For the last ten weeks I have been back in Iraq at the same emergency field hospital I worked at earlier this year. The bombs were not so close this time, the acuity rate not so high, but the scars of evil were just as ugly and ever present.
I am changed forever. We all are. We have seen things that cannot be unseen. Our heart's have been crushed, ground to dust, blown to bits, over and over again. And the thing is, what each of us will confess, is that it was a sacred honor, one we wouldn't trade for all the glittering things. And that for most of us this was the first time in our lives where all of our passions were engaged; personal, professional, and spiritual, in a community of our peers doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. And that's what we all long for isn't it? Isn't that what it means to be fully alive? And maybe that's strange, to feel so alive under the shadow of death. To travel to a war-zone to find family. But maybe what is more strange is we weep when we have to leave, and many of us dread the coming home.
And so I write this for my field hospital family, I write this for those that love them. They are not who they once were, they are stronger and yet more fragile. The have gone to a place of bombs and terror and seen what those evil forces do to the bodies of children. They have sat countless hours with the dying, held out hope with trembling hands to the living. They have stifled the urge to scream too many times to count. They have fought back tears daily so the floodgates wouldn't open forever. They are not who they were when they left you, they are better than before, but they are more broken. Over them hangs an invisible shroud of grief, they must mourn for what's been lost, for what they've left behind on the war ravaged plains of Nineveh.
So please be careful with them, let them tell you their story in their own time, even if it's a long time. It's a story that costs them in heart-break. The words conjure images that will haunt them forever. Let them have their silence and space, to process, to heal. Be patient with them, small talk may be unbearable after a season so intense, so pregnant with purpose. A trip to the mall or Walmart might be unhinging for them when they've seen those fleeing war in tattered rags and matted filth, gaunt with emaciation. They see with new eyes now, hear with new ears. There has been a deep shift in their sense of justice, a widening of their worldview. You will alienate them quickly if you politicize refugees, or paint Muslims or Middle Easterners with a broad blunt brush. These are no longer abstract terms to them, no longer strangers from news footage. They have done life with these precious people, they've listened to stories of horror so unimaginable that it left them reeling and speechless. The throats of babies slit in mother's arms, whole families mowed down by ISIS snipers as they ran to freedom. Daughters hiding in the piles of the dead, sons surviving on cardboard and blades of grass. Your churches may seem more shallow to them, words like suffering and persecution now have faces and stories, have a new infinitely higher ceiling of meaning. They have seen the cost of faith. But they love you, they still need you, maybe more now than ever. Brokenness isn't a switch that can be flipped on and off, a setting to be dialed down. So be gentle. Please.
And now to my EFH peeps. I love you and miss you. More than words can say. I want to honor you, you crazy ragamuffin crew. You are my family. You are my heroes. I have tasted heaven behind those blast walls in our little community, I have seen the image of God in each of you.
In the OR doctors and nurses who had to amputate the limbs of babies through the tears in their own eyes I have seen the image of God. You put back together bodies without enough pieces to put together.
In my ICU nurses I saw God's heart everyday. I love you so much it hurts. I cannot say your name or conjure your faces without tears. You lovers, you fighters, you wonder workers, you solvers of the riddles of the body.
To my charge nurses, you bosses, you beasts, you rock solid sisters. You led like lions with the hearts of lambs. I saw the Lion of Judah in you, the Lamb that was slain.
To my ward nurses, nothing is beneath you. You feet washers and bum washers and all the parts washers. You emptiers of endless bedpans. You radiate the humility of the Light of the world. The One who was equal with God but came to wash our feet. To die for us.
For the keeper of sacred stats, the lighter of candles. For the master of all the moving parts. I love you two, you Sriracha sisters, you dumpster fire choir. I saw the humanity of Christ in you, the toll it took on your hearts.
In those that came with blow up dinosaurs and bags of toys because laughter heals and a child's playthings shouldn't be bullet casings, you are a flood of joy, I have seen Him in you.
For the Marine making balloon animals and keeping us safe (sometimes from ourselves). For the makers of big decisions who fight the war of head verses heart every single day. I see the Father in you.
For the set up crew and construction teams. You turned an empty muddy field into a full blown trauma hospital all the while war raged around you. You imaged the Risen One.
For the maintenance men who battle nature and entropy and never sleep too deep. Who fight fires figurative and literal. Who make medical devices from spare parts and hold the whole thing together with zip-ties and duct tape and bailing wire. You look like your Creator to me.
For the Triage nurses who conducted the whole chaos like a symphony. For the trauma nurses who work magic on the hairbreadth edge of a razor. You look like your Abba.
For staff care who tried to lighten our loads, who sat with the dying, who kept us in chocolate, and led us in communion. I have seen the High Priest in you.
For the ER docs steady, ready, wise and gentle.The pharmacists, phlebotomists, sterilizers, med supply, bio-med and lab techs your skill and ceaseless hard work was never sexy but was the science in saving lives. I saw my Savior in you all.
You are all the broken-hearted healers. You cups for Living Water in the desert. You are the pierced hands and feet. I have such a clearer picture of God because of you, I have such a deeper understanding. There is an old proverb that says, "no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man". You will never be the same, but the fire and the hand of Grace have made you like glowing gold, even when you feel like you'll never shine again. The grief will lessen, the sorrow too, but it will never leave you. That's the price of loving, it always has been, from long before time began when the Lamb was slain.
And finally for my Iraqi, and Kurdish, and Yazidi brothers and sisters. You are so brave. You have lived in the shadow of war and terrorism all your days. Tragedy has been your food and sorrow your drink. And yet you hold onto life in spite of what has been stolen from you. You have opened your hearts as wide as the horizon and embraced a ragamuffin band of westerners with so many misconceptions. You have taught us about love and humanity, honor and sacrifice. You have shared your food and your tears, your stories and laughter. We miss you, we love you. You are in our hearts forever, precious habibis.