Behold, Service Was Joy

Kerri Burson, Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 11/11/2012

Kerri Burson

A man who can’t afford insurance for his family.  A junior college student who needs money to continue his education.   A high school graduate full of patriotism and a desire to serve her country.  A single mother who has run out of viable options that will provide enough to care for her kids and elderly mother.    A dropout with a GED who can’t find his place in this world.  One of six children born to immigrant parents who doesn’t see any other way out.  A daughter of a soldier who is also the granddaughter of a sailor.  They are my friends; they are my family; they are me.  They are the people who serve in our military.  Those who choose to serve do so for reasons that are as diverse as the ethnicities that are represented in the armed forces.
My reasons were very straight-forward and altruistic.  As a teenager, I developed a strong and abiding love for our country; her land, her leaders, and her place in the world fascinated me.  There were many events that captured my imagination during that time, but none so much as our cold war with the Soviet Union.  When I was a senior in high school, I decided that I had, not wanted, but HAD to join the military and serve this great land of ours.  I decided that I wanted to enlist in the Air Force and went to the closest recruiter’s office to discuss my options.  He handed me a book full of possible career fields.  A whole book.  Full of all the jobs that have to be filled for the Air Force to run efficiently.  I was overwhelmed flipping through that massive tome.  How in the world would I ever choose a career field from all of those choices?!  Then, I saw it, and I knew.  I don’t mean that I was pretty sure.  I mean, I KNEW.  This was the job for me.  Cryptologic linguist. 
The part that jumped out at me read, “Transcribes and processes communications. Transcribes, translates, analyzes, and reports on assigned communications. Translates spoken or written material from one language to another. Uses wording aids, and references. Recognizes essential elements of information for reporting activity. Assists analysts in identifying, analyzing, and reporting activities.”  Underneath all of that, there was a list of languages that were available.  One of those listed was Russian.  Yes, I could be a Russian cryptologic linguist in the United States Air Force during the cold war.  Wow.  Could there possibly be a more important career field in the entire military?  Ever?  Definitely not in my 18-year-old mind.  I went through all of the processing, testing (lots of testing), signed my contract, raised my right hand, and recited.
"I, state your name (Kerri Touhey), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."
It was a very profound and somewhat surreal moment for me.  I knew I wanted to be exactly where I was, which is not something most people in their senior year of high school can say, but I felt the enormity of what I was committing to in that moment.
So, I graduated high school and went to basic training where I was officially assigned to learn…Russian!    At the time, I had no doubt that I would.  However, it wasn’t a sure thing.  There were needs in other languages, but it had never occurred to me that anything else was a real possibility.  After basic, I was off to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where I spent 52 weeks, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, learning Russian.  It was challenging, and rewarding.  And then I got my orders for my first permanent station…West Berlin, West Germany.  Holy schnikes (although, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say ‘schnikes…in fact, I’m positive I didn’t)!  I was going to the only duty station located in the middle of a communist country surrounded by Russians!  Not only was I in the coolest career field ever, but now I had been given the greatest duty assignment possible!
That assignment exceeded my every expectation.  Up to that point, though, I had been focused on ‘me’ and what ‘I’ wanted from the Air Force.  In Berlin, I learned that the military does not, and cannot, focus on one person’s needs.  ‘Me’ became ‘we’ and ‘I’ became ‘us’.  We understood that our job was absolutely essential for the security of our country and we knew the stakes were high.  It was rarely easy, it was exhausting, and it was one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever done.  I worked with some extremely impressive individuals and, together, we were better than the sum of our parts.
No matter what motivates each individual, once in, it becomes obvious that you are part of something larger than yourself.  The camaraderie can only be experienced, never explained.  We can try to tell you what it feels like, try to think of appropriate analogies, but there really is nothing similar and, eventually, we end up saying something like, “Guess you had to be there.”  Since less than 10% of our population has served or is serving in the military, when we meet a fellow service member, there is an immediate sense of ‘I know you’.  It is a unique bond that is shared even between strangers. 
While you may not know it when you sign on the dotted line, joining the military is about more than needing a job, more than learning a marketable skill, and more than finding your way.  It is defending your country and protecting the rights of all citizens even when you don’t always agree with how they exercise those rights.  It is following orders because you trust that someone higher up than you, who sees the big picture, has decided that those orders are necessary to keep your family, and your friends, and your country safe.  You don’t question and you don’t hesitate.  That doesn’t mean that you stop thinking about what the consequences of your actions may be, but that happens in hindsight.  In real time, you just do it.
As UU’s, we don’t always understand what is seemingly a surrender of individual will.  We don’t know how to process the idea that someone would do that, even more, that someone would WANT to do that.  I want you to consider that those in the military don’t surrender their individual opinions, ideals, or will.  They are very much individuals with their own stories and their own motivations.  We can learn from these selfless men and women.  They are individuals who realize that sometimes it is absolutely necessary to surrender individuality in order to become part of a bigger, more important whole.   They are the absolute definition of service.


