Volume 4: Number 10

December 15, 2013


Volume 4: Number 10

For our Armed Forces

As we approach the celebration of our Lord’s Nativity, Wonder would like to honor all of those who serve and have served in the armed forces, through this collection of essays discussing military service and Orthodoxy.

Wishing you peace and joy in the Christmas season! – the Editors

Walking Through the Valley of Death
Deacon Nicholas Roth

Alienation and Reconciliation
Deacon Jason Ketz

The Memory of War
Priest James Parnell

More information about our authors can be found here.

Walking through the Valley of Death

December 15, 2013

Walking Through the Valley of Death

 Dn Nicholas Roth

How many teenagers and college-age kids do you know that have thought seriously about death?  I don’t mean that phase that some kids go through when they seem fixated on death in popular entertainment, but about the reality of death and its existence in our lives.  For a large number of people in their late teens and early twenties, the reality of death is something they have had to confront head-on because of their service in the military.

In the Army, before Soldiers can deploy with their unit, they must go through a mind-numbingly boring process called the Soldier Record Brief, or SRB.  During the SRB, every dull part of the military is brought into one daylong event: standing in lines to get vaccination shots, standing in line to update identification cards, standing in line for hearing exams and vision tests – you get the idea.  But it also means writing a will, giving someone power of attorney, making arrangements for their children, and other tasks, such as taking a picture in front of the American flag – the picture that will be released in the event that he or she is killed in combat – and deciding who receives your life insurance payment and who is responsible for your burial if death does occur.  All of this happens here in the United States, before ever setting foot in a combat zone or a training center designed to ready soldiers for deployment.

Having been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan a total of three times, as well as two rotations at the National Training Center in Ft Irwin, CA and Joint Readiness Training Center in Ft Polk, LA during my ten years in the US Army, I have experienced this process multiple times.  Although it can be a time of excitement, preparing for a new experience, it is also time when Soldiers receive constant reminders of their own mortality – which only increase once a Soldier has actually deployed to a combat zone and witnesses actual death, sometimes the death of an acquaintance, someone in the same unit, or even a close friend.

When you add to this mix the fact that most Orthodox members of the military don’t have access to the Holy Mysteries or an Orthodox priest while deployed, it can be very difficult for them to develop and maintain healthy spiritual practices while deployed.  On my three deployments, there was no Orthodox Chaplain on the first one, a Chaplain for about half of the second one, and visits by a priest at Nativity, Pascha, and Dormition on the third one.  So, in a period of more than three years spent overseas, I had access to an Orthodox priest for only about six months of that time.

It is no surprise, then, that many members of the military, given the constant reminders of physical death all around them and the inability to get spiritual care, normally have one of two reactions.  The first is to focus solely on physical death, falling into despair and forgetting about their spiritual lives.  Sadly, this is an all-too-common occurrence, and sometimes leads individuals either to an unrestrained hedonism, trying to block out the negatives through avoidance – on a quick drive through a parking lot on a military base, odds are good that you’ll see more sports cars than at a dealership, along with various other “toys” like motorcycles. On the other hand, this fixation can also lead to an utter sense of hopelessness.  Unfortunately, it seems that many fall into the second category, as witnessed by the record-high number of suicides among the military last year.  At least one Soldier committed suicide in each unit that I deployed with, either while overseas or shortly after returning to the United States.

But this can also present a profitable opportunity for spiritual growth: the second possible reaction to all these reminders of death is to use them to one’s advantage, and take them as a means to avoid spiritual death, which we believe is the only type of death that matters because it separates us from God.  The reminder of death can keep us from wasting the time we have available to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.  While the reality of the situation cannot be denied – nor should it be – we can, like St Silouan the Athonite says, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”  While the temptation to fall into despair can be strong, both members of the military and we have at our disposal great spiritual weapons that have been sanctified over time by their use in the Church: prayer and Scripture.

“A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, and peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ:” The prayers of the Church constantly remind us that we will meet physical death, one way or another, but that it is our disposition toward and preparation for that death which matters most.  This is why we ask that God will “Enlighten the eyes of our understanding, lest at anytime we sleep unto death in sins” (the 3rd Morning Prayer at Matins).  As Christians, we know that the reason physical death presents a problem is not that it is the end of our existence, but because it represents the end of the time we have available in this life to concentrate on that one thing needful.

us-military-funeral-afghanistan-2009-10-19-13-12-43In this endeavor, especially in those times filled with fear and doubt, we have the great spiritual hymnbook of the Church, the Psalter, in order to help us stay mindful and vigilant.  The Psalms convey the entire range of emotions in our relationship with God, especially in times of doubt and trouble.  The words of Psalm 50, in particular, help us call to mind our sins and seek forgiveness from God, so that we can “sing aloud of Thy deliverance.”  Psalm 142, too, reminds us of our total dependence on God: “Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies!  I have fled to Thee for refuge!”  And Psalm 69, which we pray at Compline, calls us to remember that “I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!  Thou art my help and deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry!

