“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4)
Thanksgiving—the holiday—may seem long ago, since we’ve moved on to Christmas and the New Year—or who knows when you will be reading this? But I haven’t been able to write about that week. It’s been too difficult emotionally . . . and I’m still processing my own grief. However at this point, I think –hope—it will be part of my healing process to write about it. I feel ‘ready’—or, somehow, urged and pushed spiritually, to write. Part of me doesn’t want to write, but another part says, “You’ve got to do this.” So, here goes . . . !
I had planned for our Community Thanksgiving service at International Security Assistance Force Headquarters Chapel to preach on two texts: (1) “How can we sing the Lord’s song”—or give thanks—“in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4); and (2) “Hold fast to what is good!” (I Thessalonians 5:21b). Little did I know how powerful and meaningful those texts would end up being for the ISAF HQ Community . . . and for me personally!
The Monday before Thanksgiving began with news of an attack on a convoy. Two Coalition personnel were killed, several injured, and there were three Afghan civilians killed and several injured. “How can we give thanks in a foreign land?” “Hold fast to what is good!” I was asked to visit the Command of one of those killed and was met at the entrance by a Sergeant in tears. “I guess you heard what happened,” she said in a shaky voice. “Well, I know there’s been a death, “ I told her, “but I don’t know who?” “Sergeant Major Turner, she said. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Now it was my voice that was shaky. “No,” I blurted out. “It can’t be!” Command Sergeant Major Wardell Turner, the beloved Senior Enlisted Leader of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), was a member of one of the Chapel Communities I pastored and a dear friend. I had just seen him the day before and he had attended chapel on Saturday night. “No,” I said again. I was in shock—but realized I also needed to be tending to the shock and grief of folks who had called for the Chaplain. I allowed my emotions to come, to a certain degree—couldn’t really stop them . . . and used them to connect and empathize with those to whom I was called to minister, as best I could. “How can we give thanks in a foreign land?” “Hold fast to what is good!”
That night I flew to Bagram Air field with the Deputy Commanding General of CSTC-A to visit SGM Turner’s son—a Private in the U. S. Army serving in Afghanistan, to tell him that his Father had been killed. Wardell had arranged for his son to come down to Kabul the next day, so they could spend Thanksgiving together. He was very proud of his son and often spoke of him to me and to others. Wardell was excited about their plans for Thanksgiving and had spoken often of them over the weekend. Now very different plans were being made. The General and I, both of us Fathers of adult children, informed this young adult son of his father’s death . . . and we began to make plans for transporting Wardell’s body home—his son wanted to accompany him, of course—and to make plans for a memorial service—the day after Thanksgiving. “How can we give thanks in a foreign land?” “Hold fast to what is good!”
Tuesday morning was the Ramp Ceremony—loading Wardell’s flag-draped casket on the plane and bidding farewell with full military honors, as he began his journey home . . . escorted by his son. As I walked around camp that afternoon, I was in a kind of ‘fog’. I kept expecting to see Wardell coming around the corner, the big smile on his face for which he was known, extending his hand to shake mine, and pull me in for a shoulder-to-shoulder hug and back-slap—his way of greeting me ever since we had worked together to shepherd his Command through the combat death of their previous Deputy Commanding General, MG Harold Greene, almost four months earlier. Crises throw people together—draw people closer to each other and to God. That was the dynamic of the first Thanksgiving! It was after we had worked together in that intense experience and had planned and led the Memorial Service for MG Greene that Wardell and I had become friends . . . and he started attending chapel regularly. He was a good leader and a good person, a brother in Christ. He cared deeply about people—his troops and the Afghans, his family and his Family in Christ . . . and me. When he asked, “How are you, Chaplain?” he was genuinely asking about me. He was an Encourager. I couldn’t believe he was gone—that I would never see that smiling face again. Or hear that booming voice. “How can we give thanks in a foreign land?” “Hold fast to what is good!”
