Undefeatable–Gods power of reconciliation
-By Philip Stoneman
About a year ago my wife and I watched Indivisible, a true story of a US Chaplain. The Chaplain upon whom the movie is based, had joined the US army and shortly thereafter was deployed to Afghanistan. On his return from deployment, having come face to face with the gritty pain and horror of war, he showed signs of change. Change in his relationship with his wife. A change in his worldview. Change in his theology and faith, and of course symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (PTSD)
The rookie Chaplain, passionate about sharing the gospel and being Christ in the trenches was now a veteran. Cynical, wounded, broken and the opposite of the light of Christ. Distancing himself from those closest to him, he poured himself out as a “love offering” in service to those he was called to minister to, in the process losing his family.
It was only when he withdrew from ministry as a Chaplain and sought solitude that he rediscovered Christ and was ministered to by Christ and community, that his “righteousness shone like the dawn” and he began the process of reconnection, restoration and healing. Reconciliation.
Indivisible affected me deeply and resonated within my inner spirit. I recognized so much of myself in this movie. My frustrations, my anxiety and challenges faced; my own anger and even depression. My own failures, mistakes, sinfulness, withdrawal from family, friends and even God. I noticed how I had changed from a “rookie” Chaplain with a passion for ministry, for people and for God and became a shell of who I had been. As I looked back on the difficult times of the past 20 years ministering as a Chaplain ( sometimes in my own strength) I realised the failing of my faith many times on that journey.
I had seen so much, carried the pain of others on my shoulders, comforted families and people in the depths of their pain, sorrow and grief. But the stories remained attached to my soul; the pain and the emotions that I had carried, began to weigh me down.
Unlike the US Chaplain, I had not gone off to war in a foreign land, but had seen heartache, pain and suffering in my own community. The frontlines in our communities.Although I have worked through many of the memories of someone else’s pain, I still experience pain on a deeper level. Flashes of loss and death still interrupt me at times.
Telling some of those stories is my way of placing those moments of heartache and grief in the hands of my heavenly Father – offering them to Abba as a sacrifice and then believing I am receiving His love, grace and perfect peace. It didn’t always happen like that. Many times, the conflict within would not be a ‘soft whimpering cry’ but a scream of frustration.
A scripture I would almost always pray with a family devastated by loss, or a person struggling with anxiety and inner conflict would almost always include these words… “ May God comfort you and keep you” and then: “ Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” as well as “ May the perfect peace of God which transcends all understanding fill your heart and mind.”
I believed, prayed and trusted these scriptures, and yet there were so many times when I felt empty, alone and not comforted by God. I shout out to God – “do something, help me!”
It would only be later in my walk with Christ, that I realized these stories of pain, heartache and grittiness of a suffering human existence were locked up within me. Toxic and festering, affecting my relationships with God, with self and with others. The memories of someone else’s pain became my own prison. I was held captive and yet I was the jailer with the key to liberty and freedom.
I would keep my self locked up in those memories, afraid to release them. Ironic isn’t it, that the gift of free will was my downfall. I was unwilling to let the memories go, or perhaps I didn’t know how to let them go or was unable to turn the key to ensure my freedom.
Judith Herman in her book ‘Trauma and recovery’ writes that “atrocities refuse to be buried” and that the ‘desire to deny’ is equated with the” conviction that denial does not work” When the truth is recognized, recovery can begin. (Judith Herman: Trauma and Recovery. 1997)
Jesus in God’s word reminds us with the profound wisdom that “ You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
For me, “knowing the truth” would be identifying, recognizing and releasing the truth of what happened on different scenes, what my response was or how the incident affected me and then ‘letting go.’
This is my story. It is my story of connecting empathically the pain and heartache I engaged with and embraced, discovered and found within the lives of others, grittiness and at times, unspeakable horrors.
A Chaplain with attitude
I remember my first call as a Chaplain. I had completed some training, ride alongs and mentorship with other Chaplains. I was a youth pastor, naïve and blindly evangelical and passionate. I was now a Chaplain with the Emergency Services, with a uniform, a reflective vest and a “response car”. Responding in a red VW beetle with a rotating red light, I arrived at a double murder-suicide scene in Wattville, Benoni.
Resplendent in my Chaplains uniform, or so I thought. Feeling proud, important and very “unhumble”, I drove into a side street of Wattville and parked behind an array of police vehicles, fire and emergency service trucks and a police mortuary car.
Following protocol , I approached a police officer and introduced myself, asking where I was needed. The police officer directed me to the victims mother. The same lady was also the other victims mother-in-law. As I asked for more information, I was told this was a suicide murder. The husband killing his wife and then himself. My first scene on my own. Two unnatural deaths. Nervously I prayed but felt confident because I knew I had God and His Holy Spirit.
