Reflection: United in Life and Death

by | Nov 11, 2019

As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion
for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

Psalm 103:13-14

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson issued a message on the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I.  At that time the day was called Armistice Day, and he said:

The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.

We now call it Veterans Day, and I hope that each of us takes a moment to give thanks for those who have served our country and the highest goals of international compassion and cooperation and service, and to pray for God’s protection on all those who are in places of danger and instability, including those in active duty and those struggling to find safe, hopeful and productive lives when they return stateside.

At times I think about calls for a return to mandatory national service.  I feel guilty about considering it since I am far from the age group that would be impacted by this.  But I have grown to appreciate the benefits of this that go beyond swelling the ranks of military forces.

That said, I do have great respect for the military in the United States.  When I served in Hawai`i, I met several people in the services who attended community churches while they were stationed there.  They told me about the well-developed programs for leadership and skills training, the great diversity of the troops (including a high number of immigrants), the humor and camaraderie, the discipline that some of them confessed they needed to grow, and the integrity that they demonstrated in their work and in their church.  Veterans also speak about the impact of war in a way that none of the rest of us can imagine.  One current concern is now that active military are “voluntary” and have fallen to 0.4% of the population, it is easier for politicians to send our armed forces into dangerous places, as so few now have direct connection to the people being sent.  (In World War II, 9% served, and over half the economy was involved in the war effort, so most if not all Americans had some direct connection to the impacts of war.)

There are stories from every generation of people who learned to be more open to diversity while in the military.  The first time I attended a church conversation on sexuality over 25 years ago, I was struck that several of the people who expressed sympathy for gays and lesbians (back then we didn’t say LGBTQ+) were seniors.  They shared that they had gay buddies when they served in World War II or the Korean War, and when you live together, eat together, and face death together, you learn that we have more in common than one’s sexual orientation.  More recently, a friend who is an Army chaplain in Korea shared how he changed his views on sexuality when the Army repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  As the soldiers he counseled were able to reveal the gender of their loved ones back home, he learned that they spoke the same about love, and loneliness, and hope, whether they were gay or straight.

Several of our national leaders have shared how their military service gave them their first connections with people from different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds.  Wealthy kids learned to respect their working-class commanders.  The young first-term representative George H. W. Bush took the politically unpopular political stance in favor of the Fair Housing Act back in 1968, which opened housing to people regardless of color, reportedly saying “I served with these men in the Pacific and they should be able to live wherever they want to.”

The military is one of the few institutions besides the church where people from diverse backgrounds are to be welcomed into very close community, bound by a shared code of conduct and ideals that are bigger than any individual.  I’ve considered how the military’s approach to creating a cohesive group from disparate individuals may have something to teach the church.  While I would not adopt the hierarchy of the military, I do believe that we church types do need to be more alert to expressing and teaching shared values and practices (and not assume that we all “just know” because we are Christian) and how to demonstrate that there are things more important than getting your way in any particular argument, or any social construct that divides us.

The restatement of mandatory military service is mandatory national service, which might include work for the public good within the US in contexts outside the armed forces.  In my narrow frame of reference, the corollary would be our required internships as part of our preparation for ministry process.  Two goals that guide the internship requirement are the importance of practical applied learning, and exposure to churches that are different from those of any individual’s background.  Our CPM takes seriously that when they help to form and certify someone ready for ordination, they do so once for the entire denomination, so it’s important that the candidates learn that there is no one standard Presbyterian church.  

Yesterday I had the great joy of preaching for the 38th anniversary of Filipino Community United Presbyterian Church.  One of the things I noted is the number of traditions they have to encourage everyone to participate in the ministry of the church, from an early age.  One is the special anniversary offering, when they call people up by the month of their own birth to bring their gifts for the church.  As each month is called, I saw every member and little child of the church coming forward with joy, showing their love for this family of faith.  This is just one of the many ways FCUPC encourages members of all generations to practice their faith as a group, which deepens their church commitment to unity.  As FCUPC looks ahead to expanding their ministry to welcome people of all backgrounds in the Azusa community, I am excited to see how their creativity and infectious energy will grow and diversify their already vibrant church life.

As we look ahead to the holidays, and as we take this holiday to pray for and honor those who gave years of their lives to the service of this country, may we seek to serve our Lord through our churches, without guns but with passion and integrity for the cause of Christ.

Peace and blessings,