I'm always eager to restore meaning and magnificence to holidays that have been stripped bare of their true and deep significance by a flood of hot dogs, parades, auto races and yard sales. Memorial Day is one of America's true hidden spiritual gems.
Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day, and it once honored only the Union dead of the Civil War. Over time, it became a holiday to honor all those who serve and have served in the armed forces of the United States. However, limiting Memorial Day to the celebration of fallen soldiers, though essential, seems to me to be spiritually and culturally limiting.
I want you to consider what I believe to be the two towering spiritual truths of Memorial Day: 1) America is bigger than us; 2) God is bigger than America.
The first Memorial Day truth, that America is bigger than us, must challenge us to remember that we don't have freedom; we were bequeathed freedom by all those whose bodies lie under the little flags in the military cemetery near my home. We owe a debt to America for our freedom. Sadly, this unassailable fact is not at all obvious to many Americans who believe that America is just a place to pursue our private lives and careers.
We owe something to America for our freedom because of the sacrifice of our honored dead, and because America is bigger than any of us. Indeed, America is as much an idea as a place. There are many honorable ways to pay that debt without dying on the battlefield, although those who have died for our freedom are above us all. The debt of freedom and our generational efforts at repayment create a bond between us. Our acknowledgement that America is bigger than any of us enables us to be bigger than we are. Lincoln knew this when he said in the closing words of his first inaugural address (1861):
"We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
The second spiritual truth of Memorial Day is that God is bigger than America. What troubles some is that patriotism can appear as idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas, my friend and a professor at Duke Divinity School, has written eloquently about this spiritual and moral danger. Stanley loves Isaiah's critique of blind patriotism in Chapter 40 (17, 22-23, 28-31):
"All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
"It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: It is he that bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.
"Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
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