Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Romans 5:7-8
Memorial Day, which originated after the Civil War, commemorates the sacrifices of those who have fought and died in the American armed forces. It was in 1865 that Henry Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, suggested—at a social gathering—that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. A year later, a committee was formed to plan a day, and townspeople embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Wreathes, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran’s grave and flags were set at half-mast.
The first national official recognition of Memorial Day was issued by General John Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing “Decoration Day” as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo’s first observance. And that year, Waterloo joined other communities in the nation by having their ceremony on May 30. In 1971, Congress made the last Monday in May the official national holiday.
According to the most recent estimate from the Department of Veteran Affairs, 651,031 Americans have died in battle. That number doesn’t take into account others, who died in theatre, but not in battle.
I spent some years as a teacher of U.S. History, have done some training of Navy chaplains, and so have researched our wars. Nevertheless, I was cut to heart to read again the statistics on the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Shield/Desert Storm and, now, what the Department of Defense lists, as the ongoing conflict that is the Global War on Terror.
General Logan, in issuing General Order No. 11 said, “We should guard the graves [of those who died for us] with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us.”
Memorial Day. Interpreters have long noted the aura of sacredness that surrounds the day’s traditional observances. The Memorial Day Foundation offers many suggestions on how we might honor the fallen. Included in these a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time to pause and think upon the meaning of the day. At that hour today, buglers across the country, will be playing “Taps” wherever they may be.
Memorial Day likely conjures up memories for all us. Some of my earliest memories, from my childhood, are of my father, a World War II veteran, marching in our town’s Memorial Day parade. I recall, as well, when I was in my twenties, standing by his flag-draped casket as he was honored by members of the local American Legion post where he’d served as commander for many years. But perhaps I am more acutely attuned to Memorial Day this time around because of a conversation I had some days ago with my son-in-law, a now-retired Special Operative with the Marines, a Raider.
Andrew, over his years of service, was deployed again and again to Iraq, Afghanistan and other of the most dangerous places in the world. And because he and others like him did and do the things they have done and continue to do, we can sleep more easily at night. Though I doubt he’d refer to it as such, Andrew regularly ministers to former soldiers who struggle to sleep as they relive—each night—horrific battles, as they see the faces of the fallen beside them, as they struggle to manage the mundanities of everyday life off the field of conflict.
On this Memorial Day, I will be weaving in and out of the reflections of two men who understand, from first-hand experience, that wars are fought on a wide range of battlefields. The first of the two is Roger Brady, a follower of Jesus Christ and a retired U.S. Air Force General. His words appeared in an article in Christianity Today magazine.
Those whom we honor this Memorial Day, he said, died serving something bigger than themselves—the transcendent ideals that make America the country we cherish. But for us as Christians, he added, this day should have an even more poignant meaning. Many of the same values that our nation should hope to nurture and many of the traits military members are challenged to embody are consistent with those perfectly modeled for us by our Savior. He was the quintessential example of service and sacrifice.
In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul said, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7–8).
Before He went to the cross, Jesus showed us how to love each day. To the consternation of those watching him, he invited himself to the home of a hated tax collector named Zacchaeus, he challenged the hypocrisy of religious leaders by coming to the rescue of a prostitute, he exposed the meaninglessness of their religiosity by healing the sick on the Sabbath, and he challenged bigotry and insensitivity by publicly engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman that His society said was unworthy of His time.
Brady reminds us that, as Christians, we are not only citizens of the United States but citizens of the kingdom of God as well, and our citizenship in that kingdom of God is a gift extended to us freely by God’s grace. Paul told the Ephesian Christians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10).
The society in which Jesus lived had many problems akin to what we see in the United States today. There was hypocrisy, bigotry, poverty, and oppression of the weak by the strong, and He condemned all of that. America is probably a better place than that for even the most marginalized of our citizens, but it is not always what it should be for all of us. As Christians, regardless of our earthly citizenship, this is part of the work He left for us to do. Is it our duty as Americans? Yes, it is—but even more so as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.
