The Walking Wounded

by Greg Albrecht

The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.—Psalm 34:17-18

When we think of the term “walking wounded,” we usually consider warriors who served their country, whose wounds are visible and known, as well as those whose wounds are not as apparent.

Most recently, we are familiar with The Walking Wounded who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. While one of the tragic consequences of any war is The Walking Wounded left in its wake, one of the most publicized examples goes back a generation. You will remember The Walking Wounded who came home to these United States from the Vietnam war. These veterans returned, having served their country, having followed their orders, but nonetheless having taken part in an unpopular war. While many were, like veterans of any war, injured and maimed, others looked outwardly normal.

But inside, many were, and still are, seething cauldrons. Many of these veterans still deal with survivor-guilt. They came home, but some of their comrades-in-arms did not. They struggle with the psychological and emotional flashbacks to the pain and suffering they caused, and the pain and suffering they endured. It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I have close personal friends who are Vietnam vets who still suffer flashbacks, who still deal with PTSD, 40 or more years later. PTSD, among other things, can involve waking up in the middle of the night, in fear, in emotional pain, in full battle mode, in the middle of a nightmare induced lock-and-load adrenaline rush. It’s never, ever fully getting over the haunting torment of something so excruciating that the mind blocks it out, until something triggers it anew. These moments are called flashbacks.

Before the Vietnam War, similar kinds of experiences were called “shell shock” in World War I and “battle fatigue” in World War II.

PTSD, in its larger context, is not limited to battle scarred military veterans. It’s a reality many people, from many different backgrounds and a variety of experiences must face as part of their daily lives. Some deal with a personal tragedy they endured while growing up in the home of a chemically dependent parent. Some deal with the memories of emotional and physical abuse, at the hands of a relative, neighbor or even a religious leader.

Some deal with painful traumas they brought about in their own lives and in those of others—and never seem to be able to completely forgive themselves for some terrible event in their past. Some remember a beating, an assault or an act of violence on their person such as a rape. While most of the time they function without this past incident disrupting their lives, there are times when something reminds them of that memory and another cycle of depression begins.

For almost two decades it has been my privilege to reach out in the name of Jesus to those who suffer PTSD as a result of a hell-on-earth encounter at the hands of someone or some group who said they were representing God. Sometimes this experience was a singular painful incident, and sometimes it was an ongoing nightmare in a toxic spiritual environment that lasted decade after decade—as someone was held in a spiritual dungeon, spiritually abused in the name of God.

All who suffer from PTSD have one thing in common. Regardless of the specific nature of their wounds, be they physical, emotional or spiritual, or a combination of all three, The Walking Wounded have internal wounds, and while friends and family may deeply desire to help, unless they have had a similar tragedy befall them, they can’t really understand.

No one can truly enter our world, feel what we have felt and suffer along with us unless they have walked our path. And that reason alone, of course, is part of the divine love which explains why God came to be with us, in the person of Jesus, in human flesh.

In that light we consider these comforting words from Psalm 34. Our passage assures us that God is close to us, we are his children who are in need. God is fully aware of our struggles. He isn’t avoiding us when we are in trouble. In fact, he is saying that we will, as his children, experience trouble. That’s part of what it means to be a child of God.

Our passage assures us that we don’t need to be afraid as we encounter problems, because God is present with us throughout all of our trials. God saves those who are crushed in their spirits. God saves The Walking Wounded.

In the book of Isaiah there are many passages that clearly prophesy the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The servant-like relationship Jesus would have with human beings is detailed in what are called suffering servant passages. Here’s what we read in Isaiah 42:3-4:

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged…

Isaiah paints word pictures of human beings who are beaten down by life, having been confronted by all kinds of difficulties and come out the worse for wear.

Human beings who are crushed in their spirits, downtrodden, defeated, poverty stricken—the word pictures are a bruised reed and a smoldering wick—the personification of a person who is on the edge, at the end of their rope.

You might be at the end of your rope. You’ve done all you can do, and you just don’t seem to have any options left. Defeat is everywhere. You can’t seem to make any headway, in your personal life and relationships, in your financial predicaments, with your health—everything seems to be a disaster.

If you aren’t at such a spiritual dead end, you probably know someone else who is at the end of their rope.

The message God has for those at the end of their ropes? “It’s not over. I am with you. I am the suffering servant, the gentle and tender one who will not hurt the most fragile of people.” It may seem to human beings that the slightest wind will forever destroy a bruised reed or end the flickering light of a smoldering wick—but in the hands of our Savior there is always hope.

