I finally got a chance to go to church today, after seeing off my teammates from Do China. I wanted to go partly because of the beautiful chapel, with its stained glass windows and sculpted wooden pews, and partly because of how long it’s been since I’ve been in a service without being its lay leader. I was looking forward to this.
The service was a contemporary Christian service, with a folk-rock musical group drawn from Soldiers stationed here at Salerno: keyboards, bass, guitar, and synthesized drums, with a small group of vocalists. The music featured some older Christian hymns, with newer, up-tempo melodies and beats, as well as more praise music. The lyrics were displayed on a screen in the front. We sang several songs, and then the sadness hit me.
I started feeling deeply saddened by all we had experienced – the stress of combat, the frustration of working with ABPs who undermined us, the reality of how different the values of much of Afghan culture is from our own, and the realization of how little we had accomplished. I don’t know why, but the songs brought on this sadness, almost to the point of despair. I began to pray, asking God to help me understand and deal with it all. I sat silently listening to the songs, unable to sing, choking back tears that threatened to unload themselves from me.
As I sat there, I remembered Jesus, and how he loved those who did not love him, knowing they hated him. I could relate to this – I often feel unloved and unappreciated by many Afghans we work with. I thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and how he performed a church service on the very morning he was executed. He knew the Nazis hated him, yet he forgave them.
I had previously thought I was a fairly giving guy, a pretty good person. But I had never given to the point of such personal frustration. In the past, doing things like volunteering at the local homeless shelter, helping neighbors and family members, doing service projects with the Boy Scouts and the like, these little things involved sacrifice, but never on such a scale, and never with so little given back. Now I had an inkling of what Jesus felt like when his own people turned him over to the Romans – they did not care about him; they only cared about their own selves. During the singing, I gradually realized what I had to do: persevere. Follow the example of the saints who had gone before me. Suffer, and fight the good fight. Don’t quit, don’t give up.
Soldiers over here get burned out, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not from lack of support back home, it’s from their keen understanding that the people we are trying to help are not as interested in their own advancement as we are, and from the realization that Americans are often viewed with suspicion and distrust by the people we are trying to help and protect. We get tired of Afghans not caring about us, frankly. Many American Soldiers finally stop caring, and just do what is minimally required of them. Honestly, I could have become like that myself.
But I suppose God has a reason for my being here, and He didn’t want me to give up so easily. So God gave me songs to remind me of His love, not just for me, but also for the Afghans who don’t seem to care about me, who seem to be going in a direction different from the one I believe God wants us all to take. Jesus had the Jews, Paul had the Gentiles, Bonhoeffer had the Germans, and I guess I have Afghans. Each of us has our detractors, and our duty is the same: love them, no matter how you're treated by them.
Right after the singing, right as the pastor started speaking, a loudspeaker blared out a call for anybody with O Negative blood to go to the base hospital. (Earlier that morning, there had been a helicopter arriving with a MEDEVAC patient.) The pastor stopped his message, and asked if anyone in the service had O Negative blood. I raised my hand, along with one other Soldier, and we both excused ourselves and left the service, heading for the hospital. We joined a small group of Soldiers from around the base who likewise had come to give blood to help save a life.
While I was still in the process of giving blood (the technician had a lot of difficulty getting the needle in the right position – she kept moving the needle around, digging in my vein while I tried not to squirm or cry out), a doctor came into the room and proclaimed the hospital team had successfully saved a life. The Soldier was saved. (Later in the day, I learned the Soldier had been shot in the abdomen, and had required 14 units of blood during the surgery.) Inside, I rejoiced at the good news, despite my not being a direct aid to his recovery.
My arm still sore, I went back to my temporary housing tent and took a long nap. When I awoke, it was dinnertime. I went to dinner, and found to my delight they had ice cream sundaes for dessert. I ate my dinner, then went for a scoop of Pralines and Cream flavored ice cream, with a generous helping of strawberry syrup on top. It was sickeningly sweet, just like I like it. In fact, it was so good, I had to close my eyes a couple times and just relish the taste. It was like God was gently reminding me that life could still be good.
On my way back to the housing tent, I had to say a prayer of thanks.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.