“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
I stood looking down at the beautiful young woman in the casket, and I thought of Shakespeare’s words when Romeo looked at the dead Juliet:
“Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.”
This Juliet was a sergeant in the United States Marine Corp. She wanted to be a Marine because she’d heard it was the toughest branch of the military, and she wanted to be up for the challenge of being a badass. She served two enlistments, including a tour in Iraq. She died this past spring at the age of thirty from a drug overdose. She left behind a young daughter and a grieving family and a lot of unanswered questions about why so accomplished a girl couldn’t seem to pull it together following her time in the military. The mother of Juliet’s idiot boyfriend (and there always seems to be an idiot boyfriend who either colludes, encourages, or enables drug use. This one couldn’t attend the funeral because he was incarcerated on drug charges) told me she believed Juliet had suffered some trauma in the military, but was too proud to talk about it or ask for the help she needed.
I think about Juliet this Memorial Day. I think of my brother-in-law who died from the results of exposure to that ungodly shit called “Agent Orange” when he was in Vietnam. It took thirty years after his separation from the service, but that war finally killed him when he was only fifty years old. I think of a boy I heard about this past week, another US Marine, who died from an opioid addiction he developed while on pre-deployment. Yes, I revere those who gave their lives in the military service of our country, but I really mourn for the ones whose deaths weren’t in combat—the ones who suffered lingering pain and loneliness as a result of what they’d seen and done or had done to them. The dying doesn’t stop at the end of the deployment or combat mission.
I hear you, Jesus. I hear your prayer for us in the Gospel reading for Easter Seven (John 17:1-11). You’re praying that we might be unified, because there’s safety in unity, and this is one freaky, scary, brutal, and hostile world. And we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in it apart from you.
I need to know and keep knowing, Lord, that although you seem to be gone, you’re still here. You still hang out with us. I see you in my brothers and sisters and I pray that they can see you in me. I get scared that in this me-centered era of millions of facebook friends and no real eye-contact with a breathing human being culture that no one understand the need for your holy church. It’s ironic, but as I write this post I’m anticipating a pretty crappy church attendance this coming Sunday, just when I want to tell people how much we need our togetherness. Just when we hear Jesus praying for unity.
I prayed and preached the Gospel at Juliet’s funeral. We laid her body to rest in the veterans’ cemetery. The Marine honor guard played taps and folded the flag. As I was leaving, the mother of Juliet’s boyfriend pulled me aside. We prayed together for her son in jail. She gave me a green elastic wristband she’d been wearing that said, “Be part of the conversation.” I wore that wristband throughout Holy Week in Juliet’s honor.
“Be part of the conversation.” You have to be in relationship to do that. You have to be in relationship with God and with one another. How are we doing with that, Church? Are we communicating with our children about who Jesus is and what he means to us? Are we making an attempt to connect to the other people we see in the pews? Are we looking in on those or calling those who have been missing from worship? Are we making it a priority to witness by our presence? How are we doing with that?
As we remember those who sacrificed this Memorial Day, I’ll be thinking of Juliet and all of the other non-combat victims of military conflict and I’ll reflect on what a powerful tool the devil has in loneliness—and in how great a need we have to know we have each other’s back.
May we take Jesus’ prayer to heart. May we be one in him. God’s peace to you all.