One of my earliest, and most traumatic, memories is from the time my parents were graduate students in the late 60s. I can't remember the exact moment, as I was barely old enough to know my own name...and so this memory is something like coming across an old photo that has laid in the back of the closet in a shoe box for years. You recognize the people in it, sort of, and it pricks a stirring of emotion...but you view it from a distance. The people in the picture are you, your friends, your family; but at the same time, they aren't. That is the nature of this memory:
I am a little child, and I am with one of my parents. We are on the campus (Michigan State University) and a large yellow school bus goes by filled with big men in dark green/black uniforms. My eyes focus in one the one bit of color-an american flag stitched on to the sleeve of one of the men that is hanging out a window. There are guns in the bus, each man is carrying one. Some of them are pointing them out the windows. I remember being afraid of those men and that bus, but I couldn't have told you why at the time. It just seemed so different, so out of place, from what I had become used to seeing at such an early age as my parents walked me around the campus.
And then, the memory is gone. I am older when I find out that they are National Guardsmen who have been deployed in order to "deal with" some students who were protesting the war in Viet Nam. Combine the fear I felt as a toddler with that knowledge, and you get a result...a snapshot of me on my ninth birthday. My hair is long and I am holding an album of patriotic songs that my grandfather had given me. I am not smiling, and while one hand holds the album (full of music by Kate Smith-"God Bless America" and others like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic), the other is held up in a peace sign. To say that I have in my life a long and deep seated distrust of things military is an understatement.
I kept that struggle going throughout my life. War and the pain, fear, anguish and death that come with it leave me with a mouth full of gall and bile, and a heart heavy with sorrow. It was easy at times to let that feeling project onto the people who were deployed by and who made up the military. Easier to fear and despise than to understand or sympathize, I realize now. But remember, I was seeing those soldiers through the eyes of a toddler who had been frightened by seeing soldiers where none should ever have been.
That feeling persisted until one particular moment...and that story is the heart's core of my post today. In the same way that I came to see soldiers in one light; God gave me the opportunity to see them in another. It happened in this way:
I was spending a summer on a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota during a break in seminary studies. My bishop and the then dean of my seminary made the trip possible, and I was assigned as a pastoral volunteer to a priest who had served the Lakota for several years. He had been adopted by a band that was north of where we were staying, and we were invited to a family wacipi (powwow) for the fourth of July weekend. This wacipi was the final in a series of four gatherings created to honor an adopted cousin of the priest I was working with that summer. The occasion, though "secular" was as much sacred as Christians gathering together to celebrate Communion, Baptism, Confirmation and the Burial of the Dead.
We drove North, and parked near the bower that had been created for the event. In South Dakota, on the high plains, you had to build your own shade. The bower was circular, with a caller's booth at its apex and a gap in the circle on the opposite side to admit people to the center ring. It was in the center that all dancing, speaking and presentations took place. A drum team was ensconced just to the right of the caller's booth and we all took places in folding chairs under the shade of evergreen boughs tied to the lumber frame. It was early morning on the first day, and as people arrived, the drum team warmed up and the caller began to introduce the day's events to the gathered, he issued an invitation I didn't understand, "All of the people who brought flags, please bring them up to the main table for the opening...and any veterans, please come to the caller's booth." I watched as one American flag after another was placed on the table. After a while there were at least twenty flags. At the same time, quite casually, a group of men were gathering at the same time beside the table.
As if on cue, the drummers started to pick out a deep, steady rythm. Someone on the team started to sing what I learned later was an honoring song. The gathered men all stepped into line, saluted the flags on the table and each took one. They walked clockwise in procession around the arbor and as the honoring song wove itself into a rising morning wind, they stepped with each flag to a pole that was a part of the inner circle of the arbor. Each flag was raised and caught the wind. The men then danced together in a circle, always clockwise. Then a shaman stepped forward and offered a prayer of blessing. I can't begin to convey the solemnity of that opening ceremony, it touched me so deeply...and yet I had no real idea what was going on. It wasn't until later that I was able to ask the priest I was with what had happened....
Among the Lakota, it isn't polite to speak of the dead. And yet for the clans and families, the stories of those who have died are important. It is particularly important to honor warriors, those who go out from the people to fight-and often die-to protect the safety of those at home. A simple thought...but here is the transformation that witness wrought in me. When a contemporary Lakota goes out from the people in military service, he walks the warrior's path. When he falls, the military places a flag on his casket. That flag is honor to the fallen warrior. It speaks of his deeds without saying his name or boasting in an unseemly way. That gesture acknowledges the warrior's sacrifice and at the same time returns him to his people. When those flags are brought forward, each one is the manifest honor of a fallen warrior. It is him, and his spirit is now with the people even though he no longer walks with the living. In raising those flags, the entire family is gathered. Both those present in life and those who have gone on to the next are within the circle of the human family.
After I learned that, I walked the bower and looked at the flags. Some were old and frayed. Others were bright, new. Some had only 48 or 49 stars. Others had 50. All of them were creased from being in storage, and yet all of them seemed to possess a quiet dignity. As they caught the wind, I felt, they expressed to us below a sad, patient watchfulness. I realized I was seeing the flag of the United States of America in a new way. No longer a sign of oppression and repression...of political ideologies proved at the cost of human lives...these flags were a gift. They were the returned honor of those who have gone before...they are the honor of the people embodied with the gift of one simple gesture...."This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the [branch of service] as a token of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America."
In Lakota culture, it is impolite to speak of the dead. By the grace of God and the happy accident of military custom, each flag presentation allows the fallen to speak for themselves. I know. I heard their song in the snap of each flag as it caught the wind off the plains that day. I still hear it, and today I sing an honoring song to my brothers and sisters in Christ who have answered the warrior's call in their time...and who have given their own last full measure of devotion for the protection and prosperity of the people.
God bless them. God bless you. Hoka Hey!