On Memorial Day I cannot help but think of this excerpt from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow:
“I imagined that soldiers who are killed in war just disappear from the places where they are killed. Their deaths may be remembered by the comrades who saw them die, if the comrades live to remember. Their deaths will not be remembered where they happened. They will not be remembered in the halls of the government. Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle? They die at home—in Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in thousands upon thousands of houses where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever.”
I am thankful I have not experienced The News coming to my home with a report of someone I love having been killed in a war. My brother James is a Staff Sergeant in The United States Marine Corps. He has been in The Marines for more than a decade now. During his first combat tour in Iraq I was starting my first year of college. Sporadic opportunities to chat online while he was deployed were a gift and a curse. When his absence from yahoo messenger coincided with a battle that made The News, I learned how to search the Department of Defense website for those killed in action, praying I would not find his name. I thank God I never did. I am nauseous even remembering those times.
As it is with The Marines, the men he served with became brothers to him, and our family learned their names as well. We prayed for and worried about them too. If James were sitting next to me while I’m typing, he’d punch my arm and say something funny about how I can’t get rid of him that easy. Then he’d say something beautiful to honor the men and women who have died in service to our country, and about their families whose homes are now filled with relics and reminders forever. We’d just sit for a minute, each remembering.
Christians are conditioned through worship to have a good memory. We tell the same stories over and over again because our sacred scriptures and our own experience teach us about how forgetful humans can tend to be. Each Sunday when we say the Apostles’ Creed we remember Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. The Apostle Paul says whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26).
We hope we are learning to have a memory that teaches us faith, hope, and love. Faith that is an abiding trust in Jesus who died and also rose from the grave, defeating death. Hope that God will raise us up also and will put the world right again. And love that compels us to serve, forgive, pray, have mercy, and seek justice like Jesus.
We hope we remember Jesus—his life, death, resurrection, and coming again—in a way that helps us live in a reality where love is more powerful than violence. In our sanctuary we have a large cross at the front of the room reminding us that the cross, an instrument of death employed by fear, is puny in comparison to God’s great love.
Our memory also serves to fund an imagination of a future where nations do not learn war anymore. This is more than a wistful longing. It is the future we hope for and expect is surely coming. So we practice ways of peace making and gentleness, seeking to live without enemies. We work to find ways to end to the cycle of offering young men and women as sacrifices again and again on the altar of war. Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice is sufficient for ultimate freedom and peace.
That kind of remembering and hope means for me that on Memorial Day, my remembering of the deaths of so many men and women and the empty places left behind because of their deaths hurts all the more. I lament how in our national and international imaginations war seems to be the only viable option for putting a stop to some evils. Violence that’s supposed end violence. I grieve for parents who have buried their children, and for the spouses and children who’d give anything for one more hug or bedtime story. My heart aches for the service men and women who have carried their friends off the battlefield and laid them to rest in a grave, a flag draped over their casket then folded with reverence and care and presented to their family.
The flag out front makes me grateful for this country I call home. Seeing it, I’m struck by the incredible bravery and love of country that compels my brother and so many like him to enlist in a service that can and does send them off to war. They teach me about honor, discipline, fidelity, and selflessness.
I am moved by all the tributes—personal and national—that memorialize and honor those who died in service. Headstones marked with flags or flowers. Profile pictures changed to photos of family members or friends in uniform. Poems and stories. Each of these is a marker both of gratitude for a person’s life and sadness at their death. Sadness is its own kind of love. It says, “Your life mattered to me, and I miss you terribly.” Tears, knots in our stomachs, and lumps in our throats are reminders that this is not how it’s supposed to be.
I hope Memorial Day can be the kind of day where our memory teaches us to grieve over the deaths of our brothers and sisters; to care for their families; and to cultivate a national imagination that sees and works toward a future where war is no more.
The prophet Isaiah has taught me how to hope and imagine, how to pray and work:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
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.
-Isaiah 2:2-4, NRSV