Lessons from a Fundamental Baptist on Memorial Day

by Joy

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.

memorial day display at church

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.

35 Responses to “Lessons from a Fundamental Baptist on Memorial Day”

  1. Claire Burkhardt May 30, 2013 at 5:53 am #

    Joy, this was soo good! I grew up in similar surroundings including 3 years in a church-run school; and since moving away from that culture, I ‘ve been baffled by the instances of true faith on one hand and blatant arrogance, ignorance, and hypocrisy on the other. I love where you say we have to be willing to learn from those we would rather look down on. That is the crux of loving those still in the pit we’ve emerged from! It also humbles me to see how oblivious one can be where others see blatant arrogance. Our “rightness ” shouldn’t matter so much as our relationships do! Where we scream we know the truth, we’ve placed ourselves on higher ground and relationship is strained. Thanks for this post!! It is hope for us and our families!

  2. Matt Appling May 30, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    Fantastic words, Joy. Perhaps it was God zapped your phone battery so you’d have to listen instead of tweeting. :) All of us who claim to teach others are fallible and human. It is truly humbling when I’m startled by a truth that comes out of left field from a teacher who I don’t think has anything to teach me.

  3. Rubi May 30, 2013 at 6:58 am #

    This is awesome Joy. It shows a lot of humility on your part and that’s admirable. I heard a Pastor say that some Christians just need a second touch from Jesus and because of that, we should treat them with utmost love. It’s hard, I get it. I grew up in a very legalistic environment where I questioned 90% of the lifestyle rules I was told to live by. I still don’t understand a lot of it, but still, I love. I caught myself not loving them a few times and God has always zapped me back to loving even the Pharisees. Bless you!

  4. Shauna May 30, 2013 at 7:08 am #

    I have to say that when I saw your tweets, I kept thinking “wonder what the pastor REALLY said?” The drawback: I wasn’t even in church Sunday. Due to my work schedule, and our family’s tendency to NOT party at the lake, we were headed to the multiple cemeteries our fathers and relatives are buried in. (Our dads, including husband’s “second dad,” all served either in WWII or the Korean conflict). Don’t forget that historically, our forefathers established country so that we could have a choice as to which church we attend, regardless of denomination. Granted, Jesus came as an example of peace, and yes, maybe your relatives’ church overdecorated a bit, but on the other hand, I respect the passion those folks have. They are determined to not forget, and to pass on the silent lessons taught by those who served.

    That said, I respect your passion as well. I do relate to your frustration with established institutional religiosity. We have a 20 year-old daughter who refused to attend youth group at our church (or any church) after seeing those young people act one way at church and another way at school. She is still searching. A baptized believer at a young age–by her choice, not ours–she, like you, has little tolerance for bigotry. She avoids confrontation with her uncle, who is retired Air Force and a Patriot Guard rider, because she knows they will never agree on her stance on Afghanistan. (One of these days I’m sure she will get to say her piece, and say it well.) She is bright, she is sensitive, and I’m trying very hard not to crush her spirit, even though my overly traditional heart is screaming all the way. I’ve told her about your blog, hoping against hope she can connect SOMEWHERE. And I have found your posts to be blessings; God is using you to open my eyes and heart.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

      Thank you for your comment, Shauna. I love that even though we may not agree on the place honoring our military has in religion (please know I don’t decry all patriotism and I love my country), we can still connect over our love of Jesus and our desire for our children to connect with our faith.

      • Shauna June 3, 2013 at 11:31 am #

        You’re welcome Joy. I have to say I do agree that a cross should have been left up SOMEWHERE in the sanctuary, not removed for the sake of everything else they were doing.

  5. Jaz May 30, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    “It does not give me permission to mock or look down my nose.” Sometimes it feels like I do this all day. But I hear God whispering in my heart, “You are not better than them. You are not better than them. You are not better than them.” May God have grace and mercy on my self-righteous soul.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      “You are not better than them.” Yes, I need to repeat that too.

  6. Ellen Jones May 30, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    Thank you for that piece, Joy. When I think I have matured and grown and learned, it is appalling how quickly I look down on others who seem to have less light than I do. Such arrogance! My critical, judging heart is then closed off to really seeing, learning, and loving. Jesus, help me!

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      Amen. Jesus, help us.

  7. Reda Hicks May 30, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    I confess, I went through all the emotions you described in the first half of your post reading the first half of your post. I’m glad I finished the whole thing, just as I’m sure you’re glad you stayed for the whole sermon that day.

    As an active duty Army wife, of a man who demonstrates Jesus ever day, even on the battlefield, it makes me furious how many people divorce faith from freedom based on politics, personal preference, obliviousness or (worst of all) convenience. It’s easy to forget that the path to Christ led God’s people through many wars, and that protecting (among other things) our ability to continue following Him still requires people willing to sacrifice. I think that’s one reason why Jesus said “greater love has no one that this, that someone lay down his life for his friend.” More of our friends than I care to count have laid down their lives for people they will never meet. We SHOULD honor that kind of love.

