Thank You for Your Service

A Sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

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Sermon Text

Lately I’ve been thinking that Rhode Island is somewhat like a conch shell.  Viewed from the outside it can seem plain, blending with its surrounding environment, but if you look at the inside it is colorful and full of surprise.  Also like a conch, our state has its spiky bits, apparent as soon as you look at it, which definitely add to the presence of the whole.  And within the shell are whorls and spirals of shining connection, that spin inward on and on, intimate and intertwined.

Intimate and intertwined as our state is now, it was even more so in its past. “Years are coming,” we just sang, “ speed them onward, when the sword shall gather rust, and the helmet, lance and falchion sleep at last in silent dust.”  Those words were written by a renowned Rhode Islander, the Rev. Adin Ballou from up the road in Cumberland.  Rev. Ballou was born in 1803 and he was an abolitionist, a passionate advocate for justice, early socialism, and Temperance.  He was a Universalist who eventually also be came a Unitarian minister, forerunner of the union that comprises our modern faith.  Rev. Ballou’s writing was widely and well-regarded, inspiring even the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy who caused some of it to be translated into Russian.  Most of Rev. Ballou’s work was religious and social, but near the end of his life, in 1888, he wrote an utterly different book, An Elaborate History and Genealogy of the Ballous in America.   Though the book traces the Ballou family all over the country – one relative, he notes, is then in the Dakotas – much of it traces the Ballous across Rhode Island.  And it is here we find what was then more recent information about his cousin Sullivan Ballou who wrote the beautiful letter we heard earlier to his wife Sarah.

Sullivan Ballou was from what is now Smithfield and Lincoln, Rhode Island.  He was born there in 1829.  With financial assistance from family and friends, he was sent for some schooling in Massachusetts and then came back here where he attended Brown University.  He must have walked these very streets, walked up Benevolent to campus, walked along Benefit on his way about town.  He must have walked by this very church, this very same building we are in now; it was built 13 years before he was born.  He might have walked up our steps,  poked his head in sometime to explore it as so many people do all the time, or maybe he even came to a service here, sat in the very pew you are sitting in now.

After getting his law degree in New York, he came back, was admitted to the bar here in Rhode Island in March of 1853 and then began his career as a lawyer in Smithfield where he worked the rest of his days.   In 1855 he married Sarah Hart Shumway, from Worcester, MA and they started their family together.

According to Adin Ballou’s book, people in Rhode Island considered Sullivan ‘eloquent, able, honest and fearless.’ (Adin Ballou, An Elaborate History…)  In addition to his law practice, Sullivan became Clerk of the RI House of Representatives from 1854 to 1856, and then became a representative from Smithfield in 1857.  He was unanimously chosen Speaker of the House twice, though he declined the second call.

He also joined the Republican Party through which he got to know Rhode Island’s young governor William Sprague.  With that connection, as Rhode Island began to muster troops, Sullivan Ballou was given a commission as major of the 2nd Rhode Island regiment.  This was Rhode Island’s primary fighting regiment and they were quickly sent down south where on July 21st, they fired the opening volley in the first battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the Civil War.  While working to rally his regiment to push back a Confederate brigade from South Carolina, Sullivan was struck by a cannon ball which killed his horse and shattered his right leg.   His leg was amputated and he was too badly injured to be moved.  The Union forces were eventually defeated, and forced to leave Sullivan Ballou behind in the care of Army surgeons.  Newspapers mistakenly reported that he had been killed on the field of battle.  In fact, he died on the 28th of July.  Rhode Island, people said, had no dearer son to lose.

For reasons that are unclear, his grave in the yard of Sudley Church, near the battleground, was almost immediately desecrated by Confederate soldiers.  His remains were later recovered by his friend Governor Sprague who brought them back to be interred at Swan Point Cemetery.

Sarah Ballou lived for another 56 years and though she was only 24 when her husband died, she never remarried.  She raised her two sons alone, on a government pension of $29 a month along with earnings from teaching piano lessons.  In 1875 she became secretary of the Providence public school system, a post she kept until 1899, when she moved to New Jersey to be near her son William.  Sarah died in New Jersey in 1917, and was buried with her husband at Swan Point, beneath a grave marker that quotes a line from his famous letter: “Come to me and lead thither my children.”

