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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Called to freedom

Reading Galatians in Iraq

As a military chaplain serving in Iraq, this Independence Day I read Galatians 5:1, 13-14, a text that is foundational to Lutheran theology. It's also a cornerstone word for me as I ponder the 4th of July on foreign soil.

The text reads:

"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"

I'm not considering what I missed by being in Iraq on Independence Day, but rather what an opportunity this deployment is to gain a true perspective on "freedom" and "independence." It's all there in the Galatians text: freedom is best exercised in service to others, in love and in action. We gain true independence by depending on God. True independence is translated in developing relationships and cultivating communities.

In Iraq, I run into Americans who are Arabic-speakers — Iraqi, Jordanian or Egyptian by birth — who are here because they are free to serve. When they describe how much they want to be in Iraq to do something good for the country, because of what they possess in the U.S., I understand the spirit of the 4th of July. They're not talking about "possessions," but about being possessed with the purpose and desire to act in freedom.

I see this same spirit of interdependence and mutuality in our U.S. military members. It comes from knowing that freedom isn't free and that working to ensure self-determination for an entire society is a good and right pursuit.

My understanding and perspective on freedom doesn't come from hearing great and noble speeches, but from seeing common and decent deeds done in the hope that some foothold for justice and mercy will be gained. I don't feel an idle pride in this, but rather the joy of acting in faith and the joy of being propelled by the word of God to do my duty as a soldier.

This July 4th I experienced a "fireworks" of the mind and spirit. I'm reminded to exercise my freedom, just as I exercise my faith and body. I'm reminded to vote, to speak, to advocate and to listen to those with whom I disagree. And I'm very encouraged by the conversations I've had with Iraqi people who sense the responsibility of freedom: service to others. Their individual acts of freedom are like handheld individual candles in a dark room.

Iraq doesn't need more fireworks. Iraq needs the internal fire that works for the neighbor. It's a good lesson for me to learn as well.


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