Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind. Psalm 104: 1-3
One of the most famous pictures from World War II must surely be the photo of five valiant Marines raising an American flag on the island of Iwo Jima. The young man in the center of the photo was John Bradley. There was an article, “Flags of our Fathers” in Readers Digest that told the story of Bradley. When he returned from war, he didn’t like to talk about his experiences. He had saved lives (he won the Navy Cross) but he had also witnessed and felt his friends fall. Once he said to his son James, “The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.” On Memorial Day, we honor those men and women who didn’t come back, and we also honor the ones who did, who fought alongside them, our honored veterans. They are also true and fullfledged heroes.
Memorial Day reminds us that our lives are moving in a spiritual direction, and that is not our usual way to think about life. When we gaze into the future, we think about aging and what that brings. We may think about changes in life. Usually we consider the things that are ahead for us, and they are things that we can visualize, that we can grasp. Even the non-tangibles that are ahead, such as a job progression, or retirement, can be represented by some symbol of achievement, like a bonus or raise, or a gold watch. But during Memorial Day in the back of our minds we are struck by images of long lines of white graves representing the soldiers who gave their lives, and we are reminded that they gave themselves so that our lives could be extended. We realize the cost that they paid, the cost of their own lives, and we can never thank them enough for giving us life in this time of freedom.
I spoke with a member this weekend about her visit to the airport when a Southwest airlines program that flies American veterans was in full swing. She watched long lines of sailors waiting for the veterans to enter the airport, and a parade of wheelchairs being prepared. As she described the scenes to me, she was emotionally touched by our veterans and how they risked their lives. She was full of gratefulness for them. She said to me, “There is no other country that has a song like, “God bless America!” After hearing her story, I saw in today’s paper the image of a little boy pulling a suitcase in the airport. Did you see that picture? Maybe five-years-old, this little boy pulled his little suitcase along with a memorial picture of his father on the back of his T-shirt. Two different scenes in the airport, each makes a powerful statement- what a stark reminder of how fragile life is, and how much of a cost was paid.
I called my brother, Michael, a Navy chaplain, to wish him a happy Memorial Day weekend, and asked what the most difficult part was about his calling. The answer came quickly- one of the most difficult parts is serving as a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). When he is called to serve in that way, it is very heart wrenching because he has to give information to families about their soldier who has been injured, or is missing, or has been killed. I thought about how tough it is to share such devastating news with families. When families hear that kind of news, the loss must be unbearable, and sometimes it is. In times like that, knowing that we are moving in a spiritual direction may be the only thing that keeps us engaged with life. There are soldiers who do not return from war. There are some who do return but who return less than whole, sometimes less whole physically, sometimes less whole emotionally, and sometimes less whole spiritually.
When James Bradley, the son of one of the Marines who planted the flag on Iwo Jima, heard his father say, “The true heroes are those who didn’t come back,” we get a sense of how it feels to witness a friend fall to the enemy. He left some of himself over there with those friends. He may not feel like a hero. But we know that those who survived are true heroes to the very core. We humbly honor them today; they put their lives on the line for America, for us. When they remember their fallen friends it must be a heavy burden to bear.
When I read what happened on Iwo Jima in February of 1945, I realize I can never truly understand what those Marines experienced. Nothing in my life will ever come close to what they did. When the Marines stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima they had no way of knowing that honeycombed beneath the surface of that island in a network of tunnels 22,000 enemy soldiers were waiting for them. Our troops poured onto that narrow beach, sopping wet and weighed down by equipment, not knowing they were already in the cross hairs of an enemy they couldn’t see. The enemy waited until the beach was so filled with American soldiers they couldn’t miss. The mortars and bullets rained down upon our soldiers but instead of running back, the Marines pressed forward. They ran into the machine gun fire. Their friends fell on each side of them, but they kept moving forward.
I asked my chaplain brother, “How do you encourage those troops who do tour after tour after tour, and when they want to give up, how do you encourage them to keep on?” He said that sometimes they are inspired by powerful images like going into battle as a lump of coal but coming out as a diamond, but what truly inspires them is how they know that they are fighting for something much bigger than themselves. He recalled a moment in Africa when several soldiers were looking up at the moon, a full moon bigger and brighter than any they had seen. He recalled how several mentioned that they were fighting for their wife and kids back home, or for their mother or father, or for a place. But one said, “I don’t have anyone special, but I’m fighting for them all, for America, for all of them, every little school child, every grandmother, every single one, every American!” And the whole group cheered in supportive agreement under that bright moon. They were unified. Knowing that they believe in the defense of our country, in a cause so much greater than self, in the things that are really important in life, in the ideals of freedom and the hopes and dreams of America- that makes this Memorial Day weekend filled with the light of gratefulness even brighter than that African moon. It is a spiritual light that unifies the people of God as a family of faith.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote in his autobiography An American Journey about Sam Donaldson’s interview of an Operation Desert Storm soldier. After being asked if he was afraid, the private replied that he would do okay because he was with his family. Donaldson didn’t quite catch what he meant, and a soldier nearby exclaimed, “Tell him again! He didn’t hear you!” With even more assurance in his voice, the young man stated, “This is my family, and we’ll take care of each other.”
There is a spiritual direction those troops share, a camaraderie, a sense of being a family. They are clear about their goals and focused. They are bonded to one another in support. It is a great model for how the church should work. As we support one another, we can share ideas, resources, prayers, and efforts to help others. Our commitment to God in a mission of helping others reminds us that life is moving in a spiritual direction, driven and inspired by life’s ultimate goal of complete freedom in God’s presence.
Archibald MacLeish’s poem at the end of World War II underscores our responsibility to the sacrifices that were made on our behalf. The poem MacLeish wrote was called “The Young Dead Soldiers.” You may recall these lines:
We give meaning to the sacrifices that the soldiers gave? What a heavy weight to bear, so heavy that we cannot bear it alone, no one can, so we must share the burden in this community of faith. We must strive toward giving their deaths meaning. The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor those who have sacrificed their lives to defend our country, and also to honor those who gave portions of their lives to warfare but survived- our honorable veterans of war. It is their day, too, because they kept moving forward as their friends fell by their side. They sacrificed for you and me, let us never forget their sacrifice, and let us be better Americans by honoring the ideals that they fought for. They paid the cost of freedom for us. May God bless those who have fallen, and those who returned, and may we honor their bravery. May we follow their lead. May their courage point our lives in a spiritual direction!