Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Culture of Service

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 9, 2008

            It all goes back to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—in the year 1918-- ninety years ago, this year. That was when the armistice went into effect that officially ended major hostilities in the “Great War”—“the War to End All Wars”—which would become known as World War I (or the First World War), when another, greater war broke out in Europe a little more than twenty years later.

The news of the armistice sparked wild celebrations in the major cities of all the victorious allied nations. But at the front, soldiers were too numb to celebrate. For most, the end of the war came as an unexpected reprieve. Most men seemed stunned by the news and showed little reaction. Many were suspicious that the cessation of hostilities was just temporary, and that all too soon, the guns would start firing once again.

"The change went too deep for outward rejoicing," commented one soldier, years later. "Life continued as usual, except for the cessation of actual fighting. The sound of guns ceased — the gates of the future silently opened." Soldiers who had been through four years of war were simply relieved to have survived, and looked forward to returning home. In the words of one: "It was over — that was enough."

A year later, on November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Armistice Day proclamation. By 1938, the day had become a national holiday—and in 1954, its name was changed from “Armistice Day” to “Veterans Day”—a day dedicated to world peace, which honored all veterans—all who had served in our nation’s armed forces.

Certainly, there is much to honor. It hardly requires a major effort of research to uncover countless stories of bravery, dedication, and service, all ushered forth by the brave men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States. This is the lesson that some of us learned in the drear years of Vietnam: that you need not agree with a particular war to respect those who were sent to fight it; that honoring the vet is not the same as agreeing with a particular war, much less honoring or glorifying war itself as a tool of international relations.

Veterans Day reminds us of the debt we owe to those who gave so much—who sometimes (all too often) gave everything—in defense of our nation, and in defense of the freedom we all hold so dear. Veterans Day reminds us that, sometimes, our fellow countrymen have been forced to endure conditions and treatment that most of us could not even imagine. Veterans Day reminds us to remember those who sacrificed so much—who paid so dearly-- to answer the call of service. It reminds us, simply, to remember the veterans, and to honor their service.  
Veterans like some of you.

Veterans like Senator John McCain.

On October 26, 1967 McCain was flying his twenty-third bombing mission over North Vietnam when his Skyhawk jet was shot down by a missile over Hanoi. McCain fractured both arms and a leg ejecting from the aircraft, and nearly drowned when he parachuted into Truc Bach Lake. Some North Vietnamese pulled him ashore, then others crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted him.

 McCain was then transported to Hanoi 's main prison, which had been nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton". Although McCain was badly wounded, his captors provided only marginal care for his injuries, and continued beating and interrogating him to get information. He spent six weeks in the hospital before being sent to a different camp on the outskirts of Hanoi . In March 1968, McCain was put into solitary confinement, where he would remain for two years.

In August 1968, the North Vietnamese instituted a program of severe torture against McCain. He was subjected to rope bindings and repeated beatings every two hours, which subsequently slowed to “only” two to three beatings a week. 

Altogether, McCain was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years. He was released on March 14, 1973. His is an heroic story—like that of so many veterans in our country’s history.

Of course, President-elect Barack Obama has no record of military service. He was born in 1960, so was only thirteen when U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended; during most of the years that have come since (except for the last few years), our nation has been, generally speaking, at peace.

Obama never served in the military.  But for a number of years, he was a foot solder of a different sort. I don’t repeat his story here this morning to say that it was comparable to that of Senator McCain, but merely to remind us that the ideal of service manifests itself in many different sizes and shapes. And we disparage the service of someone else only at out own peril.

After his graduation from Columbia University in 1983, Obama took a job as a research associate in the financial services division of a large Wall Street corporation. But after two years in New York , he decided that Wall Street wasn’t for him, and Obama moved to Chicago, where he began work (at a significantly lower salary, one might add) as a community organizer. In June 1985, he was hired as director of the Developing Communities Project, an organization that spearheaded the social justice ministry of several Roman Catholic parishes on Chicago 's South Side. Over the next three years, his accomplishments would include establishing a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants' rights organization; under Obama’s direction the Developing Communities Project  staff grew from one to thirteen, and its annual budget from $70,000 to $400,000.

            Obama credits the people of the South Side of Chicago with broadening his view of the world immensely:

            “That’s what [they were] teaching me, day by day,” he writes, “…that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.