    Still, there are plenty of times I catch myself being a hypocrite about such things. I have judged others when they were demonstrating their faith in a way I didn’t understand or disagreed with. So I’m no better. I can only be humbled, repentant, and work to understand FIRST, then react.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      I agree, Reda, that a Christian can serve God in the Army (or any branch), the same way that Christians can serve God in any vocation. But the military does not serve God as an entity any more than Sprint or Honda do. The military is not out there in Afghanistan defending the Bible! They serve our national interests (some more justified than others), protect our nation, and sometimes stand up for the oppressed. I have the utmost respect for those who do serve. I did not mean at all to communicate that I think patriotism itself is wrong for Christians. It’s the overblown patriotism that revises history to justify any and every military action as somehow biblical that I object to and find offensive.

      I’m glad you read the whole piece, and yes, I’m glad I listened to the whole sermon. :)

      • Reda Hicks June 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

        Ack. I understand where you are coming from, but have one additional note in the spirit of education. This is a particularly sore subject for people whose lives have been touched by war–veterans and active duty alike. Being involved in many military organizations, I can’t even tell you how many posts I saw about this on Memorial Day, many of them irate, hurt, or upset by things flippantly (even if unintentionally) said, because it is so very personal. Here’s goes:

        Armed Forces Day celebrates the military.

        Independence Day celebrates patriotism.

        Memorial Day celebrates neither. It does not celebrate. It remembers the fallen. Individuals. People with names and families and histories all their own, who gave their lives in service to us. Memorial Day remembers sacrifice.

        By way of example of the reaction I see most often, see: http://wittylittlesecret.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/grave-contemplation/

        Perhaps that has no impact on the rightness or wrongness of what you saw/felt/experienced that Sunday. But I do hope it’s something that crosses your mind the next time you’re talking to someone about Memorial Day. It might help you avoid saying something that unintentionally makes another person feel as though their loved one’s sacrifice has been forgotten, or worse, doesn’t matter.

  8. Brenda May 30, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    We left a church a couple of years ago, after being there for 14 years. I left exhausted, hurt, burned out and quite honestly, bitter against a few of the ways I felt that Christian community was not lived out. I thought that whole scene was past tense in my life: move on, heal, recover, go to a different church, etc. On Sunday night I was cleaning out my overfull gmail folders and was drawn to 2 or 3 emails from someone who was a significant instigator in our small group meltdown that ultimately led to our leaving. The next day, my son informed me that this very person’s daughter was now attending our small private school. What?!? The following day my devotional was all about seeing Jesus in people and giving them a second chance. I thought I had a couple of weeks to prepare myself for interacting with them at the June school picnic because my kids told me their daughter was on the bus, so we wouldn’t meet before/after school. No… this morning, there she was. And we had a good talk. Now I’m reading this and nodding – YES, YES, YES!! I still feel they got some things wrong. But I need to give them a second chance because I so often need the second chance where I get it wrong. And although I may not be able to see where I got it wrong with these people yet – I must have had some part in it. Thank you for this very helpful and timely (for my exact situation today) reminder.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      I think those wounds are very real — I have them too. It takes time to heal enough to be strong enough to see past our own pain to the other person themselves. But I’m really good at using my wounds as an excuse not to do the hard work of loving.

  9. Michelle May 30, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    This. Is. So. Humbling. As someone who has had such similar experiences and left each independent baptist church service with a horrible taste in her mouth, thanks for challenging me to step off my soap box and look with love.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

      It has taken me a long time to get here. I’ve chosen not to go at all for a time, and I’ve gone with my bad attitude in place like armor. Praying for both of us today!

  10. Jennifer Atkinson May 31, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    OH. MY. Thank you for saying it/typing it “out loud”. I’m still searching for the place inside that will allow me to stop the incessant competition of who is right in this world in regard to faith/Believing. Maybe just getting to the point of knowing we’ve all got it wrong because we have skin on will make its way to the deepest part of my heart SOONER than soon. Thank you for this…

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

      “We’ve all got it wrong because we have skin on” – I love that.

  11. Rich May 31, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    One of the hardest things I have learned in my Christian walk is that the most difficult Pharisee to deal with is the one in the mirror. Yep, I have been where you are, topic/issue different, but the result was the same. Thanks for being honest and humble in this.

    BTW, I know this is almost secondary to your main point. But you might be interested in the Lutheran understanding of Two Kingdoms (Kingdom of the Right=Church, and Kingdom of the Left=State/government). As Christians we live in the Kingdom of the Right by faith, ruled through the Word and the Sacrament. As citizens in a country we live in the Kingdom of the Left by location, which Kingdom is ruled by force. A major problem occurs when we try to force the two Kingdoms into each other.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      I AM interested in the concept of two kingdoms — that sounds very helpful. Thank you!

