This plaque is in the church yard of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Plainfield Township (near Pen Argyl.)I’ll be at St. Peter’s on May 28, presiding at two worship Services, and participating in a ceremony at the plaque between the Services. In my sermon, printed below, I’ll remember Col. Arlean Miller, United States Army Nurse. I was privileged to be Arlean’s pastor during the final years of her life.
In the church year, today is called the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I think of it as a kind of in-between time. You see, this past Thursday was the church’s festival of the Ascension. Although Ascension Day has fallen out of popular usage, it’s one of the church’s principle festivals, recalling the return of Jesus to the Father in heaven. At the time of the Ascension, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to the church. When the Spirit came, Jesus said, the church would be empowered to tell and live his good news. The promised Spirit came ten days after Ascension, on what we call the Day of Pentecost. During those ten days of in-between time, the followers of Jesus, says today’s First Reading, were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
When I was a parish pastor, I would sometimes encourage my congregation to use these ten days of Ascensiontide as a time of prayer for the church’s mission. I would urge them to think about what we have received as the people of God, and how we might live faithfully as God’s people today.
This year, in the midst of Ascensiontide, falls the American civic holiday called Memorial Day. It, too, is a fitting time for thoughtful reflection, as we recall our nation’s heritage, and think about how we can live as responsible citizens.
This coincidence of Ascension and Memorial Day falling together cause me to ask, What’s the relationship between love of country and faith in God? How do the two fit together?
For some people, there’s an easy answer: God and country are the same thing. God favors us above all others.
That’s the answer many Americans gave in the years 1861-1865. Northerners said, “Slavery is an evil institution. God is on our side.” Southerners said, “Slavery is a divine institution. God is on our side.”
But at least one American, Abraham Lincoln, had trouble with such simplistic answers. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln, speaking of the two sides in the Civil War, said, “Both read from the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes the aid of God against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”
Lincoln’s words remind me that a patriotism too sure of itself, too certain of itself, is a patriotism out of touch with the God of the Bible. For in God’s eyes, all people are beloved.
And so I find myself asking questions like: Is my patriotism too simplistic? Is it so centered on my own nation that it excludes the worthiness and value of other nations? How do I express patriotism in a way that both loves country and trusts God?
A few years ago, in attempting to deal with such questions, I wrote a hymn text for the occasion of the Day of Pentecost falling on Memorial Day weekend. The hymn attempts to lift up themes of both days. Also inspiring the text (especially the third stanza) was a conversation with a serviceman about the difficulties some soldiers have in transitioning back to civilian life, including those who suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. The hymn as a whole is plea for peace in our troubled world. It says:
O, Spirit’s gentle power,
Come to our hurting earth
And fill the whole creation
With joy of your new birth.
Grant soon the prophets’ promise,
The way that you intend:
An earth filled with your justice,
Shalom that has no end.
Lord, we would honor heroes
By seeking what is right:
And so we pray for new times,
When nations cease to fight.
And for the men and women
Whose lives are on the line,
We pray they safely come home
To families left behind.
We pray for all the wounded
In body or in mind,
We ask your Spirit’s blessing,
In mercies that are kind.
Renew the scarred and broken,
Calm thoughts that will not rest;
Soothe bodies full of fever;
Bring peace to minds distressed.
Oh, hasten the time coming
When peace is drawing near,
And drive from ev’ry nation
The curse of war and fear.
O, Holy One, the Spirit
Save us from conflict’s strife,
And lead us into sharing
A Christ-like way of life.
After writing the hymn, I dedicated it in memory of Arlean Miller. Arlean had been a career Army nurse, retiring with the rank of Colonel. In retirement, she lived in her home town of Orwigsburg. During the final years of her life, I was privileged to be her pastor. We had many conversation, and I learned early on that she had been a nurse during the Viet Nam War. I always pictured her nursing wounded soldiers several miles behind the lines.
But one day, in another one of our talks, she was telling me the story of the time she was in a helicopter that was being shot at. I stopped her and said, “Shot at?” “Yes,” she said matter of factly. I still recall how shaken I was when she told me that. It’s one thing to read stories about war. It’s another to sit face-to-face with someone who has experienced its danger.
Arlean died at the age of 85. I presided at her funeral, during which I said, “Arlean was a dyed-in-the-wool Orwigsburg Lutheran. She was proud of the town in which she grew up. She never wanted to be from anyplace else.
“And she was dedicated to being a Lutheran. She never wanted to be anything else. She was firm in her beliefs, and certain of where she was from. Yet she had this wonderful ability to move comfortably among people of other places and other beliefs. For example, she spoke often of her visits to her Baptist friends in Alabama. And locally, she volunteered in a Roman Catholic hospital, becoming great friends with the nuns.
“Arlean was patriotic to the core. Yet hers was not the thoughtless patriotism that assumes ‘My country is always right.’ Arlean was not afraid to be critical, and own up to the nation’s mistakes. Such patriotism is the best kind there is.
“She was deeply committed to the military, and to the men and women who served in it. Yet because she had seen first-hand what war does to minds and bodies, she knew the best solutions are not always military ones. On any given issue, you couldn’t assume what her opinion would be. She was not afraid to think things out.”
That’s who Arlean was: a faithful Christian, and a dedicated patriot, who gave deep and prayerful thought to what it meant to be both.
This weekend of Ascension and Memorial Day gives us much to think about; much to ponder what it is to follow Christ and to be loyal to country, and how those two allegiances fit together.
And during this time of prayerful thought, I give thanks for people like Colonel Arlean Miller, who struggle with issues of faith and patriotism; who know that love of country is not a blind love, but a love that calls for thoughtful discernment.
May we all be people of such discernment, seeking to build peace and understanding among the differing peoples of this world. Amen