An End

My military career ended last week. I completed twenty years (broken into two periods, the first of which started in 1986). Because of the rules for Reserve and Guard members, I will get no pension, because I had some years in which I didn’t get enough “points” to have a “good year”–I thought my family was more important.

Let me say now, as I have said to my family: when I die, this military service is not to intrude into my funeral. I want no flag on my coffin. I want no military ceremonies at the graveside. Certainly no firing of volleys, and no flag, not even the playing of taps. No “Patriot Guard.” These things mean nothing at death. The only thing that matters is my baptism into Jesus Christ. So place a plain white pall upon my coffin. Read scripture and sing hymns. Use the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer or the Lutheran Book of Worship. And commend me to the ground, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” in hope of the resurrection of the dead at the glorious appearing of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

I’ve performed those military ceremonies for others in the past. But I insist that they not be done for me.

I reject nationalism. I believe that those in Christ are bound by ties that transcend all human divisions, that cross all human walls, that shatter all nationalistic claims. As John saw in Revelation 7:9-10,

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

The medals I have received from the Army speak to showing up, to being in the right place at the right time, and a few to a job well done, but on that final day all will be but worthless trinkets. Do not bury me in them. I do not want them seen when I am called by the last trumpet. Bury me in alb and stole–symbols of my baptism and of the yoke of service I have tried to carry as a pastor.

Now, please don’t misunderstand. I don’t plan on going anywhere soon. But you never know. I write this just to close the book on my time in the military. I’ll say more about it later, but for now I want to underscore the fact that it is over. It was a calling I felt I had at the time. But God’s word alone abides.

Back in 1990 I was a chaplain candidate in the US Army Reserve and volunteered for a couple months of “installation ministry practicum” at Fort Bragg during Operation Desert Shield. I was assigned to the 82d Airborne Division, and they insisted I wear their patch and beret for the short time I was there (I never got jump wings). I had an office in Division Memorial Chapel, and my first day there my supervisory chaplain, CH (MAJ) L. M., took me into the chapel and pointed to the stained glass window above the altar and asked if I had ever seen anything so blasphemous in my life. It depicted St. Michael the Archangel descending with raised sword into Sainte-Mère-Église with the paratroopers of the 82d Airborne.

He warned me against the allure of “the call of the wild.” In Jack London’s book of that name, the great dog, Buck, hears the howls of his wild cousins and feels a strange pull.

It filled him with a great unrest and strange desires. It caused him to feel a vague, sweet gladness, and he was aware of wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what. Sometimes he pursued the call into the forest, looking for it as though it were a tangible thing, barking softly or defiantly, as the mood might dictate. He would thrust his nose into the cool wood moss, or into the black soil where long grasses grew, and snort with joy at the fat earth smells; or he would crouch for hours, as if in concealment, behind fungus covered trunks of fallen trees, wide-eyed and wide-eared to all that moved and sounded about him. It might be, lying thus, that he hoped to surprise this call he could not understand. But he did not know why he did these various things. He was impelled to do them, and did not reason about them at all.

That chaplain mentor warned me that chaplains could hear that call, too. The primal call to war, and its glories, and the scent of danger, and heroic deeds. We could be mesmerized by uniforms and medals, rank and position, by career progression. And in the process, we could lose our identity as pastors who are in the military world but not of it. During my time at Fort Bragg and since I’ve seen examples of what he warned me about. And I have heard the call of the wild. But I’ve also remembered his warning.

I am a Christian, who serves a Lord who told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. I am a pastor, called to heal, not to harm. I am a member of a church that transcends all temporal, political, racial and social boundaries.

And that’s what I want remembered when I am laid to my rest. That’s what I want people to think of when they pass my by grave.

Place upon it the words of the hymn:

1 I’m a pilgrim, and I’m a stranger,
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night;
Do not detain me, for I am going
To where the fountains are ever flowing:
I’m a pilgrim, and I’m a stranger,
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night.

2 There the glory is ever shining;
O my longing heart, my longing heart is there:
Here in this country so dark and dreary
I long have wandered, forlorn and weary:
I’m a pilgrim, and I’m a stranger,
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night.

3 Of the city to which I’m going
My Redeemer, my Redeemer is the light;
There is no sorrow, nor any sighing,
Nor any sinning, nor any dying:
Of the city to which I’m going
My Redeemer, my Redeemer is the light.