Today is Veteran’s Day; a day that often gives me pause. I greet the morn on this day every year acutely remembering the veterans I know and have known. Veterans at whose funerals I’ve had the honor of officiating. My father, whose military photo from the Air Force smiles back at me from the wall, a 20-something strong man, before he became permanently disabled.
I remember my Uncle Ted, a decorated WWII veteran who held horribly injured men in his arms for more than 24 hours while waiting to be rescued. I imagine what kind of intestinal fortitude and sheer will it took to keep their heads above the black, icy water, not knowing how long they would wait or what the next minute might bring.
I think about the fact that every single day I get up and live my life with virtually no limits compared to most of the world. I eat what I want. Work without looking into the sky for bombs. Open up the sanctuary at my church and pray without restriction. I write on this BLOG with no concern of being arrested.
Flags fly everywhere in this country, and especially today. Red-white-and-blue is both a fashion statement and a perpetual season. Today, middle-aged women will anonymously pay for the lunch of veterans they see in diners; young men will clumsily offer their thanks to veterans getting into their SUV’s at gas stations. Uniformed women and men will walk in parades while crowds cheer and bands play. Some will bask in the honor; others will move robotically, haunted by memories that not even the strongest drink has been able to drown.
Disabled vets will continue to endure phantom aches from limbs they long-since lost. Divorced veterans will stuff down detailed memories of how their marriages derailed. Somber families will take flags to cemeteries.
Toby Keith will cry out from truck radios — ballads about American Soldiers and the American Way. Alan Jackson will ask again, where you were.
Chubby hands will color flags in preschools; sleepy-eyed third-graders will recite the Pledge of Allegiance; calloused hands will remove hats for the Star Spangled Banner.
It is Veterans Day. And on this day, I need to say that I am proud to be an American. I am grateful and humbled by every single man and woman who has served in our country’s military. I am thankful for your sacrifice; and I am certain my freedom cost you more than I could ever really understand.
And. I take my call to ordained ministry just as seriously as those who serve in the military take theirs. As we sang in worship yesterday, “our ministries are different…our purpose is the same.” Freedom.
As a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my call demands that I urge those who gather in our sanctuaries to look outward. We pray for the concerns of the whole world, and then the church, our country, and finally, ourselves. I call the faithful to serve one another in the name of Jesus. I encourage support in the wake of disasters the world over; I challenge stereotypes that divide; I preach acceptance of diversity and teach tolerance as guided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I resist having the American Flag IN the sanctuary because the only icon that is appropriate in the church is the cross and those things that call our minds and hearts back to God. As much as our collective conscience sometimes tries to deny it, the truth is that America, despite being both beautiful and blessed, is mentioned in scripture–never.
I am acutely aware that we are not a perfect nation; nor is the church a perfect institution. The history of both our nation and the church is filled with stories of how we both persecuted the righteous and imprisoned the innocent.
But this does not diminish the fact that those who serve our country and those who genuinely strive to serve God, more often than not do so out of a real sense of love and commitment to humanity. The service of both brings freedom and hope and healing to those crying out for help. And in an age where cynical perspectives abound and conspiracy theories multiply exponentially and political mudslinging embarrasses us all, it seems worthwhile to remember just how many people rise above the negativity and invest their blood, sweat, and tears, in serving one another.
The world is overflowing with good people who are all deserving of a parade.
My Uncle Ted is buried in Arlington Cemetery; my father in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I have looked upon the tortured faces of mothers and fathers and wives as they said goodbye to their children and husbands, called to serve in parts of the world we do not even want to imagine. I have prayed for their safe return, and exhaled upon hearing that their weary feet were once again on U.S. soil.
No. I don’t think the American Flag belongs in the sanctuaries of our churches. And no, that does not mean I am not a patriot.
It means I am a pastor grateful to every single person who serves both bravely and imperfectly — their city, their country, their world, and their God — so that others might be — and continue to be — free.