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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Celebrating citizenship

The Fourth of July, "Independence Day," is a holiday full of personal and national themes with an unrivaled depth and breadth, as well as the sheer volume of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" with well-orchestrated fireworks to stir one's heart and soul.

Yet today I'd like to consider a quieter topic: citizenship and the citizen soldier.

My 1964 report card from Kaley School in South Bend, Ind., included a graded category of "citizenship." I'm not sure it appears on report cards these days. I certainly don't recall seeing it on my kids' end-of-term grades.

At its heart citizenship is the noble idea that each of us has certain duties, responsibilities and rights. Citizenship implies a corporate understanding that what we do matters in society — that the greater good is worth considering. As a second-grader I didn't grasp the fullness of the concept. But the very existence of this "category" strongly suggested that my teachers and educational leaders held citizenship in high esteem.

ELCA military chaplains Eric Olsen and Michael T. Lembke.

ELCA military chaplains Eric Olsen (left) and Michael T. Lembke.

As Lutherans, our understanding of the "two kingdoms" (law and gospel) and the supporting relationship between them provide a religious and spiritual dimension for our role as citizens of the world and of eternity. Our connection to God, through baptism and the Lord's Supper, is the foundation for responsible citizenship. As we join family and friends this July 4, it would seem only natural, in our prayers of thanksgiving for the meal and for our basic liberties, that we would acknowledge the connection between the streets of gold (Revelation 21:21) and Main Street.

I can think of no better examples of citizenship than the many citizen soldiers with whom I serve. In 26 years of active duty I've had the pleasure of working with many Army Reserve and Army National Guard soldiers. Guard and Reserve chaplains have even more required of them than those of us in the active component.

For example, in Iraq I served with Col. Eric Olsen, an ELCA chaplain. Eric volunteered to serve as a brigade chaplain for a National Guard unit even though the "slot" was for a major and he was promotable to a higher rank. He had to make arrangements with his civilian employer, do the training and deploy for a year. Today he serves as Joint Force Headquarters chaplain for the New York National Guard. He is just one of the many people who take seriously both citizenship and their responsibility as Christians to act and care for God's people.

This Fourth of July, take time to remember our citizen soldiers as you remember our Independence Day. Get involved in activities (poverty-fighting initiatives, advocacy, care for returning military members and more) in your congregation or synod that link your worldview and your church view. Look for the mustard seeds of the kingdom of God in conversation and community ... and enjoy the mustard on your hot dog or veggie sandwich. 


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