This morning brought the sad news of the death of a man named Louis Zamperini. He was a former Olympian/champion runner and a decorated veteran of WWII, as well as a survivor of the POW camps in Japan. He was a man of faith, of hope and of a notable strength of character that was born not out of advantage, but from the growth that comes from overcoming suffering while embracing the reconciling love of God. That's a summation...a better and more articulate account can be found below, in a book written by a friend of mine from college, Laura Hillenbrand, who has overcome her own personal struggles, becoming a writer whose particular gift is to tell the stories of men like Louis....
Louis' story is one that could have ended as did so many other returning veterans. He was a victim of severe post traumatic stress. He turned to alcohol in order to self-medicate. He began to poison himself in order to deaden the dance of pain and horror left behind after the war that would reenact in his heart, mind and soul on a daily, if not hourly basis. Something had to give.
According to his story, it was his discovery of the grace of God after experiencing a conversion experience during a Billy Graham crusade. He found his faith, and in that discovery found renewal of purpose and the healing of his spirit.
Coming to the annual observance of our nation's birth, I am today mindful of the incredible sacrifices offered up by men and women-some of faith and some not-who have made sacrifices in their lives in order that we might enjoy the luxury and blessing of citizenship in this land. I am not saying that our country is better than another. Nor am I making an argument for US supremacy in any way. What I am saying is that I treasure my citizenship in this community, state and Union. Having a peculiar sort of freedom....of speech, belief, practice and person...makes me mindful that people like Louis' sacrifices mean something. It also means that if I am grateful for citizenship in this country, then I am also called to work for its good and for the good of its people. I can't just sit back. I can't just opt out. I can't just pick and choose what freedoms I want to defend for myself or others....or what rules and laws to ignore because they aren't convenient or comfortable. I am a citizen of the United States...and that means something.
But I am also, as was/is Louis, a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That means that though I may express allegiance to a state, my first and greatest allegiance is due my God. The one who creates, redeems and sustains my life and this creation is worthy of that allegiance and loyalty. The call to citizenship in this kingdom is just as provocative as that noted above with regard to the earthly realm I inhabit. According to my baptismal vows, I am called to keep fellowship with the other disciples of our Lord, to persevere in resisting evil and to seek reconciliation when I am broken by sin, to proclaim that kingdom and its master, to seek and serve Jesus in all people and to strive for justice and peace. No small calling.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, spoke of this dual citizenship. In chapter 13 of that letter, he reminds us that while we might hold a particular passport in this life, and thus should give full portion of our loyalty to an earthly governance...we are also called to embrace and understand that our earthly citizenship is only a model of what we owe back to God as citizens in that eternal kingdom.
He tells us that it is time to wake from sleep. It is time to set aside darkness and "put on the armor of light." We are to live with honor.
On this marking of the day our forbears declared independence from one crown in order to found a republic, I am acutely aware that our healing (as was/is Louis') is not on firm ground until we are willing to balance that call to liberty with a submission to the grace that gives us life and breath to pursue it. For ourselves, and more importantly for our neighbors and for those who will follow us in future generations...let's make that celebration of independence count for the gift that it is. Louis and his like have not sacrificed in vain, nor has our Lord Christ given himself for naught, if we are but willing to embrace that call to a mindful, and dual, citizenship in two kingdoms......