The Flag Line

Based on a dream.

I dreamed I went to college with a best friend named Randall.

Everything on campus was very nice. It was clean, the furniture was new, the TVs were big, the staff was friendly, and everybody smiled. It was a nice place.

A stylized representation of a lightblue flag.
A nice little flag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They gave us each a nice little pole with a nice little flag with a nice little smiley face during orientation. Because it was such a nice place, we were encouraged to wave our nice little flags whenever we felt happy.

If we felt really happy, we could take our flag outside and wave them. If other people felt happy, they could come out and wave their nice little flags, too! More people would come out and join the fun, waving their nice little flags. Then, all in a line, we could march around, waving our nice little flags and enjoying how happy we felt.

A few days later, I looked out my window and saw a student waving his nice little flag. And to my surprise, other students came running out with their nice little flags, forming a Flag Line. They marched around campus, sharing their happiness with the world. Look how happy we are! they said. And the world nodded in agreement, as it should.

Everywhere I went, the Flag Line followed. In class, we were told that the world was not as bad as it seemed. There were lots of reasons to be happy, they said, and in my head, I imagined the class waving our nice little flags.

When I went to church, the pastor’s sermon was all about how nice God was, and how Christians should be nice to everyone. And again, I imagined the congregation waving their nice little flags.

When I turned on the TV, and I watched the news, instead of the usual shock-news and horror stories, I was told how good everything was. There were no stories about the wars, or starvation, or murders, or corporate exploitation. Just nice stories. And I could almost see the newscasters waving their nice little flags.

But everything wasn’t nice. Just because nobody talked about them anymore didn’t mean that there weren’t any problems. When Randall and I walked around town, we could still see people living in boxes in alleys with no food. We had friends who had items stolen from them in the middle of the night. We knew that, in distant places as well as at home, there were sick people without access to treatment. And we knew that wars still happened.

When we tried to talk about the un-niceness of life, we were hushed. Nobody wants to know about that, they said. Why upset everyone with bad news? Can’t you be happy like everyone else? And they walked away, waving their nice little flags.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t actually happy. I could wave my nice little flag like everyone else, but that didn’t make me happy. I could ignore the reality around me and pretend bad things never happened, but that didn’t make me happy, either. I stopped waving my nice little flag, even when I was happy. I took it apart and stashed it under the bed. I watched the Flag Lines go by and didn’t get out to join them.

Then Randall got sick. The doctors kept telling him that everything was going to be alright and not to worry. They prescribed medication, but it didn’t help. Randall got worse, but they never said anything different. Everything was going to be alright, they said, and not to worry.

When they put Randall in a wheelchair, they still told him everything was going to be alright and not to worry. They waved their nice little flags as they wheeled him out, smiled, and sent him on his way. Of course they knew what was wrong and that there was nothing they could do about it, but they couldn’t bring themselves to be anything but cheerful.

Randall and I spent a lot of time together then. We discovered that we’d both had enough of the lie that we lived nice little lives in a nice little world with nice little flags. There was good in the world, yes, but there was also bad. Hiding the bad didn’t make the world any better–it made it worse.

That night, we pulled out our old flag poles and ripped off the nice little flags. Randall made a new flag, what he called the unhappy, un-nice little flag. We strapped it to the nice little flag pole and held it high. I wheeled him out the door onto campus, and we waved our unhappy, un-nice little flag.

To our surprise, others began to join us. Some came without any flag at all, but others came with the nice little smiley on their nice little flag replaced with an unhappy face. They joined our new Flag Line, calling out the world for its willful ignorance. They were as unhappy as we were with the way the world refused to acknowledge and confront the bad.

The school tried to stop us. You are supposed to wave your nice little flags and be happy! they said, fearful that if anyone saw us, they would be unhappy, too. But we pressed on into the streets, calling more and more people to our Flag Line.

Our Flag Line grew and grew. And you know what? That night, we were happy. Oh, we weren’t happy about all the bad things in the world that made us join the Flag Line. But for the first time, we were allowed to tell the truth–that there is both good and bad, and that’s life. For every bad, there is something good happening, and the bad makes the good all that much better. Randall may have been sick, but that didn’t mean his life was bad. Rather, as we found out in our Flag Line, life in the midst of tragedy can still be, and is, good.

After his funeral, I planted the unhappy, un-nice flag on Randall’s grave. A few days later, it had spawned a new Flag Line that, just like that first night, reminded everyone who saw it that even when life is bad, there is still good.

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Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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