Unlike 4th of July, Christmas, and New Years, Memorial Day has been moved to a particular day of the week; the fourth Monday of May. But this year the fourth Monday of May happens to be the “correct” day to celebrate what started off as “Decoration Day”, May 30. It is almost impossible to imagine the death and carnage of our American Civil War: roughly 2% of the population – 620,000 lost their lives. There wasn’t a community that didn’t feel the personal cost of the conflict. General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The day itself was chosen because it didn’t match the date of any particular battle, so it could be a general memorial.
Today, our conflicts are farther removed from everyday life, and hence the cost of war doesn’t seem to have the intense personal connection it once did. For me, that means we need to double-down on our efforts to remember the cost of war and the sacrifice of so many that I might live freely in this country. I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s assertion that while God’s grace is freely given; it was and is so costly. The same can be said of my life as a Christian American. I owe a supreme debt to what God did in Jesus Christ as a Christian, but also as an American I owe a debt to the many who died in defense of freedom. As I said last week, I am not entitled—I am blessed. Those who have gone before me have given me a great gift—a sacred gift—to be treasured and passed on as I live my life of faith and service.
Hebrews 12:1-2 (TEV) As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.
The great danger Memorial Day poses is the temptation to romanticize and celebrate war. To sanitize it with unfurled flags, patriotic salutes and politicians getting another photo-op for Facebook is to cheapen the sacrifice. So many of our veterans suffer PTSD because there is nothing romantic about war, nor can a flag on a coffin with a twenty-one gun salute sanitize the horror, pain, and grief. To honor is to recognize the full price paid, and both grieve and remember those who were taken too soon. If I could, I’d give every kid in America a trip to Arlington National Cemetery and a chance to stand in silence for the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown.
I’ve invited Bill and Mary Shea to join me this Sunday to remember their son and share their journey of both faith and grief. These were the opening lines of the Press Democrat notice:
SHEA, Timothy Magnus 22, died of combat related injuries in Iraq, August 25, 2005. Tim was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Bravo Company, an Elite Corps of the United States Army, where he earned both the Bronze Star with Valor and the Purple Heart.
Until Sunday, I share once again the prayer found in the pocket of a fallen soldier at The Devil’s Den, Gettysburg. What more fitting tribute to the sovereignty of God in the midst of life’s heartbreak?
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey….
I asked for health, that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things….
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise….
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God….
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things….
I got nothing that I asked for –
but everything that I had hoped for,
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.