Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Day I Lost It--One Year Later

The following is from an email I sent out to a few friends almost a year ago. I've changed a couple of details just for the sake of anonymity.

The local news tonight reported that two members of the state National Guard were killed on Saturday while escorting a civilian convoy: Staff Sgt. 'Craig Kinder', 48, of __________, and Spc. ____ of ______. A reporter interviewed Craig's former co-workers. They described him as a friendly mail-carrier who often rode his bicycle to work and who always had a smile on his face.

Yesterday morning, I was just getting ready to leave my church in town to drive out to preach at a little country church when my wife called to relay the message from my mother that my nephew's father-in-law was killed in Iraq the day before. At the time my stomach did some loops and my eyes teared up, but I had no idea that I was going to lose it later in front of the congregation.

I only met Craig once, exactly a year and a week earlier at my nephew's wedding. The wedding had been moved up a couple of months because Craig’s National Guard unit had been called up. He was in full uniform when he escorted his daughter, Dawn, down the aisle. He looked fit and trim for a 47 year old. His shaved head made him look formidable. Nevertheless, he was friendly and funny in the brief conversation I had with him. We talked about his deployment. And the one phrase I remember him saying was, "Yeah right, one weekend a month." But he was only kidding. Craig had retired as a Marine officer several years earlier. Then he enlisted in the National Guard after 9/11. There were no openings for officers, so he went in as a corporal. He just wanted to be of service.

As I drove the 18 miles down to the church I thought of Craig and his family. I thought of this damn war and all the families here and in Iraq who have experienced these terrible losses. And I considered how isolated the people who make the decisions about this war are from the deep pain caused by their actions. Then I practiced asking for prayers for his daughter and the rest of her family. I thought that if I said it out loud a few times then I would be able to repeat it in church without crying. I can be such an easy cry sometimes.

Once the service started I decided I wouldn't be able to do it. If I tried to say what had happened, the words would just sound too terrible. But I didn't account for the words of the scripture. After announcements, the first hymn, and the call to worship, we read Psalm 124 responsively. I made it part way through:

“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side...when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us…”

I just started sobbing.

I was embarrassed but I couldn’t regain my composure. Then I was able to choke out some explanation to a mystified congregation saying, “we lost a family member”…and after a few more deep breaths… “My nephew’s father-in-law was killed in Iraq”. I wanted to add: “I just hate this war.” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Two couples in the church have kids over there. One of the fathers was present. At one point I saw him, this truck driver and sheep farmer, wipe tears from his eyes. The lay leader came up and said, “I’ll fill in for you.” And I walked back to sit in the back pew until it was time for the sermon.

I wasn’t at my best delivering the sermon. I was speaking to 19 rather confused people and one dad who was thoroughly preoccupied with a father’s worry.

Since the moment I broke down I have been trying to figure out why. It couldn’t have been simply mourning for Craig. I’ve been much more closely acquainted with other people who have died suddenly. Certainly I was feeling a great deal of sorrow for his daughter, a very sweet 21 year old who seems even younger. But mostly I just felt angry and helpless. Angry at the president, his bungling administration, and his willfully blind congress. Angry at an entire class of decision makers who escape the consequences of their own actions, while the men and women in uniform make all the sacrifices. People are losing life and limb every day but the President and his minions cannot bear any investigations or accountability themselves. I have been impressed time and again by the willingness of the enlisted military men and women to meet their obligations—many enthusiastically with good intentions and many others reluctantly, yet obediently.

But I’ve thought of this many times before.

What intensified my feelings of sorrow and anger was my feeling of helplessness. Here I was in front of 20 loving, caring people and yet I felt there was no way that I could speak about the origins of my emotions. This country is so bitterly divided. I don’t even dare to speak of something so political, but which is also so connected to our humanity and to our Christian faith.

And if I speak out, who listens? Many well-known and powerful people have spoken out—even former insiders, former spies, and former generals. And the response is ridicule and recrimination. Their patriotism, their sanity, and their honesty challenged. Who am I but a blubbering minister?

So I cried. I cried for my lovely young niece and her mother and brother. I cried for the smiling mail carrier. I cried for our country. I cried for those who fight bravely in our name. I cried for our ideals. And I cried for our failings. I cried for the preacher who couldn’t speak.

But mostly, I cried because it was all just so sad.

Last weekend my nephew and his wife had a beautiful baby girl. She would have been Craig's first grandchild.