A View from the Pew: Flag Waving

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Making the ultimate sacrifice is a central theme if not THE central theme of the Christian faith. It’s no wonder that the patriotic holiday Memorial Day resonates so deeply with churchgoers.

However, we have to be careful not take our focus off God. Without knowing or intending, we can replace God with a nationalistic zeal even while we are trying to remember those who gave their lives in service to our country. Despite our good intentions, such a misplacement is clear-cut idolatry. As followers of Christ, we have to be vigilant to protect ourselves from this temptation.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of who or what we worship is what we do with the American flag in our worship space. I’ve written before in this blog about how what we see during worship can affect us, and that applies even more acutely when it comes to a symbol as powerful and beloved as the Stars and Stripes.

Memorial Day is about more than the official start of summer when people cook out, get in the pool, or head on vacation. It may coincide on the calendar with those activities, but it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on the real sacrifices the members of our armed services have made in protecting our freedoms, including our freedom to peaceably assembly and worship as we choose.

I think it can be appropriate to recognize those who paid the price for our freedoms with their lives as a part of worship. Gratitude and appreciation are qualities that should be a part of every worship experience. Memorial Day is important because of what it represents and should be treated carefully and with meaning.

Some of the best ways I’ve seen it handled were having the American flag at the entrance of the church, reminding worshippers that in this country we are free to enter the sanctuary because of the sacrifices of many; reciting a list of church members who have died in defense of our country; or offering a prayer of thanksgiving and remembrance for all church members who have died in the past year. It can be a moving service of remembrance that helps the grieving as well as the church body, all of whom need to be reminded to be grateful.

I’ve also seen Memorial Day go astray in church settings. Processions of the American flag with grandiose presentations of patriotic music, overwrought and out-of-place musical performances that reflect a love of country with no mention of God, or even the inclusion of a color guard with a 21-gun salute are all examples of otherwise fine observances that just don’t belong in the church.

As a rank-and-file layperson, I want and need to be reminded of sacrifice on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I also want and need to be reminded of the greatest sacrifice made on my behalf, a sacrifice that supersedes all others. Love of country is important, but not more important than love of God.

Memorial Day is approaching and Independence Day after that. Both are potential traps for churches in the worship planning. Regardless of how your church handles the observance or the placement of flags in its worship space, make it a point of personal spiritual discipline to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice as an expression of love. It is God’s nature, and giving one’s life for another is—as John 15:13 reminds us—an expression of “no greater love.”

And to all who have lost loved ones in service to our country, we remember their and your sacrifice and honor the memory of your loss.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson who does media relations for the Georgia Institute of Technology. He previously served as Director of Communications with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Lance blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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