness of war finds expression through human actions – rape, mutilation, torture, injury, imprisonment and death – and Satan dances gleefully with every drop of blood spilled, every loss of innocence, every act of savagery and barbarity. When a human beings commit - or even witness - such acts against another human being they are as far removed from the greatest of all God’s commandment – love one another – as east is from west, or sunrise from sunset. This places souls dangerously within reach of Satan’s gleaming sickle.
Whilst our armed forces create an environment of kinship and solidarity amongst troops, no amount of discipline or training can prepare a human spirit for the abominable confrontation of war. The environment created in preparing soldiers for war – barracks life, mateship, unit cohesion - is entirely anathema to the reality and brutality of war. And it is against the very weave of the fabric into which God knit every fiber of our souls to witness or participate in war and not be reviled by it and want to recoil from such carnage.
But our most stalwart defenders are also our most vulnerable lambs. Troops are especially susceptible to Satan’s snares – drugs, alcohol, inhumanity, pornography, violence borne of psychological instability. But psychiatric counseling is not enough. Our angels of mercy with their mortar-damaged wings, their dented haloes and their sand and dust covered raiment, weary and disheartened, need our spiritual help.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Those soldiers most at risk of being lost to addiction, violence and, worse, suicide, are those so traumatized they are unfit for duty but simultaneously so estranged from mainstream society that they cannot reintegrate and thus become marginalized and isolated.
Some might argue that Jesus does not advocate violence or condone war – He does, however, campaign for the defense and protection of the weak, the poor, the dispossessed, the widowed, the orphaned, the oppressed, the persecuted, the rejected, the neglected and the undefended. Our troops do all this and more, at the risk of their own personal safety. They engage in building and restoration programs, in establishing education and training curricula, in providing access to adequate medical and health care facilities, and in implementing the repatriation and reintegration of exiles. They do precisely what Jesus called us all to do – to serve one another, the love one another, to care for the needy and, if necessary, to die for one another.
While the armed forces have programs and structures in place to train and entrench a soldier in the culture, expectations and responsibilities of active service (and, to a large extent, the psychological backstops to aid troops deeply troubled by the experience of war), two fundamental elements are lacking – direct aid in this world and the next. Aid in the form of simple human kindness, compassion and understanding – not easily accessible to troops abroad in hostile lands far from home and hearth. Aid in the form of continual prayer for their emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing – not readily made known to them.
Army chaplains do all that they can but the demand upon them is overwhelming and almost impossible to meet. We need to engage in constant and earnest prayer for the spiritual fortitude, mental stamina and emotional resilience all troops need to serve in war. Prayer is vital. They are the bricks of the wall of our defense but our prayers are the mortar than hold them high and keep them strong. But more than this we need to be there for them, available to them, keeping them in touch with the world outside the base camp abroad and the endless tours of duty and the latest mission.
I encourage everyone to visit any one of the hundreds of available websites (too many to mention here) aimed at throwing soldiers abroad a lifeline of human contact. Correspondence, compassion, support and regular contact are vital to the spiritual, mental and emotional wellbeing of the angels who protect us from afar. Many have no family – no one to remember birthdays, no one to send Mother’s Day cards home to, no one missing them at Christmas, no one to go home to at the end of a term of service. I urge you to become friends and family to these brave, selfless souls. Some sites even arrange for care packages to be delivered on your behalf to troops abroad. But believe me when I say that a single email or a handwritten letter can bring greater hope, elevate a flagging spirit and rally a waning morale more than a winning lottery ticket.
With a little human kindness and committed prayer we can be the ‘soft place to land’ our treasured guardians and protectors so desperately need. They are weary and they are burdened and we bring them into the tender embrace of a forgiving, merciful and compassionate Christ when we become His gentle instrument for reconciliation and peace in the world.
They save our lives every day and ask for nothing in return.
Have you ever considered that it is within your power to save theirs also?
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