My wife and I missed church last Sunday!
Our exceptional pastor was giving his third sermon in a special series about the Holy Spirit. But our middle of nine grandchildren was graduating from high school, and the Sunday-morning 11:00 high school ceremony made it impossible to be in both places at the same time.
I remember back when the family questioned whether Elias, who is autistic, would make it through high school. How proud of him we now were that he was graduating in the top 10% of his huge class of some 1,200 students. We all agreed, those of us observing from the inside stadium seats, that orchestrating this many young people to quickly walk across the platform to receive their diplomas was a scene of incredible organizational skills on the part of the school administration. We began right at 11:00 A.M., and ended after various student speeches, choral renditions, an orchestral piece, remarks by various dignitaries, and all those 1,200 students, right on time at 2:00 P.M.
Part of the ceremony caught me by surprise. A good number of those graduating had signed up for military service. Each was asked to stand when his or her name was read along with information as to which branch of service that individual had chosen—Marines, Army, Navy or Air Force. With each such student who stood there was enthusiastic applause, and the group included a mixture of Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Caucasian volunteers.
Who knows what is in the future for these sons and daughters of the many parents and relatives of the students in attendance? For a certainty, here were senior class members who had enlisted from West Aurora High School in Illinois to be among the future protectors of our nation. I found myself moved by these decisions. Elias’ classmates would go on to future schooling, the job market, whatever, but this group would invest a good part of their lives wearing the colors of our nation’s fighting forces. There was also a good chance they would be among the first to put their very lives on the line.
These thoughts were in my mind as I remembered that the upcoming three-day weekend after this graduation Sunday would include the celebration of Memorial Day. Unlike Veterans Day (November 11), which lauds all who serve or have served in the military, Memorial Day specifically honors those who gave their very lives in service to their country.
A question many of us presently wrestle with is: What if you don’t personally know of someone who was killed while serving the country? It’s been over seven decades since the end of World War II, when such large numbers of Americans perished in active duty.
I am almost 82 years old. But I wasn’t even ten yet when that great conflict ended. Subsequent wars, all tragic, in which our country has been involved, have had far fewer deaths. Some 47,424 soldiers died in combat in the Vietnam war; 33,686 combat deaths in the Korean war; 1,833 in Afghanistan; 3,836 in the Iraq war. Some 291,557 Americans died in combat in World War II—not to mention the estimated 60 million civilian war-related deaths worldwide. So, memories of war casualties are not anywhere near as entrenched in my mind as they were for, say, my parents’ generation.
That probably explains why present Memorial Day observations have been expanded in people’s thinking to include any loved ones who have passed on. Another more-current Memorial Day tradition includes the cleaning of cemeteries and the decoration of individual graves.
Just to be fair, I should also probably mention Memorial Day as being the unofficial beginning of the summer picnic season and a traditional time for family reunions.
On past Memorial Days, I have visited the grave of our third son, Jeremy. But I don’t go as often of late as when he first died of cancer at age 41. That was some four years ago.
The graves of my dear parents are in a Chicago suburb two towns east of where we live. My wife’s parents are buried several miles further east yet. Visits at these sites have not been as frequent. One of the reasons I find is there’s not all that much I can do when there. I have photos of family loved ones throughout our house, and I am often reminded of them in my thoughts. Being at the gravesites doesn’t make their memories any more real than they already are.
They can’t talk to me like they once did, and I can’t speak with them. That’s the way it is with death. It’s quite final! Sharing loving words with significant others is more easily done when they are alive than after they are deceased. Once they are gone, so is that opportunity for face-to-face fellowship on this side of eternity.
With this realization of the finality of death and its inevitable separation, I work at saying all the appropriate and loving words I am able to say while still alive. Because once one of us is gone, I know from experience that gone also is that opportunity to speak Christ-like words of affirmation.
In that earlier key sentence—“Sharing loving words with significant others is more easily done when they are alive then after they are deceased”—I purposely used the term “significant others” rather than “loved ones.” Not all those God calls us into relationship with are members of our extended family. The Lord has given us numbers of brothers and sisters in the faith who are not biological siblings. But they are special to us nevertheless. And we want them to know they are more than good friends. We care deeply about them, and they have touched our lives in profound ways.
Last year, Karen and I attended a retreat where we were encouraged to think about individuals outside our immediate family who played a significant role in shaping who we have become, to remember those who had brought good gifts into our lives that had changed us. As we compared our lists, we were impressed with our number of quality names. There were many who had built themselves into our lives.
Thinking further about them, we wondered if these people knew how important they were to us. So we decided to write a letter to several of the couples or individuals. I drafted the first note, and Karen edited it. Together we eventually wrote five such handwritten letters and sent them off.
The first was received by a special long-time older friend who was dying. We knew he was aging, but not that he was this close to death’s door. He told his family how touched he was, and we had a chance to have a final phone call with him. Soon we received word that Tom had gone to be with the Lord.
A second person responded most graciously and informed us that his dear wife had died several months back. He wished that she had also been able to read our words.
Couple number three was cordial as they always are.
A fourth party wrote us a most-gracious note in return.
We never heard from the fifth party. Someday I believe we will.
But the exercise made Karen and I aware of the importance of what we had done. Our intention is to continue the practice when the time is appropriate.
May this Memorial Day be a special occasion for all those you love. Perhaps, you would like to take a moment and think of those who have brought good gifts into your life. Perhaps you would like to memorialize those gifts and their impact on you with a letter. For many, visiting graves and tending to graveside flowers is meaningful and appropriate, but for those who are still alive, a carefully written letter might be the best memorial of all.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” – Proverbs 25:11
by Dr. David R. Mains
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