By Douglas L. Carver
Although Memorial Day was first officially celebrated in the United States on May 30, 1888, it actually began 150 years ago at Arlington National Cemetery as a crowd of more than 5,000 people gathered for “Decoration Day” to place flowers on the graves of those killed during the American Civil War. The audience heard a stirring message from Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield, a lay preacher and former major general in the Civil War who would later become the 20th president of the United States.
Garfield began his powerful speech almost apologetically, recognizing “the impropriety of uttering words” at such a solemn occasion to honor the fallen in battle. Reflecting on the thousands of graves surrounding him, he said, “For the love of country they accepted death and thus resolved all doubts and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” He pleaded with his fellow Americans to forever remember the sacrificial service of our veterans whose “voices from the gravestones will forever fill the land like holy benedictions.”
Sadly, on this Memorial Day, few people will take time on this national holiday to pause and remember to thank God for the over 1 million soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and coast guardsmen who have laid down their lives in service to our country since the founding of the Continental Army in 1775.
Memorials are important to every nation. They not only help us remember the past, but they also encourage us to look with hope toward the future. As the people of God, we look to Jesus Christ’s death on the cross to remember the terrible price He paid in full for our sins. Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus’ sacrifice for our salvation and His promised return for those who believe in Him.
In Joshua 4, after Israel crossed the Jordan River, Almighty God told Joshua to take 12 stones from the riverbed and set up a memorial so no one would ever forget God’s miraculous deliverance. Joshua said, “In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean to you?'” they were to remind future generations of God’s deliverance and provision. These stones, he said, “will always be a memorial for the Israelites” (CSB).
Memorials aren’t very popular today. I’m concerned that we’re slowly forgetting the importance of Memorial Day and the blood, sweat, and tears our veterans gave for our peace, liberty, and personal security. Patriotism is no longer in vogue in our American culture and in a growing number of our churches. Why do we observe this national holiday? What motivated our country to remember and honor the members of the Armed Services?
Several years ago, my wife and I had breakfast at an historic restaurant filled with antiques, celebrity photographs, and American memorabilia. In the back of the restaurant, down a dimly lit hallway near the kitchen, sat an old, dusty and obviously neglected display case. As I investigated the piece of furniture for myself, I saw an officer’s ceremonial sword and all sorts of military awards, including the Navy Cross. When I inquired about whom these items belonged to, no one had a clue. Some didn’t even know the display case was there.
A faded yellow document on the wall told the heroic story of a young 27-year-old Navy lieutenant, Albert Thomas Harris. On Nov. 12, 1942, Albert commanded an anti-aircraft battery aboard the USS San Francisco, protecting Marines as they fought the Battle of Guadalcanal. As an enemy torpedo plane flew directly at the ship, Lt. Harris stood his ground, continuing to direct defensive fire into the face of enemy gunfire, “meeting death without flinching.” As a result, Albert was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for extreme gallantry above and beyond the call of duty.
Memorial Day is all about remembering the hundreds of thousands of veterans like Lt. Albert Harris who honorably served and sacrificed their lives for our many freedoms as a nation. On this Memorial Day, may we all pause to remember and give thanks to the Lord for the men and women of the armed services who answered the call to military service, paid the cost of devotion to duty in times of peace and war and committed themselves — some even to death — to preserve and defend this great land.
May their gravestones forever fill the land like holy benedictions, reminding us of our great heritage, inspiring us to live peaceful and noble lives and leading us to make known the name of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ to this land and all nations.
Douglas L. Carver is a retired two-star major general who served as Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Army. Carver now leads Southern Baptist chaplaincy as executive director of chaplaincy for the North American Mission Board. Reprinted with permission from Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.