David, a Warrior after God’s Own Heart: Community

Note: This is the final post in a five-part series. Read the first four posts here.

US-Marines-Iraq_sm“I’m not going back to my church. When I was gone to Iraq for 6 months, no one checked on me or my son. And they knew.”

These words were spoken to me by a single mom who was having a difficult time reconnecting to the church and community she had left before her deployment.

I’m a VA chaplain and I lead the “VA/Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans,” a program that began in Arkansas 7 years ago. We help build community partnerships with local clergy, mental health providers, and whomever else wants to join us in supporting rural veterans and getting them, and their families, the help they need. This month, we have been looking at how we can honor veterans by becoming more aware of what they’re facing and by trying to help.

We see many of the needs of our returning service members and their families by also looking at Psalm 69 and the life of David, a warrior himself. This week, for our final devotion in this series, I want to focus on verses 12-13. But first, let’s begin with verses 1-5.

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.

Those who hate me without reason
outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
what I did not steal.
You, God, know my folly;
my guilt is not hidden from you.

Throughout this psalm, David’s life is ugly. He is in deep trouble and is stuck in the miry muck. The floodwaters are rising and he is surrounded by enemies. He has called out to God but God has remained silent. David is plagued by his own guilt. All of these floodwaters are starting to drown him.

Stained_glass_swords_mdOver the past several weeks, we’ve looked at many of the difficult challenges our nation’s veterans face as they come home. Many are facing the floods of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, family struggles, and guilt and shame (what we call “moral injury”). All of these struggles have resulted in David’s sense of isolation from everybody, not just his family. In verse 12 we read,

I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
and the drunkards make songs about me.

As I look at this entire psalm, the one thing that strikes me most about David is how alone he appears to be. There is never a mention of “we” in this psalm. It is always David against his enemies, David against God’s silence, David alone with his guilt and shame. Maybe the most painful thing about the floodwaters rising is that David is drowning alone. One common characteristic of our veterans, regardless of what they are struggling with, is the fact that they often suffer in isolation. Many vets are cut off from their military units and battle buddies who have served as their brothers and sisters. They are then isolated from family members who cannot understand them or who have changed themselves during their loved one’s deployment. Because of veterans’ questions about God or their own guilt and shame, they often feel cut off from their church or faith community too. Most tragically, they are cut off from “those who sit at the gate,” us, the very community from which they came and to which they have returned.

One motto we have learned in our VA/Clergy Partnership is this: Our goal is not to reintegrate veterans to the VA, but to their community.

The VA can’t and shouldn’t be the only ones helping our veterans. Veterans come from our local communities; we know them, they have shaped us. We must take responsibility for getting them all the way home. Unfortunately, those who have served us have been disconnected from us for awhile.

In 2006, General Peter Chiarelli, commander in Iraq, said, “Our nation is at war, and America is at the mall.” We have allowed ourselves to forget what our service members have faced and are facing on our behalf. We either forget them or don’t know how to help them when they get home to our communities. We’ve deployed over 2.5 million service members since 2001 and most of those have returned home to our communities.

We are pretty good about keeping them on our prayer lists while they’re gone. We may even offer welcome home events when we think they are home “safe and sound”. But then our veterans put on their “civilian camouflage” and can easily disappear. Their reintegration struggles begin and that’s when they need our support the most.

A few weeks ago at a clergy training, one of the VA staff brought in three of her Iraq war veterans to answer questions from the local community and clergy. One of the questions we asked was “What helped you to reintegrate?” The veteran who answered had been home several years. She looked at her VA provider and asked, “Am I reintegrated yet?” Being reintegrated from war takes time. It takes more than a parade and a prayer. It takes more than just getting connected to the VA and getting treatment. It can take months, years, or decades. This is a journey that our veterans don’t need to make alone. They need the support of their families, other veterans, their faith congregations—all of us, their community. As Wendell Berry once said. “We send ‘em, we must mend ‘em.”

If you are interested in getting help for yourself or a loved one, or if you’d like to help veterans, there are lots of resources available. We have VA medical centers, Vet Centers, and rural clinics throughout the country. There are many good veteran service organizations, veteran non-profits, and people who care. Through our VA/Clergy Partnership and Community Clergy Training program, we are working with partners throughout the country, training and organizing clergy and communities to support our veterans and their families. It all boils down to finding individual veterans and families and then working together to get them whatever it is that they need. Veterans probably won’t ask for your support but many need it and all deserve it. They are strong members of our community who have represented us well. They return with warrior wisdom and can continue to lead us and strengthen us as communities. They need you to join forces with others to help them come all the way home, for good. For more info on how to help, you can email us at vaclergypartnership@gmail.com.

David was facing rising floodwaters. He felt isolated and cut off from his family, his community, and his God. But David knew not to despair. In our psalm, David eventually turns from all the talk about what his enemies are doing to him and focuses on what he’s going to do about it. He comes back to God.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love
answer me in your saving faithfulness.

Maybe you, too, are exhausted and feeling isolated. Maybe you are seeing the floodwaters rising around you. May you keep on crying out to God, who in God’s acceptable time and abundant steadfast love answers in his saving faithfulness. May you and all our veterans and their families find the grace, forgiveness, and strength of a God who made you, loves you, and has promised to never leave or forsake you.

Chaplain Steve Sullivan is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed chaplain and leads the VA/Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans. His interests are in classic rock and the intersection of spiritual and mental health, and pop culture and theology. Steve’s daughter Jenna is a CBF scholar at Wake Forest School of Divinity. Steve lives in Little Rock with his hyper lab, Sunny.

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