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Reflections from Columbia Theological Seminary on Veteran’s/Remembrance Day and Psalm 139

November 11, 2015


On November 11th and 13th, 1994, I first learned about the tradition surrounding what we in the United States call Veteran’s Day (formerly Armistice Day) and what is called Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom. In addition to the observance on November 11th each year (Remembrance Day) there is always an observance on the Sunday closest to November 11th called Remembrance Sunday. At 11 am, there is two minutes of silence either in a church or at a war memorial followed by the tolling of the bell In Croughton village at All Saints Church, the bell tolled 30+ times… one strike for each name on the memorial. On the memorial were listed the names of all the citizens of the village who died in WW1 and WW2. A motto that I remember from the various ceremonies I participated in from 1994-1997 and 2005-2006 was “Honor the Dead, Don’t Forget the Living”.

These ceremonies and what they represented were on my mind today as our Ignatian Spirituality class at Columbia Theological Seminary practiced a bit of Ignatian reflection on Psalm 139. Using a translation that I was not familiar with (International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc.) we read and reflected on the psalm. When I got to the verses that are below, I began to ponder what they were saying to me as we re-read the psalm a second and third time.

“Lord, destroy the wicked, save me from killers. They ploy evil schemes, they blaspheme against you. How I hate those who hate you! How I detest those who defy you! I hate with a deadly hate these enemies of mine.”

There is so much hatred in the world today… and religiously self-righteous wrath is regularly practiced by most faiths. On Social Media it is a farcical campaign to “hate” Starbucks or anybody who says “Happy Holidays”  because of some silly idea that this company or individuals are somehow “persecuting” Christians (really?). On the flip side it is the very real persecution/execution of Christians, Jews, or Muslims (add a faith group, any group… somewhere in the world they are literally being killed for their faith) all in the name of God by another religious group (can you say the Crusades, Israel/Palestine, or ISIL?).

My problem this morning was the word hate! The psalmist is somehow judging another person, created in the image of God (read Genesis 1:27), and deeming that they deserve to die. I began to ponder the various cemeteries (like the one above in Cambridge, England) that I have visited at home and overseas. Gettysburg (where the dead of both sides of the Civil War are buried), Appomattox Courthouse (where the dead of both sides are buried in a cemetery where the surrender was signed), Cambridge, Arlington, and even cemeteries in Germany. The dead who are buried in those places were all veterans of conflict who died because somewhere along the line, “man’s inhumanity towards man” boiled over and shots were fired.

In the Civil War especially, it was quite literally brother killing brother; and sisters were often caught in the crossfire as well. I have listened to armchair warriors as well as fellow uniformed veterans talk about “the enemy” in terms that made them somehow sub-human. I am ashamed to say that I often fell into that trap myself while serving even though I knew it was wrong.

The Psalmist has seemingly fallen into that trap as well. Those wicked enemy! Save me from those evil killers! Obliterate them from the face of the earth Lord, for I hate them! I was deeply troubled by those verses and I couldn’t let them go… But then I had a breakthrough… “Search my heart, probe me, God! Test and judge my thoughts. Look! do I follow crooked paths? Lead me along your ancient way.” It was almost as if the psalmist, immediately following his “self-righteous rant” was convicted in his own heart.

What, Lord? Am I following crooked paths? Oh wait… you said in your Law that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. You put the bow in the sky as a reminder to yourself that you would never destroy humankind or the earth again as you did in the flood. You decided to live with your created humanity and seek a relationship with us despite our proclivity to want to destroy each other and seek to play god ourselves. Do I follow crooked paths? Yikes! Lord, lead me along your ancient way. The way that says love our neighbors as ourselves. The way that promised to never again destroy all the earth.

That helped me to get beyond the hatred I felt spewed out by the previous verses. Then, knowing the words of one who studied the Psalter and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, I remembered… He said that we should love our enemies… that we should pray for those who persecute us… Jesus, did you struggle with the verses our small group did? Did you see how incongruous it was to spew hate and yet be charged with loving your neighbor?

With that in mind, I asked the Lord to lead me along his ancient path. Love God. Love neighbor. Pray for those who persecute. Love even enemies. With all that in mind, this Veterans/Remembrance Day I am choosing to pray for and to work towards the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. I will pray for and work towards the day when nations will no longer lift up swords against nations, nor study war any more. That is my prayer… that is my promise to the veterans who shared stories in counseling with me over the years as they dealt with their own versions of hell… I will ask the Lord to lead me along the way of peace… the way of love… God’s ancient way…

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