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Wednesday Chapel with the Methodists

June 2, 2010

Our friend and colleague Mark Harrison invited me to speak at the Methodists’s weekly Wednesday Devotions on June 2nd.  The United Methodist Church had celebrated Peace and Justice Sunday on May 30th.  He asked me to say something that fit that theme.  Their weekly devotions are at 12:10 pm on Wednesday in the Simpson Memorial Chapel of the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill.  All are welcome.

The Methodists Building has been called “the House that Temperance built.”  Today the Methodists are known for their faith-based action on a wide range social concerns.  We at FCNL work with them on immigration, nuclear disarmament, ending the Iraq war, Israeli-Palestinian peace, and several other concerns.

After a lovely prelude played by Stephanie Hixon, Mark gave the call to worship.  Then scripture was read, Matthew 26: 47-56.  We sang from the United Methodist Hymnal, #440, “Let There Be Light.”   Then I, now a convinced Friend, spoke:

I grew up in Ohio Methodist Churches. Westwood Methodist in Cincinnati until sixth grade, and then Blanchester Methodist. That was a long time ago.

Mrs. Wandrack, my first grade Sunday school teacher taught me a lesson that I never forgot: Jesus loves me. She introduced me to the stories about Jesus. I was one of those little ones Jesus told the adults to let through to him. She did.

Westwood’s children’s choir was a magnet to me. I would ride my bike from elementary school in Cheviot through the city streets — by myself, of course — to join the other kids for choir practice on Wednesday afternoons. (That was the innocent 1950s; today that would be considered child endangerment.)  Sundays, after Sunday school, we kids put on our robes and led the procession into the sanctuary. Walking down the aisle, I was half the height of the people in the pews. The sound surrounded me. I didn’t feel dwarfed but a part of something bigger than me.

We moved to Blanchester. The Methodist Youth Fellowship occupied a lot of my time. I especially looked forward to Sunday afternoon Bible-study discussions with our pastor, Rev. Ballard. He was a World War II Navy veteran.  It was about 1959. I didn’t know my turn was coming: Vietnam.

We read the Gesthsemane story at one of those afternoons in the parsonage parlor. The story that is our scripture reading today (Matthew 26:47-56). Rev. Ballard focused our discussion on God’s plan. Jesus was supposed to be taken so that we could be saved by his sacrifice. As a first year high school student, my mind drifted from the discussion back to the text: “Put your swords back in their place. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” What about that part of the story?

Finally, I asked my question. If Jesus told his disciples to put away their swords and if Jesus warned us that we’ll die by the sword if we take up the sword, isn’t the scripture telling us the same? Does that mean we shouldn’t fight?

My pastor, a veteran, listened to me nodding his head. “You could read the scripture that way,” he responded, “but, if you do, you’ll get into a whole lot of trouble.” Then he turned the discussion back to God’s plan for our salvation. My mind didn’t turn in that direction, though.

Only nine years later, my mechanized cavalry outfit was ordered to Vietnam in a military initiative called Project Red Diamond. When I refused to go with them, two scriptures centered and settled me.  The first was that Gesthemane story about putting away our swords. Getting into trouble seemed to me the least I could do to heal the relationship between my country and Vietnam. I would do what I could to make peace possible through peaceful means.

The other scripture was Jesus’ answer in Matthew 25 to the question, “When did we feed thee, Lord?” He said, as you know, “Inasmuch, as you have done it unto the least of these my friends, you have done it unto me.” In my world, the Vietnamese were among “the least of these.”

Trying what love can do to mend a broken world seemed to me a major theme in the Good News of the Gospels. Individual responsibility needed to be exercised — and the consequences accepted — to fulfill the promise of the Gospel.

Making the choice back then in 1968 looked like a bad decision. I was going to lose the life my family and community expected for me. True, I did lose my life as planned.  But the promise was true, too. I gained a new life and a new world: that now-but-not-yet world that we’re called to. — JV

My talk ended.  We sang from the hymnal again, #428, “For the Healing of the Nations.”  Rev. Clayton Childers, Director of the Annual Conference (Methodist), offered the benediction. We all shook hands and returned to the day’s work.

One Comment
  1. Mares Hirchert permalink
    June 2, 2010 9:27 pm

    I read Tim O’Brien’s Book, The Things They Carried, short stories about the Vietnam War. He came and spoke at Hartland, MI’s Cromaine Library’s Big Read, May 18, 2010. 40 years later, he is still talking to himself , holding two opposite views in his head. He said his mom wanted him to go and his dad didn’t. He felt he lacked the moral courage to make the decision not to go. He is still not sure about his decision.

    I happened to listen to Chris Hedges, former war correspondent for the NY Times, give a speech in Sept of 2008 in which he said his father, a Presbyterian, told him that if the Vietnam war was still going on when Chris grew up that he would go to jail with him if Chris chose not to go. His dad had been let go at many churches when he stood up for Martin Luther King. Chris lost his job with the NYTimes when he spoke up at a commencement speech in 2004 in Ill against Pres. Bush’s Iraq war. When the NYTimes said he couldn’t do that again and keep his job, he left and thanked his dad for he realized that his dad had given him the gift of freedom.

    I’m glad you were able to make your decision and be a part of the new world awaiting.

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