That famous letter we heard earlier is not the only letter Sullivan wrote to Sarah – in fact there are at least 9 letters collected that he wrote in those few weeks between his enlistment and his death. All of them are affectionate, but none of them attain the same heights as his letter written on the evening of July 14.  And this letter was not sent to her, rather it was found in his belongings and given to her later.  The original copy of the letter can no longer be found, and according to one story, it was buried with her.

We lift up Sullivan Ballou, and his family, and his sacrifice, and their sacrifice, and his belief in a larger good, a larger imperative that was worth even his life.  The Ballou family had been in Rhode Island since the late 1600’s, many of his own ancestors had served in the Revolutionary War.  Surely from the stories handed down through the family he knew what he meant by ‘the blood and sufferings of the Revolution.’ He believed utterly in the necessity of a real government of united states, and in what he terms a ‘debt’ that is always owed by individuals to what we believe in and rely upon.

But it’s not just his thinking and his self-sacrifice that strike us in his letter, it’s the clear, aching love he feels for Sarah and for his family that means the most.  This is not a warrior, this is a human being, a husband, a father, a soul comforted by the thought of any form he could take to be near those he loves even after death.  Sullivan’s letter reminds us – if we needed reminding – that all those who fight, and live or die, in wars of our nations’ making, are not the uniform, uniformed ranks of armored and anonymous shapes we see in images but people just like us, trying to do what’s right, willing to lose even their lives in their belief that sometimes this is what the larger life of a nation requires of them.  And surely there are many of us, including myself, who would not be alive now were it not for those who have fought, and those who died, in the wars that decide both history and future.   Whenever I see movies about war, whether they are documentaries or dramatizations, I always think the same thing.  I always think how hard it is to safeguard our children.  How vigilant we must be, all the time, to keep them from falling down stairs, or electrocuting themselves with a socket, or burning themselves on a stove, or falling in a pool, or being hurt in a car accident or, or, or….  Any of us who has ever been charged with the welfare of a child know how constant we must be – and even so accidents happen, mistakes are made, errors in judgment or estimations and almost all of us are here now because one time or another we were just lucky – but a fraction of an inch or a second, we were lucky.  So fragile, is every human life.  And then, after all these years and decades of vigilance and care, our young people go out into battle, where the entire point is kill or be killed.  The senselessness of it is mindboggling, and dreadful. We must always mourn not the waste, but worse: the spending, of humanity in battles and wars that have too often been ignoble and indefensible.  It is not sweet, and it is not fitting to die for your country.  And still, we also know there have been wars fought to save people, to end atrocity, and we must always be grateful for all those who have made the wrenching choice to fight in order to uphold humanity and save others.  This includes gratitude to all the veterans who are among us this morning.  Thank you for your service.

There are three great plaques at the far end of this Meeting House, for all those who served and died in the Civil War, the Great War, and the World War II.  The names of all those who also shared this very space, these pews, all of whom served, many of whom died, are set out for all time there, as they are in so many congregations across the world, the beloved lost we must remember, especially on days like this, the anniversary of a great peace – a peace that followed a war so unimaginably brutal with its trenches and chemical weapons and gassing and wastelands of shells and barbed wire, that it was called the Great War in the belief that because no other war had ever equaled its brutality, it would remain the most dreadful, the most horrifying.   We learned that was not true. We know that howsoever we long for peace, that as much as people have all yearned  for all people to live free and safe, that our most precious records from thousand and thousands of years ago record this eternal truth – peace still remains the most elusive vision.  Even now, our country is at war.  We are at war in Syria, we are at war in Libya, we are unofficially at war in Iraq, we are at war in Somalia, in Western Pakistan, in Afghanistan.  We don’t even acknowledge them all now – many of them we don’t even call wars, they’re called liberation, or intervention or operations.  Without a draft, with spy planes and drones, we have insulated ourselves from the full reality of our nation’s actions, of our military’s engagement, of our troops struggles and the battles that go on and on with no end in sight – recently without even any more national conversation about the necessity for an end in sight.  And so war is still present, and men and women go to fight, and letters home are still written full of love and foreboding.

