Saturday, May 23, 2009

Civic Event

Well, I've dodged the small town pastor duty of presiding over a patriotic community event for several years, but this year I got pegged: my turn to "say a few words" at the VFW Memorial Day event at the Gentile Cemetery here in town (for whatever reason, they never hold it at the Lutheran Cemetery being a couple of miles out of town).

I struggle with these sorts of things quite a bit. In small Midwestern communities the State is a favorite idol - and a most sacred one. I can't help but feel that when the clergy are invited to such events they are there for the purpose of proclaiming with their presence God's blessings on whatever the State is doing, has done, or will do.

And yet, especially Memorial Day is a day when a word of Gospel comfort is appropriately spoken to those who mourn. And the Church has a long history of praying for the State and her officials when asked.

So here's what I wrote up to be delivered Monday. Any comments and suggestions will be received with thanks.


On this day when we remember the service and sacrifice of those who have served their country, and pray for comfort for those they have left behind, let us not also forget, that as the Scripture says, “our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, even our Lord Jesus Christ.”

With that in mind, I want to encourage all Christians to pray first and foremost as citizens of heaven.

To pray as a citizen of heaven means to prayer for Peace, for our Savior is Christ Jesus, the Prince of Prince – who laid down his life upon the cross that peace might be made between God and man, and between all men.

To pray as a citizen of heaven means to pray for our enemies as our Lord Jesus taught us, that the Lord would bless them, for he is the Lord who causes the rains to fall on the just and the unjust, the Savior who at just the right time, while we were still the enemies of God, died for us, and who would have all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

To pray as a citizen of heaven means to pray that our own hearts would be full of humility and repentance – for we worship the One who emptied himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, the one who calls all men to repent of cruelty and hatred and take up the ways of peace and love.

So all of you who claim the name of Christian – let us pray for comfort for all the bereaved of war; let us, who began as the enemies of God and who have been made his friends and children, let us pray for our enemies; let us who live in a world that runs by cruelty and power, let us pray for the wisdom to govern our lives by the humility, peace, and love of the Crucified one.

Dear Christians, let us pray.

Heavenly Father, God of peace and harmony, you would have your children on earth live together in peace and quietness. We implore you to frustrate the plans of men who would stir up violence and strife; spoil the weapons of those who delight in war and bloodshed; and according to your will, end all wars in the world. Teach us to examine our own hearts so that we may realize their natural depravity and inclination toward envy, malice, hatred, and enmity. Lead us to confess the truth of your Word that from the lusts of our own hearts come wars and fightings among us. Help us by your Word and Spirit to crucify our flesh, and to root out the evil that would lead to strife and discord, so that, to the best of our ability, we may be at peace with all men. Comfort all who mourn the loses of the violence of war. Above all, we ask you to fill our hearts with zeal for the work of your Church and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which alone can give to sinful men that peace which is far beyond understanding, and which can make them love peace and harmony. Help us ever to remember the Word of our Savior: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. Through the same Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the same Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (LW collect #229, slightly revised)


  1. Gosh, Heath, you might want to add just a brief note of thanks to God for those who have served faithfully in the honorable vocation of soldier, and particular thanks for those who gave up their lives to defend our nation. You know, being Memorial Day, and all.

  2. Thanks for the advice. I will try to find a collect that expresses appropriate thanks in appropriate words.

    While your comment seems to me to be a little sarcastic, I was very earnest in my request for suggestions. I find this a difficult assignment.

    Let me tell you why. I don't only serve men who are proud of their service. I have serve men who mourn it - for I also serve veterans who view some of America's recent wars as unmitigated tragedies - indeed, as unjustified. These veterans view the loss of their friends in war in a different light, perhaps, than you do.

    How shall I minister to their sorrow without seeming to be part of an attempt to argue them out of their political views? How shall I give the honor and thanks due to God for honorable service and have that not have it sound, to their ears, like "Thanks God for snuffing out all these young lives for the whims of politicians."

    It's not my job to make political judgments when I'm in the collar. How can I speak and pray in such a manner than I don't make those judgments? What are the right sentiments and prayers?

    I'm honestly struggling - and appreciate any help, even if offered flippantly.


