Memorial Day is one of our most beloved holidays, a much longed-for weekend of picnicking, camping, or other recreation. During my several years living here in Philadelphia I have come to recognize Memorial Day as the opening of the beaches in New Jersey and therefore a time to avoid the eastbound lanes of I-76. When people think of Memorial Day they think of the first real weekend of summer, of open sun-roofs and beach volleyball.
When I think of Memorial Day I think of my childhood. What I remember is solemnly walking through a cemetery, wearing first a blue Cub Scout uniform and then Boy Scout khaki. Along with my fellow memorializers I am planting little flags alongside white rounded grave-markers. The tombstones are all the same, in endless and perfectly straight lines. My memory includes not one but many such Memorial Days and many different cemeteries, but they all look the same, they all feature the same neat white rows.
Many of you may have memories that are similar to mine, and I imagine that there will be boys and girls forging their own tomorrow. That is what Memorial Day is meant to remember – not summer vacation, but the war dead of our nation.
My childhood experience is probably not typical. I was raised on Army posts during the VietNam War, a war that more than once took my father away during my childhood. My father returned home from Viet Nam, but many of my boyhood friends’ dads did not. I would guess that I attended more funerals by the age of ten than most people do in a lifetime. As a result, these formative years instilled in me an intense patriotism, which played no small part in leading me into a military career like my father and grandfather before me. I was commissioned on Memorial Day weekend, a time when I was always proud to be an American, and grateful for those who laid down their lives for us.
I realize that my childhood may have been atypical in many respects, but I think in one particular respect my subsequent experience may be quite similar to that of many others. That is that when I became a Christian my relationship to Jesus considerably altered my attitude towards flag and country.
I want to confess that many people would not consider me a patriot today. I can remember that fiery nationalism of old, the passionate belief that America is and must be first and best, but it is no longer accessible to me. As a Christian I am not concerned with national pride. In fact, I am often shamed by my country, including sometimes its use of armed force. Today I give no thought to national preeminence as once I did.
There are a few reasons for this change of attitude. First, I no longer consider it a matter of importance that America be first and best. As a Christian, I find it impossible to think of people from other lands as rivals. Rather, I see them as fellow men and women made in the image of God, destined either for judgment or for glory. I do not care at all for the pride of my nation, but rather for her righteousness. How can a Christian look upon the state of America now and not hear the proverb ringing in his ears: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people" (Prov. 14:34).
Furthermore, I no longer can believe that what is right and best is the extension of Imperial America, but rather the extension of God's Kingdom through the Gospel. Eighteen years ago I believed, with some good reason, that national defense was the great need of the hour, and so I became a soldier. Several years later I concluded that national revival is the only hope for my country, and that is one reason why I then became a preacher of the Gospel.
Many of you have had similar transitions. Some of you were liberal activists, but you no longer believe that government provides the solution for a people who have turned away from God. Others of you were lasseiz faire conservatives, but no longer can turn your eyes away from the poor and the lost. Commitment to Christ changes both our priorities and our beliefs about life and justice and change.
Nonetheless, I still want to be, and to be called, a patriot. Where does this start for a Christian? Let me suggest that Memorial Day is not a bad place to begin. Memorial Day reminds us that we are part of a nation, with a history, with privileges, and with responsibilities that are the result of the sacrifice of others. Memorial Day reminds us that we are debt to many people. Some of them are soldiers who died for causes like liberty, justice, and peace. Recognizing our debt produces gratitude, gratitude to them and gratitude to God, a gratitude that serves as a good basis for a Christian patriotism.
Let me offer two more motives for a Christian love of country. The first is that Christians should always be interested in the transformation of the society in which they live. “What does the Lord require of you?” the prophet asked. The answer was this: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). Seeking justice and loving mercy take place within a societal context, and Christians need to identify with their society in pursuit of godly aims.. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said. In the same way that salt identifies with the meat it purifies, we cannot keep our hearts aloof from the struggles and ambitions of the nation in which we live.
The last motive is one that always should drive Christians off our reservation, out of our self-imposed ghettos, and that is the mandate to share the Gospel with the world around us. Memorial Day celebrates the sacrifice of soldiers who died for this country. Those soldiers did not go to the Fiddler's Green of military lore, an eternal cantina on a heavenly fairway; they died and stood before God, some receiving condemnation and some everlasting life. Jesus’ Great Commission tells us, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Surely the command to go and make disciples begins in the nation in which we have been placed by God. As a Christian patriot, therefore, I have no fonder hope than for the evangelization of my own homeland and the salvation of my fellow countrymen, and yes, particularly our soldiers.
These are good things for us to memorialize on this holiday, the stark reality that in this world, for our nation, men and women must die for what is right, for what is pleasing in God's sight. Whether we are playing games tomorrow or, better yet, participating in the civic remembering of our nation, let us not forget that life is not a game and that as Christians we above all should love and serve the great nation of which we are a part, to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbors.
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