About a month ago I was asked to voice a prayer at the Memorial Day ceremony in my town, conducted by the local VFW and American Legion posts. As a pastor, being asked to pray at various events is a frequent request. It seems simple enough, but it requires much reflection on my part. What is the occasion? What is expected of me? Can I meet these expectations and still be true to what I believe and who I am?
Being asked to pray at a Memorial Day event brings a particular set of difficult reflections, since I believe that Jesus called us to non-violent resistance. How do I stay true to who I am and what I believe without upsetting others unnecessarily? How do I grieve the loss of life and grieve the presence of war without dishonoring those whom this occasion remembers? How do participate in a celebration that (sometimes) seems to glorify war rather than to grieve war?
After much reflection, I agreed to voice the prayer and let the person who asked know that it would probably be a little different. Then came the challenge of writing a prayer that walked a fine line–honoring and grieving the lives of those who died in war and remaining true to my commitment to the way of Jesus.
With the prayer written (I’ll include it below), I have since been struggling with what to do regarding the pledge of allegiance that the program says “all in attendance” should participate in. This is not something I feel comfortable doing at this point in my life, because I believe my one and only allegiance is to God and this trumps any other commitments. Thus, pledging allegiance to a flag (i.e. to a nation), seems to conflict with this higher, ultimate allegiance. Can I pledge allegiance to a nation and to God at the same time when I feel that the nation in which I live (for all its good qualities) has much in it that conflicts with what I believe God desires for the world? I don’t believe so, which then brings up the issue of how do I remain true to my core beliefs when asked to voice a prayer at a Memorial Day service in which all in attendance are expected to do certain things?
I’m still not sure how to answer these questions. I’m still not sure how to share my feelings on these matters in a healthy and constructive way. I’m still not sure why attending a patriotic event makes me feel like my ability to engage in thoughtful dialogue with others about meaningful matters on which I’ve spent much time and energy reflecting is hindered, if not eliminated. It seems that to even attempt to engage in such sincere and honest discussion is met with fear, hostility, and rebuke for being “unpatriotic.” These are matters that I continue to wrestle with, especially when I’m asked to participate in ceremonies that contain elements with which I disagree.
Since I’ve agreed to voice the prayer, I hope that it has walked the fine line of being true to who I am and still honoring and grieving the loss of life that war brings (see below).
We give thanks for this day and for this opportunity to remember those whose lives have been lost in war and conflict. I pray that by remembering their deaths and grieving their loss we will strive, as a global community, to seek to avoid the loss of life in war in the future. I pray for those across the world whose family tables have an empty seat, whose family portraits have an empty place and whose family trees have an empty branch because of conflict between nations. I pray for comfort for people in this and in every nation whose lives have been affected by war in one way or another—the soldiers who have died, the families of soldiers whose lives have been forever changed by their deaths, and the many others whose lives have been lost, broken and diminished by the chaos, suffering and turmoil caused by war.
I pray that our leaders will be bold and brave enough to seek to find a better way to resolve our differences and therefore choose to sit down face-to-face with opponents and enemies to solve problems caused by differing opinions and perspectives through words rather than weapons. And I pray that our citizens will be bold and brave enough to support them in these efforts.
Finally, I pray once more for all the people (in every nation and every time) who have lost their lives in war and conflict (those directly involved, as well as the many innocent victims who are inevitably caught in the crossfire). I pray for those families who have lost loved ones in these conflicts. And I pray for those who have survived war, but have been physically, emotionally and psychologically crippled by it. I hope and pray that the families and friends of all those mentioned and remembered here today (as well as the families of men and women and boys and girls across the world who are no longer alive because of war) are able to find comfort and consolation by some great and mysterious grace that is more powerful, restorative and redeeming than all the hell of war. May peace and comfort somehow be found by all of these, by all of us, by all of this blessed and broken world. AMEN.