INDEPENDENCE DAY 2014

July 4, 1776 – Declaration of Independence: When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. … We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

September 17, 1787 – Constitution: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

November 19, 1863 – Gettysburg Address: It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—…—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Deuteronomy: You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.

Hebrews: All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Matthew: Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

There is an odd reading of American history (and current life) today that we are NOT a “light to the nations”; that we are not a melting pot bringing new hope and new life to a divided world; that we are not “last best hope for humanity”; that our founders were not “Christians.”

We can look at our history and find lots of flaws and feel bad about ourselves and deny the good that is there. We can look at our history and see only good and deny the flaws. Or we can look at our history and see balance – God’s hand at work in our broken and sinful world.

The unpopularity of the last choice comes from misguided understanding of who we are as the redeemed people of God. Henry Kissinger once called this view “narcissistic masochism”; a condition in which we engage in an overestimation of our own appearance and abilities and an excessive need for admiration (narcissism) and at the same time enjoy the misery of our failures, especially in order to be pitied by others or admired for our forbearance (masochism).

We are a nation in need of repentance: to turn from our own pride and back to God. The same thing can be said about our faith communities (at all levels); the same thing can be said about our individual selves and our families.

As we celebrate 238 years of American independence from Great Britain, let us recommit ourselves to the principles on which this nation was founded. Let us also recommit ourselves to the families we have pledged to love for all of our lives, to the faith community that has nurtured us as the people of God, and to the God who has given us life, love, and freedom

 

Condemnation without Investigation is never a good idea. And yet, it seems to be the norm in American political and social interaction in recent years. The “scandal du jour” is focused on the Department of Veterans Affairs. A couple of years ago, it was directed at the Cemetery system; the Veterans Benefits Administration is always under the gun of criticism; and now the Veterans Health Administration is being condemned for what may or may not be a wide-spread problem. I would urge everyone concerned about veterans to seek the truth, and to speak that truth in love.

There is considerable room for improvement in the DVA – but little can be done when senior leaders are hamstrung with investigative spotlights and are required to pass every jot and tittle of their responses through the scrutiny of Public Affairs and the Legal Department. Consequently, as much as the President would like to let investigations turn up the facts before he takes action, he may very well find it expeditious to take a “ready, fire, aim” approach much as members of the Congress and of the Fourth Estate have done.

As a young clergyman I was admonished to “praise in public, chastise in private.” Let us adopt that posture in the midst of all the controversies that have and will arise as the USA moves toward our next national election in 2016. All veterans, including retired and former chaplains, can do much to support our actively serving chaplains by reminding our friends that we have good people doing good work under very difficult circumstances – but good news doesn’t sell and honorable people are often sacrificed.

Military Leadership

Every time I address a civic organization, a church, or a chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, I find myself talking about the reasons we need to welcome veterans into our lives and our work. I recently read a speech by Admiral William McRaven which spoke eloquently to the points I try to make – points we would all do well to remember. I borrow from his speech and add my own commentary …

The oath members of the armed forces of the USA is clear: to support and defend the Constitution, not the institution—but the nation. In living that oath, they learn the elusive skill, Leadership. In the Church, give me men who take their Baptismal oaths seriously and have learned to lead other men to Christ.

Leadership is hard. Leadership sounds easy in the books, but it is quite difficult in real life. It is difficult because it is a human interaction and nothing, nothing is more daunting, more frustrating more complex than trying to lead men and women in tough times. Those who do it well earn your respect, because doing it poorly is common place. Military veterans do it well. In the tough times the Episcopal Church has faced in the last several decades I sought for men and women with that kind of commitment to work with me to lead the parishes I served.

Leadership in the military is not about coddling warriors. It is about challenging them, about establishing a standard of excellence and holding them accountable for reaching it. Holding people accountable is not always pleasant, but there is no higher standard than that of Christ. Veterans understand the how and the why of striving for excellence. They won’t coddle you, but they will help you strive for excellence.