  3. I completely respect the difficulty of the assignment. I would simply thank God for all who have served faithfully in the honorable vocation of soldier.

    Seems by doing that you are not making a political statement, one way or the other. I don't see how saying that is making a political judgment.

  4. I empathize with your struggles here, but a petition of thanksgiving to God for those men who have faught and died in service to keep their country and fellow men free from oppression seems also appropriate and not overly political. Perhaps a caveat for our nation is giving thanks for those who have died in military service to uphold the Constitution which allows freedom to preach the Gospel for life and salvation by the forgiveness of sins.


  5. I guess if you haven't had a long heart to heart with a parishioner who feels this way, it might be hard to see the political aspect to clergy involvement at government ceremonies. But these fellows are haunted by questions like, "Was it honorable for me to serve in a war I now see was unjust?" or "How can we all keep waving the flag and heeping honor, instead of tears and anger, on deaths that came through no just cause?"

    For many veterans of the past 40 years, I get the feeling that it is more complicated than "having served faithfully." That statement itself raises a question about what it means to serve faithfully if you think your nation is unjustly participating in armed conflict.

    Then at every civic event they see people line up, clergy included, to condone the official government version, which is, of course, always that the United States was never wrong, has nothing to apologize for, and is certainly never unjust. That is deeply painful for them. They feel they were lied into unjust combat, lost friends, years of their lives, limbs, etc. and that now everybody gets together at every patriotic holidy and ignores the questions they feel most deeply.

    Well, not having served myself under those or any other circumstance, I don't share their burden. But one conversation like this is enough to change your perspective and start to think very carefully about war, governments, veterans, the Church, and clergy.

    But thanks for your thoughts. I'll keep pondering all this before Monday at 10:00am and pray that the Lord will, as always, make up the deficiencies in my service.


  6. I meant no disrespect by my comment, and in no way intended it to be a dismissal of your angst. Lacking any better insight, I will simply pray for you also.


  7. None taken, Jason. Thanks for the post.


  8. Heath:

    Like you, I have had the opportunity to speak and pray at civic gatherings on Memorial Day. I did so 3 out of the 4 years I was serving parishes in West Central Iowa.

    When asked to prepare prayers/service orders, I looked at the British Remembrance Day orders (the equivalent to Memorial Day, but commemorated on November 11). You can go to this address and find information:

    The responsive prayer (with the "May God give peace repsonse") as well as the opening introduction and the prayer that begins "Ever-living God we remember those..." seem to capture much of the thought that you expressed in your post.

    It is hard to balance everything at the Memorial Day service, especially if the order designed by the American Legion is used. The phrase "true Americanism" always struck me badly.

    Hope that the above site can help you in your preparations.


  9. Luke,

    Thanks a million! That's a great resource.


  10. Heath, your assumption that I have not had a "long heart to heart" with men who have fought in wars with which they do not agree is incorrect. We talked through the two kingdoms, the concept of vocation, etc. You'll find, I think, that any long heart-to-heart with any man who has killed other men is never easy, or open/shut and black/white. It was one of the myths of the Vietnam War that only those vets suffered from horrible post-traumatic stress syndrome.

    Their service as soldier, even in a war they do not agree with, is an honorable exercise of the vocation of soldier.

    And since the point of Memorial Day is to honor those men who died in service to their country, I believe this can be done in such a way as to avoid a political statement, one way or the other.

  11. Paul,

    Thanks for those thoughts - what I was assuming was that you have never had a conversation with a vet who believes that the war he fought in was illegal and unjust - not one he didn't merely "disagree" with, but that he though was illegal and immoral. That makes the issue of "honorable service" in his mind much more difficult. It also makes it a political judgment.

    If a man, for example, believes that the Vietname War was illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust - well, that's a political judgment. It's not my job to argue him out of that.

    How to approach that sort of parishioner, that cross, that hurt is what I was speaking of.

    You're right that I assumed, based on your earlier comments, that you had never had that sort of conversation and dealt with that sort of individual. But I should have been more clear about what I was talking about and should not have assumed. If you have had talks with that sort of veteran, I'd appreciate any pointers on how to deal with it pastorally.

    Thanks again,


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