Yesterday at a small town United Methodist church in Illinois the worship service included a video called “Ode to a Soldier,” to honor Memorial Day. Some Christian elites are distressed by this sort of supposed intrusion into worship of “civil religion,” but they overreact. Giving thanks for sacrificial service that benefits all society, whether by soldiers, fire fighters, or nurses, shouldn’t offend. Honoring those who have served at great risk to themselves, and who are God’s special servants in their respective vocations, seems especially worthy. There should be more of it in our often ungrateful and self-satisfied times, especially in the church.
(Whether or not there should be video in worship is another question! And yesterday’s sermon, by a visiting retired Presbyterian minister who boasted he’d once partaken of the Catholic Eucharist by becoming Roman Catholic for the moment, was even more theologically vexing!)
Due to United Methodist General Conference and accompanying events around Portland, Oregon, I’ve been away from home for nearly a month. Travel almost always provides an encouraging riposte to the popular narrative that every aspect of society is corrupt beyond repair.
Despite my denomination’s problems, I always find good United Methodist churches to attend on the road. The Illinois church, despite my quibbles with its late morning contemporary service (including “praise songs” that are to me unsingable!) seemed vital and evangelical, with three worship services, a fairly new and attractive sanctuary, filled with a relatively young congregation.
A church I attended in suburban Portland was pastored by a young Korean, the son of a pastor in South Korea, who seemed enthusiastic and faithful with a small but dedicated congregation where he was newly appointed. The other church I attended, in a small town outside Portland, was pastored by a Tongan, who had volunteered at the General Conference and spoke of a concluding banquet with United Methodism’s South Pacific Island caucus. I appreciated his strongly biblical message, which focused on his recent cordial encounter with Mormon missionaries, with whom he shared an orthodox Christian and Wesleyan perspective. We discussed the Methodism of Tonga’s royal family, and I bragged of having once met Tonga’s then Crown Prince.
In areas of steep United Methodist decline and heterodoxy, as on the West Coast, the orthodox witness of ethnic clergy is particularly noteworthy and inspiring. They remind us that God always preserves a witness.
As to the other aspects of my travels, which include a road trip back home from Portland to Virginia, I have been pleasantly reminded of the beauty and greatness of America more than ever before. And I’m now hopeful that neither of the presidential candidates, when elected, could bring down our country, which is stronger than both of them.
Along the way there have been gleaming cities, charming small towns, incredible landscapes, great service at restaurants and hotels, friendly and apparently happy people everywhere, even the toll collectors on interminable Midwestern toll roads, who are unfailingly good spirited despite jobs that must be testing and waring. God bless them. They are God’s servants too, even in their irritating task. America’s highway system is one of the wonders of civilization, of which I was recently reminded when talking to a builder of roads in the Congo, a land nearly half as big as the continental USA with total paved roads probably less than in a small USA city.
A favorite spot on this trip has been Medora in the North Dakota Badlands, which is reconstructed to appear as it did to young Teddy Roosevelt when he came to ranch for recovery after his young beloved wife’s death. He later would say his experiences here made him as a man. His modest cabin is restored, as part of a large national park preserving the dramatic ruddy scenery, through which I enjoyed a five mile hike in glorious weather. Afterwards I had dinner at the Rough Riders Hotel, where the waitress was a very nice young South African woman, a seasonal employee who seemed a little perplexed about living in remote, rural North Dakota, very different from Johannesburg. Her Asian colleague, another seasonal waitress, smilingly refilled my water glass every five minutes.
After dinner I walked by the small Congrregationalist church, rebuilt in the 1940s after a fire, to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built in the 1880s. I took several selfies of myself in front of the handsome brick sanctuary, framed against the craggy cliffs behind it. Some local friendlies stopped their car to ask if they could help me with the photos, which I politely declined. Perhaps Roosevelt, who was Dutch Reformed, curiously attended mass here out of curiosity 130 years ago, I wondered, as he recovered from his grief.
St. Mary’s was built by the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, the Marquise de Mores, who married a French marquis and soldier who had built a nearby ranch, now a museum. The nobleman interestingly attended military school with Philippe Petain, the WWI heroic Marshal who later disgraced himself with Vichy in WWII. The Marquise would later leave the Badlands and served as a nurse in WWI, which may have contributed to her eventual death in the early 1920s.
But her church in tiny, remote Medora, remains, solid as ever, despite 130 years of North Dakota winters and Summer heat. (The town is in fact named for her.) Memorial Day is a good reminder for reflecting on the accomplishments and sacrifices of the past, recalling what truly lasts, and what does not.