Honoring Memorial Day in Our Nation and Our Church

Memorial Day: baseball, fried apple pies, hotdogs, fireworks, and a nice glass of sweet tea. Is there more to this day, though? And do we also observe such a day in our church?

Memorial Day became an official American holiday in 1971 to observe to honor the men and women who have died for our freedom. It was originally known as “Decoration Day" when Americans across this country began decorating the graves and tombstones of fallen soldiers.  On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, a leader of a group known as the “Northern Civil War” veterans called for a day of remembrance. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery with over 5,000 people in attendance. He chose Arlington because of 20,000 plus Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

 As a side note, my family and I visited here in 2017. There were markers as far as the eye could see. I was humbled when I thought about all those who had given their lives so that I could preach the Gospel freely without fear of persecution.  We also watched the “Changing of the Guard.” The soldier looked fierce as he walked back and forth guarding the tomb. My then 10 (now 11) year old daughter sat in silence, somehow knowing the significance of what was before us. Night and day this tomb is guarded. Each guard takes 21 steps and then pauses for 21 seconds. The significance of the number 21 reflects the 21-Gun Salute, the highest military honor given to a fallen soldier. 

 The Precision and the attention to detail boggled my mind. Every 30 minutes, a Change of Command would take place. A Commander and a replacement sentinel would appear. The Commander would accept and inspect the weapon from the previous soldier and then hand the gun to the new sentinel. “Pass on your orders,” the relief soldier tells the active sentinel. “Post and orders, remain as directed,” the Command Sergeant would say. The new sentinel only spoke 2 words to conclude the ceremony: “Orders acknowledged.” The "fresh" soldier would click his heels together and start his 21-step mission. Since July 1, 1937, this tomb has been continuously guarded. Even during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the sentinels, though given permission to stop, refused to end their guard. This fierce determination is to be commended.

 The Memorial Day service at Oakley Baptist Church, oddly enough, is quite the same. It is a special time when we remember, reflect, reevaluate, and regather ourselves to live in the manner of our departed friends and relatives. At our church, with over 100 years of history, we have parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and some great-great grandparents buried in our cemetery. 

 The Memorial Day service, (this year on May 26 at 10:30am) is a commemoration to honor those who have passed on that have had a part in forming us into who we are today. As we remember our relatives and friends and the lives they lived, let us all allow the day to create a spark in us to live for the Savior in the way which they did - to push hard to the very end. For some, this will be their last Memorial Day service before they see Jesus; for others they will be a part of many more to come. However, to all it is a time of inclusion as we appreciate the sacrifices of a generation past, of a generation who make us who we are today. 

 Celebrate this Memorial Day with fond memories, yet do not mourn as those who have no hope. Paul encourages, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, “But I do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who have fallen asleep, let you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” We have hope indeed. It is found not in the policies of our government, but in the love of God through Christ Jesus! Let us stand as one nation to celebrate the victories of our risen Savior!

Dr. Jeff Johnson