I am certain you will understand the reason why we will not share in our weekly Soul Care Conversation. It is Memorial Day weekend, an appropriate time to reflect on the significance of why we honor a very select number of warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice. Why is this important?
Even before I took the oath of office as an officer in the US Army, I held Memorial Day as a very important and special day. Why? My grandfather was a Navy veteran of World War II. As a husband and father of four, he thought it important to volunteer to serve his country during a difficult and trying time. I do not use this term lightly, but he was my hero. He taught me much about personal sacrifice, duty, honor, courage, selfless service, and country.
Because of his and the family’s sacrifice, I decided to learn as much as I could about war and those who fought in war. I read and studied as much as I could about the personal cost of war and the effects war has on family and community. There are so many stories of young men and women who either volunteered or were drafted that went off to war never to see home or their family again.
In fact, while my family and I were stationed in Mons, Belgium in 1999, my parents came for a visit. We toured through Belgium into southern Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and then back through eastern Germany to Berlin. As we were about to depart from Berlin on our return back to Mons, my dad asked if we could stop at Henri-Chapelle American Military Cemetery. Of course I was curious as to why. My father then shared that he had an uncle who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge and was buried in this cemetery.
We arrived to the cemetery that sits on top of a ridge close to the border of Belgium and Germany. It is 1 of 14 American Cemeteries on foreign soil for World War II dead, and 1 of 3 in Belgium. We arrived and could not help but notice the pristine grounds and the view from the ridge. Prior to entering the cemetery proper, there is a mural depicting the Battle of the Bulge and other engagements that would result in those who would spend eternity on this sacred ground. There was also a mural map that specified the layout of the cemetery.
My dad pulls out of his pocket an old, crinkled, discolored letter. It was the original letter from the War Department that specified the location where our uncle was buried. Dad all of sudden became concerned. He said that the section annotated in the letter was no longer on the map. We then made our way to the cemetery office where my dad produced the letter with the name of our uncle. After a few key strokes on a computer, the woman explained that he was still in the cemetery, however he was moved. At one time the cemetery interred over 14,000 US warriors, however the cemetery now contains 7,992 graves. Family of the remainder of the dead had their loved ones re-interred back in the States, close to home.
This kind woman asked if we would like to visit the grave. After she received our affirmation, she made a call. In a few minutes, a gentlemen of at least 80 years old, carrying two buckets and a US flag, entered the office. He asked us to follow him. In a very somber and respectful manner, he led us to the graveside where he took a sponge out of one of the buckets, washed down the grave marker, a cross, he then took out of the other bucket a paint brush where he gathered some ashes on the brush and brushed them over the engraving on the stone. He then placed the US flag near the head stone and with tears in his eyes, asked if there was anything else he could do. I know that my eyes were filled with tears as I am sure the same could be said for the rest of us standing there, reflecting on what just happened.
Here we were, American citizens in Belgium, standing on soil that saw some of the most intense fighting in the war, and a man from Belgium was paying respect, honor, and appreciation for the sacrifice of another person not even from his country. This brings me to 2015.
You may recall that Memorial Day weekend last year happened to coincide with Pentecost. Now I am not one who entertains the notion of civil religion. I firmly believe that what we do in worship is for the worship of God, not nation. However, I also think that there should be a time and place during worship, especially during Memorial weekend, to do the following;
- to honor those who died and support the families who lost a loved one
- to pray for forgiveness for our culpability as a nation that we cannot bring ourselves to deal with conflict other than to send young women or men to war
- to remind us to constantly pray for peace
- to commit ourselves to the care for those who return from war
A year has passed and I still recall my visceral reaction to a colleague who was sharing her personal angst over the fact that one of her parishioners wanted to recognize those warriors who paid the ultimate sacrifice in war during the worship service, and “it was Pentecost, by God”. “Pentecost is a church holiday, Memorial Day is not on the church calendar.” Agreed, however…
Here is what I thought, that the secular holiday in May of Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day in June) is more celebrated in the church than the ancient feast of Pentecost. Sorry mothers, but it is true. And yes, mothers should be celebrated! However, it was best I kept these thoughts to myself.
Here is what I said, and needless to say, I was probably not very gracious in my response. I replied very curtly, “that unless you have been there, to see hundreds of transfer cases with US flags tightly draped over the aluminum container holding the remains of a US warrior who while serving his or her country made the ultimate sacrifice, you would not understand”. “Some were friends, others I never knew. However, they all demand our respect and honor!”
Of course Pentecost is important! And we should not overshadow Memorial Day observances with the importance of the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and followers of Christ. However, I believe we can do both, not only on Pentecost Sunday, but any Memorial Day Sunday. Why not in the liturgy and during the prayers, honor the disciples’ time of prayer and unity while awaiting the Holy Spirit. But, we can also include in the liturgy and prayers a time to honor those who served for freedom and to fight for the oppressed, and who gave their all.
This weekend, as you worship, please keep in your minds and prayers all of those who gave of themselves, even unto death, to serve their country. Also, pray for their families who continue to grieve their loss. And, pray for peace, that one day, we will never have to be concerned about whether to recognize our fallen during worship.