These words aren’t just profitable for members of the military – we, too, will die, even if we haven’t given it much thought yet.  But the reality of death gives us a great opportunity to maintain focus on the only things that matter – our relationships with God and with each other.  When we keep in mind the limited amount of time we have because all of our deaths will come sooner or later, it puts things into perspective: we are not immortal.  We are not invincible.  Our only hope is to acknowledge this and put our trust in the only One who is.

Alienation and Reconciliation

December 15, 2013

Alienation and Reconciliation

Deacon Jason Ketz

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

Declaration of Independence and American Flag

Of the many unintended consequences that stem from this confluence of Christianity and “the American experiment,” I would like to look at only one, which requires a brief setup. The belief that all men are endowed with the right to life plays readily into Christian doctrine, which has always placed a high value on human life. Man is created in God’s image and likeness, so it follows that the taking of a life is a crime not only against fellow man, but also against our Creator, by destroying His image and usurping His authority over life.   From Cain and Abel through the Deluge, all the way to the Decalogue, the sanctity of life is affirmed and its taking is condemned.   Christ’s incarnation serves to amplify these beliefs immeasurably, by showing that humans are able to receive not only salvation, but that the human is an integral part of God’s saving plan.These words are taken from the Declaration of Independence, the famous document that severed the union between England and the colonies that would later form the United States.  Since they were written over two centuries ago, nearly all members of Western Society have internalized these words. Many of us would hold this statement to be a universal truth. So, like a rising tide, this political idea of ours relentlessly drives us to take action, continually reshaping and reforming our society, our laws and our policy, and continually.  And actions, as we all know, can have unintended consequences.

alienationIt’s no wonder, then, that American Christians see an easy pairing of scriptural lessons with the tenets set forth in the Declaration of Independence (by Christian politicians, no less). So Christians, including Orthodox Christians in America were early adopters of a highly pro-life ethic, in a sense much broader than the Roe v. Wade debates. Every life is sacred. Meanwhile, America continues to live out its political interests (including, but certainly not limited to the democratic ideals proposed in the Declaration of Independence) outside our nation’s borders, through diplomacy, and also through military force. And this combination creates an unexpected, and ultimately unintended consequence.  The Christian-ness of the American Ideal makes it possible and often appealing for Christians to volunteer for military service.  But our pro-life ethos presents an incredible challenge for our beloved soldiers upon their return.  How does one approach the chalice after having been trained to take human life?

Many people are instantly skeptical or dismissive of such a question, asking  ‘How could a soldier ever have such concerns?’ and claiming that there is nothing incompatible between military service and the Christian faith.  I agree that our soldiers need not feel  alienated from the Church on account of their service, but what ‘should’ happen and what ‘does’ happen are often not the same.[1]

The Orthodox Church could certainly have a more clearly articulated and better known position on war and military service. This is not due necessarily to a lack of scholarship, but to the dissemination of the research into the wider community. Complimenting some very well expressed viewpoints are a collection of primarily pastoral responses that one is likely to hear at any given parish if the subject comes up. [2] When an otherwise competent seminary graduate, priest or theologian is confronted with questions about violence, military, war, etc., it is incredibly easy to solicit a response that does not display a consistent logic, and they rarely make good sense of the violence in the Old Testament.[3] The root of this issue is most likely that that military matters are not discussed frequently in civilian Church circles. Meanwhile, our teachings on the sanctity of life are nearly inescapable in Orthodox circles. No wonder, then, that a person (and especially a soldier) wonders, for instance, whether there is a difference of consequence between murder and the taking of a life in battle.


So this is our unintended consequence in the American theater of Orthodoxy. We preach the sanctity of life so heavily that we risk alienating those who defend our own ‘inalienable right’ to life. This is a tragedy writ large!  Unfortunately, too few of us will have the time and expertise to contribute to a theological discussion about war and military service. But this is not what is needed most of all. We owe our soldiers a debt, and it is a debt paid not merely with thanksgiving, but through reconciliation.

I have chosen the word reconciliation very deliberately, despite its common sacramental association with confession and repentance. Our soldiers – who are also our friends, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our parents, and even our own children – are a part of the Church, and are therefore part of the body of Christ. If a member of the body of Christ perceives himself or herself to be alienated, this is a condition that affects us all, and one that we must take extraordinary steps to remedy.  Our veterans have made incredible sacrifices on our behalf. We cannot for a moment let one of their sacrifices be their place in our community. Reconciliation is precisely what soldiers describe themselves as needing, whether or not this involves any rite of forgiveness of sin. Our soldiers need to reconnect with us, and we need to reconnect with them. Therefore, those of us who remain at home have the responsibility of vigilance. Our task is to watch for soldiers, and run out to greet them upon their return.[4]  This is our first and most important step in addressing the unintended consequence of alienation that occasionally plagues our troops. And this step, once taken, makes a world of difference.