Those texts took on deeper, more poignant meaning as a standing-room-only crowd gathered for the Community Thanksgiving Eve Service. We could not ignore the reality of what had happened earlier that week. And it was Thanksgiving-- our thoughts were also turned toward our own families and friends and faith communities at home. The music at HQ ISAF Chapel is quite remarkable for a forward deployed chapel community in a combat theater! The Community is blessed with many talented musicians and singers—Liturgical, from the Gospel tradition, and the contemporary Christian music genre. Any church in the United States would be delighted to have a music ministry of this quality and variety! All the musical groups and choirs contributed to the combined service. Psalm 137 is a lament recalling Israel’s defeat and the dark time of their captivity in Babylon. Their answer to the question, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”(vs. 4) was to NOT sing. They “hung up their harps on the willow branches” and stopped singing (vs. 2). Or did they? Psalm 137 is A SONG . . . about NOT being able to sing! When you feel like you can’t give thanks and you can’t sing . . . there’s a psalm, a song, about NOT being able to sing! It’s ok to NOT sing. And it’s ok to SING ABOUT NOT SINGING! And rather than make it all or nothing, it’s ok to grieve . . . and to give thanks—not let our grief and our pain negate what is “good”. “Do not quench the Spirit,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Community and to us, “Hold fast to what is good!” (I Thess. 5:19 & 21b).
Thanksgiving Day I had a task I was not looking forward to—to write my sermon for SGM Turner’s Memorial Service. (The second sermon I didn’t want to write that week—didn’t really want to write the one for Thanksgiving Eve either!) I was exhausted! Not the way I wanted to spend Thanksgiving Day! Thanksgiving Day began with a KABOOM! and the warning sirens went off in camp: “Shelter in place! Shelter in place!” the Big Voice said over the loudspeakers. A vehicle-borne explosive device took out another vehicle near the British Embassy. Two more deaths and several injuries. “How can we give thanks in a foreign land?” “Hold fast to what is good!” I felt numb to all the death and destruction . . . , to the task that was before me . . . , and to the idea of a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’. I still had that sermon to write . . . but I was resisting . . . couldn’t seem to get started. What do you do when you’re resisting and can’t start something? Check your email, of course! There was a message from Audrey, a parishioner at St. Stephen. My wife, Janet, had been to Thanksgiving Eve Service at St. Stephen and asked parishioners to pray for me and everyone who was grieving the death of SGM Turner. Audrey sent Thanksgiving greetings and prayers and ended her message by writing, “ I lift this song up in prayer for you.” I could hear the Praise and Worship Team at St. Stephen singing the beautiful, soothing melody and words:
“All who are thirsty
All who are weak
Come to the fountain
Dip your heart in the stream of life
Let the pain and the sorrow
Be washed away
In the waves of Your mercy
As deep cries out to deep
(We sing) Come, Lord Jesus, come
Come, Lord Jesus, come.”
(by Glenn Robertson & Benton Brown, recorded by “Kutlass”)
And the Spirit came. And the tears began to flow. And there was the release of some of my own grief . . . sufficient . . . for writing a sermon for Wardell’s Memorial Service and ministering to the Community.
The Camp Dining Facility went all out and prepared a wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving Dinner. It was truly ‘comfort food”. I was asked to do something unusual for meals at the Camp Dining Facility—begin the meal with a public prayer. We were all thinking of Wardell’s plans to have shared this Thanksgiving Meal with his son . . . and now his family was gathered for a Thanksgiving meal full of “pain and sorrow” . . . and giving thanks for his life. “Come, Lord Jesus, come”!
Thanksgiving evening the warning sirens went off yet again and I heard the sound of gunfire—a small arms attack on a local ‘safe house’—killing a civilian contractor. “How can we give thanks in a foreign land?” “Hold fast to what is good!” But sometimes it seems there is nothing left to hold on to . . . and we need the One Who Alone Is Good to hold on to us and “hold fast” to us and never let us go! Several of us ended up on the roof later that night, smoking cigars and drinking non-alcoholic beer (no alcohol in Afghanistan), and listening to country music. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” We all joined in the chorus as Billy Currington sang, “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy!” (by Bobby Braddock & Troy Jones).
Friday was a most moving Memorial Service for Command SGM Wardell Turner. The Memorial Stand in the photo that accompanies this article—that holds SGM Turner’s rifle, boots, dog tags, helmet and picture—SGM Turner himself designed and had made for MG Greene’s Memorial Service four months earlier. Now it was being used for Wardell. I pray we never have to use it again!
Saturday we decorated the Chapel and began the holy season of Advent:
“Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Let the pain and the sorrow
Be washed away
In the waves of Your mercy
As deep cries out to deep.”
Goodbye, Wardell . . . God be with you . . .and with us . . . until we meet again!
We’ll miss you until then.
Rest in peace.
Pastor Scott Dunfee
Captain, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy