I am back from General Conference and there is much to tell you. I am still gathering my thoughts and photos on everything that happened last week in Portland and will post something tomorrow. Meanwhile, I spent the day with the soldiers yesterday and couldn’t wait to share the highlights.
This was my sixth time to be with soldiers at a local army base in my home state of Georgia. My workshop is part of a monthly program for soldiers who have a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Each round has a different group of soldiers, and as I’ve shared previously, each group has a different dynamic. Sometimes the groups are cohesive and close-knit; something they aren’t. Some groups are talkative and willing to share while others stay relatively quiet. And there’s always a range of spiritual backgrounds: so far we’ve had Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, pantheists, agnostics, atheists. We’ve also had plenty of soldiers who were in such pain that they didn’t know what to think about God.
That was true for Gary* yesterday. Although he reported that he was raised Christian, he also shared that he currently did not have a relationship with God. As he said this, he choked up. I noticed a single tear falling softly down his cheek. His grief and pain were evident, and I wondered if he would agree to make prayer beads. To date, all but three soldiers have been willing to make prayer beads – something that always surprises and pleases me to see these big, tough guys (I’ve only had three women in my groups so far) stringing prayer beads together. Still, I recognized that Gary may not be up for doing anything creative, so it surprised me when he did.
Indeed, of the four guys in yesterday’s group, Gary spent the most time choosing his beads, carefully considering his design. I paid close attention to the pendant he chose, curious to see if he would choose anything that represented God. For almost fifteen minutes he sat with a choice of five pendants laid before him: two crosses, two trees of life, and a labyrinth – all Christian symbols. In the end, he chose to make a prayer strand with a pendant at each end: a cross on one end and a tree of life on the other. Here is a photo of the strands the guys made yesterday; Gary’s is on the far right:
My friend and colleague, Chaplain Paul, asked him what the colors of his beads represented. Gary explained that the eight black beads were for each of his buddies who were killed in combat, and the red represented blood. He felt responsible for their deaths.
Hence, the single tear. A tear that held volumes of pain and grief.
Dear God. Have mercy.
After the soldiers left for lunch, Joan, the nurse case manager for the program, shared a story about a member of one of our previous groups. She said that Terry, who had been in the group a few months ago, was “all about his prayer beads.” She said that he has gotten to the point that when he encounters someone else in pain – a member of his unit, or his church, etc. – he takes his prayer beads out of his pocket and offers them to the other person. “Take these prayer beads,” he says, “and use them for a week. At the end of the week, I’m going to come back and get them. I promise that these will change your life.” And so the person take the prayer beads and uses them. And Terry comes back at the end of the week to reclaim his prayer beads. And he uses them until he feels the need to loan them to someone else. This has become his ministry.
I love this story so much. Certainly, it is just one more in a long line of stories about the power of the prayer beads – a line that is vast and never ending. People’s lives are being changed. But it speaks particularly to the fact that the beads are helpful to folks in pain, ones who need a lifeline, a hand up, a rope to grab and lift them up until they once again see God’s face of deep love and healing. Terry has experienced that and is now on a mission of grace to share it with others.
May Gary experience this, too.
*not his real name