No one is beyond hope with God. God specializes in all those who are at the end of their respective ropes. God is right there with The Walking Wounded and the wounded warriors.
Thus far I have talked of the comforting message we have from God of comfort and healing. But you, or someone you know, might hear what I am saying and object. Your counter-argument might be something like this:

Objection # 1—This message is just so much feel-good mush—if people want to be helped they should get up and get going. Some might respond to what God says in Psalm 34, and what we are reading about our Savior in Isaiah 42 with the bromide—”God helps those who helps themselves”—isn’t that in the Bible as well?

My answer—well, no, that saying is not in the Bible. Benjamin Franklin or some other pragmatic, results-driven individual may have written something along that line, but the idea behind “God helps those who help themselves” is actually anti-Christ.

Am I overstating that? No, “God helps those who help themselves” is anti-Christ because it encourages and reinforces the idea that our relationship with God is based on how hard we work and how well we perform.

The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the opposite. God helps those who cannot help themselves, which would be every human being who is presently alive and all those who ever lived. In terms of our salvation, our human predicaments and our relationship with God, we are all in need of help.

Let’s consider another human objection to what God is telling us—that he will comfort those in need, that Jesus will heal the bruised reed, minister to the smoldering wick, take care of those who are at the end of their rope.

Objection # 2—You spoke of perpetrators of religious abuse from which many are suffering as being a church or a religious authority (you said, “a hell-on-earth experience with someone who was representing God”). And sometimes, though you haven’t in this sermon, you have told such people who claim they are wounded that they don’t have to “go back” to church. Is avoiding church in the future the answer? These people fell off a horse, shouldn’t you be telling them to get back on? Telling people they are victims doesn’t help them deal with the problems they are facing.

No one who has been abused by a religious authority is under any obligation to return to the scene of the crime. The body of Christ is not composed of buildings and religious authorities. Each individual Christian is the church. Buildings and religious professionals who do religious things in those buildings are not all of the church, in fact, sometimes, they are not even part of the church.

There are many “walking wounded” who will never, ever, in this lifetime, walk through the door of a physical building that calls itself a church. They have no need to do so. They have a relationship with God that is not arbitrated by a building.

Some years ago I decided to take up bicycle riding. I got a new bike and helmet. But, for the record, I drew the line at the flashy, spandex clothing. I wore gymnasium shorts, regular running shoes and sweat shirts as I took to the streets to get into shape and lose weight. It worked! It took hundreds of miles of bicycling, but I lost weight, and as long as I continued to furiously and faithfully push those pedals, the weight stayed off.

But, some funny things happened as I tried to stay thin and slim—actually what happened wasn’t so funny. Those who drive cars, buses and trucks don’t watch out for bicyclists. We live in metropolitan Los Angeles, and in order to bicycle you must share the road with larger vehicles whose drivers often are not aware or even, as I discovered, friendly toward those on bicycles.

I got involved in a few accidents—at least one was potentially serious. In one particular encounter the car was unscathed, as far as I know. After colliding with me, catapulting me off my bike into the air, sending me flying into the gutter next to the sidewalk, my shoulder separated and one finger broken, and generally in a state of shock, the driver of the car raced away, presumably fearing that I might sue him or her should I become conscious enough to note their license plate.

After I recovered, my wife and grown children began to remind me that this was not the first serious bicycle accident I survived. They felt it was time for gentle persuasion. I was encouraged, via several ways, to accept that this kind of regular bike riding for the purpose of exercise needed to end. They wanted me to “get over” this phase of my exercise program. They were right.

I get my exercise these days in different ways, by walking and by going to the gym. It’s not that I’m afraid of a bicycle, but I don’t think I need to ride a bike in order to remain in fairly decent physical condition.

What’s the point of my history of bicycle accidents? I will not tell a Christian who has been beaten up by a church, that in order to have a healthy relationship with God, they must return to a building that has a sign outside that proclaims it to be a church. They can have a strong, close and intimate relationship with God outside of church buildings. If you’ve become one of The Walking Wounded because a spiritual truck or train has run over you, you don’t need to return to the scene of the crime to see if it will run over you again.

You don’t need to ride a bike to exercise—you may wish to, but it’s not the only way to exercise. You don’t need to “go to” church to have a strong, healthy relationship with God—you may choose to do so, but it’s not the only way to have a strong, healthy relationship with God.

