I knew better than to expect anything other than good ol’ down home American nationalism on Memorial Day Sunday. We were visiting family and attending their small town fundamental Baptist church on the northwestern edge of Appalachia. They just moved into a beautiful, old, formerly Presbyterian church (so they had to install a baptismal). Behind the pulpit and newly-installed baptismal glowed a breathtaking stained glass depiction of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The colored light filtered over elaborate woodwork, vaulted ceilings, and hardwood floors.
But on Memorial Day (and any patriotic holiday, I presume), they had draped all that beauty with bunting. Front and center, someone had arrayed six flags representing the US military branches. At stage left hung an enormous US flag from an eagle-topped flagpole, while on stage right, an equally enormous Christian flag hung from a cross-topped flagpole – the only cross in sight. Every flower arrangement in the church was red, white, and blue.
In the back, they’d set up a museum-quality display of war memorabilia: photos, uniforms, helmets, boots, guns, posters, newspapers, and more. A life-size cut-out of a Marine stood next to an old organ across the room, and I stifled a giggle as I watched women pose for pictures with him (is there a rule that all Marines must be handsome?). Everything in the display was a memento from a loved one; each had meaning. White twinkle lights and bunting framed the display.
It was beautiful. But it was in church.
In a place where we should be focusing on the God who chose to lay aside the power of divinity to become human, who did not come as a military hero but a quietly subversive teacher and healer, I see no place for overblown patriotism. Did Paul not write that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness? Did he not teach that God uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise? And do we not sing that Jesus loves red, yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight? We dare not glorify military might in God’s upside-down kingdom (to borrow a phrase from Ann Voskamp). We dare not revise history to define every American conflict as a defense of the Bible and Christianity.
But despite the bile in my throat at such blasphemy, I go. I go because I love my extended family. I go because relationships are important, and when I’ve chosen not to go, those relationships have been strained. (And, to be honest, I also go because I like to see how they respond to turquoise hair.)
This particular Sunday was everything I expected. At first, I mentally argued with everything taught that morning. I wrote copious notes complaining about the revisionism and about the simplistic analysis of both the world’s problems and the solutions (e.g. “the world is so wicked because we don’t read the bible anymore and we don’t tell others about it.”). I tweeted angrily when a Sunday School teacher flatly stated that our military is in Afghanistan to defend God’s Word.
But my phone died, and I quieted as I listened to the pastor, bedecked in red, white, and blue, pray that the congregation would not get caught up in trends and be God’s people. And even though I didn’t play the “every head bowed every eye closed no looking around raise your hand if you love Jesus” game, I heard it. A haunting question: Why do you think you’re better than they?
This pastor was clearly unaware that his words were contradicted by everything else, from his outfit to the décor to the choir’s special music to his request for everyone who “served the Lord in the Army” (and each other branch, by turn) to please stand.
I set aside my righteous anger and asked myself, “Where am I saying one thing while completely oblivious of the fact that everything else about my life contradicts my words?”
I don’t know the answer. How can I? I’m as oblivious as he is.
I can’t know without other people, people I trust to love me even in my hypocrisy, speaking into my life, asking me questions, and pointing things out that might possibly piss me off because to admit that I’m a hypocrite is embarrassing. It takes me being willing to listen to those people and consider whether they might be right.
It also takes me being willing to learn from someone I would rather look down on.
On our drive home that afternoon, my husband and I talked about the sermon and where I thought the pastor completely misinterpreted the passage. He used only the parts of the passage that fit the point he wanted to make. And while I stand by my critique, I must turn the tables on myself.
How many times have I gotten things wrong? How many times have I wanted to make one point and used things to make those points, whether the context allowed it or not? Listening carefully to discern the truth is important for this very reason – none of us gets it all right.
In picking at the errors I see, I miss the bigger point. I miss the unmistakable love the people in this church have for each other. I miss the way they manage to smile and welcome me in spite of my turquoise hair and my modern translation of the Bible. I devalue the respect they have for their family members who experienced the horrors of war. I discount their commitment to Jesus because I don’t like the way they demonstrate it.
I dare not do this.
I believe that each of us who loves Jesus looks at him through a different window. We see different things, and our experiences cause us to value different things more. Disagreement does not mean that we lack common ground. It does not make this one better and that one worse. It does not give me permission to mock or look down my nose.
So this week, I echo that fundamental Baptist pastor’s prayer: God help me be the person you want me to be.