I learned some new things this past week.
Last Friday a naval officer called and asked if I would take part in a ceremony at the US Embassy where he was going receive a promotion and a medal. I agreed to do it, and gave it a lot of thought over the weekend. These opportunities present challenges for ministers. If we are to take the Scriptures seriously—all of the Scriptures—then we live in the tension between texts that often describe war in a positive light, and the God who reveals himself to us as the Prince of Peace. See what I mean? This was not a simple assignment.
Still, as I read the biography of this officer and heard the citation describing how he earned his Bronze Star, I found myself—and I don’t really know how else to describe it—undeniably proud of him. This young man was raised in San Marino, a very wealthy community near Los Angeles, and attended an Ivy League university. In his freshman year he joined the ROTC, and joined the Navy after finishing college in 1993. He completed his naval service, got married, and went to work as an investment banker with JP Morgan (that’s an important detail). When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq required his specific skills, he was called back into active duty and served several more years, often in direct combat situations.
I tell that part of the story because there is an impression out there that this simply doesn’t happen anymore—that people who grow up in privilege and go to Ivy League institutions don’t go into military service. And who knows? Maybe it doesn’t happen very often, but it did in this case, and I was glad to help recognize his service.
There was one other detail about the day that caught me off-guard. When this man was called back into active service from his lucrative banking job, not only did JP Morgan hold his job for him (which they were required to do), but they paid him his salary while he was away. That surprised me so much that I found my eyes full of tears when I heard it, but it wasn’t all. To show their support for their colleague—and for his colleagues in military service—JP Morgan launched an employee-sponsored program which raised more than $50,000 to send care packages to men and women in the field.
So let me get this straight. A guy who grew up in San Marino and went to an elite university chooses military service instead of an immediate payoff in the business world. When he does join the private sector, he gets called back to duty and a bunch of other people with similarly privileged backgrounds decide to support him at significant cost to themselves. You can see why this is a story that needed telling.
Today we remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (we often forget to say) on four innocent commercial airliners. The memory of those events still makes me shudder with fear—I can’t watch the replays of the planes crashing into the towers. Whatever you might think about our response to those events over the last 7 years—however radicalized our political life has become in the time since then—I think we have a responsibility to respect the men and women who chose to respond by placing themselves in the path of future attacks. I’m not much of a pacifist. But on the other hand I also believe that strict restraint is the most important quality of military leadership. I learned this week that my own conflicted feelings about wars did not prevent me from being a little in awe of the people who have to go out and fight them.
Like I said, I was honored to be a part of this event, and proud of people like this young man who risked and served without complaint or question. After a brief welcome from a US Navy admiral, I gave the following prayer:
Let us pray.
Gracious God: For the gift of a new day, for the blessings of friendship and comradeship, and for freedoms purchased and defended, we pause this afternoon to give you thanks.
Today we gather to honor the service of one young man. For his bravery and commitment—for his faith and for his hard work. We thank you for bringing him home safely to his wife, and to his friends and colleagues at work. We thank you for the way his knowledge and skill have made a difference in the world, and for the way you have used him in a time of conflict, to bring us ever so slightly closer to a time of peace.
But even as we honor him today, we remember those who served with him—the others who have returned to their lives unscathed, and those who returned with wounded bodies and troubled hearts and minds. We remember with sadness those who will not be coming home at all—those whose lives were given to complete the mission at hand. We pause in silence to remember them now.
Our Lord and God, we long for the day when armed conflict will no longer be necessary, when nations can live in peace and harmony as you intended. But for now we know that that day has not yet come, and so we give you thanks for this man and for the other men and women who continue to stand between us and those who would seek to do us harm. May you bless them with safety and courage and protection, until the time when true peace—your peace—will reign forever.