      • Rich June 3, 2013 at 2:35 am #

        I sent a couple of emails, one with an attachment, one with a link to a book in Amazon.

  12. Diana Trautwein May 31, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Nailed it, Joy. Yeah – I woulda been right there with you, disgusted at the mishmash of patriotism and worship – it’s cattywampus to everything I believe, everything I see in the life and teaching of Jesus to elevate flags and weapons in God’s house. BUT there are dear people who believe otherwise, sincere followers of Jesus. Who am I to judge so harshly? Sigh. Needed to read this just now – so thank you very much.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      It’s so tough because I have my convictions for a reason and I’m a passionate person. But Jesus calls us to LOVE. We can disagree, but we must love. I fail so often at that.

  13. L May 31, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    This really spoke to me. Whenever I visit my dad’s church I have similar experiences. There are always things he preaches on that I disagree with and them I want to talk to him about them, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings or make him think that I don’t think he’s a good preacher. I think for me, I know my dad really loves his congregation and he’s done lots of weddings and funerals and helped a lot of people spiritually and financially through the years. So I know ultimately he is doing more good, but at the same time I wish he could tone down the rhetoric. My husband has been really good at helping me see that sometimes speaking up and confronting does more hurt than help, so slowly I am learning when it makes sense and when it doesn’t. And the older I get the more I realize my parents are people and even though they speak about the “gay agenda” and “baby killers,” I am pretty confident that if I introduced them to one of my friends who was gay or had had an abortion they would treat them with love and respect. I just hate how they talk about those social issues. Family, gotta love them.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

      I think you nailed it — even if the language towards broader social issues lacks mercy, love, and respect, that doesn’t necessarily predict the way they will interact with individual people.

  14. Observant One June 2, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Concerning your article Newsflash, you probably won’t marry a virgin.
    Newsflash – I WAS, he DID.
    Newsflash – Simply because women foolishly choose to believe the lies of feminism and no longer place value on virginity, GOD does not change, HE said it, HE meant it.
    Newsflash – Men do not want to marry whores as evidenced by the rapid decline of marriage.
    Newsflash – You ARE damaged goods by playing the whore and you do women a disservice by convincing them that being a slut is acceptable.
    You might sucker some poor man to marry you, it will not be a fulfilling marriage by any means, since YOU gave his gift to a stranger. With your attitude, you should stay single and not burden a man with your vile luggage.

    • Suzannah June 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

      the only vile thing in this place is your language. “slut,” “whore,” and “damaged goods” are no way to speak of any person created in the image of God.

    • Joy June 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

      How funny. I’ve been happily married for fifteen years.

      God’s grace is sufficient for whores and sluts. It’s also sufficient for self-righteous and arrogant Pharisees.

    • J. Stahl June 2, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

      I’m just appalled. The grace of G-d is sufficient for even me.

      If it’s sufficient for me, it is also for everyone else.

      Whether or not someone entered into marriage as a virgin or not, is not always in one’s control.

      Newsflash: If it is the intention of G-d to provide a marriage partner for someone, they will accept their spouse flaws and all, because of the grace of G-d given to us.

      “…that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6

      That’s good enough for me. Ought to be for you too.

    • Erin June 2, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

      Observant One,

      You might try living up to your name. In this article, Joy makes it clear that she was indeed a virgin when she got married 15 years ago. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/11/christian-church-obsessed-with-virginity

      There are so many things wrong with your post that I don’t know where to start, but it was especially telling to me that Joy chose not to stoop to your level in her comment below. You dragged her through the mud … more like the sewer … and she didn’t even bother to point out your oversight and defend herself.

      I understand that you might disagree with some of Joy’s points in her blog series on sex, but your personal attack so completely disregards the Second Greatest Commandment that I think we need to spend a lot of time talking about that before we begin exegesis of the Seventh Commandment.

    • Connie June 3, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

      To Observant One:

      As a virgin bride, how would you know if a tainted bride’s marriage is unfulfilling? After all, you have never experienced it.

      Clearly you missed that Jesus spent much of his time loving on prostitutes, harlots, whores, sluts, and adulterers.

      It seems to me that your hatred appears and judgment look much more vile than any woman’s sexual past. Then again, I’m just going based on Jesus’ reaction to the spiritual leaders of His time.

  15. Daniel Wilcox June 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Hi Joy,

    Yes and no:-) I agree with you that we first must take the log out of our own eyes before we can help others…

    But I disagree with your “windows” analogy–where you say “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.”

    Some Christians’ windows are smudged, some dirty, some horrific–twisted by their distorted national views.

    We need to be discerning, and after cleaning our own, help others to with theirs.

    For instance, I’ve lived overseas and know of the terrible legacy of American nationalism–especially of the “Christian” variety.

    Also, as an historian, I know how much American nationalism and militarism have wrecked havoc (as well has less often protected).

    After all Jesus did say, “Blessed are the peacemakers” not the warriors, and he stopped Peter from killing an enemy.

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