Healing Wounded Souls
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on John 14: 15 – 21. Focus on how the gift of the Holy Spirit can heal a wounded soul. Special attention given to healing the moral wounds of combat veterans.
If you’ve ever had to reassure someone that you’re not abandoning them it may be because they feel you slipping away. In our passage in John’s Gospel Jesus is responding to this very thing – the anxiety that his disciples are feeling as they sense him slipping away form them.
He responds by saying: “I will not leave you orphaned,” but it’s not at all clear how he will keep that promise. In a few hours, he will be arrested, tried, beaten, crucified dead and buried and death will be what the disciples are left with.
So in a real sense Jesus is not the only one to suffer a grave loss. Those he leaves behind lose him, and without him, they lose whatever security they might have felt in the world. After his death, they will take refuge by hiding. They will isolate from each other and be terrified of everyone and everything that stand on the other side of the doors they’ve locked.
We rarely think of what happened to Jesus as an experience of combat, but the story of his arrest includes soldiers, weapons and a brief moment of hand-to-hand combat as Peter draws his sword and slices off the ear of the Chief Priest’s slave. Twenty-four hours later, those who could not keep watch with him in the garden or save him from the enemy will be lost and orphaned themselves – their commander dead at 33.
This weekend, we observe Memorial Day. It began in 1868 as a remembrance of the dead on both sides of the Civil War. It is meant as a reminder in our collective civic life of the cost of war and the horrible toll they take on those who are forced to fight them on our behalf.
Just as the death of Jesus resulted in more than one casualty, so too the human costs of war have always been higher than we truly count. According to the Veterans Administration, almost 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
Andrew Solomon has written a book The Noonday Demon: An atlas of Depression, and he associates three factors that contribute to suicide – feeling that you don’t belong, feeling that you are a burden to others, and feeling that you do not having the capacity to overcome the fear of pain and harm.
Eventually the experience of social isolation and alienation is so strong – the person comes to believe that their death will be better for their family, and that they just don’t belong here anyway. When these feelings become this strong and focused they overpower even one’s natural tendency to avoid harm.
Near the end of his book Solomon writes, “So many people have asked me what to do for depressed friends and relatives, and my answer is actually simple: blunt their isolation. Do it with cups of tea or with long talks or by sitting in a room nearby and staying silent or in whatever way suits the circumstances, but do that” (p. 437).
The promise of the Spirit to the disciples is a promise from Jesus to blunt their isolation. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). The word “advocate” means one who stands alongside another.
Or in our vocabulary we might say, the Advocate is someone who has our back -someone who will not leave you alone. This is what Jesus is promising the disciples when he says he will send the gift of the Holy Spirit. In effect he’s saying the advocate that I send to you will have your back.”
When the disciples experience Jesus as risen from the dead, they recognize his Spirit and they move from isolated, fearful individuals into a community called the church, a community bound together by the Spirit in love. The love of God, given and received in a community like that, offers healing and belonging where their once was only isolation before.
As we remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice this Memorial Day let us not forget the cost of war. The moral cost. It’s not something we speak of but it is as real as any illness such as depression or diabetes. And this is a place where the church has something very valuable to offer those who are suffering from moral injury.
As American soldiers continue to return home from the front lines, many must deal with PTSD and the consequences of having to make difficult moral choices under extreme conditions. And these conditions lead to not only physical injuries they also lead to moral injuries. Injuries that can cause guilt and grief and in the severest form can destroy a person’s will to live.
To combat the effects of moral injury, the Rev. Nakashima Brock founded the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas to support returning veterans and to train clergy to help their congregations do what Jesus commanded us to do: “To love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
When the experience of survivor guilt, the trauma of combat memories, and the sense of having betrayed one’s own moral center threaten to leave one desolate, the community that Jesus founded can offer forgiveness, love, belonging, and acceptance Dr. Brock says.
On the Odyssey Network website there is a video called Soul Repair that talks about the type of injury Dr. Brock is trying to heal. In the video a veteran shares the following insight around the type of moral injury that soldiers are forced to face.
You may be faced with looking down your gun sight at a child with something in his or her hand and you don’t know whether that’s a hand grenade or a rock and they’re standing next to a Humvee with people in your unit in it, and they’re about to throw it into the Humvee. And if it’s a grenade, you’re going to lose people in your company. If it’s a rock, you’re going to kill a kid that was doing nothing, but throwing a rock. And there’s no good choice in that.
People come home after they’ve been to war and they may have done the right thing, they may have felt all right when they came home about what they had to do to keep themselves and their own company alive.
But then, as they transition into civilian society, which has a different moral code from the military, they begin to feel uneasy or bad about things that they had to do and, even if they were just doing their duty the things they had to do to stay alive can make you feel like a worthless human being and make you feel that no one could possibly love you anymore and lead to a state of despair and depression. We think that kind of moral injury after war is a major factor in the very high veteran suicide rates.
Moral injury is not an individual thing you can fix just through one-on-one therapy, what is required is a community of support to rebuild a whole new moral identity, to develop long-range plans to build a new life.
That seems to me like a mission for religious communities.
So I thought what if we just trained religious people on understanding what moral injury is they could understand the trauma so many combat veterans deal with, because most people don’t talk about such things. Most vets don’t share these experiences and most civilians don’t know what to do when they hear their stories.
So they’re not going to just volunteer things that they’re feeling; guilt or shame or horror or grief. I think there’s just an enormous amount of grief that comes out of war that doesn’t get processed and that is certainly something religious communities have a lot of experience in handling is rituals of grief.
I think the way a person is restored to a sense of their own goodness no matter the moral injury, which can include addictions, abuse of those you love and the denial of it all is to participate in a life of a community like this one where the things you do for other people are deeply appreciated and you have reflected back at you a sense that you are loved and appreciated for what you are doing.
I think this is the sort of community Jesus was trying to build when he offered his disciples the Advocate, a Spirit powerful enough to bind up the wounded souls that we have been entrusted with and called to love and heal. Amen