Most Americans will never serve in the military—less than one percent of our population does. And even among those of us who do, very, very few of us are asked to give that last full measure of devotion. So, what is the question for us on this day as we remember those Americans who died on our behalf? It is this—for what shall we live?
Brady reminds us that, whether we wear the uniform of our country or not, we all have a service to offer, a service to those ideals that reflect God’s universal truths and that our American ancestors captured in the formation of this country. Jesus has assigned the church to carry on His work. So, when evil strikes in the form of a school shooting or, when nature unleashes its fury and devastates property and lives, when children suffer, when people are hungry or homeless, when a virus strikes down a loved one, and people ask, “Where is God?!” we must be there and have them see Him in us.
We must bring His comfort and His healing to this world. When we live lives of service to those around us, we honor the God who saved us and we honor all those who gave that last full measure to secure for us all the things we enjoy in this nation.
Some time back, I came across a publication from American Baptist International Ministries that contained an article by IM Missionary Bill Klemmer. Bill begins his article with a reference to Matthew 21: Speaking to His disciples, Jesus tells a parable of two brothers whose father asked them to do some work in the family vineyard. One said, “Sure, I’ll go”—but he never went. The other said, “No way”—but eventually he did as his father had asked.
Bill said his typical response to God’s calling would fit right into this story. Eager to please his heavenly Father, he would answer, “Yes, I’ll go.” But when the initial excitement had faded, his head would get in the way of his heart and he would rationalize, “The timings not right. I need to be better prepared. I’ll go after I finish this one thing.” Usually, Bill admitted, he behaves like the second brother, eventually going, but not always on schedule, sometimes reluctantly and often with timid, halting progress.
At the age of 22, he had a strong sense that God was calling him to serve in Africa as a missionary doctor, and he immediately answered, “Yes,” and took steps to follow through on that calling. Seven years later, having completed medical school and his residency, he had the skills necessary to answer the call. But, along the way, he’d gotten married, had children, gone into private practice and purchased a house. He suggested to God that the responsible thing to do was to save for his children’s college educations, pay off his mortgage, get practical experience and then go to Africa.
One day he and Ann were traveling in upstate Vermont when their train stopped dead in its tracks. In that moment, God led them to pray about the calling he’d heard years earlier. By the time the train started up again, they’d told God they would go. And six months later, they set out with three young children and a fourth on the way. They remained in Africa for seven years before returning to the United States for their first furlough. At that point, the last thing Bill wanted to do was to go back and keep serving. He was haunted by the memory of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had torn him away from his family and kept them apart for 11 long months. Surely, he thought, they’d done enough. Someone else could else could take a turn.
But after a year of visiting churches and sharing stories of God’s faithfulness, he couldn’t shake the call. So, they returned to the D.R. Congo, and over the next decade, the constant fighting there would grow to engulf much of central Africa, claiming an estimated 1.2 million lives in what would become known as Africa’s World War. When they completed their assignment in the D.R. Congo, they moved on to South Sudan, where yet another prolonged civil war was coming to a head with the ethnic massacre of hundreds of thousands.
Today, Ann and Bill are living on the Congo-Uganda border, which has been the epicenter of Africa’s second largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola. Bill says he continues to contemplate his calling. Now that they’re in their mid-sixties, the children ask, “Isn’t it time for you to come home?” Their simple answer is, “Not yet. We still feel called to serve.”
He and Ann met, what Bill describes as, a “gifted evangelist and educator.” The man was on his way home to a town of half a million persons, a town that has been under attack by rebel militias for several years. Armed elements infiltrate the town at night, raping, pillaging, murdering, and burning homes. A U.N. force has been unable to prevent these attacks. So, Ann and Bill were surprised when the man spoke of his eagerness to get home.
Why? Why are you so eager to get back to a place that so many other people are fleeing?
