Monday, July 04, 2005

Didn't see that moment coming

My wife and kids are off to see my parents for a couple of weeks; I didn't go with them because I can't take off work for that long. I would have just stayed in Houston where I work, but the choir was singing a special arrangement of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and I'm one of only two first tenors. Of course, since I got the words wrong at one point they probably would've been better off without me (I sang "live" instead of "die," which is a fairly significant mistake). But at any rate, I came back to Austin to sing that number. And am I ever glad I did.

Just before the "Battle Hymn" offertory, we had a special presentation: Evan Cook was back from boot camp, in full uniform, and the church surprised him by presenting him with a special soldier's version of the Prayer Book. When he went back to his seat, the little old lady at the end of his pew stood up to let him in, as the congregation gave him a spontaneous standing ovation -- but before he could get past her, this lady, who was maybe a foot shorter than he was, reached up and grabbed him and gave him a kiss on each cheek.

And then the congregation sat down, and we in the choir stood up, and the organ began to play softly, and we began to sing. We got to the third verse, sung softly and molto rubato, and then the song swelled and soared into the final, "Glory, glory hallelujah!"

And two ladies in the front pew rose to their feet. And then others rose as well. And then in a single massive rush the whole congregation was standing. The organ sang out louder and louder; our voices rose higher and higher. I kept telling myself, "You can't break down; you and the other first tenor have the high note at the end and it has to be there." And somehow I made it through.

I wept my way through most of the rest of the service. Christianity knows, as does no other religion (though Judaism comes close), the meaning of sacrifice, how human suffering is real and bitter and yet there is no suffering that God cannot redeem. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends." But our soldiers are willingly laying down their lives for people they've never met. All my life I've sung, "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free," but our soldiers in Iraq are doing literally that, as we speak. And they are doing it willingly -- which I say not just because we have a volunteer military, but even more because our soldiers in Iraq overwhelmingly and passionately insist that they want to stay there and finish the job. Whatever George Bush's motivations for sending our servicemen to Iraq might have been, there is no question that the soldiers on the ground want to free the people of Iraq. You have only to read their blogs; they have come to Iraq; they have met the Iraqis, both bad and good; and they intend to see that the good Iraqis no longer have to live under the tyranny and terror of the bad ones.

My friend Liz and I were talking about this a little while ago. I habitually read several soldiers' blogs, you know, and so I "know" indirectly several soldiers who have been badly wounded, or whose comrades have died. When you go to a soldier's blog to see what his most recent post is, and it opens, "This is Carren writing to tell Chuck's faithful readers that he has been injured, but is in stable condition" -- that's just very different from seeing on CNN, "A bomb explosion yesterday killed two Americans and wounded five others." So I knelt there during the Eucharistic Prayer and wept for Capt. Chuck Ziegenfuss's pain and suffering; I wept for Capt. Ryan Beaupre and his family, for 1st Lieut. Noah Harris and Sgt. Arnold Duplantier.

And I wept for little Farah, and all the other victims of pseudo-Muslim Arab hatred and terror and destruction, for whom our soldiers are fighting and dying. For whom, two thousand years ago, God Himself suffered and died. For whom, even as I type, Chuck and Carren Ziegenfuss and thousands of other soldiers and soldiers' wives and families are filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.

The military would never take me, now, with my back trouble and my decrepit middle age. But Kegan told me the other day that for a long time now he has been attracted to the military. And I told him the truth. I told him that nothing would make me prouder; that the American soldier is the finest soldier history has ever seen, a completely unprecedented combination of deadliness no other nation's soldier can hope to match and yet at the same time self-control and generosity and compassion beyond imagining. I told Kegan that our soldiers are the finest individuals our nation has to offer, and that if he wants to be part of that elite fraternity, he should start now on preparing himself.

I am deeply grieved for the sacrifice our soldiers and their families are making. But I am so inexpressibly proud to belong to the country capable of producing such men and women. It has been a long time since any soldier eating in the same restaurant as myself, has had to pay his own check...far, far too little to offer in gratitude, but all that I can do. And whatever "all I can do" or "all you can do" might be, our soldiers deserve it.

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