He reluctantly walked into the church. The only reason he went was because his neighbor, an old salty Vietnam Vet named Jim who still flew the Marine Corps Colors high on the pole every morning, has been on his case to just go with him.
The moment the moving truck showed up in 2007 and Jim noticed the small sticker with an Eagle, Globe and Anchor in the middle pointing inboard on the SUV full of clothes and pillows, Jim knew he was going to have a neighbor that would be a brother.
Jim didn’t get along with many folks, as a matter of fact, the truth was that he was more comfortable alone except in the company of his immediate family and his “brothers” for the longest time. So for Jim to see images of his brotherhood move in across the street, it was like homecoming. It gave him an opportunity to try these new waters of “being social”.
He walked across the street and looked at the guy who was still somewhat trim and had the remnants of a very low reg haircut indicative of his short-timer status. “What’s your MOS?” – Jim barked with a gravely voice scared by years of drinking, smoking and yelling obscenities at anyone in his path. “What?” The new neighbor was caught off guard. All he wanted to do was run as far away from the Marine Corps as he could and here is some old guy asking about his MOS. He still believes that he never ran so fast in his entire enlistment as he did the day he turned in his checkout sheet and now someone wants to talk shop. “Why, did you serve?” Jim replied, “Grunt from ’68-’73”. “I was a tracker in 2nd AAV, I hauled your butts around so you didn’t have to hump everywhere.”
That introduction and acknowledgement of each other glued an instant bond, not so much like a brother, but like a father to a son. Jim was now a Marine vet whose identity as a Marine had been replaced as a child of God, redeemed by Christ who had been providentially placed in the path of a younger Marine whose identity had still been wrapped up in his title as a Marine and his experience and trauma from war. God is sovereign like that. God is mysterious like that. God works miracles like that.
The tiny development of condominiums where they lived left little room for hiding noise or offering cover and concealment from how one really lived. Jim could see him drinking and yelling, storming out at all hours of the night. Jim could see hear him on the phone with his buddies from the Corps telling jokes and making fun of each other. Jim would go days and weeks and not see anything of him, and when he would peak out to get the mail or something he would look like he hadn’t bathed, shaved or slept in weeks.
Jim saw a little bit of himself across the street and he hurt for him. He saw brokenness, hopelessness, anger and pain. But unlike him, Jim was fighting a new kind of war. One that already had a certain victory but the battle enraged daily. Jim was on the winning side of the battle for his soul.
Just a few years back Jim lost his job ultimately because of his drinking and angry outbursts at his nasty civilian co-workers. All he wanted to do was drive deep into the forest and eat a .45 long colt but for some reason he couldn’t help but remember the verse on a church sign that he would pass almost daily that week as he would go to the store . “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” Those words from The Gospel of Matthew resonated in his heart and was just the little shimmer of hope that he needed to turn back home instead of toward the forest. That next Sunday, with every bit of resolve and fortitude he could muster Jim showered, shaved and put clothes on for church and at 10:40 am he sneaked in the back avoiding eye contact, and staring at his pamphlet the silver haired old man gave to him on the way in. He hadn’t been to a church since his kids were baptized in a Catholic parish years ago and he was too drunk to remember his daughter’s wedding. He was unsure of what to do, so he sat there and eavesdropped and patiently awaited through the formalities of the order of service and then the pastor began to preach a message from the end of Matthew 11 and he was shown a picture of burden lifting grace in Christ that withdrew the weight of the world from his soul. By God’s grace he saw that he spent an entire lifetime trying to own the circumstances and results of something that was cosmically orchestrated so that God would ultimately be seen as the treasure that He truly is.
Jim did not know it, but those days of driving to and from the store to buy another bottle of Johnny Walker Black after he lost his umpteenth job were the days that God would begin to invade his life and engulf him with grace and the purpose for which all of his life has occurred, God’s glory. He saw that God is most glorified when we are most weak without Him. Jim saw that his emotions of pain and grief over loss and anger at those who do not understand him were meant to cause him to cry to Abba Father for shelter, and forgiveness and the cool waters of relief from Satan taught expectation of a carefree holiday-filled life. Jim learned that when he still struggles that he need only remind himself of the gospel of Jesus Christ, dead and alive again, that even today when he cannot see beyond his fallen distorted perception of reality that beckons him to see his trauma and sin as the center of his existence, that God reigns supreme and that is truth!
As stated in Does Grace Grow Best in the Winter? God does not waste his children’s suffering. This flew in the face of everything Jim expected. All he heard from his church going acquaintances was that they were just blessed to be there, life was always a blessing, and Jesus just brought smiles to their faces. Essentially Jim needed to learn how to deal with the reality that life was a struggle. Life was not all smiles, hugs and rainbows. Christians need to be authentic and true as the Bible they teach. His perception was that a “real Christian” wouldn’t have feelings of despair, depression and fear. Truthfully, death, loss and sorrow have been part of the lives of God’s people since the first act of war in The Garden of Eden.
So how does one help Jim? How does Jim help his neighbor? What got him to the point that he knew the only answer for his neighbor was the same burden lifting grace of God that he experienced?
He must be shown that trauma and the emotions he is experiencing are certainly normal for someone with his life experiences as a result of the broken state of God’s creation.Then he should be pointed to the overwhelming glory of God as displayed throughout Scripture and demonstrated in the person and work of Jesus Christ in all of its magnificent details and the hope of a New Heavens and New Earth where these burdens are but a distant memory as believers fixate upon the Throne of The King.
If the chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then certainly veterans suffering from post traumatic experiences do not get a free pass, but instead their lives must be saturated with that purpose. The exchange on The Cross is what points hopeless veterans to the truth that He will deliver us.
The burden lifting grace of God reshapes the purpose of the memory of a fallen brother being carried away on a litter and rushed toward a medivac to one that can cause you to glorify God with gratitude because any action or inaction on your part was not only forgiven at The Cross but also orchestrated by the Author of Life so that ultimately He would be glorified in forgiving you.
The fear of imminent danger around crowds and alertness while laying in bed trying to fall sleep can be used to glorify God when you remind yourself of the eternal safety of the New Creation when pain, hurt and harm no longer exist.
The depression of wanting to be a part of something bigger than yourself again, as all of us veterans do, is swallowed up in praise as you realize that you have been adopted literally into Christ as a child of God and you are part of a global Body whose purpose is to shine the spotlight on the forgiving power of The Creator.
Ultimately, remind yourself of what Jesus’s blood has bought on your behalf. He has purchased your verdict that will read thus before the Judge: “Has this person lived in a manner that has always enjoyed God and glorified Him forever?” On this side of The Cross, the answer is a resounding yes!