“You see,” he said, “Jesus is coming back soon, and when He returns, I want Him to find me laboring in the field He assigned to me. I want to be where I am supposed to be—in the trenches—when Jesus returns.”
Last week, our nephew, Bernie, an R.N. contracted the coronavirus in the course of his work, and spent two weeks in the hospital on ten IV drips and many more medications. His breathing was managed via a ventilator. He was constantly dialyzed, and received additional interventions too numerous to recount…the team attending to him tried everything to save him. He went into septic shock a few days ago and succumbed to COVID-19. His wife, Jean, was allowed to be at his bedside as he went home to the Lord, and she wants to believe he was aware of her presence with him. If Bernie had survived, he would have been on a trache and in a nursing home for the remainder of his days. We’re heartbroken. Five other family members (Jean, a nurse practitioner, three of their children, and Bernie’s brother) all tested positive for the virus but are recovering. Bernie is one of more than a thousand healthcare workers who have died in the frontline fight against COVID-19. On this Memorial Day, I will be thanking God for his service and for the service of others who have died in this war.
We all pass through seasons and there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Someday we will find ourselves at the end of our lives looking back, and we will ask ourselves what it was all for. At that moment, I imagine we will all want to recall a life of service to something larger than ourselves, to children who needed our teaching and our example of service, to people to whom we gave a hand up in times of need, to friends and colleagues whom we comforted in times of sorrow, lives with whom we shared the many physical and spiritual blessings that have been bestowed on us. If we have lived that life of service, we will have fulfilled the challenge of the Savior when he said, “Whatever you did for one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
So, on Memorial Day, and every day, we need to ask ourselves: for what shall we live? How are we doing at fulfilling not just the ideals of our American forefathers but those universal values set in place by the One who made us in His image, who sent His only begotten Son to secure our salvation, the one who “created us in Him to do good works?”
Let us not allow Memorial Day to pass by seeing it only as a day that marks the beginning of summer, a day off, a day to barbecue. May our use of the day include an honoring of those who, with their lives, have purchased our freedoms. Not only the soldiers who gave their lives on fields of battle, not only the frontline workers who have died in their service to others, but our Savior Jesus Christ who gave all on the cross that we might have freedom from sin, death and Satan.
Take some time in silence today at 3, offering prayer for those who are in harm’s way around the world, giving thanks for those who have sacrificed all that we might be free, and opening ourselves to a word from the Lord about what call He might be placing on our lives at this very moment.
Let us pray:
God of all our yesterdays, I am part of a people called to remember. Gifted with memory, looking back, I know who You are, what You have done for me in Jesus Christ, and, by Your grace, whose I am. God of my today, O come before You with praise and adoration. Your Spirit is here within me.
God of all my tomorrows, time is in Your hand and I pray I may each day serve You obediently and joyfully. Eternal God, Alpha and Omega, I rest my past, devote my present and hope my future in You. Thanks be to God.
Abiding and understanding God, I pray for those too busy, having too many things to do, who have lost the rhythm of life and have forsaken Sabbath rest. I pray for those who have so much crowding in their hearts of that which is not You, that they make no room for You. I pray for those too familiar with the Good News, too jaded, too preoccupied with that which is not You—those who have lost the quivering of the Holy Spirit at really hearing and being captured by the call and demand of the gospel.
Lord, forgive me if I am one of these, and let me find my abundance in You. Save me from myself and guide me to Yourself.
As I open myself to You, I pray You will gently fill me with Your light and Your Spirit. Help me to take each step trusting in You. Help me to walk Your path relying not on my own strength, but on Yours. Speak Your words to my heart, Lord.
For Your guidance, Your healing, Your power, Your grace, and Your peace—I give You thanks. I pray that I might believe more fully, love more compassionately, and live in your Way more faithfully. I pray these things in the name of Jesus. Amen
From the Chaplain’s Manual of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Organization comes this benediction for today:
God be in our head, and in our understanding;
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our hearts, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.
May the Lord bless thee and keep thee until we meet again. Amen!