On National Symbols in Military Chapels

Centurion in Stained Glass, Soldier Memorial Chapel, Fort Leavenworth, KS
Centurion in Stained Glass, Soldier Memorial Chapel, Fort Leavenworth, KS

Have you taken the time to look at the stained glass windows here in the chapel? It’s a great thing to do when the sermon is boring or your mind wanders. Each window is divided top and bottom. On the top are scenes and characters from the Bible, Old Testament on the east and New Testament on the west. Each set of windows is arranged more-or-less in chronological order from the back of the chapel to the front. Do you recognize Peter with the keys, or Paul with the sword of his own execution in his hand? These are stock symbols of stained glass.

The bottom half of each window is a scene or symbol from Army life. Someone must have thought that there was a connection there. Sometimes the connection is obvious, as in the scene of Army medical personnel beneath the picture of Jesus healing. Sometimes the connection is not so clear. The window with Solomon and the Panama Canal? Solomon built the temple; Army engineers built the Panama canal.

You should know that you won’t see windows like this in any newly constructed military chapel. We don’t do windows like this anymore, partly because of the expense, and partly so that people of all faiths can use the chapel. That’s OK. The image of God sitting in the pews is more important than the image on the wall. The story of salvation revealed in the words of scripture is more important than the story displayed in stained glass.

We are surrounded by national and military symbols in our place of worship. We don’t need these things to worship God, but since we’ve got them, I want us to spend some time thinking about them. We display the national flag at the front of the chapel and we pray for our country each week as we sing “Our fathers’ God to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing, long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light, protect us by thy might, great God our king.”

Across post, Memorial Chapel is also a place of national and military symbols. If you’ve never been to Memorial Chapel, you should see it. Prisoners from the disciplinary barracks built the chapel in the 1870s. It overlooks the Missouri River and sits beside the wagon ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. The first thing that you notice when you enter is that it’s beautiful in its simplicity and scale. The second thing you notice is that the chapel is even more decorated with soldier stuff than Main Post Chapel. There are shiny brass cannon embedded in the walls as a salute to the fallen. The rear and sides of the chapel are lined with memorials to soldiers associated with Fort Leavenworth who died in the line of duty. The history of our Army and the history of our nation are written in the names of the dead.

While many tourists might find Memorial Chapel simply interesting and quaint, for us its more than that. I recently found two visiting officers from back east trying to find their way into Memorial to see the monuments inside. I stopped my car, opened the chapel and then spent some time visiting with them. It turned out that one of those memorialized in stone came from the same home town of one of the visitors. Members of his family knew members of the long-dead soldier’s family, and that’s why he wanted to see the chapel interior. Those of us in uniform feel a real connection with those who came before. That’s why national cemeteries and war memorials are more than just patriotic monuments. We have a deep bond with the men and women named thereon. Our life-story touches their life-stories.

Double Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Custer’s name is engraved in Memorial Chapel with others from the Seventh Cavalry. He’s buried in the Fort Leavenworth cemetery just a few hundred yards from Main Post Chapel. VIP visitors to Fort Leavenworth stay in a house named for him. When I see Captain Custer’s various memorials, I think not only of him, the Civil War, the western frontier and the Little Big Horn, but of other Seventh Cavalry soldiers with whom I’ve served and fought in more recent combat. His story and my story are connected.

I know some Christians who would think that this military and national symbolism has no place in the setting of Christian worship. Looking at our stained glass windows, they would especially object, I think, to the presidential seal beneath the window of King David and the Panama Canal image beneath King Solomon’s window. No president is the anointed one of God in the sense that David was, and the American global presence isn’t analogous to the dominion of Israel in the age of kings. The ancient kingdom of Israel inhabited a unique place in God’s work of salvation.

So what, then, are we to make of these symbols that surround us in chapel?

Let me start by acknowledging what I think the objectors get right. These are a couple of things that things we should always remember.

First, there is no god but God. The first commandment is this: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3 ESV). With Jews and Christians of all ages, we confess, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” (Deuteronomy 6:4 NAB).