What is a Christian after all? Are Christians perfect? I have never yet met a Christian who has not had imperfections. In many cases, thank God, I have not needed to know about their specific imperfections. But knowing humans as I do, knowing Greg Albrecht as I know Greg Albrecht, I know that there is no such thing as a perfect Christian. There is no such thing as a perfect church or a perfect pastor.

We know that Christians are all imperfect, don’t we? But, somehow, when we think of “good” Christians we think of all those tall, strong, successful, well-starched, righteous looking people—with what appear to be storybook marriages, perfect families, good jobs, excellent health, dazzling personalities, perfect attendance records at church—then we think of poor, sad, pathetic, little me.

Here I am, just a wounded, beaten up, discouraged, weak, sinful, sad, insignificant Christian. Does God love me anymore, even though I am wounded? Does he love me, or only just those “perfect” people? Am I still a part of the church even though I don’t religiously travel to a piece of real estate every week?

What makes a church a church? Its building, its pastor, its music, the coffee it offers after church?

There is such a thing as the visible church—buildings, programs, outreaches, missionaries, pastors and Christian schools. The visible church is what we can see. People we can see who, at the very least, seem to be Christians. Some may be our friends, neighbors, family members and co-workers.

So we say things like, “I’m going to church this Sunday.” “Will I see you at church this weekend?” “Have you visited that new mega-church in the suburbs?”

When we use language like this we are speaking of the church we can see—or at least what we think we see that we identify as, or we have been told, is the church.

But of course, the problem with external appearances is that not everything is what it may seem to be. A person who regularly warms a pew or chair in a building that announces to the world—via its signage, its architecture, its ceremonies, activities and services—that it is a church, may or may not be a Christian.

There is also such a thing as the invisible church. This is the church that we cannot see, and we will never see while we are in this flesh. The body of Christ consists of Christians we will never know, for many reasons—many Christians who live in places we will never visit who live their lives unknown to us.

There are Christians whom, upon your first impression, you may not identify as a Christian. They may be living on the street as a homeless person. They are Christians, but they don’t attend your church or denomination. They may speak a different language than you, they may live in a different culture than you do, and thus express their worship of God in a different way than you do. Though you can see them, they may essentially be invisible because they don’t think, act, behave or worship in the way you do.

“Invisible” Christians may also be wounded, physically or spiritually. They may be Christians who have some obvious disadvantage, perhaps they are blind or deaf or disfigured in some way. “Invisible” Christians may be in prison, perhaps for a justifiable reason, having committed some crime, but they are Christians nonetheless. The fact is invisible Christians may not meet the criteria of what we believe is necessary for being a Christian, but they meet God’s criteria.

Some of you may not fit a friend’s criteria of what a Christian looks like, but I assure you, if you love the Lord, if you have accepted Jesus Christ—if you live in his grace, if you truly believe in faith alone, grace alone and Christ alone—you are a transformed, re-born child of God.

We are all wounded Christians in one way or another. God loves us all, he comforts us all. He teaches us, leads us, heals us, guides us, inspires us, feeds us and provides for all of our needs wherever we may be. Just because you have left a building that calls itself a church, just because you are wounded, just because you no longer “go to church” doesn’t mean you are no longer “the church.”

Read the Gospels, and you will find many examples of how Jesus spent time with those who realized their need. Jesus ministered to people who didn’t meet the religious criteria of his day. They were “invisible” to religion—religion didn’t recognize them and many times religion condemned them.

In his earthly ministry Jesus continually reached out to those who were in physical and spiritual need—the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks—The Walking Wounded. He poured out his compassion, he poured oil and wine on wounds, he reached out with unconditional love to those in need.

The religious establishment determined that many to whom Jesus ministered were guilty of some sin because of what it believed to be God’s punishment on their lives—the lame, the blind and the lepers. Jesus spent time with those whom religion at large had written off, determining them to be hopeless cases.

Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.

What’s the point? The point is that God has love, mercy and grace for The Walking Wounded. You will never, ever be so far away from God that his love cannot reach you. There is no such spiritual place. You can’t get that far away from God.

You are the church if you are in Christ, and he is in you. The church, the body of Christ, is a living, breathing, dynamic and growing creation of God. The church is flawed, because God, in his wisdom and love, has determined that the body of Christ would be composed of imperfect humans, like you and me. God has purposed that his church would be composed of The Walking Wounded. How wonderful and inspiring it is that the head of this imperfect body, composed of wounded Christians, is the perfect Son of God—our Savior, the Beloved Physician, the Lamb of God.