Rev. Megan Foley

It was hard to find hymns to go with today’s service. 

Having spoken with Kerri about what we wanted this worship service to be like, I knew that I should be looking for hymns about doing your duty, about having loyalty to the greater good, about putting yourself aside in order to be an important part of something bigger than yourself.  And guess what?  There are very few UU hymns that cover those themes.

We don’t have a lot of hymns that encourage us to act in a group for the greater good.  In fact, quite the opposite; we have a lot of hymns that encourage us to follow our own individual path, our own individual voices, even when the people around us don’t agree.  We UUs call that courage, and of course, it is, in its way.  But today we’re talking about a different kind of courage, a kind of courage that is often underappreciated by Unitarian Universalists, with all of our talk of individualism and self-sufficiency.

This will end up being one of those reflections that asks more questions than answers them, because I am just beginning my own process of considering the relationship between UU culture and the military.  I am learning more about the military than I ever knew before; my own family history is marked by an almost complete lack of military service, and apparently that’s becoming more and more true of many American families.  Military service is concentrating, in this nation, among just a few of us.

And Unitarian Universalism has its own complicated relationship with the armed forces.  I wasn’t around for it, but my understanding is that the denomination was pretty rabidly anti-war during the Vietnam era.  This extended Vietnam protest spilled over into Unitarian Universalist suspicion about military service in general.  It has only been in the past decade or two that we’ve put denominational resources back into such efforts as having more UU military chaplains, for example.  But the distance of UUs from the military comes from sources deeper and older than just the Vietnam War, as passionate as that time period may have been.  I think Kerri’s comments, and the reading we heard from Cryptonomicon, give us a glimpse at this depth.

When I talk to Kerri and my military friends about their careers, I hear again and again words like “duty” and “loyalty” and “service”.  And while “service” is a word that UUs often use, the terms duty and loyalty are conspicuously absent from our discourse about our values or our goals.  Unitarian Universalists prefer to use words like “responsibility” and “commitment”, but if you think about it, responsibility and commitment don’t have the implied sense of communal accountability, there’s no sense of obligation.  In fact, obligation is itself another of those words we don’t hear all that much in UU circles. 

While it’s interesting to ponder why we UUs avoid these terms, I think it’s more important to consider what we are missing when we don’t have them, either as a church or as a movement that wants to do some good in the world.  You know, studies show that many mainstream churches in America are filled with folks who attend because of their strict sense of duty and loyalty.  Duty and loyalty keep them sitting in pews even when the worship service isn’t about a topic that particularly appeals to them.  Duty and loyalty keep them giving money to their congregation because that’s what keeps the lights on and the door open, and that’s important not only to the person who gives, but to everyone else who’s there, and everyone who might be looking for a place like that.

I think it’s very possible that the typical UU considers the notion of participating in church out of a sense of duty to be eye-rollingly dull.  But what we UUs can learn from those who serve in the military is that performing one’s duty has its own rewards.  Performing one’s duty out of loyalty to a cause or to a group has the reward of seeing that group succeed and prosper, seeing that cause expand and grow. 

We’ve talked before in worship services about how important it is for people to have a sense of something bigger in their lives, whether that thing is God or a crusade or an institution that they can believe in.  Psychologists agree that working for and believing in something bigger brings our lives meaning.  But in order to really devote yourself to a bigger something, sometimes you need to believe – now, brace yourself, because I’m about to say something crazy heretical to UUs here – in order to really devote yourself to a bigger something, you sometimes need to believe that that larger something is more important than you are. 

This is the notion that we don’t have hymns about.  As important and holy and unique as you are – you and you and you and you – and you are unique and holy, its true, but as holy and unique as you are, there are bigger things that might be even more important.  Very few UU hymns celebrating that.  And yet, it’s true.

What bigger things in your life are more important than you are?  Is it your family?  Your country?  Your church?  Your values?  Some sort of cause? What in your life brings out your calling towards duty and loyalty, obligation and selflessness, that we honor today in our armed forces?  What can we learn about these traits that may be underdeveloped in ourselves?  What can veterans and active military teach us UUs today, on Veteran’s Day?

We opened our service with the words of Rabindranath Tagore, who reminds us that life and service and joy are all intermingled.  We don’t escape service or leave service behind in order to find joy, or meaning, or fulfillment.  We find joy in the midst of serving, in the midst of living, with integrity, with honor.  And we can find much joy, believe it or not, in serving something that we believe is more important than any of us individual people are.

Please be sure today to thank a veteran for their service to our country.  And may you also find the blessings that come with serving a greater good, of fighting for a noble cause, whatever that cause may be.