In the Service of Humanity
UUMH Chatham - November 7, 2021
“In the Service of Humanity” – Rev. Tracy Johnson
“It’s alright now, Michael. You are home.” Home for now was an Army hospital bed in the intensive care unit. The words tumbled forth from his Uncle David’s lips, as much a comfort to David as they were to Michael, who just forty-eight hours earlier was proudly serving his country in Iraq. The armored vehicle he was riding atop rolled down an embankment, we were told; the driver having fallen asleep; the victim himself of one too many missions out into the night. The heavy gun that Michael had been manning broke free in the fall and landed on top of him. His buddies did their best with what knowledge they had gained from training and experience to hold Michael together and he owes his life to them.
Michael is a gentle, trusting spirit, someone whose persona I have a hard time equating with the necessities of battle. This was his third tour in the Middle East though, and I sense he loved this call on his life. In those moments after the accident Michael put his faith in his fellow soldiers. There exists a bond so strong in these situations; a commitment to each other to ensure that they all return home. Whatever the state of consciousness he was in, Michael knew he could count on his comrades to get him out of that ditch to a place of safety.
Michael’s mother, Lisa, herself a former member of the Air Force, emailed me shortly after the incident, her emotions running the full gamut of possible experience and expression. She was hopeful though, counting on the prayers of others which she said she felt as a physical and precious thing. The kind of woman who relies on a Christian faith, she attributed each moment of recovery to a sacred guiding hand.
David’s words bespoke a trust in home, in the place of family as a source of healing and meaning making in the midst of would-be tragedies brought about by warring; and a trust in modern medical technology which can do truly amazing things when hope for the return of normal life seems so distant. As for the attending surgeons, their skill has no doubt been hard won on foreign soil in times of conflict and they are ready when the “Michaels” of these wars appear before them for mending.
Michael’s aunts and uncles, five in all, including my first husband, along with their families in many cases, have opted for military service in one branch or another of the armed forces; some for a brief stay and others, like David, making a career of it. They joined for all the usual reasons: to explore the world; because they were afforded a living wage and educational benefits; training that would serve them for a lifetime; and because they wanted to serve our nation and our ideals as Americans. There are no guarantees, though, when one places themselves in harms way or at the forefront of conflict, be it physical combat or competing ideas. And yet, we choose to serve this greater good that lives on the periphery of our existence, always just a reach away.
This week we observe Veteran’s Day and I will admit that for most of my younger life when I thought of veterans, I pictured older men in worn uniforms that they held onto for days like this, in ceremonies and parades, receiving the honor that is due them. The reality of what they were veterans of was rarely discussed. In my formative years the ravages of war were broadcast on the evening news and they shaped my stance on war as a solution and the value I place on human life. Now I see young men, like Michael, who have had to re-learn living with missing limbs and untold psychological wounds. I see women now and those who identify as LGBTQ. I see friends and coworkers’ children, and my mother’s heart grieves whenever I hear of a soldier who will not return. Our response to veterans seems to fluctuate with the times and the service from which they return; and isn’t that a sad commentary on our ability to show gratitude to those who risk in order that we have a life of peace.
And so I want to take a moment to honor those among us who are veterans; those who chose military service or who were chosen by it. Would you please rise as you are able and remain standing or raise your hands so we can thank you? Michael’s story highlights the impact on family that military service places on loved ones. Maybe it was a parent or grandparent in some long-ago fought war. Perhaps a sibling who had served. Or maybe one of our children opted to sign on and we have waited and watched for their safe return. Would you please rise as you are able or raise your hand if you have been affected, be it by pride or fear or something in between, by the military service of a family member?
We light this second candle today in honor of all those who have served. May our gratitude burn as brightly as this flame and may you all know yourselves as the blessing you are to this world. We thank you for your service to humanity.
You may be seated.
This day celebrates the anniversary of The Armistice. It was a truce, and like any other was designed to put an end to a war that was hoped to be the end of all wars. It is about the ideal of peace. When Paul Sawyer blew taps on his trumpet as a youth, he was unaware of the meaning and intent for which it was originally written. It was a symbol, he learned, that you were not under siege or attack; that there was a reasonable surety that no enemy soldiers were within earshot of the bugle call. Unless on duty, it meant that you could close your eyes and sleep – in peace.
I am reminded of an interview I heard on W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America with a journalist who, along with his wife after the 2016 elections, made the move to Canada – permanently – seeking citizenship there. And he said something that hit so close to home for me – that as they crossed the border for the last time, they looked up at the Canadian flag and let out a collective sigh as they came to the realization that they were no longer in a country that was constantly going to war. And his eyes welled up with tears as he spoke, as did mine when I heard him share this very personal reaction. Somehow, some way, we here seem always to be at war, whether it is our own or someone else’s battle that we are fighting. And we have this internal war going on as well. It feels as if it is part of our DNA as a nation. It runs so deep in our veins that we almost can’t shake it.