In 2003, private first class Jesse Givens, 34, was deployed to Iraq.  He wrote this on April 22nd of that year:

My family:

     I never thought that I would be writing a letter like this. I really don’t know where to start. I’ve been getting bad feelings, though and, well, if you are reading this ….

     I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you. I would like to think that I made a positive difference in your lives. I will never be able to make up for the bad. I am so sorry. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. .

     Dakota, you are more son than I could ever ask for. I can only hope I was half the dad…. You have a big, beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play. I hope someday you will understand why I didn’t come home. Please be proud of me. Please don’t stop loving life. I will always be there with you. I’ll be in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life.

     Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your mom’s belly, and the joy I felt when I found out you were on your way. I dream of you every night, I will always. Don’t ever think that since I wasn’t around that I didn’t love you. You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love.

I have never been so blessed as the day I met Melissa Dawn Benfield. … I am so sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime’s worth. I married you for a million lifetimes.. … Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. …

     I will always be there with you, Melissa. …. Do me a favor, after you tuck Toad and Bean in, give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside look at the stars and count them. Don’t forget to smile.

Love always,
Your husband

Jesse Givens died a couple of weeks after he wrote that letter, on May 1st  in a tank in the Euphrates River, that ancient river, the site of so many battles and empires.

On this day, we remember the cycles of blessing that humanity will not abandon, and struggle that humanity cannot transcend.  They are boundless and timeless.  Love, war, fear, courage, death, belief… love.  So too persists the reality that many of our troops return to inadequate care, inadequate services and supports, broad stigma and shame about the shock and lasting trauma that the making of war inflicts.  May the day come when those who risk everything are better thanked and supported by the rest of us when – if – they return to us.  May the day come when no country chooses war, when no country is driven to war, when no country makes war on its own people or those of other nations.  On our civil war plaque across the Meeting House it says “Thus the teaching of this church bore fruit in the service of the nation.”  May some grain of all the goodness and compassion and respect we try here and teach here, may it help that day – too long distant – may it help that day come when no one needs to heal from war because finally, finally, we have learned to make real peace.  Amen.


Invocation and Greeting

On November 11, 1918 the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany took effect at 11 o’clock in the morning, on that 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  All over the world, countries commemorate this day, and all veterans living and dead who have answered the call of their nations in Britain, in South Africa, in Canada, in Poland, in France and Belgium, parts of which were once known as Flanders, in Serbia and of course here.  In some places it is called Remembrance Day and is often observed with a time of silence, a time when everything stops, when traffic stops, when people cease doing anything, but remember what the war, what all war, has changed in their people and their nations, the courage and the devastation.

This morning at 11 am is exactly the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day on this 11th day of the 11th month.  So we too will stop what we are doing, whatever we are doing, when the 11th hour strikes this morning.   To be clear, we don’t know exactly what we will be doing – we may be speaking, or singing, reflecting or praying.  Whatever we are doing in that moment, we’ll stop and observe a minute of silence while we toll our great bell, both to mark the peace and gladness that came with the armistice, and also to mark those lives lost in the mass shooting this week in California.  When that time has been marked with our silence and our bell, we will return to the moment we left, as we explore the themes and experiences that Veteran’s Day lifts up,  that meant a great deal to all those in this church 100 years ago, when the terrible ‘Great War’ finally ended, and that still matters to us now, here in this same space, generations later.  So we are here, to remember  and think together this morning.  This is the day we have been given.  May we make the very most of it, starting now, together.


Closing Words

Excerpt from War Zone Faith by Captain George Tyger, UU Army Chaplain

War has not scarred me for life

It has made me more

I am a better man than I was before

I know the value of life more intimately

I know compassion given

And received

I know courage seen

And lived

I know love

For it is love that has kept me alive

Not bombs

Not bullets

Not body armor

These only kept me from dying

Love keeps me living.


A note

Some of the Ballou family – John, James and Peter, lived in the ‘old Louisquisset neighborhood’ – formerly Loquasquisick woods – and of course I live now on Old Louisquisset Pike in a house that was built in 1736.