Word for Word 8/29/18

Our nation’s flag has been the source of considerable controversy in the National Football league, and one of the figures who’s feeling the heat in center of the firestorm is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. I’ve been thinking about sending Mr. Goodell a letter and offering him a few suggestions about how he and the NFL might handle things. My letter is still a work in progress, but here’s what I’ve written so far:

Hello, Mr. Goodell!

About the time I start thinking that being a pastor is the hardest job anyone could have, I read another news story about people being upset that some of your players are taking a knee during the national anthem, and I’m glad that I don’t have your job.

As I understand the who’s who and what’s what of all this, you’ve got some players who believe that the values and ideals for which the flag stands are being disrespected, and they’re taking a knee during the national anthem to call attention to that injustice.
I get that.

It’s hard to truly listen with an ear of understanding to the stories of what it means to be a person of color in this country and not realize there’s more than a grain of truth supporting these player protests. These guys aren’t just being “uppity.”

On the other side are folks who believe taking a knee disrespects the flag and the active-duty troops and veterans who’ve pledged a special kind of allegiance to the red, white and blue – perhaps a kind of allegiance that people like me who’ve never served in the military can never fully understand.
I get that, too.

But I don’t believe that any of your players who takes a knee intends to disrespect the flag or the military. For that matter, I don’t believe that allowing your players to protest in this way signals the NFL’s disrespect for veterans.

Through its pregame shows, the NFL has consistently shown veterans and active-duty personnel the honor and respect they deserve. Indeed, current and past members of the armed forces play vital roles in protecting our national freedoms.

But whenever I take a deep dive of reflection about the everyday reality of freedom, I return to the surface realizing that the freedoms we enjoy in this country come to us from the dedication, sacrifice and hard work of a large body of people, and current and past members of the military are but one part of that body.

Other parts of our national body deserve equal honor and respect for their efforts to ensure our freedom. While the military upholds our big-picture freedoms, the women and men I’m thinking about uphold the freedoms that show up in the pots and pans of everyday life.

Take school-teachers, for example. It wouldn’t be a calling for me. Facing a classroom of wiggly kindergarteners or pubescent middle-schoolers requires some courage. So, I’m grateful for what to me feels like the brave sacrifice of the men and women who are teachers – the ones who taught me and the ones who teach my children and their friends, because teachers provide freedom from the nasty slavery of ignorance.

And while teachers are the ones on the front lines of the fight, I’m also grateful for those behind the lines who support and enable the fight against ignorance – the bus drivers, custodians, librarians, secretaries, administrators, lunch ladies, aides and paraeducators whose gifts and talents are indispensable parts of freedom-granting learning.

Another freedom I enjoy is not having to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Thanks to farmers, food is plentiful and available – at least for a lot of us anyway.

But it’s not just the farmers alone who provide that freedom and put food on my table.

It’s people up and down the supply chain – the engineers and skilled laborers who design and build farm equipment; the truck drivers, railroad workers and barge crews who deliver commodities and livestock; the butchers and food-service workers who prepare everything for sale; the stocker who places groceries on the store shelf, and fresh-faced kid who carries the bags out to my car.

Take any of those folks out of the food equation, and none of us would enjoy freedom from hunger, so I tip my hat and place a hand over my heart to honor all these valued members our national body whose service provides freedom from hunger.

Speaking of food, my physician is encouraging me to eat a little healthier than I do. Doing so will help with a few health challenges I’ve been deal with.

As I’ve struggled with the physical and biological realities of being a “man of a certain age,” I’m reminded how illness and disease rob us of a certain amount of freedom. There comes a point when our fearfully and wonderfully made bodies just don’t work like they once did, and those realities erode away at our abilities to do what we’d like to do.

The care of health professionals – doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, therapists, chiropractors, dentists – can restore a sense of that bodily freedom, so I’m grateful for their knowledge and skill that grants me some sense of freedom from illness and disease.

Along those same lines, I’m equally grateful for garbage collectors. Yes, garbage collectors. Theirs is a job we don’t hold in high esteem, yet garbage collectors play a vital role in keeping me healthy and free of disease. Our community wouldn’t be a very safe place to live if we had piles of rotting garbage piled up in the streets, and so, for the freedom from sickness that they provide, I owe a debt of gratitude to garbage collectors.

And also to the city workers who make sure I have clean water to drink and treat the wastewater I flush away.

You probably see where I’m heading, Mr. Goodell.

When you stop and think about it, there are lots of people whose daily efforts provide us with freedoms we take for granted:

Electricians and power-plant workers who free us from cold and darkness.

Carpenters, plumbers and any number of other skilled trades who free us from homelessness.

Ironworkers, road crews and snowplow drivers who build great bridges and maintain our vast roads to ensure our freedom of movement.

My congregation is blessed with a lovely saint who cannot drive, and she regularly asks us to pray for the transit drivers who make it possible for her and others who don’t drive or can’t afford a car to get around town.

In short, the freedoms we enjoy come by way of a long list of providers, and while military and first responders have earned top billing on that list, they are by no means the only ones we should be honoring.

That’s where I think the NFL could lend a hand, Mr.Goodell.

As you think about ways to honor freedom in your pregame and halftime shows, I’d urge you to think big and outside the box.

What about a star-spangled pregame show that honors some of the people I’ve mentioned – teachers, farmers, health-care professionals, skilled tradespeople, transit drivers, or garbage collectors.

Heck, stay-at-home moms and dads deserve a shout-out, too. My wife has been a stay-at-home mom, and I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, and there’s no small degree of sacrifice involved in those jobs, too.

For that matter, imagine what a boost of encouragement it would be for the NFL to honor hard-working single parents!

I realize that honoring any or all of these people won’t provide your fans with the breath-taking sight of fighter jets flying over the stadium as the national anthem is sung, but that’s not the point of my goofy-sounding suggestions.

As a Christian, I believe that one of the ways that God is revealed in our broken, fearful and freedom-hungry world is through the variety of gifts that are present in our communities.

Through Jesus, God unites us together into one body and gives greater honor to the parts of that body that lack honor.

God does that to prevent the body from being divided over arguments about whose lives and service matter most.

God does that so all parts of the body show equal concern for one another.

If one part suffers, every part suffers.

If one part is honored, every part is honored.

If one part is free, every part is free.

If one part isn’t free, every part isn’t free.

That’s why, Mr. Goodell, I think that the many things that we’ve allowed to divide us are so monstrously out of alignment with what the Lord desires for a country that puts a lot of stock in thinking of itself as “one nation, under God.”

What would please God to no end is pledging allegiance to one another with the same passion as we pledge allegiance to a flag.

I look forward to seeing how the NFL might help turn into greater reality the Lord’s vision of a body that willingly bears each other’s burdens.

A body that eagerly lends a hand to lighten the load.

A body that has the courage to acknowledge its illness and disease and seek restoration of health and holiness.

A body that breaks a sweat to protect and lift up those whom Jesus calls “the least of these.”

A body that joyously celebrates whenever any and all freedoms are restored to any and all living in their own kind of earthly hell.

Cordially and sincerely,

Grant VanderVelden
Loyal Green Bay Packer fan, imperfect pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, and sinner freed by grace


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