There is an “othering” about the way we operate – a constant noticing of difference – and of labeling that difference as good or bad; success or failure; right or wrong; either/or. We pass judgement as easily as we pass the peas on Thanksgiving. And it’s a short step from judging other to power over to oppression, marginalization, violence, hatred and war. It reached a fevered pitch in our nation over the past decade. Permission has been granted. And I will speak only personally and say that I catch myself uttering hurtful or distasteful ancient expressions from time to time and I cringe, almost immediately in response and then self-correct. But I’d love to get to a place beyond that pattern where I notice before I speak or, better yet, cause a shift in my processing where I don’t even think in those terms anymore. I am a work in progress. We – are a work in progress.
Mark Nepo writes that the ancient Chinese sage, Seng-Ts’an, offered this short retort when pestered by folks for advice about reaching accord, “Not two,” he would reply. Not two, as in ‘one’. Nepo explains it this way – that everything which divides and separates, removes us from what is sacred, weakening our chance for joy and, I would suggest, for peace. There is this deeper truth, he says, that at the heart of all of us and those we mistrust and all that we fear pulses the same beat of life. Divided from the common beat, we are cut off from abundance and strength. To find and to live peace we must continuously be restoring our original Oneness. Not two.
This doesn’t mean there is no difference. Of course there is and it is to be celebrated rather than judged. But what does ‘Not two’ look like in real time? In Margaret Wheatley’s Welcome to her book Turning to One Another, she juxtaposes fear with peace, saying that we choose the former over the latter. We have forgotten that the source of true contentment and well-being – of peace – is turning toward instead of from one another. We yearn for community and in the same breath engage in fear-filled talk, not taking the time to hear one another into places of peace. Building community with those we consider enemies – those who oppose our point of view – is no easy task. Huddled together with like-minded folks we do little to challenge the edges of peace making. We can begin by putting the brakes on a thought process that turns what is different into the enemy. Not two again.
We are called by our faith to serve humanity with justice, equity and compassion; by valuing the worth and dignity of each while holding that tension which exists between the one and the many interconnected souls. Our mission, too, calls us to inclusivity, justice and equity, encouraging free minds. Unitarian Universalist military chaplain, the Rev. David Pyle, shares the story of his walking across the University of Chicago campus some years ago in uniform versus in civilian clothes. And he notices that eyes that met his and offered a friendly greeting to his jeans and flannel shirted self, instead averted their eyes and chose not to speak when his uniformed self passed by. Whether out of guilt or fear or disagreement with a current war, it really doesn’t matter to the person on the receiving end. He felt the sting of othering. And he wonders if that isn’t magnified when the wounded soldier passes by in a wheelchair; when psychological trauma alters one’s way of being in the world. What must that feel like? He writes that we are called to be welcoming in new ways, and we here know the joy and struggle involved in becoming what is called a Welcoming Congregation. That vision of welcome is constantly being challenged; constantly seeking expansion.
For many of us there is an inner tension to be unpacked between our ideals of peace and beloved community; our opposition to warring as a solution; between those and our relationship with the warrior themselves. So many veterans live in our midst with scars both seen and unseen. We cannot know their inner turmoil, but we know it exists. I worked for many years with guy who was in the Army Reserves; who had risen in the ranks and who would periodically – and in those days of repeated deployments, more frequently – be called into active duty. And he would always tell us he was safely at a distance from the combat and that we shouldn’t worry about him. But one year at an agency gathering honoring service, there flashed up on the big screen a black and white photo of four soldiers carrying a makeshift stretcher across rough terrain, surrounded by the remnants of battle. And it was clearly my coworker on one of the four corners – and his name was read over the speaker system. And I wondered then, with others of us taking it all in, how does one return from that experience well? How does the mundane day to day of our work even seem important in the larger scheme of things? How much the veteran must be changed by that and at the same time go about the business of re-inserting themselves back into life as usual. How can we be of service to those who have given themselves in the service of a common good? What does our broader vision of welcome look like? Sound like? Feel like?
This Veteran’s Day on the anniversary of the Armistice with world peace still a distant hoped for thing, may we each find ways to move toward accord in our individual relationships; in our work; our analysis of the times in which we live. May we be of increased awareness regarding our beliefs and attitudes and how they affect those around us; how they affect what we do in response to difference. May we say with Seng Ts’an, “Not two,” and move toward a sacred oneness which chooses peace over fear.
So may it be.