Memorial Day, like other patriotic holidays, poses a significant challenge for Christian leaders.
How do you acknowledge the occasion while maintaining the focus of Christian worship on God as revealed in Jesus Christ?
EthicsDaily.com provided resources to answer this question in 2013 through an article series focused on patriotism and Christian worship leading up to July 4.
These columns offered practical advice on how to recognize the significance of this annual holiday while ensuring that worship is offered to God rather than country.
The insights offered should prove helpful not only for Independence Day, but also other patriotic holidays, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Memorial Day is a time to remember military personnel who died in conflict. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a brief history of the holiday, which originated in the wake of the Civil War.
In 1868, May 30 was recognized as “Decoration Day,” on which the graves of those who had died in the war would be decorated with flowers.
Local celebrations were held on varying dates in the spring until the U.S. Congress formally established Memorial Day as a national holiday in 1971, to be observed annually on the last Monday in May.
Given the significance of this national holiday, it is possible for Christians to strike a healthy balance that avoids the extremes of ignoring the holiday altogether and turning worship into a patriotic rally, but this requires careful thought and advanced planning.
It also requires prayer—not only for God’s wisdom in planning services, but also as a means of teaching and guiding the congregation during worship.
The weekend’s remembrance is often acknowledged through a moment of silence followed by a prayer.
This concluding prayer is an opportunity to help church members understand how to acknowledge the civic holiday in a way faithful to our Christian commitment.
I was asked to pray at a communitywide Memorial Day service three years ago in the town where my wife and I were pastors.
After a day’s reflection, I reluctantly accepted the invitation and began to struggle with how to frame the prayer in a manner that would be fitting for the occasion, helpful to those in attendance and faithful to my Christian beliefs.
What resulted was a prayer that sought to be both pastoral and prophetic by seeking to offer comfort to those mourning the loss of loved ones while transcending the national boundaries we are so often constrained by on patriotic weekends.
I began my prayer with thanksgiving for the opportunity to gather together as a community to remember and grieve the loss of those who had died in war and conflict—not U.S. soldiers only, but all soldiers.
A story in the Veterans Affairs Department’s history of Memorial Day cited above about southern Confederate women decorating the barren graves of Union soldiers in 1866 reveals how such a prayer is faithful to the occasion.
My prayer then moved to include anyone whose life had been lost or diminished by the chaos, suffering and turmoil caused by war—families of fallen soldiers with an empty seat at the table, civilians caught in the crossfire, nations torn apart by conflict.
I also expressed concern for soldiers who returned home, but were physically, emotionally and psychologically crippled by their experience—seeking to call attention to war’s ongoing impact through what we now call PTSD.
Finally, I prayed for peace, asking that our representatives would be bold and brave enough to seek to find a better way to resolve our differences, and hoping that we, as citizens who elect these leaders, would be courageous enough to support them in these efforts.
Memorial Day offers churches an opportune time to practice Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to be peacemakers and to reach beyond the boundaries by which we are too often constrained.
While the nation remembers U.S. soldiers who died, Christians can remember everyone who has died in war—soldiers and civilians, allies and enemies, citizens of the U.S. and of other nations impacted by conflict.
In this way, we acknowledge the weekend’s significance while transcending the limits of the remembrance in a manner faithful to Jesus’ practice of reaching beyond the walls that divide us.
Too often, through lack of forethought, fortitude or faithfulness to the witness of Scripture, worship services on patriotic weekends become more about the worship of country than the worship of God, leading to limited, misguided and unbiblical perspectives being expressed and affirmed.
Clergy must be intentional in leading their congregations toward a more faithful path that recognizes the weekend’s significance while avoiding a blurred distinction between God and country, church and state, the kingdom of God and those of this world.