Memorial Day comes again even as thousands of Americans are deployed around the world in the uniformed services of the United States. Inevitably, honoring the fallen and honoring veterans goes together with honoring those who currently serve in our place with their lives on the line.
Having visited Washington, D.C., a number of times, I’ve experienced incredible moments of meaning in military cemeteries. There is a solemn call of gratitude that speaks louder than words. Line after line of simple white markers speak the story of the cost of freedom. Our own cemeteries in Rusk County too are dotted with markers of military service.
The resting places of the fallen evoke both memory and gratitude, with line after line of simple white stones marking the graves of the brave.
It is so important that we remember especially those families whose grief is so powerful and so recent. There are spouses, parents, children, brothers, sisters and friends who grieve the thousands of troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Americans celebrate and observe Memorial Day, that debt requires an attention we must not deny. Today, Memorial Day is mainly thought of as the unofficial start of summer – a long weekend playoff basketball, NASCAR, and grilling… but we dare not forget the original vision for this observance.
It all started soon after the end of the Civil War, when the families of the fallen went to decorate the graves of their loved ones who had died in the service of their country.
Originally called “Decoration Day” it was instituted to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. After World War I, the purpose of the day was expanded to include all men and women who died in U.S. military service.
Now, over a century after those first American memorials, we enjoy freedoms purchased and protected with the lives of so many who have worn the American uniform – soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who gave their lives for their country.
Memorial Day comes as Americans owe a debt of unspeakable gratitude to yet another generation of those who have so proudly served and died in the service of their country. How do we recognize – much less repay – that debt?
In the first place, we pause on this Memorial Day to remember – and to count the cost of our freedoms once again. Our freedom has been bought with the blood of the brave.
We honor their memory today as an annual reminder of a debt we can never repay. For Christians, this should be a sentiment easy to connect with.
It is always tricky to know how the church should or shouldn’t celebrate patriotic holidays. Certainly, some churches blend church and state in such a way that the kingdom of God morphs into a doctrinally-thin, spiritually nebulous civil religion. But even with this danger, there are a number of good reasons why Christians should give thanks for Memorial Day.
After all, being a soldier is not a sub-Christian activity. In Luke 3, John the Baptist warns the people to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The crowds respond favorably to his message and ask him, “What then shall we do?” John tells the rich man to share his tunics, the tax collectors to collect only what belongs to them, and the soldiers to stop their extortion. If ever there was a time to tell the soldiers that true repentance meant resigning from the army, surely this was the time. And yet, John does not tell them that they must give up soldier — work to bear fruit, only that they need to be honest soldiers. The Centurion is even held up by Jesus as the best example of faith he’s seen in Israel (Luke 7:9). Military service, when executed with integrity and in the Spirit of God, is a suitable vocation for the people of God.
The life of a soldier can demonstrate the highest Christian virtues. While it’s true that our movies sometimes go too far in glamorizing war, this is only the case because there have been many heroics acts in the history of war suitable for our admiration. Soldiers in battle are called on to show courage, daring, service, shrewdness, endurance, hard work, faith, and obedience. These virtues fall into the “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just” category that deserve our praise (Philippians 4:8).
Military service is one of the most common metaphors in the New Testament to describe the Christian life. We are to “fight the good fight” and “put on the armor” of God, as well as to “serve as a good soldier” of Christ our Lord. When we remember the sacrifice, single-minded dedication, and discipline involved in the life of a soldier, we are calling to mind what we are supposed to be like in service to Christ.
Love of country can be a good thing. Remember, as Christians, we hold a dual citizenship. Our first and ultimate allegiance must always be to Christ whose heavenly dwelling is our eternal home.
But we are also citizens of an earthly country. We will stand before God not as individuals wiped clean of all earthly nationality, but as people with distinct languages, cultural affinities, and homelands. It is not wrong to love our distinct language, culture, or nationality.
Whenever I’m at a ballgame I still get choked up during the singing of the National Anthem. I think this is good. Love for God does not mean we love nothing else on earth, but rather that we learn to love the things on earth in the right way and with the right proportions and priorities. Love of country is a good thing, and it is right to honor those who defend the principles that make our country good.
So thank God for a day to remember God’s common grace to America and His special grace in enlisting us, poor weak soldiers that we all are, in service to Christ our Captain and conquering King.
This is a day that should bring gratitude to every American heart. Our nation has been defended by those who loved liberty more than life, and freedom more than safety.
Don’t let the sun set on your Memorial Day without remembering that debt. Keep this in mind as you observe this holiday with your family. Freedom, though priceless, is never free.