Greater love hath no man than this, that they lay down their life for their friends.
Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War, on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in battle. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service.
Memorial Day is differentiated from Veterans Day by the lives lost. On Memorial Day we honor those who gave their lives during a war. Veterans Day honors those who served during a war. To add further confusion, our Memorial Day began as Decoration Day and was changed in 1971. The British still have “Decoration Day”, honoring the fallen, which they celebrate on the same day we celebrate Veteran’s Day. So, it is no mystery why we get confused about the essence of these holidays.
Memorial Day, like so many of our holidays, is a mixture of solemnity and lightheartedness. We will lay flowers at the grave of a relative, friend, or other loved one who died in battle and then have a picnic and go to rib cook-offs. We shop for furniture, sheets, paint, and cars, and then contemplate the freedoms we have because of the sacrifices men and women have made on our behalf.
It is a holiday that we grow into. Our concepts about it mature as we ourselves mature. As children, it is more about the beginning of summer and a day off from school. But as we mature, we see more meaning in the nature of the holiday. I say this without criticism or judgment. A holiday is meaningful precisely for the meaning that we give it. About this Memorial Day, what and whom are we remembering? Why are we celebrating this weekend? Are we swept up in the commerciality or can we produce a memory with more personal meaning?
For me, Memorial Day is significant for the gratitude that it draws to my heart; the gratitude for the sacrifice that others were willing to make on my behalf -- not knowing me, not knowing I would even be around to enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice. That just stops me in my tracks. Anything that causes us to pause and appreciate our blessings is a good thing, to my way of thinking.
One of the ideas that intertwines my thinking about Memorial Day is my own willingness to give. If the situation called for it, would I lay down my life for a person or cause that I loved? I think that I would. But would I lay down my life for people that I didn’t know or would never meet? Depending upon the situation, for instance – war – I would like to believe that I would.
Of course, fear plays a large part in how we behave and the choices we make. In soldiering, the point is to build in such a deep loyalty and discipline that fear does not play as great a role. Alternatively, the military trains the soldier to use their fear to advantage.
Research shows that fear of personal and familial safety affects our consciousness and behavior. If we feel threatened, we tend toward a more aggressive type of behavior even though it is not our nature to do so. With discipline, this aggression can be beneficial.
Yet, as I think about our behavior as a species, much of what I observe reflects fear, but undisciplined fear. Fear is demonstrated by the ways we organize ourselves socially, and how we limit our range of sharing with others and sacrificing for others.
Because of fear, we often segregate ourselves into smaller communities, and occurs at all socio-economic levels of society. When threatened, we tend toward a ‘tribal’ mentality; an ancient set of behaviors that dominated pre-civilized times.
The tendency to ‘gang’, is not bad in and of itself, although I think it represents a limited and self-absorbed consciousness. A primary problem with a gang of any type is that it reduces the willingness to make sacrifices for anyone outside of the gang. When we think of ourselves in terms of gangs – some elite collective – we give of ourselves primarily, if not exclusively, only to that small group. Our sacrifice, giving and serving, is limited by the size of our consciousness.
The second challenge of a gang mentality is that it restricts our gratitude. When we see ourselves as only a part of a small group, our hearts are open only to that small group for giving thanks. Good deeds from outside the group can be over-looked or looked upon with disdain.
I believe Christ came to expand our awareness … expand our social identification. He desired that we see past our tribal tendencies and behave like the Good Samaritan, caring for those outside our own religion and social circles.
When we are God-attuned enough, we appreciate every soul who has lost their life in battle or those who have given their lives in civic duty so that we can live the life we do today. When we are aware enough, we are thankful that those individuals had the nationalistic view that they did. They gave their life for God and country, and we all benefit for it.
Only a small percentage of us have personally lost a loved one or relative in battle. But many more of us know of someone who has suffered that loss, and most of us have suffered the loss of someone close to us outside of war. For me, Memorial Day is a time to consider the loved ones that I have lost even if they were not lost on the field of battle. I think of my Dad, what he meant to me, and all that he sacrificed on my behalf. I think of other family members and friends and remember all the good that they brought into the world while they lived. They may not have laid down their life for me, but I am a recipient of their having lived.
For me, Memorial Day is about remembering; remembering and appreciating not only those who have given their lives for my betterment, but for all those I have had the honor to know who have given of themselves in any way at all on my behalf. My wife, parents, children, family, friends, members of this church, teachers, co-workers, managers, and total strangers have aided me, supported me, and given of themselves for me.
Many, many people have given of themselves for me, and that is true for every one of us. No, it has not always been the ultimate sacrifice as that of the fallen soldiers or of Christ. But still, there are reasons for each of us to be grateful for the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf, most of which we are totally unaware.
Memorial Day can be a call to attention; a time to self-assess what we are giving to others, and a time to re-evaluate our thankfulness levels. It is easy for me to give of myself to my family and friends, to this church and people that I know. But it is hard for me to give to others that I do not know, and harder still to give of myself to those that I do know but do not really care for.
It is easy for me to succumb to my basest instincts and become tribal, protecting myself from some imagined fear. Colossians 2:8 warns us: See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
There are times when my human desire for the safe harbor of a ‘good old’ boy’ tribe shades me from the light of Christ. It is a hollow and deceptive human tradition, one of the oldest basic principles of the world that I tend to embrace when I am uncertain and afraid – and that is to pull back, to pull away, like a hedgehog curling into a prickly ball.
I need to remember to look toward God before I react from those base instincts, because it is God’s direction that I give – in all circumstances – give love, reach out, and appreciate the blessings of life, including its challenges. We can remember to live life to the fullest because we simply do not know how long we have.
Memorial Day is a time to reflect, to be grateful, and to give tribute. It is also a time to reflect, act, and walk in the light of Spirit. Can we expand our awareness of tribe just a bit, to include a few more of God’s children? We may not be able to hold the whole of the world in our hearts yet, but can we move just a bit further in that direction? It is, after all, what Christ is asking us to do – to love our neighbor.
Spirit encourages us to enlarge our tribe. Perhaps someday we will see ourselves as God sees us: where every nation is one, where we are all part of one large family, and where every fallen soul regardless of country, is see as worthy of our gratitude.
“No one has greater love than this – that one would lay down his life for his friends.” So, as we celebrate Memorial Day, we pay tribute to the men and women who have given their lives in our nation’s wars, as well as to the men and women who have given their lives in times of civic disasters and other emergencies over the years. In addition, we honor and remember all those who have passed through our lives having served us, supported us, and given of themselves on our behalf.
We may also turn a thought to Christ and appreciate the love given us. May we embrace that love; it encourages us to make our own sacrifices for those in need and enables us to feel the inner peace that eases our troubled hearts and calms our fears.
So, it is my prayer that our hearts hold compassion for every family on earth that has lost a loved one in battle. We may call them enemies, but in truth they are just young men and women commanded to action by governments and leaders who hold values that differ from ours. In God’s eyes we are all children of one family, worthy of love and Divine Care.
I envision the time, perhaps many generations from now, when grandpa sits with the grandkids at his feet, telling stories of ancient days, and the children ask, “War, Grandpa? What is war?” So until that time, let us hold the high watch for each other and remember.
I wish you a profoundly grateful and meaningful Memorial Day. God bless you.