Our heroes in the faith remind us that only God is god. Only God deserves our worship, and that this devotion sometimes carries a price.

In the book of Daniel, Shadrach and his friends were Jewish captives who served in the Nebuchadnezzar’s administration. They willingly and ably served the state, but they wouldn’t bow down before the statue of the king. (Daniel 3). “We’ll serve you, but we won’t bow down to you.” As a result, they were thrown into the fiery furnace.

In the New Testament period, Christians were asked to offer a pinch of incense to Rome as to a god. Rome would tolerate the Christians and their crazy ideas if only they would show their loyalty by offering a pinch of incense. That’s not too much to ask, is it? The Christians said, “No. We’ll be good citizens, but we won’t worship the emperor or the state. Only God is god.” As a result, some were cruelly executed for their faith.

Love of country is a good thing, but there is no god but God. Christians must jealously guard the single focus of their faith: God alone.

Second, the church of Jesus Christ consists of people from all nations. Paul says, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:11 HCSB). Christians have a bond with each other that transcends national boundaries. Every Sunday we confess that we believe in “the holy universal church” (or the “holy Catholic church” if you learned the Apostles’ Creed in more traditional words). Political structures and military forces are useful and necessary in this world, but our national identity should never overshadow our Christian identity.

There is no god but God and people from every nation belong to the Church of Jesus Christ. Those things being said, there is still a reason that we are surrounded here by all these national symbols. That reason has to do with who we are as a worshiping community, and may not apply to civilian congregations.

We are a community of Christian disciples living out our faith in the context of U.S. military service.

That’s who we are. That’s what makes our congregation different than the other congregations downtown.

The symbols that surround us are a visual, artistic attempt to connect our faith with our daily lives. We can either build a wall of separation between our faith and daily life – the profession of arms in the service of the nation – or we can try to see how they connect with each other.

Carved into the cathedrals of Europe, you will find scenes of the craftsman’s daily life right beside scenes of scenes from the Bible and depictions of heaven and hell. The artists and craftsmen who poured their lives into building these magnificent structures wanted to place their own lives and labors in the context of the divine mystery. So it is with us. How can Christians not see their secular vocations in the light of their faith?

Anglican bishop and scholar N.T Wright says that in Jesus, heaven and earth overlap. Christians claim for Jesus, says Wright, what the ancient Israelites claimed for the temple in Jerusalem. What Israel experienced in architecture and ritual now takes place in the person of Jesus Christ. Still, a basic human impulse continues to drive us to express the story of our our faith and and the story of our lives in stone and glass, in symbol and song.

Our faith and our daily lives belong together. For those of us connected with military service, that’s the world in which we serve the Lord. We are a community of Christian disciples living out our faith in the context of U.S. military service. We bow only before our Lord and extend our hand to all our brothers and sisters in the faith, but these symbols express who we are. Serving and defending this nation is in our blood.

Looking at it another way, Jesus said that we owe a higher allegiance to God than to our parents, children, spouses or siblings, but that doesn’t keep us from putting family pictures on the wall. The families to which we belong are a gift from God. Not every member of the family may be a Christian, but God gave us every family member to love in his name. I don’t think it surprises people that we can express our love for family members and still love God more. I’m not sure why it surprises people that Christians can express a similar love for their homeland. In a sense, these images and symbols are like family pictures, reminding us to love and pray for the people of the national home that God has given us.

The presence of these national symbols in this place represents the connection between God’s story of salvation and the story of our lives. It’s a connection that sometimes requires a good bit of effort to work out. While I love this Army life, there are days that it’s hard to catch a glimpse of heaven.

When you look at these windows during periods of boredom, what you are looking at is one artist’s attempt to connect faith and life. You might ask yourself, “How am I connecting the grace of God with how I actually live? How am I allowing the grace of God to transform my outlook and behavior? How am I allowing God to use the circumstances of my life?” The connection portrayed here in glass and stone means is not the one that really matters. The connection that really matters is the one that takes place in your heart and mind and will. I pray that God will guide each one of us as we work out what God’s grace means for us in the particular circumstances of our lives in this place. Amen.