I did not grow up in a military family. My father was a minister and my mother was a church secretary and so my life was centered in the church. Perhaps it was because we didn’t have any immediate family who served in the military that on Memorial Day we would put flowers on my grandparents’ graves and other loved ones. My genuine understanding of Memorial Day grew to be that it was simply a time to remember all loved ones who had died, regardless of whether or not they had served in the armed forces. I knew that I saw a lot of flags in the cemeteries on Memorial Day weekend, but as a self-absorbed young person, I never thought much about it.
Honestly, I never had to think much about it. I never had to worry about a loved one serving in a far-away place or even knew anyone who did. I enjoyed all the freedoms of living in America but in truth, I almost had a quiet disdain for anything to do with the military or anything too pro-America. As a person of faith, I said I worshipped God, not a flag. I saw those who entered the military as being blinded by the uniforms and the false god of power or war. My respect was reserved for people who devoted their lives to peace and spiritual thought and creativity.
So I trained for the ministry and became an ordained pastor. I knew veterans of all kinds in my churches and I loved them but I was quick to move the American flag out of the sanctuary. It was rare I would allow a patriotic hymn to be sung and I never preached about a national holiday.
I might have always been this way, except for one weekend late in May when I decided to talk about Memorial Day during the children’s message in church. I don’t remember a lot of what I said except that I said out loud my thoughts about Memorial Day being a day to not just remember those who have served in the military and died, but a day to remember all our loved ones who had died. We even did a little ceremony where the kids lit candles as they remembered grandmas and grandpas or others who were now in Heaven. I thought it had been quite a nice service.
But the next week, I got an e-mail from a fellow in my congregation asking me if he could come in and visit with me. I had no idea what he wanted to talk about but we set up a meeting for later that week.
Walt was an outgoing man, probably in his sixties. He had worked in public relations for many years for a large corporation until he retired a few years earlier. He was active in our church and in the community, and he was also a Veteran.
When Walt entered my office, he sat down and we made small talk for a few minutes and then he got right to his point. He said he had to respectfully disagree deeply with something I had said on Sunday. He went on to inform me calmly and clearly of the true meaning of Memorial Day, how it is solely for the purpose of remembering Service men and women who died. He told me his lovely wife, Jean, who had been sitting next to him on Sunday, was the widow of a man who died in combat. He said he could not allow me to misunderstand what Memorial Day was about.
I don’t think I have ever been so grateful for someone to take the time to correct me. Although I felt foolish and ignorant as I sat there with this man who knew so much about the military and sacrifice and had helped raise the children of a soldier who died in combat, and built a life with his widow, I also felt immensely grateful that he would patiently and calmly help me to pause and see and understand what I had never taken time to understand before. He could have just angrily left my church without telling me why he was upset, people have done so for much less significant reasons, but rather he chose to talk to me – and he changed my view of everything. He helped me see Memorial Day and even patriotism itself in a new light, a truer light. Self-sacrifice, the greatest love that one can have for another, that of laying one’s life down for another – Jesus’ very definition of Love, is at the heart of Memorial Day. I can get behind that. I respect and honor that.
Now on Memorial Day you will find me at the local Memorial Day ceremony and I am thankful when I am asked to stand up and pray for the families and friends left behind by their soldiers. I will always pray for the Veterans who still live but continue to battle the scars that wars have left behind. I give thanks to God for the freedom we have, the freedom I have had the luxury to take for granted so often. I give thanks to God for Walt, who helped me see all these things more clearly.