Can we put the flag back in the Sanctuary?

Church Council Meeting: Wednesday Sept. 19th, 2001
An item not on the agenda: “Can we put the flag back in the Sanctuary?”
Pastor (17 months in ministry):
“I would counsel against that, but I don’t think we should discuss it now.”

[1] In my now-29 months in ministry I have been surprised at the power of my words to hurt. Statements that seemed balanced to me are reported back as dogmatic. Maybe they are reading a body language that I forget. And then there are the statements that I must admit were obviously wrong. Things that once didn’t much hurt anyone are now the pastor’s words of judgment. A happy encounter on the street begins with apologies and excuses for missing church; just my presence speaks an accusation. Is this what ordination did? When has anyone felt that degree of power in a healing word from me? It’s hard to recall. I’ve been told that they have but somehow it doesn’t stick with me as strongly. There is more faith needed in seeing the power of the “precious” words (Ezekiel).

[2] “…I would counsel against that, but I don’t think we should discuss it now.” “You’re the one who wants us to discuss the hard issues!” came the reply. “Why not now?!” How often has my advice taken such hold, my exhortations directed anyone’s actions? I guess time tells if the words have integrity and gives them their weight, but the suspicion of authority is there on day one. Does he mean what he says? Does he practice what he preaches? To me it feels like I am presumed intolerant until proven grace-led.

[3] “I don’t think everyone here would be in agreement on this.” Pastor’s words are true enough but this is probably an effort on my part to switch attention off what I think about the issue when I was the one who jumped in with my opinion.

[4] The first council meeting after September 11, 2001 was a low point, but there were other uncomfortable moments. Other congregations faced these questions, hopefully with more trusting and open-minded pastors. At the very least it could have been tabled or referred to the worship committee.

[5] The question came back to me “Why don’t you think we should discuss it?” My shoulders drooped and all words left me. Defensiveness stiffened the air in all our lungs.

[6] Eventually the flag went up in a quiet corner in the back next to a large memorial display made by pastor and the confirmation students. Now wasn’t the easiest time to start to explore the relationship between citizenship and faith but when could it be more important? A confirmation student wants to title our memorial wall “God Bless America.” “How about ‘God Bless Us?’ That way we don’t leave out our families in the Dominican Republic or Jamaica.” I found an old 48- star flag in the closet which didn’t seem in good enough condition to hang but I had the thought of folding it as it would be folded at a funeral and then displaying it in a small glass case with a photo of the destruction and Psalm 46. This display stayed (along with another small framed photo of the firemen raising the flag which someone brought in) when the flag and the rest gave way to Advent.

[7] As the anniversary approached, the question arose as to what we would do this time. The words of a wise woman about the larger tragedies going on in Africa echoed in me. Could we put September 11th in a historical context without seeming to desecrate an overpowering civil religion?

[8] A local justice and peace group sprung up in response to the national mood after the attacks. They asked if they could use our space and I welcomed them happily. A few of our members helped bring the group together. A local community organization brought the neighborhood’s Christians, Jews and Muslims together for a candlelight vigil. A clergy conference began their Interfaith Thanksgiving service in the local firehouse. These events brought together people who had not come together before. When I think of “United We Stand” I will think of these times but I will also see them as isolated events. As Heidi Neumark pointed out in her sermon at Bishop Hanson’s installation, we are united and yet we’re not. Isaiah 58 tells us justice makes for true community. Too often we have heard mere jingoism as flag-waving from a noisy bandwagon rumbles by, leaving the needy in its dust.

[9] In marking the anniversary, we needed something that was broad in its appeal, but also provided a contrast to so much of the prevailing order of the day. Comfort needed to come from our faith rather than our patriotism. I signed up for young Laura Hermann’s traveling peace crane memorial display. The story of a young girl and the children of her Wisconsin town reaching out to New York was universal in its appeal. The display was impressive in its size, matching the scale of the event with 5,500 handmade origami birds. (Five thousand reflected an early estimate of the death toll.) It was also eye-catching in its color and shape and movement and it was a moving story. More importantly it was an opening to putting the date September 11, 2001 into a global context of military attacks on civilians, which I took advantage of when the display arrived in late August. The story of the origin of the peace cranes in Hiroshima helped put us in a place where Sept 11 would fit into a larger history, even as our younger members watched the brilliant birds sway in each gentle breeze.

[10] There were times when I took great comfort in the work of peace activists. How people felt in a very physical sense, about September 11 had a great deal to do with how broad their vision of the world was before that day. People who assumed that the U.S. was a uniquely benign presence in the community of nations were shocked at the incomprehensible idea that we were a target. Others saw events going on around the world and were jaded by our government’s excuses when the perpetrators were allies and even our own agents, soldiers and officials. Still others were familiar with a sad history here at home. Vernon Jordan remarked that African Americans “know terrorism” well and Rev. Herbert Daughtry greeted white colleagues with “Welcome to Black America.”

[11] I’m not saying that people who were not as shocked were unaffected by the event. If anything, they had to deal with being conflicted. Everyone was shocked and saddened. Many people also know, however, that over two million people died in South East Asia during the Vietnam war. Many people followed the military repression in Central American in the 1980’s. For people who were unaware of or uninterested in such history, September 11 came out of nowhere. These would tend to be the people who speak of the WORLD being changed. All of us see changes in our own lives. We see the National Guard every morning in our commute. We look at a diminished skyline. Even without the visual reminders, the image plays over in our heads. While we live this we all need to strive to remember the words of Martin Luther King, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Churches need to include such a global sensibility in their yearly observances, remembering Latin American martyrs, remembering Yom haShoah or Holy Innocents’ day as they remember the innocent people who died September 11.

[12] All this seeped into a sermon which talked about how we use the morality of scripture as a hammer against others rather than a mirror for ourselves. The law is meant to capture the heart in loving repentance, not embolden the finger in pointing. I spoke of Nathan provoking David’s indignation the only way he could, by looking without. I asked “Is the TV Commentator who heats up our anger at Israel’s excessive force going to spin around Nathan-like and say ‘You are that nation!’?” Lord send your prophet. How fortunate we are to have their words. The need to keep the focus on ourselves and not focus primarily on the sins of others was expressed eloquently by the great leader in the struggle for justice and peace Mohandas Gandhi when he said, “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate those things in yourself, not in another.” The sermon was strong but there was much I thought best to skip over. Softer words proved to have a sufficient impact. The words spoken from the pulpit or at the council table are amplified with the power to hurt and heal.

[13] If we believe in our power to heal we need to control our power to hurt. Our claims to truth do not have to be sacrificed for us to be humble and open-minded. Above all we remember we do not speak our own words, rather we always search and listen for God’s words. God’s words can bring weal and they can bring woe, and God knows best when and who and where.