            “And it was this realization,” he continues, “that finally allowed me to share more of myself with the people I was working with, and to break out of the larger isolation that I had carried with me to Chicago. I was tentative at first, afraid that my prior life would be too foreign for [their] sensibilities… Instead, as people listened to my stories of Toot or Lolo or my mother and father, of flying kites in Djakarta or going to school dances at Panahou, they would nod their heads or shrug or laugh, wondering how someone with my background had ended up… so ‘country-fied’, or, most puzzling to them, why anyone would willingly choose to spend a winter in Chicago when he could be sunning himself of Waikiki Beach. Then they’d offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experience together—a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace. As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for…There was always community there if you dug deep enough… There was poetry as well—a luminous world always present beneath the surface, a world that people might offer up as a gift to me, if I only remembered to ask.”

            It is service—whatever the amazingly varied form it takes—it is our giving ourselves over to a cause beyond our little selves—which provides us with the gift of meaning and purpose; which opens our eyes to those hidden worlds that shine, just beneath the surface, where all is one and life is indivisible.

            Now that our own “great war” of the 2008 election is over, and we’ve reached our own time of armistice, maybe we can all get to work, and do what we can, to honor the service of others (especially those, perhaps, with whom we do not always agree). Even more important, perhaps we can do what need to do, all of us, to establish a culture of service in our land, and in our world.

            Maybe the age of “me—me—me” is finally over, and we’re taking the first tentative steps into the age of “we”.

            Maybe in this age of ecological challenge, and limited physical resources, and immense disparities between haves and have nots—in this age where vast fortunes and mighty corporations are being exposed as the chimeras they truly are—maybe we are coming to grasp the truth in those ancient words that whoever clings to his life for himself will lose it, and whoever gives up his life for something greater will, indeed, find it.  

            There is a bridge beckoning us into the future. That is the bridge of service.

            In the aftermath of September 11th. there was much talk about fostering within our land a culture of service, responsibility, and renewed and deepened citizenship. In his State of the Union address in January of 2002, President Bush said:

 “…after America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves.  We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history.  We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.” And, the President continued:

“For too long our culture has said, ‘If it feels good, do it.’  Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed…  In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like.  We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self.  We've been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass.”

But tragically, the moment did pass. It evaporated into thin air, and we were left with the deathly stench of “business as usual”. Even more criminally, it was squandered in a mad orgy of unfettered, unregulated greed, and in the dust and ashes of an ill-conceived, unjust, meaningless war. We watched in horror as the phoenix of a New America, rising from the ashes of the unspeakable tragedy of September 11th transformed itself before our eyes into a sneering, malevolent vulture, and the only possible strange fruit of this dark magic seemed to be the passionate intensity spawned by the worst of human nature and the low ebb of our own national history.

But while we breathe, we hope.

And while we hope, all things are possible.

And sometimes, history gives a nation a second chance… and a third.. and a fourth… and, for nations and for individuals, redemption is always possible.

Could there be before us now the chance to learn at last—and bring to life-- those lessons offered by soldiers and sailors, and community organizers, and first responders, and citizens all, and men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit everywhere—and build that culture of service here in this good land?

Imagine what might be,
Since we are now so many souls, if we,
Using God’s best (perhaps God’s one real force)
Conspired to let God’s love loose upon the earth!
            Imagine what might be if all of us—along with men and women in churches and temples and mosques and grange halls and scout troops and Rotary and Lions meetings and veterans’ groups and study circles and mothers’ groups and what have you—all across this good land, and all around this good earth—summoned forth just a little more discipline, a little more creativity, a little more steadfastness and dedication to the cause of putting service to others at the very heart of what we do.
“One cannot choose the time in which one lives,” the wizard Gandulf tells Frodo in The Fellowship of the Rings. “One can only choose how one lives within one’s own time.”
We can go on all we want self-righteously blaming the powers that be for the sad state of the world. But that doesn’t take away the responsibility we each have to do what we each can do to meet those unmet needs of the world that continually stare us right in the face.  
As Dr. King reminds us: “Everyone can be great because anyone can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't even have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve... You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love...”

And Dr. King also said: "When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice."

That is the calling of those of us blessed to live in these extraordinary times. A dangerous world dares us to form with one another a brotherhood and sisterhood of goodwill, to become with one another bold conspirators of the light—to “conspire”—from the Latin, conspiro: to hope together-- to act together; to serve together.

As the singer Jewel puts it:

All you unbelievers, get out of the way.
There’s a new army coming,
and we are armed with faith…

 Armed with faith-- and with hope- and with love. If we are daring enough, we can find within ourselves reservoirs of creativity and compassion and service so deep, that, truly, we can remake the face of our world, one blessed community of memory and hope at a time.

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