BALAD, IRAQ — I’ve been at the Air Force Theatre Hospital at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, for the past month, and I still can’t get used to people bringing their M-16’s or M9 Berettas to chapel.
They can be a bit intimidating. After all, what might someone do if they didn’t like my sermon?
However, it’s not always their guns that intimidate me. Sometimes it’s their tears.
They can be intimidating because I know life and death and war are very real for all of the soldiers here. I don’t want to insult them by spouting superficial platitudes that don’t address their reality.
Nearly each week, I notice a tear in the eye of a congregant.
When it happened this past week, the soldier’s tears seemed contagious. I felt my singing voice crack, and I swallowed hard hoping to keep my podium look.
In this battle zone, I couldn’t help but wonder what her tear meant.
Tears may mark time, mark the number of cuts to your heart, mark the space between the joys you once felt and the despair you feel in the moment.
The week was one in which the tears could have meant many things.
It was a week during which we’d said prayers over the body a 28-year-old American contractor who died from a rollover accident. His coworker’s injuries were so extensive that he was brought directly to the morgue.
Or her tears may have been for the 22-year-old soldier who died three months after his wedding and only a week after his arrival. Or were they tears of relief for his three battle buddies who amazingly survived the same incident with such minimal injuries?
I’m not sure what her tears were about, but I know the tears I was holding back were similar to ones most of us shed as we know the hardship of separation from family.
Nighttime is the most difficult. I’ve slept with my bride nearly every night for 29 years. That makes it a bit difficult to crawl into a bunk bed under a scratchy wool blanket. Finally when I do sleep, my dreams trick me into thinking that I’m going to wake up beside her in Sacramento.
Sometimes, the tears are for joy.
Many folks are completing their rotation here and are headed home with their “ticket to ride.” These brave young men and women will arrive home through airports all over this nation. They will be carrying backpacks that make them appear nearly as wide as they are tall.
Tears will baptize them at the gate as the aching arms of loved ones receive them. There will be tears shed in front yards, as well as countless more tears in nurseries and bedrooms.
As I stood thinking about what I might say during my sermon, I realized tears are the moment in which a person is in touch with an emotion, a place in their heart, a soul or memory, a place where there are no words. In these ineffable places, tears become God’s language.
Jesus knew that, too. In the shortest verse in the Bible, we are told about the reaction Jesus had to the death of his friend Lazarus: “Jesus Wept.”
Jesus wept with everyone who knew Lazarus, because tears are a language of the soul. Some griefs, even seemingly small griefs, may be too big for words and only expressible through the sacred language of tears.
I’ve received several e-mails from readers asking me how they might pray for me. Simple, really. Pray with me, as I did that day, “God, give me strength and clarity of vision. In fog of war, may I be a beacon from your heart.”