It is Memorial Day in America. This is the time we have chosen to honor those who fell in defense of our liberty and to mourn our losses as a people.
Most of the nation will be celebrating the holiday in one fashion or another, especially since most will also have an extra day off from work on Memorial Day itself. A large portion will hold get-togethers with family and friends in large cities and small towns across the land.
Many folks will also gather at cemeteries amidst flags and flowers that decorate the graves of those who sacrificed life for freedom. They will hear inspiring music and listen to speeches by political figures and other local notables designed to honor those brave fallen warriors.
Honoring the Fallen
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day at the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War. It started with small local observances in which the graves of soldiers from that conflict were decorated with flowers and remembered in prayer.
Within a short span of time the event had gained such popularity that calls to make it an official national holiday began in 1868. On May 30, 1868, the first observance of “Decoration Day,” was officially held at Arlington National Cemetery.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
In the intervening years, the holiday officially became declared “Memorial Day,” with the object to remember and honor those who have died fighting in the U.S. military. The date was fixed on May 30 until 1968 when Congress,
passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.
There are many ways one can observe Memorial Day. I count it a blessing to have an entire weekend to contemplate the inspiring and somber reminders of what liberty has cost, and to honor those willing to pay the enormous price required to secure it.
Public ceremonies of Memorial Day are a fine thing and I hope that everyone will have the opportunity to attend one of those in their own community. However, whether or not one decides to attend, it behooves us all to take some time and express private gratitude for those lives laid down in our defense.
Memorial Day is also an apt time to ask ourselves if we as Americans have managed to learn anything from the sacrifices of our armed forces down through the years. Have we learned to cherish the precious and fragile freedom bequeathed to us, or are there some little-noticed losses among us that threaten liberty itself?
Mourning Our Loss
One of my personal habits during Memorial Day weekend is to dust off some of my favorite war films. It is always inspiring to view the recreations of valor displayed by past heroes.
One of my selections this year was a reviewing of the film “Patton,” starring George C. Scott in a brilliant portrayal of the controversial WWII general. Patton himself was a strange mix of what might be called today a ‘spiritual but not religious,’ person.
In one scene late in the movie, Patton is frustrated by the heavy snowfall on the eve of the famous “Battle of the Bulge,” and orders the head chaplain to write a ‘weather prayer,’ in hopes that the weather will clear. The dialogue between these two is fascinating.
Chaplain: ‘I’m not sure how this will be received. Praying for good weather so we can kill our fellow man?!”
Patton: “I can assure you because of my intimate relations with the Almighty that if you write a good prayer, we’ll have good weather.”
The chaplain obeys the order and Patton reads it himself that evening amidst the blowing snow. Lo and behold, against all the weather predictions, almost perfect weather arrives the very next day! Patton’s response was a bit humorous,
“Get me that chaplain. He stands in good with the Lord and I want to decorate him!”
Whether or not God intervened in response to the prayer I will leave for the reader to judge. In any case, it seems to me it would be difficult to imagine such a conversation on the battlefield today.
Which points to what I believe is perhaps the most critical loss in our nation. One that is certainly worthy of mourning, and after that, worthy of recapturing with God’s help.
This mournful fact is the loss of our sense of national dependence upon God in modern times. Some evidence of this claim is that America and much of the western world has recently seen their demographics undergo a quiet yet decisive shift in religious preferences. Studies from 2015 show that,
The religiously unaffiliated, called “nones,” are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths.
This is the first time in American history that those who claim ‘no religion’ outnumber those who affiliate with any religious group. However, if we look back to the beginning of our republic we will find that we began with copious reliance upon, recognition and recording of the LORD’s mighty hand at every turn.
Acknowledging the LORD from the Beginning
An early incident from perhaps the greatest President of all, George Washington, when he was merely a colonel, is illustrative. Peter Marshall and David Manuel recall the following incident when in the summer of 1755 Washington,
…and his lifelong friend Dr. Craik were exploring wilderness territory in the Western Reserve …a band of Indians came to them with an interpreter. The leader was an old and venerable chief, who wished to speak to Washington. …this is what the chief said: …I have traveled a long and weary path that I might see the young warrior of the great battle. It was on the day when the white man’s blood mixed with the streams of our forest that I first beheld this chief. I called to my young men and said, “Mark yon tall and daring warrior? He is not of the red-coat tribe – he hath an Indian’s wisdom, and his warriors fight as we do – he himself is exposed. Quick let your aim be certain and he dies.” Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for him, knew not how to miss …’Twas all in vain; a power far mightier than we shielded him from harm …ere I go, there is something that bids me speak in the voice of prophecy: Listen! The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his destinies – he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire.
That story had further confirmation from other sources which were written about in a 19th-century history of the United States. According to those sources and Washington’s own personal journal, in that battle,
The twenty-three-year-old colonel had two horse shot out from under him and four musket balls pass through his coat!
In an example from just after then-General Washington became commander of the first Continental Army, he wrote new orders that demonstrate how serious the young commander was about acknowledging the LORD. These orders, among other things, stated,
It is therefore strictly enjoined on all officers and soldiers to attend Divine service. And it is expected that all those who go to worship do take their arms, ammunition, and accoutrements, and are prepared for immediate action if called upon.
What Washington insisted upon he also practiced to an even greater degree on a personal level. He awoke each morning at 4:30am and started the day with at least an hour of Bible study and prayer, even while serving as the first President!
Many other examples can be cited where the sacrifices of warriors throughout American history were combined with strong dependence upon God to deliver victory for liberty. For those who gave their lives in those efforts, we stand in awe of the faithful courage to believe in the liberty they fought for even without seeing the victory in this life.
As we remember and honor the lives given to secure our freedom, we can also mourn the increasing loss of dependence on the LORD’s love, grace, wisdom, and power in our land which put that freedom in peril. For if we as a nation continue to insist on walking away from the LORD, one day He will grant our wishes and disaster will soon follow.
This Memorial Day we should remind ourselves of those who have shed their blood for our liberty from tyranny up to this very day. Moreover, let us as everyday individuals who love America strive to keep and strengthen those rights and liberties which true and brave patriots have defended for over two centuries, so help us, God.
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. James 2:12 [ESV]
Sources: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001
The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977
Featured and Top image courtesy of Michael Levine-Clark’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 1 courtesy of Mobilus in Mobili’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 2 courtesy of Mike’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 3 courtesy of Kamoteus’ Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 4 courtesy of Wally Gobetz’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
All other sources linked or cited in the text