An alternative prayer for Memorial Day (pacifist edition)

I generally feel conflicted on Memorial Day. It is right that we should honor those who’ve sacrificed everything because of a noble desire to serve. It feels less right that we should baptize their sacrifice as a pretext for the next war, and the next one, and the next one…

Other pacifist-leaning writers have already shared their Memorial Day reflections. (See, for example, this prayer from Kurt Willems and this excellent post from J.R. Daniel Kirk two years ago.) I decided I’d tap into the two theological streams I’m drawn to most—the Anglican and Anabaptist traditions—to write an alternative prayer for Memorial Day…

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We remember each person who serves in our nation’s armed forces. We pray for their safekeeping. We pray they will never have to take someone else’s life.

We remember those deployed overseas. We pray they may be reunited with their loved ones soon.

We remember those who have experienced combat. We pray you would restore peace to their souls and wholeness to their bodies.

We remember those who have died in combat. We pray for the repose of their souls and the comfort of their families.

We remember the innocent victims of our wars—and of all wars:

We remember those at Guantanamo Bay. We pray for those innocent of wrongdoing, those cleared for release but with no freedom in sight, and those held more than a decade without trial.

We remember the children we have killed with our drone strikes:

Wajid, 9,

Ayeesha, 3,

Syed, 7,

Talha, 8,

Zayda, 7,

Hoda, 5,

And hundreds more.

We remember the 137,000 civilians killed during and after the war in Iraq.

We remember the children of Syria, Nigeria, and everywhere conflict deprives a child of their right to grow up in a safe and nurturing environment.

We confess that evil is real and that it lurks within our hearts. We have been quick to condemn the violence of others while ignoring the deeds we have committed with our own hands.

We confess that we have put nation above church, flag above cross. We acknowledge that as followers of Christ, we have but one Memorial Day. It is commemorated with bread and wine, not with beers and barbeque.

We confess we have failed to care for those we’ve sent into combat, for those who bear the physical and emotional scars of war. We acknowledge our duty to them, a responsibility that does not end when the cable news channels have moved on.

We confess that we have not heard our Lord’s call to put away our swords. We acknowledge that war to end war is a fantasy, that redemptive violence is a myth, and that peace through conquest is an unattainable lie.

We confess that our freedom was not won by a soldier spilling someone else’s blood, but by a lamb who refused to take up the sword, who allowed his own blood to be spilled. We give thanks for the cross, God’s answer to a world that’s addicted to violence.

We mourn all those whose lives have been sacrificed to the gods of war, and we pray for the resolve to pursue another way, to “let go of the sword and take the hand of the Crucified One.”

On this Memorial Day, we pray that we will prove ourselves to be subjects worthy of the Prince of Peace.

HT Brian ZahndJ.R. Daniel Kirk, Kurt Willems, Preston Sprinkle

Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom responding to Rachel Held Evans (a.k.a. in defense of liturgy)

Our church in England

On his blog yesterday, Richard Dahlstrom challenged something Rachel Held Evans wrote in her recent op-ed on CNN.com about millennials leaving the church.

Richard Dahlstrom is one of my favorite pastors. Rachel Held Evans is one of my favorite bloggers. If you want to see a successful pastor building community instead of building his own empire, watch Richard Dahlstrom. If you want a window into the spirituality of millennial Christians, read Rachel’s blog.

As she noted in her CNN piece, Rachel often talks to pastors about why millennials are leaving the church — how they feel forced to “choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.” How evangelical Christianity has become “too political, too exclusive,” etc.

Thus far, Richard and Rachel are on the same page. These, Richard agrees, are matters of substance, not just style. The disagreement comes over what Rachel says next:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

Richard responded:

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

Well, I’m not sure Rachel ever said that liturgy is “better” than low church, that chant is better than Hillsong, or that pews are better than chairs. (Though wine IS better than grape juice.)

I may not be a millennial. (Rachel just qualifies; I missed the cutoff by a good few years.) Nevertheless, I’m one of those Christians she talks about who made the jump from converted-shopping-mall evangelicalism to liturgical, high church Christianity.

And I can assure Richard that it was all about substance. (Which is not to say one is “better” than the other.)