[1] I do not wish to overstate my case here. Not all soldiers struggle with this issue, and the struggles of soldiers returning from combat extend far beyond the realm of Eucharistic Theology or Anthropology. But These concerns have been expressed by more than one soldier that I have met, and what is more distressing, the concerns have been expressed by soldiers who have otherwise returned to life ‘back home’ with relatively few issues.  So we should neither exaggerate nor ignore the possibility that the teachings and beliefs we choose to emphasize in our parishes might present difficulties for certain cross-sections of the population, in certain circumstances – like this one.

[2] Dr Stephen Muse and the Rev Dr Philip LeMasters have both addressed these subjects in recent years, and provide a well-informed and authentically “Orthodox” viewpoint.

[3] Even when addressed, it is usually qualified and dismissed. How often I have heard justification of all the violence in Caanan as “it was a different time back then.” Curious that nobody says that about the Decalogue with any seriousness.

[4] I am so drawn to the image of the father running out and greeting the prodigal son on his return, clothing him, giving him the signet ring, and throwing a feast in his honor. (Lk 15:20-23) My hesitancy to cite it outright is that the prodigal’s prior behavior should in no manner be compared to the honorable duty undertaken by a soldier. So can one capture the snapshot of the father’s embrace and successfully detach it from a memory of the son’s sins?  If this is too difficult a task, perhaps Esau’s embrace of his brother Jacob is more appropriate. See Gen 33:4.

The Memory of War

December 15, 2013

The Memory of War

Fr James Parnell

sunriseWar changes you. The best and worst aspects of the human condition are present as the report of bullets ring in your ear, as the war machines rage. In many ways, it is a sacred space. I never saw a more beautiful sunrise or sunset, than when I was in Iraq and knew that it might be my last. In other ways, war is far from sacred: it is toxic. The things you see and hear don’t just turn the stomach, but can poison the soul. So, it’s probably no surprise that it’s a hard place from which to come home. Well, it actually only takes a few hours on a plane, but the difficulty isn’t really the travel time. It’s trying to come home from war and feel at peace.

It is hard to explain, but it is something like having a song you can never get out of your head for very long, or still smelling feces long after thoroughly cleaning animal droppings from your shoe, or like an oily feeling on your hands that you just cannot wash off. Now take that feeling or sensation in your mind, which normally might last a few minutes, and think about how both annoying and intriguing it is, about how distracting such a feeling might be. Now make it last for years on end, and you’ll have a sense of what coming home from war can feel like. The smells are never fully cleared from the nostrils; the blood and the dirt never quite wash off; the sounds never quite go away.

image-soldier-prayingIn many ways, there is a certain psychological and spiritual residue: a ringing in the ears of your soul that may increase or decrease in volume at times, but which is never totally silent. For good and for ill, the constant rhythm—the beating of the war drum—remains in our ears long after the banners have stopped flip-flapping, the plane has landed, and the weapons locked away. That faint hum of war is always there, like a sleeping dragon. And, oh, the racket it causes, in our minds, in our families, and in our communities. Yet, that drumbeat continues, in a positive sense, through storytelling. Sharing stories, either with trusted friends or with other vets, in a way helps turn the roaring boom, boom, boom into a melody on which one can reflect, a lesson from which one can learn.

War stories are those special myths, handed down with reverence and awe, which tell of a truth that really wasn’t; one often inflates, embellishes, and exaggerates so as not to understate the reality, which if told in “actuality,” would be missing so much. Storytelling is an integral part of our lives as human beings, especially when dealing with the sacred, the infinite, the horrible, and the strange. The scientific method means much less here; the story—the drama of a reality made even more real, a story told in truth, even if not with journalistic accuracy—is a mechanism of speaking and understanding events and feelings that are, oddly enough, beyond words.

david-and-nathanOne of the most dramatic accounts of story-telling done in order to help someone see reality more clearly than might occur by simply stating the facts is in II Samuel, when the prophet Nathan tells a story to King David. The prophet comes to David shortly after the king’s affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah, and he tells a story. It didn’t actually happen, yet it was essentially true. He tells the king a story about a rich man with much livestock who, desiring to render hospitality to a guest without actually sacrificing his own possession, steals the one precious lamb owned by a poor neighbor. King David flies off in a rage, declaring that the rich man must pay back fourfold for the offense, going on to say that, in truth, this man deserves to die for his ruthlessness. At that point, the prophet replies simply: “You are the man.” It is in this context that Psalm 50 is said to have been written, which in itself reflects the degree to which a soul can be truly wounded, how a moral injury can be self-inflicted.

