On Memorial Day, I remember my uncle Jimmy who was killed in action in Vietnam, grieving with my friends Ray and Rhonda at their son-in-law’s memorial, praying at a ceremony at a French military Memorial Day ceremony in 2002, and listening to my Dad talk about his service in the Army. I recall speaking at military memorial ceremonies and funerals, notifying startled and sometimes angry families that their beloved hero had died, marching off aircraft behind the remains of Americans killed in Afghanistan while I spoke the words of Psalm 23 and Psalm 24 from memory. I remember praying with a Turkish Army officer after a helicopter crash killed the officer’s friend, a fact we learned as part of a team that identified the bodies. I have walked through beautifully maintained cemeteries in Germany and seen memorial markers for soldiers who died fighting for Germany during WWII. That nation still refrains from honoring those who committed war crimes during that era, but families mourn those who died fighting. I have witnessed the impact of war and military training on families. I have been the young nephew who winces and watches his aunt cry as an honor squad fires volleys in salute at the gravesite.
On Memorial Day, we remember people who acted on our behalf, sometimes in our place, and sometimes beside us. If we are the friends or family who survive, on this day we yearn for someone to remember the one we loved, or just to realize that our pain still survives at some level. We all need people who will rejoice when we rejoice, but will also weep when we weep. That is why I believe it is appropriate for religious assemblies to take time to recognize those who died serving their country and to console the survivors – the parents, spouses, children, friends, and comrades-in-arms who still ache because the unexpected vacuum that persists in their hearts. In the words of Lamentations 1:20,
“See, LORD, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious. Outside, the sword bereaves; inside, there is only death.”
We who survive grieve potential that will never be realized, regret arguments that can never be retracted or forgiven, covet conversations that will never happen in this life. We remember, and when we remember, in some ways our heroes return and remind us of what we might achieve if we remain faithful. So, on this Memorial Day, when you pause to honor those who died, remember too those who survived, and when you can, encourage them, and pray for them.
O God, War ravages our cities and our countryside. It kills our heroes, or maims them, but somehow refines others so that they grow beyond what they might have been had they not been shocked into awareness by the horror of conflict. For many of us, the dead that we honor on Memorial Day have faces. We recall their voices and can almost still feel their hugs. We may still cringe when we reflect on a moment that we wish we could have back so we could live it better. Console the families and friends who grieve. Infuse them with a hope grounded in love that will encourage and produce a positive growth. Renew within us the urge to seek peace and pursue it, for we have seen and felt the pain of war. Remind us how we may encourage one another and spur each other on to love and good deeds. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
- Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011