When soldiers are in combat, they move to where the action is the hottest. Being a warrior is miserable, exhausting and dangerous. Military leaders find the toughest, most dangerous, job in the unit and go do it. Veterans can be our best leaders in tackling and resolving the tough issues facing the Church today.

Military leaders don’t get a lot of thanks. They don’t expect it. They expect to learn, to rely on each other, and to bring everyone through the battle alive. They don’t get wrapped around the axles of politics, polity, or social change – they accept the “team” they are given and keep their eye on the upward call of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Great leaders know how to fail. In the course of a military career leaders fail and fail often. Nothing so steels you for battle like failure. No one gets it right every time. But the great ones know that when they fail, they must pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on. Give me a great leader any day, especially in a parish that is struggling with failure. If you can’t stomach failure, then you will never be a great leader. Military leaders are risk takers, but the greatest risk is not on the battlefield, but in standing up for what’s right.

Leadership is perhaps the most valuable asset any parish can have, and the veterans among us can provide it.

The Burden of a Peace Dividend

The USA has had men and women deployed in harm’s way for much of our history, but most recently since the attack on America in September 2001. With our involvement in Iraq basically over and our presence in Afghanistan nearing final withdrawal, our political leaders are promising a smaller military force, fewer deployments, and reduced cost to the American taxpayer. In 2014, there will be a significant reduction in force on both the uniformed and the civilian side of the Department of Defense.

Here are some probabilities our young warriors will face. Many of our people (veterans and civilians) will be out of work at a time of very restricted job markets. Military members who retire below age 62 will have their pensions reduced because of the Bipartisan Budget Act, limiting their options further as they seek to transition into the civilian world. Some of our forces who had planned to make the military a career but will not have enough time in service to retire will find the change in their futures to be bewildering, perplexing, and aggravating. Families may face interpersonal stress, constricted budgets, unwanted moves, even homelessness. Military members and civilian employees of the Department will receive no dividend from the end of active hostilities – they will instead have additional burdens placed on them.

So what does that mean for the faith communities, civic organizations, veteran service clubs, employers? In the coming few years, we the protected will have increased opportunity to welcome veterans and to assist them in adjusting to civilian life, changed circumstances, and social and spiritual disorientation. Many will be returning to what we experience as “normative life” for the first time since they first donned the uniform of this Nation. When they do, they will bring substantial skills, virtues, and insights that the every organization needs. We all need to have an active outreach to these men to invite them into fellowship and leadership in the community. We need to get to know them, their joys and their sorrows, their hopes and disappointments, and to share the love of God with them. We can connect them with employers, counselors, Veteran Service Officers, and others in our communities who can ease their transitions.

Contact the local chapter of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans or other organizations and get to know the VSOs affiliated with each chapter. They can help you help your veterans navigate the processes of the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical care and disability ratings. Contact the nearest VetCenter or VA Regional Hospital and get to know the chaplains and/or psychological counselors who stand ready to help the veterans understand and resolve the seen and unseen wounds of war.

Welcome them home … bring them all the way back.

Telling the Story

When I was a boy growing up in south Georgia, there was a hymn I loved to sing. The second verse was:

I love to tell the story; more wonderful it seems than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams. I love to tell the story, it did so much for me; and that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.

Of course, the hymn was about Christian faith; but “telling the story” as a concept has nearly universal impact. For instance, we veterans find it nearly impossible to refrain from telling stories of our military experience whenever we get together. Combat stories are even more compelling. While we may bore people to death when we begin to repeat ourselves, there is something deeply spiritual about story, something that brings us to hidden resources of virtue, strength, and, yes, faith.

When combat troops come home from war, we have been profoundly changed.  Some of that change is not so good; but some of it can actually lend us a greater understanding of who we are, what society is about and what God’s work in the world is about.  Our wartime experience can bring a wealth of understanding as I discovered in my journey from the prisons of Hanoi to full freedom nearly three decades later.