In our Orthodox Christian tradition, we say or sing this at least three times a day as part of our personal or corporate worship. It’s an integral part of our understanding of what we’re there to do. Imagine everyone who has read, heard, or prayed this psalm … this poem … written in response to a simple story, told in love to a friend,  that opened a man’s eyes to his own failings, to his responsibilities to his community, and lead to his reconciliation with God.

In war, this is arguably a prerequisite for healing, if not survival. The muddled mayhem with its fog and fissures are mended through both memory and myth. This is so the emotion and experience, not necessarily the factual details surrounding the event itself, are clearly and vibrantly expressed to the hearer. In some cases, one must (technically) lie in order to tell the truth. Otherwise, one might mistake this legend as being just a war story. The telling of this story provides more than just an outlet for the storyteller, or an interesting diversion for the hearer, but a chance to reflect and process what actually happened, specifically beyond the event itself.

That’s what story-telling can do, God willing. It opens our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the reality that each one of us is facing. So please, encourage your friend or family that has served, encourage the Veterans and their families in your congregation, encourage everyone who is burdened, broken, and bruised, to tell their stories. Tell your story. That in our telling, we can more fully hear, in our hearing, we can more fully understand, and in our understanding, we can more fully love one another.


A Prayer for Soldiers Returning from War

O Most merciful Lord, our Redeemer and strong Deliverer: You commanded your servant Moses to send all the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, those who shed blood, those who touched the slain, and all those who had come from service in war outside the camp that they might be purified. We pray unto you, O Long-suffering Lord, who sent your prophet Nathan to call David to repentance after he slew Uriah the Hittite, that you might grant to us, your servants, compunction of heart, a thirst for repentance, and a hunger for righteousness, that we might run to you for mercy and forgiveness: for every evil deed done: every violent act committed in anger, every wrathful thought, every deceitful word and every good deed left undone: every faint-hearted flight from danger, every wrong not righted, every injustice not redressed. O Compassionate Lord, you forgave the sin of David when he cried out to you with a contrite heart. Cleanse, wash, and purify this (these) Soldier(s) of Christ (N.). Cleanse him (her/them) and us, your servants, from every stain, every blemish, and every defilement, for we come before you, trusting in your great mercy and loving kindness, asking forgiveness for all of our transgressions committed in action or inaction, knowledge or in ignorance, of word or deed, of thought or intention. You, O God, are our Purification, our Sanctification, and the remission of our sins, and in you have we put our hope, for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Another Prayer for Soldiers Returning from War

O Lord, great in mercy and power, who forgives the sins of all who call on your name with their whole heart: Grant pardon and remission of sin to this (these) Soldier(s) of Christ, who has (have) put down his (her/their) early weapon(s) for a time, and has (have) ceased fighting against flesh and blood. O King Invisible, as you strengthened your servant David who, having put down his earthly master’s armor because of its weight, trusted in you alone for victory: fortify and protect this (these) warrior(s), your servant(s), _______, that having your might and signing himself (herself/themselves) with the sign of the holy cross of your Son, he (she/they) may fight against powers, principalities, and spiritual hosts of wickedness. Guard him (her/them) against every wile of the devil and every invisible foe that seeks to do him (her/them) harm. For you are the Fortress, the High Tower, the Deliver and the Shield of all those who trust in you, and unto you do we send up glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen

Vol 4: No 10 Authors and Contributors

December 15, 2013

Deacon Nicholas Roth is a third-year seminarian at St Vladimir’s Seminary, from the OCA’s Diocese of the South.  He graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2001 with Bachelor of the Arts degrees in Sociology and Philosophy. He served in the US Army for ten years, including two deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  Upon graduation, he plans to return to the Diocese of the South and serve the Church.

Deacon Jason Ketz  is an alumni of St Vladimir’s Seminary and a deacon at St Mary’s Cathedral in his hometown of Minneapolis, MN.  Jason holds a bachelor’s degree in Microbiology, and in addition to his work at St Mary’s, is employed  in the Quality department of a leading medical device company in the Minneapolis area.

Priest James Parnell, an alumni of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, is the pastor of All Saints Orthodox Church in Hartford, CT. An Iraq War Veteran with over a decade of military service, Fr James also serves as a Chaplain in the Connecticut Army National Guard, assigned to the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment. His MDiv thesis, “Growing from Dragon to Man: A Parish Resource for Reintegrating Orthodox Soldiers and Veterans Returning from War” is available on Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/doc/169548480/Growing-from-Dragon-to-Man-A-Parish-Resource-for-Reintegrating-Orthodox-Soldiers-and-Veterans-Returning-from-War.