Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering Our Veterans

My father, the late, great Champ Ruffin, was a Navy Veteran of World War II. He, like most veterans of war, did not glorify or romanticize his service and he certainly never said or even implied that if I wanted to be able to hold my head up in polite American society I needed to serve a stint in the military. He did, though, suggest that I consider participating in ROTC. His reasoning was practical: “They’ll commission you when you graduate from college, they’ll probably pay for seminary, and after you serve twenty years as a chaplain you can retire and still have decades to pastor churches.” Given that had I done that I would have been drawing that retirement check for a dozen years now, it now seems like a better idea to me than it did at the time.

I did meet with the head of ROTC at Mercer University but I decided not to pursue that course. I reckon I decided I wasn’t Army material. Subconsciously I suspect I was influenced by my then recently deceased mother; my Aunt Joan loved to tell the story about how, one Christmas at MawMaw and PawPaw’s house, I walked my very scrawny eight-year-old self by them in my brand new make-believe Army uniform and Mama said to her, “Look at him. He looks like a prisoner of war!” (which Mama pronounced “wawa”—it rhymes with the state we lived in, which she pronounced “Jawja”). Given that I weighed 125 pounds soaking wet when I entered college, I think that I thought not much had changed.

I guess I wasn’t military material. I confess, though, to having felt some guilt over the years at not having served in the armed forces. A young service member that I met early this year changed my thinking, though. I was thanking him for his service to our country when my guilt surfaced and before I could beat it down I heard myself confessing to him, “Sometimes I wish I had served in the military.” He shot a quizzical look at me and said, “Well, Sir, I’m sure you have found other ways to serve!”

In so saying, that young sailor set me free not only from my misplaced sense of neglected duty; he set me free also to think about and to celebrate the many different ways that people serve our nation and our world. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s analogy, if we think of the United States as a body, we realize that not everyone in the nation is meant to be a foot—not everyone should serve by being in the military; the foot is necessary but if the whole body is a foot, then it’s not a body—it’s a foot. Military service is one vital and essential kind of service; in this world, sometimes a nation has to defend itself and when that time comes, we need and are grateful for the people who are ready and willing to defend us.

Our military veterans have won, protected, and preserved our freedom. Other veterans have, too, in different but absolutely vital ways.

Think, for example, of the veterans of our diplomatic corps. Who knows how many more conflicts our country would have been involved in and how many more lives we and other nations would have lost had our diplomats not worked so hard behind the scenes to make and to maintain peace? Diplomats working through the State Department and the United Nations, among other departments and organizations, have championed and preserved our liberty and continue to do so.

Think, for another example, of the veterans of humanitarian organizations. Who knows how much worse situations might have been and how much more quickly they got better because the representatives of such organizations have been and are present in times of disaster, whether the disaster is brought by nature or by humans?

Think, for a third example, of the veterans of peace movements. Who knows what the radical witness and the radical actions of peace-making groups and individuals have done to keep us aware of and hoping for a better world in which conflict is less present and war is rare?

Think, for a final example, of the veterans of civil rights and liberties organizations and movements. Who knows what could have happened to our freedoms right here at home—especially those of the poor, disenfranchised, and powerless—had such advocates and activists not done the difficult and often unpopular work that they have done and continue to do?

In all of these cases and in many others, people labor to help correct conditions that can fuel conflicts and to foster communication that might improve relationships. So there are many kinds of veterans who in their own ways have defended freedom and who have preserved the peace.

As for me—well, I’m a veteran minister/pastor/preacher/teacher/writer who hopes—who believes—that the Spirit of whose presence I have tried to foster greater awareness and the prayers that I have tried to encourage people to pray and the Jesus in whose steps I have tried to follow and to help others to follow have influenced people to be more peaceful in their spirit and more peaceable in their relationships.

As for you—well, you’re a veteran of your life, whatever shape that has taken and is taking. In your home, in your vocation, and in your community you by your attitudes and your actions have had and do have every opportunity to promote peace and to defend liberty.

So as we express our gratitude for our military veterans today, let’s also express our gratitude for veterans of other movements and organizations who also work, often at great risk and sacrifice, for peace and liberty.

And let’s all be, whatever our role in life, veterans of the never-ending struggle to help everyone be free.

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