This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day. Although the day is not recognized in the ecclesiastical calendar of the Church, it remains at least a moment in our civic life to reflect seriously on the human costs of wars that is demanded from those who fight them. Memorial Day began in 1868 as a remembrance of the dead on both sides of the Civil War.
I’m not one to fully celebrate patriotic type holidays within the margins of the Church and Sunday worship. (Here me out, before you consider me “un-American” or overly protective of separation of the church and state clause of the constitution). Church musicians have heard me say, “You may choose to play and sing most any hymn or song you wish in church, as long as it is not a patriotic song or a show tune,” although I have a weakness for both – just not in the mix of worship. I did not serve in the military. I never really had the opportunity to resist serving the military. I did, however, secretly wish my parents would consent to sending me to a military boarding-school when I was in my teens, (in odd twist of teenaged rebellion), and I flirted with the idea of applying to attend the Virginia Military Institute for college – it must have been some inner infatuation with uniforms, (that I clung to from my Boy Scout years), because I would have made a poor soldier, for certain. My father knew that. A WWII veteran (who hardly ever spoke of his 5 years in the South Pacific) – Dad came upstairs to my room one evening (in 1968) a few days after I had complied with the required registration for the draft to say to me, “This war (Vietnam) worries me, and should you choose to make a decision that will keep you out of it, I will support it.” Clearly, he was worried about me being a “soldier.” Then he left my room without him or me saying a word (ever) about that moment again. A college deferment kept me from being drafted, and as an early sense of call to an ordained vocation at age 19 went ignored, even though I visited a seminary, I don’t know, I could have missed a call by the Holy Spirit to become a military chaplain.
My parents are buried (inurned in a columbarium for 2) in Arlington National Cemetery. (Any military service person and spouse and dependent children can be inurned there, as long as the service person served “honorably.”) I feel good about mentioning my folks remains rest there. It’s patriotic, reverent, revered even – Arlington is. A phone call there will send someone out to place flowers for them on special occasions, and, of course, there is a flag placed for them on Memorial Day; and I have a pass that allow us to drive to the columbarium without getting tangled up in visitor traffic.
Arlington’s beginnings are a fascinating story, I’m sure there’s some legend and folk lore involved, but this is how it goes: Arlington Plantation was built in the early 19 century by the grandson of George Washington, and was intended to become another living tribute to George, beyond Mt. Vernon, which was still a working plantation. Through a series of family deaths and inheritances, Arlington eventually fell into the hands of Mary Anna Custis who married Robert E. Lee. They, and their children, were inhabiting the great house and 1100 acres when the Civil War broke out and Lee, turning down Lincoln’s invitation to lead the northern Union Armies, became the leader of the Virginia Militia. During an early, major skirmish outside Washington, D.C., Lee sent word to Mary that she and their daughters must flee, that the Union Army was bound to take Arlington – and they did, on both accounts. There were a great number of Virginia Militia casualties in their attempt to “take” Washington D.C, and as legend has it when the decision about where to bury the bodies was made, it came from Lincoln’s Secretary of War (Stanton) who said, “Bury them in Mrs. Lee’s flower beds.” Arlington became very sacred ground, and remains so today.
When I reflect on my personal tendency to keep public displays of patriotism at arms-length, I suppose it has something to do with my strong sense of the moral injury that war costs. Yet, I fly an American flag almost every day this time of year – I suppose it has more to do with the flag being a reminder of principles of freedom than it does a display of might and power.
War happens – and at great cost beyond human physical injury. Jesus Christ, our human representation of the One God for all, breathes the Spirit of forgiveness, love, belonging, and good works, and remains with us, along-side us, here. The Holy Spirit is a fitting remembrance of the One who said, “Love one another, love one another – at all costs.”
I believe people, human beings, come into this life, inherently good. Something or someone of this world causes injury to that innate spirit of goodness and, well, we know what happens. I also believe (I simply must believe) that people wish the church to help them come to terms with their lives and help them get acquainted with their lost innate spirit of goodness, but they fear the church’s judgment and the good ol’ wrath of God – we stink of it like so much incense. My hope for my time, for my short time as a helper in the Church, is that at least in the community where I serve, a few people will come to know the Church as a people and place that can restore their sense of goodness; as often as they need it. I believe that is what Jesus had in mind (and in his heart) when he left us with another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the truth about goodness on this earth, that exceeds all we can desire.