While living in England, my wife and I found ourselves sitting in the pews of a 700-year-old Anglican church. We came for the un-trendiest of reasons: someone invited us. We kept coming back for the un-trendiest of reasons, too: we made friends. We became part of the community.

But we were also captivated by the liturgy, by the high-churchiness of it all — for reasons that were not merely about style.

A high view of the Eucharist
A few years earlier, while on a short visit to the UK, a friend showed us one of the historic churches in his hometown of Shrewsbury. As we stood in the round sanctuary, looking toward the front, he asked:

“Do you know why the altar’s in the center and the pulpit’s off to the side?”

Um, no.

“Because for Anglicans, the Eucharist is the center of corporate worship, not the sermon.”

Not that long ago, his words would’ve made my evangelical ears bleed. The sermon’s the main event, not the Eucha — ahem, communion.

After the Reformation, after the Enlightenment, churches increasingly became places to receive information. Very good information, in some cases. Eventually, communion became something evangelical churches did once a year or once a quarter when they wanted to drag out the service a bit longer. (At least that’s what I assumed when I was a kid.)

But communion is the one thing Jesus actually told his followers to do whenever they gathered together. Regardless of how you understand the Eucharist — transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, symbol only, some/any/none/all of the above — this ancient ritual connects us to the death of our Messiah. It’s participatory, not passive. Christians have been taking, eating, and remembering for close to two thousand years now. The Eucharist is the beating heart of Christian worship. It brings transformation in a way that even the best sermon can’t. It speaks to the whole person, not just the mind.

Rediscovering a high view of the Eucharist — and restoring it to its rightful place in Christian worship — is one substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

An unbroken chain
Two years ago, a bishop placed his hands on Amanda and me, confirming our membership in the Episcopal Church. Many years before that, someone placed their hands on the bishop, confirming his ministry to the church. Some time before that, someone else laid hands on that person, and so on… going all the way back to the apostles.

Anglicans have never been as clear or precise as Catholics on what we mean by apostolic succession. As with a great many things, there’s a diversity of thought within our tradition. But there’s also a shared belief that we belong to an unbroken chain connecting us — by design, not by accident — to the very first followers of Jesus.

This realization encourages a sense of rootedness, even as we innovate and discover new ways of living our faith in the world today. This Christianity thing didn’t start with us. Our congregations are not autonomous mini-empires (as some independent evangelical churches at times seem to be). We belong to a much bigger organism, transcending geography and time.

Seeing our place in an unbroken chain of Christ followers is another substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

A reminder of my smallness
The path up to the main entrance of our church in England cut through a graveyard where past worshippers were laid to rest. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was buried there. Some of the gravestones were so old you couldn’t read them anymore.

Every Sunday walking to church, you were reminded of your mortality, of your smallness.

Inside that 700-year-old structure — which wasn’t even the original church building — we sang thousand-year-old songs (and some newer ones too). We recited prayers that had been uttered on that spot for hundreds of years. We recalibrated ourselves to a centuries-old rhythm.

In the evangelical subculture, it’s easy to become enamored by the Next Big Thing. Celebrity pastors. Multisite churches. Church online. Liturgy can offer a helpful corrective because of its inherent un-hipness. Because it wasn’t invented yesterday. Because it’s been developed over centuries by a community of people, not by an individual with a “platform.”

It reminds me I am not all that. I am not the alpha and omega. Church didn’t just start getting good when I showed up.

Being reminded every Sunday of my smallness is another substantial reason I am captivated by (and need) good liturgy.

—//—

None of this should be taken as a rejection of the church tradition represented by people like Richard Dahlstrom. I have friends who go to his church. It’s an incredible community, a welcome outpost of faith in a city that desperately needs better ambassadors for Christianity.

Nor is this a rejection of converted-shopping mall evangelicalism, at least not in its entirety. I kind of like the fact that communities of Christ are reclaiming these former temples to consumerism and giving them a new purpose. The last nondenominational church to which my wife and I belonged met in a converted shopping mall, and our time there probably saved my faith.

Neither is it to suggest that liturgical traditions like mine have it all figured out. Hardly. We can become too insular, too rigid at times. We may not always allow enough room for the Spirit to move and do something fresh in our midst.

But for those of us who have found value and meaning in the liturgical traditions of the so-called “high church,” it’s not about style. It’s very much about substance.