Most of us come home, leave the service, return to our families and careers and make good livings and good contributions to society.  Even so, the intense experience of warfare leaves us with important work to do if we are to fully utilize the positive aspects of those days in subsequent careers.  Bringing the troops “all the way home” is not just the responsibility of the government.  Older veterans have a role to play in the full and complete return of those who come after us.  As we share the experience, strength and hope of our post-military careers, other veterans may be able to gain insight into their own stories and find new ways of panning the value from the silt of their troubling times.  All of us – employers and family members, churches and synagogues, physicians and veterans themselves – have a vested interest in converting combat liabilities into assets for societal leadership. We do that best by truly listening to the stories of these young veterans, not just to the words, but to the joys, tragedies, hope, strength, virtues, and moments of divine encounter.

On Independence Day, we celebrate our life as fellow citizens in these great United States.  As we celebrate this most important of American holidays, let us remember our history and our forebears who built this nation over the last 237 years; and let us rejoice in the accomplishments of our own generations and the promise of the generations now coming of age.

Most of us were born here; and most of us have ancestors who came here from another continent and another nation. All of us benefit from the freedom to live in this great nation and from the industry built by private citizens with imagination, drive, and commitment.

This was founded to pro­vide a land of freedom, abundant life, and peaceful communion with each other and with Almighty God. The flag is truly representative of this whole nation – it is the symbol that carries the reality of every man, woman, and child along with the few who are sworn to defend us all.

On Independence Day, let us all fly the flag of the USA on our homes; let us invite our neighbors and friends into our homes to toast the past, present, and future of our nation; and let us remember the men and women of our armed forces who stood in the breach to secure our freedom. Few of us know all the verses of the National Anthem. The fourth verse reads thus:

 Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

May God bless you on Independence Day, throughout this summer, and in your own pursuit of happiness. And may God bless America!

It May Happen

May may be my favorite month – well, apart from December and the month that contains Easter.  Among the various events marked in May is our wedding anniversary.  Robbie and I were “married in a fever” on May 25, 1972 with the full expectation that I would leave for Guam within twenty-four hours.  Because my departure was delayed by about six weeks, we did have a very brief honeymoon and were able to spend a few delightful days as husband and wife.  The memory of those early days of marriage continues to refresh us after forty-one years.  We spent nine months of that first year separated by war, and every day since united by the love of Christ. When I returned from Vietnam, we were privileged to celebrate the eve of our first wedding anniversary at a gala dinner at the White House (with 1800 other people, including Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, and others).

May also marks our daughter Mary’s ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church and the birth of her second son seven years later.  Mothers’ Day is the second Sunday of the month, and all the mothers I have known are brought to mind with gratitude.  Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday as this nation pauses to remember those who have given their lives to keep us and the world safe from tyranny.  And many of my extended family members celebrate special days in their own lives, days of joy we are able to share with them.

This year, May also contains Ascension Day when the Lord gave us the Great Commission. And ten days later, we celebrate Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the energizing for mission of the earliest disciples on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Our Lord.  The story recounted in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles tells of the Holy Spirit descending upon them “like tongues of flame” and causing the Gospel to burn in their hearts and on their tongues.  It tells of the sudden ability of the Apostles to speak in all the known languages of the people gathered there that day, a gift which enabled them to proclaim the good news of Christ around the Mediterranean and beyond in the languages of the lands and in ways in which the Gospel could be heard and received.

May it happen this May that Christian people, gathered within the walls of God’s house, be blessed with the kind of burning Spirit that we will find it impossible to be mute when we leave the seclusion of the nave and enter into the cacophony of the world.  It may happen that the Holy Spirit will give us the ability to speak in the language of the people around us, to speak words that can be understood, to speak the truth of God’s love for the world as made known to us through the resurrection of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

It may happen that we will find it impossible not to issue an invitation to join us in worship and fellowship to someone of our acquaintance each week.  It may happen that the Lord will bring more and more people into his family as they accept our invitations to join us. May it happen that you will go into the world to made disciples of Jesus Christ Our Lord.

