Memorial Day and Christmas have one thing in common: both holidays celebrate giving. Christmas celebrates God’s gift of salvation in the birth of Christ; and Memorial Day celebrates the gift of freedom by men who secured it with their lives and their blood.
Neither divine grace nor political freedom is “free.” Both have been provided for us at great cost.
And whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, I hope you took time to contemplate the image of the rows of crosses marking the graves of our fallen warriors. We owe such men – as well as the warriors who survived the battle – a debt that we can never repay.
There is a saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I’m sure there have been some atheists in some foxholes at one time or another, but the real point of this bit of folk wisdom is that one tends to pay attention to the Big Picture when one’s life is on the line. When you know you could be blown to bits at any moment, the question as to whether there is a heaven and a hell suddenly becomes more than simple abstract speculation.
To that end, let me talk about the faith that drives men to acts of greatness. I’m not talking about faith in God (although that helps a LOT); I’m talking about faith in a better world, and faith that one’s personal sacrifices can help create that better world.
Faith gets ridiculed in today’s cynical society (e.g. “faith vs. religion,” where the latter is meaningful and the former trivial). And the faith of religious people is all too often dismissed as some kind of enabler for weak minds (e.g. “Religion is the opiate of the masses”; “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion…”) to continue living their simpleminded, idiotic lives.
But it occurs to me that faith is as essential to our democracy as it is to the our religion.
And it occurs to me that the life of faith is not an easy one.
Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Cynics and skeptics think of faith as belief in things that don’t exist, but this is by no means true.
Rather, it is confidence in principles, ideas, and truths that are there even if we can’t see them immediately before us.
Our forefathers, who established what would become the greatest nation in the history of the world were religious Pilgrims, seeking to build their vision in a strange land. The first years were difficult; so many died that the captain pleaded with them to abandon their quest and return to England. But their faith in what they believed was their divinely appointed destiny gave them the courage and the motivation to endure hardship and death.
Our founding fathers, in choosing to devote “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to separate from the injustices of subjugation without representation chose to risk everything for their belief in a better world. The system of government they envisioned had never been tried in the history of the world, but they fought the greatest superpower of the world at the time in order to give a democratic republic a chance. We can imagine them enduring the sufferings of Valley Forge, in which men’s frostbitten feat bled as they stumbled across the snow. They were fighting for a better world, a world they had never seen.
We can think of the faith of our ancestors who faced death on an unprecedented scale in the Civil War. It was the faith of men such as Abraham Lincoln who persevered the cries of shock and outrage, and continued to fight for the better world that he envisioned. There are no better words than the words of Lincoln himself, in what is regarded as the greatest speech ever given:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this
continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in
a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so
conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great
battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of
that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their
lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and
proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot
dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.
The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated
it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will
little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never
forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be
dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here
have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here
dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these
honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which
they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this
nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that
government of the people, by the people, for the people shall
not perish from the earth.
We can think about the faith of those who stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. We can think about the Marines who landed on beaches such as Iwo Jima to fight horrendous, bloody engagements against fanatic opposition. Fascism, Communism, and totalitarianism had consumed the world like a plague, and gained the upper hand. Nazi fascism and Imperial Japanese totalitarianism had seized most of the world in their bloody claws, and men of faith had to pry those claws away by force, finger by finger.
What was on the mind of the soldier who stumbled over the bodies of his fallen brothers while machine gun fire raked across the sand in front of him? What sustained him? What was it that kept such men moving forward, when “forward” seemed to lead only to violent death?
It was faith, hope, and love.
One rabbi, who survived the horrors of the death camp at Auswitzch summed up his experiences by saying, “It was as though a world existed in which all of the Ten Commandments had been reversed: Thou shalt kill, thou shalt lie, thou shalt steal, and so forth. Mankind has never seen such a hell.”
Against such evil stood ordinary men who were motivated to acts of greatness by faith, hope, and love. They died by the millions, but they fought on because they had faith that their sacrifices would not be in vain. And in enduring through faith in a better world that – even when the world before their eyes was nearly consumed by evil – they prevailed over that evil.
And I would add to that list the men and women who are wearing the American flag on their shoulders as they fight to secure liberty in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have been magnificent. I have been so proud of them. Through danger and in spite of every kind of opposition, they have fought men who would impose their will by means of force and terror, and they have prevailed.
On this Memorial Day, we stop to honor those who have fallen in the struggle to provide a better world for succeeding generations. We stop to consider the faith that such men must have had to endure incredible deprivation, danger, and terrible death. And we reflect on the content of their faith: what Lincoln called “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
We know that the vision of such a world has been under attack throughout history, by men who have harbored a darker, more terrible vision of the world. And we know that apart from our warriors, and the faith that sustains them, we will not be able to prevail in the continuous struggle against evil.
Please say a prayer for our warriors, who have placed themselves in harm’s way just as our warriors who came before them. Pray for their safety. Pray for the success of their mission. And pray for their faith, which gives them the courage that sustains them.
And let us honor every one of our veterans – both the living and the dead – who have worn the uniform of the United States of America.
Tags: Afghanistan, better world, courage, democracy, faith, forefathers, founding fathers, freedom isn't free, Gettysburg Adress, honor, Iraq, Iwo Jima, Lincoln, Memorial Day, Nazi, Normandy, prayer, totalitarian, War