There are times when events occur in such proximity to one another that making a connection between them happens whether such a connection is real or imagined. As we celebrate the birth of Christ just a few days after the last truck carrying American troops left Iraq and entered Kuwait, thinking of one in light of the other comes easily. Whether it was the planning of a clever politician or a thoughtful general, the providence of God, or pure coincidence, a soldier’s homecoming at this special time of year would seem just as sweet whatever the cause.
Except that not everyone is coming home. Since 2,996 people died on September 11, 2001, nearly 4,500 American military personnel have been killed in Iraq, and almost another 1,900 in Afghanistan. Almost 50,000 veterans are at home living with wounds suffered while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. While troops are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan sometime in 2014, they are not yet home.
The service that so many have rendered on our behalf is deserving of our gratitude and our respect. Rightfully, such sacrifice and dedication is esteemed by those on whose behalf it has been made. We have prayed and we will continue to pray for those who are still in harm’s way, and for those who are grieving the impact of these wars on their families and on themselves. For those who wait for a child who will not be coming home, and for those who welcome home sons and daughters broken and scarred by war, we pray. They need our prayers, and they deserve our appreciation.
In the midst of war and all the terrible pain it inflicts on those whom it touches, one wonders if the singing of angels can still be heard. Perhaps we would not hear one angel. But in this holy season, what about one angel joined by a multitude of the heavenly host? Would we, could we hear them saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace . . .”?
What would we do if there was a child among us who believed that loving one’s enemies, praying for one’s persecutors, and turning the other cheek was something that God expected of those whom God created? What if there was a child among us who insisted on treating others as he or she wanted to be treated, rather than the way he or she had been treated? Having read our scriptures, such a child might refuse to pick up the sword and join in the violence that so pervades our world.
Would we in the church pray for such a child? If so, how would we pray? Would we respect the courage of such conviction or would we consider it cowardly? Would such a refusal seem to us to be heroic or traitorous? Would we appreciate and respect such behavior, or would it leave us mildly uncomfortable, or maybe even visibly upset?
Yet, a child has been born, and he is in our midst. We like to think that the words of the prophet Isaiah give description to him. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
What does it mean for us that this child has been born? Well, it means everything to us, it means eternity to us. The birth of this child is our very salvation. If it means that much, then we ought to be able to ponder the conclusions about the war in Iraq of Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam combat veteran, and retired Army colonel; and whose son was an Army officer killed in Iraq. “The final tragedy of a tragic enterprise is that the U.S. has learned next to nothing,” he says. “The belief that war works remains strangely intact.”
If the birth of this child means as much as we say it means, then we ought to be able to hear the words Logan Trainum spoken at the funeral of one of his closest friends, David Emanuel Hickman. Surely he is not the only grieving friend to have spoken them or at least thought them. His friend, Hickman, was the last American soldier to be killed in Iraq. “There aren’t enough facts available for me to have a defined opinion about things. I’m just sad, and pray that my best friend didn’t lay down his life for nothing.”
If the birth of this child means any of what we say that it means, we ought to take to heart the words of the poet, Archibald MacLeish, who wrote for those who could no longer speak, yet still had something to say,
They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us. …
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say, it is you who must say this.