2 Timothy 2:3-4
Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. And as Christ's soldier, do not let yourself become tied up in the affairs of this life, for then you cannot satisfy the one who has enlisted you in his army.
My friend, Psalmist, recently posted about her discomfort with patriotic church services. It got me thinking.
For a long time I assumed that on patriotic holidays the sermon would be about America and that we would sing "America the Beautiful" and "My Country, Tis of Thee" and other such songs. I love patriotic songs. I never questioned this or even thought twice about it until I was in my 30s. It was 1976, our nation's bicentennial, and we lived in Washington, D.C., our nation's capitol. My staff-sergeant husband was stationed at Headquarters - Marine Corps, right across the street from the Pentagon. We enjoyed the years we lived there. We are both patriotic, and we both love bands and pageantry and memorials and history. It was a wonderful place to live (temporarily), especially in 1976. Free programs and presentations abounded that year--a blessing for a family with two children needing something to do and struggling on an enlisted man's pay.
My husband was invited to be a guest at a church near us on Bicentennial Sunday. The pastor had invited a representative from each of the military branches to be present and to speak. The parking lot was festooned with red, white and blue bunting. Flags were everywhere. We held church outside under the trees, the military guests of honor standing proudly together in uniform for photo ops. We sang about America, we talked about America, we praised America, and the sermon was about--America and how God loves her, and why. In the congregation, visiting for the first time that day, was a family from Africa. I'm not sure which country--this was a long time ago-- but Sierra Leone or Somalia, perhaps. For the first time in my life I squirmed in my seat at the nationalistic rhetoric of the pastor. I saw the flags and the congregation (dressed in red, white and blue--myself among them), and I heard the sermon and the songs and the prayers with the ears of non-citizens. I watched the African family. They remained expressionless most of the service.
I was mortified. I pictured myself in a foreign land attending church on such a day and looking at flags and listening to "hymns" I did not know and waiting for a reference to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ or to God's love and power, or to the family of God, or...any other scripture to feed my soul.
Even my husband, usually not particularly aware of such things (and a flag-waving American if ever there was one) looked somber. We talked about it on the way home, and I never forgot it.
Years later, in another church in another place, foreign visitors asked a member of the congregation if the large dove pictured on the back wall was, "your god?" OH! I suddenly wondered that day, looking at the platform, "If a dove was misunderstood, what message is sent by flags sitting on a church platform or altar area?"
My husband is going to preach this Sunday. The sermon is titled, "A Soldier of the Cross."
I have been singing the words all week to the hymn of the same title. It was penned by Isaac Watts, author of about 500 hymns. Here are his challenging words.
Am I a Soldier of the Cross
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His Name?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.
Thy saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer, though they die;
They see the triumph from afar,
By faith's discerning eye
When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all Thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be Thine.
Oh, what powerful images! I have no problem with war imagery in hymns. We are wging war against darkness. I used to wonder, as a child singing this hymn in church, about being carried to the sky in a flowery bed. I thought the image was amusing, but I understood the point of the pointed question, "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" "Oh yes, Jesus," I would think, "I don't want to float to heaven. I want to be a faithful soldier." How little I knew then. But I wanted to make a difference, and my heart still says these words. I will be a soldier of the cross, and I will not blush to speak of Jesus or to "own his cause" and I will be "a friend to grace."
A friend to grace! No, this world is NOT, as Watts notes. But we can be soldiers with grace as a watchword.
I will probably put a flag out on July 4th. But in church, even as we pray for America, and our troops in harms way, and ask forgivness for our nation's people, we will speak of Jesus and of battles that have eternal consequenceses.
Lord God, Commander of both the Heavenly Hosts, and those of us who fight the good fight here in this present world -- Even as we Americans thank you for the blessing of worshipping you freely and speaking truth without fear...even then, help us as we turn our eyes to greater things. May we not be caught up in the arrairs of this life. May we bring glory to You, the One who enlisted us. There are victories to be won! May the "glory be thine!" Amen