A season of freedom

April and May are months of freedom … Jews are in the days after the Passover and freedom from slavery.  Christians are in the season of Easter and freedom from sin and death.  Vietnam POWs were all home from Hanoi in April 1973 and experiencing freedom for the first time in many years.  And all of us are approaching Memorial Day and remembering those of our nation who gave their lives for the freedom of this country, our allies, and the world.

As much as we yearn, even pray, for peace in the world, the cold reality is that the forces of evil and darkness are always at work to steal it away.  Veterans know the importance of this troubling truth better than those who have never worn the uniform.  As members of the MOAA, we have the responsibility and the privilege of telling our stories, of supporting and welcoming new veterans of recent conflicts, and of mentoring young people in ROTC.  The constant flow of warrior patriots of the USA has and will serve as the safety fence around our beloved home.

As we remember and celebrate these days of freedom, let us hold those who have gone before in our prayers:

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.  Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.  This we ask in Your Most Holy Name. Amen.

Easter Day

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Colossians 3:1-4

As Jesus goes to the cross, He takes all of our anger, all of our sin, all of our wickedness, all of grudges, all of our mocking and denial and betrayal, and He turns it into nothing.  In the next thirty-six hours, he destroys it all. He breaks it in half; He makes it useless and garbage.

On Easter Day, He is risen, on Easter Day our Lord has broken the bonds of death. On Easter Day, He has bridged the gulf between all of us and the Father. On Easter Day, the true son of the true Father takes our worst and returns to us His best. Just imagine how much more he would give us if we gave our best, how much more He would give us if we gave Him our all. On this Easter Day, give Jesus what you have, give Jesus what you are – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the indifferent. Give Him your joys and your pains, your disappointments and your relief. If you are ashamed of it, give it to Jesus. If you are proud of it, give it to Jesus.

Because you have read the story, you know the outcome. Whatever any of the characters in this story said or thought, it was returned to them in a different form, it was returned to them in the form of forgiveness, reconciliation and new life. Believe the story. Trust the outcome. On this Easter Day, receive what Jesus has for you. Receive forgiveness, receive His reconciliation, and receive new life, the gifts of God for the people of God. On this Easter Day, share those gifts, share them with those around you; and as freely you have received so freely give. The Lord is Risen. He is risen indeed.

Easter Day

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Colossians 3:1-4

As Jesus goes to the cross, He takes all of our anger, all of our sin, all of our wickedness, all of grudges, all of our mocking and denial and betrayal, and He turns it into nothing.  In the next thirty-six hours, he destroys it all. He breaks it in half; He makes it useless and garbage.

On Easter Day, He is risen, on Easter Day our Lord has broken the bonds of death. On Easter Day, He has bridged the gulf between all of us and the Father. On Easter Day, the true son of the true Father takes our worst and returns to us His best. Just imagine how much more he would give us if we gave our best, how much more He would give us if we gave Him our all. On this Easter Day, give Jesus what you have, give Jesus what you are – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the indifferent. Give Him your joys and your pains, your disappointments and your relief. If you are ashamed of it, give it to Jesus. If you are proud of it, give it to Jesus.

Because you have read the story, you know the outcome. Whatever any of the characters in this story said or thought, it was returned to them in a different form, it was returned to them in the form of forgiveness, reconciliation and new life. Believe the story. Trust the outcome. On this Easter Day, receive what Jesus has for you. Receive forgiveness, receive His reconciliation, and receive new life, the gifts of God for the people of God. On this Easter Day, share those gifts, share them with those around you; and as freely you have received so freely give. The Lord is Risen. He is risen indeed.

The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Certain