Just about two miles from my home is the Woods National Cemetery. I took a drive out there this Memorial Day afternoon to reflect on the meaning of this holiday.
As you can see from the above picture, this is a place of honor. The graves are well tended, each one having been given its own little American Flag. It is one of the oldest National Cemeteries in the nation, with interments going back all the way to the Civil War. So many have been buried in this place that the cemetery itself has been closed (except in very special cases) to new interments.
At noon there had been a small service to honor those who had served, and in many cases died, in the Armed Forces of the United States. Sadly, less than a hundred people had gathered together to pay tribute to these patriots. As I drove through the vast expanse of this Garden of Stone, I saw only a handful of people visiting the graves of their loved ones, and remembering the sacrifices they had made.
As an American, I am proud of those who answered their nations call to serve. Many of my own relatives lay in places like this, my father who served in the Pacific Theater of Operation during WWII as part of a Tank Destroyer Unit; my brother who served in the Navy during Vietnam on the USS Springfield, and many other uncles and cousins, as well as multiple in-laws who also answered the call to serve their nation. Some gave their lives in battle. Most returned from their wars, and carried on with their civilian lives, often enriched by what they had learned from their experiences, but occasionally wounded in body and soul in ways that crippled them, and haunted them the rest of their days.
I felt sad as I drove through this vast, practically deserted place of honor and beauty. Very few had come out on this special day to remember those who had sacrificed and often gave their lives to defend our lives and our freedoms. Thousands upon thousands, laying under their simple stone monuments, their names in most case only honored each day as the sun rises in the east, and casts its light upon their markers, illuminating their names in splendor. Most people seem to prefer spending this day in leisure activities. Cooking out with family and friends, going to a ball game at the Stadium only a few short blocks away, maybe just relaxing at home watching TV.
In many cases, perhaps the people who lay under these markers have literally been forgotten by their families and friends. Perhaps, for some, it is too painful to visit and be reminded of their loved ones passing. And perhaps many are so apathetic that they no longer care to visit.
But I wonder, for those of us who come from a Judeo-Christian tradition, if the real reason so many people never come to give honor to the dead on Memorial Day is that we know, in our heart of hearts, that these places should not be necessary, and that they do exist fills us deeply in our souls with a sense of shame.
Isaiah_2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (New Revised Standard Version)
Since the time of the Prophet Isaiah, the people of God have known that it is God’s desire that the day comes when nations no longer wage war against each other. The Ten Commandments God gave Moses on Mount Sinai, as well as being a guide for the way people interact with each other and God are also a guide to help whole nations learn to interact with each other. Do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet, if all nations used these rules as a guide in their international relationships, truly there would be peace on earth.
For a Christian, we also have the clear teachings of Christ to guide us. For example:
Mat_5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Luk_6:29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
(Matthew 22:36-40 NRSV)
We are called to be peacemakers, to be willing to forgive and not seek vengeance when we have been wronged. We are called most importantly to love our neighbors as ourselves. The fact that we do not do these things, the pain of knowing how often we have violated Gods plan for life and love fills us with sorrow, a sorrow that we don’t even want to acknowledge.
That is why, I think, so many of us stay away from these gardens of Stone that our fallen patriots lay in. We know on a very primal level that in many ways our hearts, as individuals and as nations, are still as hard as the stones that mark the graves of millions. We know that these places should be unnecessary and that they represent a failure by all those who claim Christ as Lord and Savior to follow his teachings.
This is not to lay the blame on any of the men and women who lay beneath these stones. They obeyed the call of the nation to serve, and their memory deserves to be honored because they choose to do so. So we should honor them by remembering the sacrifices they made for us. But we should also honor their memories by working for a world where all live in peace. A world where the prophecy of Isiah is fulfilled, where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Then, perhaps someday soon, we will look at these gardens of Stone, and see them for what they are, monuments to people who honored their land, but also as a reminder of the price we pay for not living following the teachings of Christ.
Your brother in Christ,