How wrong I was. My pride and ego would block out Gods still, quiet voice thus preventing me from being led by His Spirit. My confidence and quiet arrogance left me quickly as I began speaking to the victims mother.
We were seated inside an unfinished lapa – a six foot concrete wall to my right. Just before the unplastered wall, lay two lifeless bodies. The one body covered by a silver sheet, the other body by a yellow plastic sheet. In the light sand, a dark stain of blood. He had shot her and then himself. Seated across from me, was the dead couples’ grieving and angry mother.
I was white, an English speaking white South African speaking to a grieving mother. Although we both spoke English, we didn’t share the same culture. As I began to speak, my ignorance of her culture and angry pain and my inability to communicate empathy shattered any of my attempts to console her. She told me to leave, angrily. Her accusation “ You question me like like a police officer!”
Embarrassed and feeling humiliated, I retraced my steps out of the murder scene in an attempt to act as if I was doing something to help, or even that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I had assumed and I had failed. Although I promised to not make that same mistake again, I broke that promise many times.
I hadn’t understood the needs of the grieving mother. I hadn’t understood her or her culture, her pain, grief and anger. Well, to be honest, I hadn’t even tried to understand. I had just assumed. Being uncertain on that scene, and showing some arrogance, I had misunderstood her pain projected at me. I also realised that my “arrogance” was a false sense of security due in part to my “wanting to help” and to be “seen as helping. I wasn’t helping, I was making it worse.
That scene was soul wrenching for me.
When we meet someone in the midst of their grief and pain, we should not do so lightly. Having a desire to help, is not the same as being able to help or helping at all. Consider the medical professions adage “Above all else, do no harm”
We should be aware of not just the words we speak, but our attitudes, motives, body language and most importantly, our presence.
When we enter into the story of a persons life-pain, we should do so with respect and sensitivity. We should acknowledge that when we receive the invitation to share in someone’s suffering, we honour the invitation by bringing into that moment the presence of God reflected through our own spirit of humility, love, grace and awareness. We see, we feel and we listen.
The grieving mother needed Gods presence, love and grace through me. My self-importance, arrogance and possibly inexperience became an obstacle to that. I don’t know what happened afterwards – what closure she received or what journey she embarked on. Perhaps God ministered to her through someone else that day or perhaps later in her life. The scene became a life lesson for me though. I was learnt through the pain of rejection of being unable to help in the midst of grief.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil – For your rod and staff they comfort me”
Gods rod and staff, symbolic of protection and safety from marauding animals, is also symbolic of discipline and teaching. God showing us where we go wrong in our actions or speech or even motive, is a source of comfort.His rod protects us from ourselves. It reassures us of Gods providence and care for our well being. The journey through the valley of the “shadow of death” however, can sometimes become an extended and unending journey if we fail to listen.
Times of darkness may serve to magnify the source of light and life. It may only be in darkness, that we identify the contrast of light and move towards that light.
That first scene always serves to reconnect my memory with another scene I attended in Etwatwa a few years later.
I arrived at an open veld on the outskirts of Etwatwa. Police tape cordoned off a fifty metre radius. In the centre, the lifeless body of a young man had been stabbed to death, lay covered by a “space blanket” Two police cars were on scene, both unmarked. The paramedics had already left. He was in his twenties, with a gang nickname of “Witbooi” Residents from the Etwatwa RDP houses formed a human circle around the crime scene, a dead boy and a grieving mother and her fiends.
She was on the ground, seated with legs extended as her friends consoled her. As I moved past the tape, directed by the on scene detective, I moved to the mother.
It was a surreal moment with curious onlookers observing a mothers grief – feeling her loss and hearing her pain as a white Chaplain slowly made his way to the centre stage of a mothers grief: “her valley in the shadow of death.”
Surrounded by Etwatwa and feeling her pain with only the universal language of grief connecting us, I knelt next to her. Quietly greeting her friends with my eyes, I placed my hand upon her shoulder and began to pray.
I prayed in my own language, but my emotions and spirit spoke in a language we all understand- the language of grief and compassion.
I called on heaven for the message of Gods comfort to pierce the barrier of pain, that she would know and experience the promise in Matthew 5 vs 4 : “ Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted”
Gods presence was in the dust of Etwatwa that day.
The ground on which we stood was holy, the Etwatwa residents were surrounded by legions of angels looking down- They had witnessed the evil that day and many days before. They knew of the pain and suffering of a community wracked by crime and violence. Their presence was to offer comfort to a grieving mother who had been calling out to God for comfort. God comforted her through not only His presence on that scene, but the prayerful presence of a community, of family and friends, and even of an outsider, yet a brother in Christ.
– To be continued…