What I Did Wrong (and Right) at Church on Memorial Weekend

As is my usual way, I’m sitting in my chair playing Monday Morning Quarterback.  Often I rehearse in my mind how the worship service went the day before: who was there and who wasn’t, how my sermon was and if I thought it left an impact, how the music was and what we can do to create a more worshipful environment, and so on.  Today is Memorial Day, which means that yesterday was Memorial Sunday…a time in church that is typically portrayed with hymns of a patriotic nature.  Battle Hymn of the Republic and America the Beautiful are among the usual favorites.  Sometimes someone will even belt an enthusiastic God Bless America for the “special music.”  The American flag is front and center, usually, as well as some sort of red-white-and-blue adornment on the altar.  None of this, mind you, was present in my church yesterday morning…but that’s not what I did wrong.

WHAT’S THAT BEHIND THE FLAG?  OH, IT’S A CROSS

Let me explain.  Memorial Day is a wonderful national holiday.  We ought to be patriotic, to honor those who gave their lives in battle, and to celebrate freedom…freedom that I very much recognize allows me to practice my faith openly.  But patriotism has taken on a very unique flavor here in the US.  In many ways Christianity and patriotism have taken on a syncretistic relationship, where to be patriotic looks like religious expression and to be a faithful Christian is to be patriotic.  Perhaps it stems from an age where war brought a vivid threat upon American civilization, combined with a Christianity that was still a major part of the cultural framework…I don’t know.  But for some reason the love for our country has gained so much fervor to the point that in our churches we sometimes find symbols of nationality covering the sign of the cross (like in the picture above), or sing songs of a blessed country rather than singing songs of praise to God.  If a worship service is the time for worshiping God, and God has no nationality, then it stands to reason that it is not proper to portray such patriotism in church…especially not front and center and most certainly not covering the cross.

I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Let me admit that much of this is done very innocently.  There is very little ill-intended meaning when such worship services are conducted on Memorial Weekend.  But symbols are important because they say a lot about what we care about, what we believe, and what our values are.  What does it mean when an American flag is at the front of the worship space?  I believe this sort of patriotism can lead us down a path that is dangerous, because it can prevent the church from being the prophetic voice that it is called to be.  Our primary nationality is to the kingdom of God; and bringing “thy kingdom come” must not take on national bias in the real case that God calls the church to speak out against what “the US” may be doing on the world stage and in our own communities.  Is it possible to be patriotic and be that prophetic voice?  Yes, but it is much more difficult under the type of “religious patriotism” that continues in our culture.  (I should note at this point that there are also scriptural and theological difficulties with this type of patriotism that I will not address in this post.)

FAITH INTO LIFE

So what did I do wrong?  Church is the gathering of a faith community to address how the faith can speak into our lives…not the other way around.  And I think the Christian faith can speak volumes on the themes addressed in our culture on Memorial Day: freedom, peace, war, loss, tragedy, sacrifice, etc.  And I did preach about peace as part of a series called Missio Dei, which is Latin for “The Mission of God.”  But there is a little insert in our bulletin that has all of our prayer needs.  I highlighted the prayer list to the congregation as a reminder to pray for others, but I failed to highlight a very important section on that list: those in military service.  Whether one agrees with a war or not, I believe soldiers need to be prayed for.  So today on Memorial Day I lift up in prayer those who have fought in battle and those who are serving currently.

May God bless you and keep you safe.  May you experience the close and calming presence of God in all times, especially in times of chaos and strife.  And may God bring peace in this world and in our hearts.  Amen.

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8 thoughts on “What I Did Wrong (and Right) at Church on Memorial Weekend

  1. An excellent post my friend 🙂 While you and I differ on the nature of patriotism and the role and history of the United States, there was a reason that Steph and I would drive an hour and a half to hear you preach on a Sunday rather than go five minutes down the road to the nearest UMC. I think what you have written here is quite “fair and balanced” as your friends on Fox News would put it 🙂

  2. The American flag as a part of worship
    is not wrong; America is a part of God’s Kingdom, and we should ask God’s blessing on our nation, as well as for all peoples everywhere.
    How we display and honor the flag is up to the pastoral leadership. I usually explain it, by saying that as a part of God’s Kingdom; we are responsible to be faithful to God first as Christians.
    Most of us are Americans by birth, some by nationilation.
    To be an American, we do not necessarily
    need to be a christian. But as Christians, we should be strong Americans, who honor God buy love one another.
    The flag is a sign of our nation, of freedom and liberty, and should be respected.
    When we think of times, when those we honor die; the flag is lowered to half staff. In the same way, as Christians;
    we don’t elevate the flag to a more honored position than the Cross. We in respect and honor of Christ sacrifice
    lower the flag humbly in honor of our
    Faith. Hopefuly this helps others.
    Rev. Jeff Coggins
    Epworth UMC- Massillon

    1. Thanks Jeff. If what you said is the case, then I suppose having the flag in worship is appropriate, though I would still refrain from placing it at the altar. My fear, however, is that (especially on Memorial Sunday and the 4th of July) we tend to do more glorifying of America than actual praise of God alone. Also, I don’t think this would be as much of an issue if there weren’t a type of “national elitism” when it comes to the perspective of our place in the world. This is something that I’ve experienced firsthand in my times overseas. That perspective in some places has infiltrated Christianity where people see America as “God’s favorite.”

  3. Hey Erik,

    I just want to encourage you to keep doing the good work that God is doing in you. I pray for you my brother that the evil in this world will roll off your armor. Ting, tong, ping, pang, clang, brody, I love you. Those are the sounds of the wicked arrows which cannot penetrate your armor because God knew you before you were in the womb. God made you stronger than the slings and arrows. There is a reason this “memorial day” celebration was not on your heart prior to the service. Continue to seek it out and don’t resist evil people. With love In Christ, Smitty

    1. Thanks Matt. Haha I suddenly thought of a Cru skit in your description. But I think you meant “resist evil people” rather than “don’t resist evil people”????

  4. Erik,
    I cringe when I attend a church service that displays the American flag more prominently than the cross and where American nationalism is equated with the will of God.

    Got to thinking, Erik. Do you remember seeing an Austrian flag while attending church in Salzburg? I don’t. I also don’t recall seeing a German or Swiss flag in churches in these countries.

    Doug

    1. Hey Doug,

      Actually I had a conversation about this kind of thing (but not directly about flags in church) with my Austrian friends when I went back to Salzburg last summer. They talked about “common guilt” that existed within their culture as a result of extreme nationalism during the Nazi era.

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