In recent days, world leaders have gathered in hopes of crafting a more peaceful future. As these members of NATO met in Chicago, others who doubted their ability or will to truly commit to peace also gathered to protest. One group among these protesters moved me: recent veterans returning the medals of honor given to them for their service. By giving back their medals, they said, “we do not wish to be honored for the evil we have done.”
Their brave rejection of honor speaks to an important difference that we as Christians care about: ceremony vs. liturgy. Gordon Lathrop, author and teacher of worship at Lutheran schools, describes ceremony as flat, unable to hold complexity or ambiguity. As in a graduation ceremony: the gleaming graduates pass over a brightly lit stage. Words about achievement and success are spoken without even a whisper about potential failure or that the work done to get the degree was not always the most honorable.
Liturgy, Lathrop says, is different. It embraces ambiguity. At the heart of liturgy is the story of our faithful God. Good liturgy tells the truth in prayers, songs, signs and rituals. As we bless bread and wine gleaming brightly before us on a beautiful table, we pray for all who hunger. As we pour shining baptismal water and recite the great promises that hold us fast, we recall tears shed and floods of pain among those who are alienated.
Ceremony failed the courageous veterans who gave back their medals. It does not speak to the floods of pain they carry inside. It does not address the alienation felt by those who have seen combat. Pastor Paul Palumbo of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church has begun a ministry of hospitality to veterans in his region. The congregation, along with many community partners, has raised resources to set aside a vacation house in Chelan for a group of veterans to visit. Food and drink are provided, as well as fishing trips and hikes in the Cascades. The message to veterans is: we value you, no matter what.
But that message of value is hard for many veterans to hear or believe. Pastor Palumbo is beginning to discover that while PTSD and shell shock are fairly well known, there is a deeper and more pervasive affliction experience by veterans: moral injury. Moral injury responds not to what happened to a soldier, but what a soldier was asked to do. “No one could possibly forgive me.” “I don’t deserve to be happy.” “God will never accept me now.” These are the thought patterns of someone with moral injury. It is no wonder, then, that suicide rates among the military are skyrocketing. Eighteen people a day.
The beam of hope within this dire picture is mercy. Secular researchers studying moral injury have suggested that what these despairing soldiers need is a community of forgiveness. Well, heck. What are we as the church if not a community of forgiveness? That is our identity as the gathered people of God. That is the story we tell in our rituals and liturgies: God has healed us despite our broken ways. While we were yet sinners, enemies with God, Jesus died for the life of this world. Sin is no more. Mercy reigns forever.
Under the banner of mercy, the earliest generations of Christians made a clear and public approach toward those in the military. Soldiers who had fought in battle were welcomed back into the fold after confessing their sins and receiving the community’s forgiveness. In this way, the early church maintained its stance that war is evil and violence used on behalf of the Empire is not compatible with a life of faith. And they created a way back home for so many people swept up by imperial force. They told the truth: you have done terrible things. Then they declared God’s abundant mercy over them: you are still a part of us, a part of God.
Next week, Christians in America will observe two distinct festivals: Pentecost, and Memorial Day. One is ceremony, with parades and flags and bandstands. The other, when observed well, is liturgy, with fire and wind and new words of challenge and grace. Though both will seem joyous, only the liturgy strives to be truthful in rejoicing. In such a strange week of festivities, Christians are called to create space for truth-telling and mercy. Do we have the Spirit-led courage to speak honestly about moral injury? About suicide? If we lean into liturgy, into confession and forgiveness, into bread, wine, and water, I believe we will.
May the peace of Christ dwell in all the earth.
Liv Larson Andrews believes in the sensus lusus, or playful spirit. Liturgy, worship and faithful practice are at their best when accompanied with a wink, she says.