10 years ago I composed a prayer for Memorial Day, frustrated that our church’s primary worship book didn’t have a prayer for this national holiday.
Almighty God, you are our strength and our shield. We give you thanks for the men and women of our armed forces, past and present, and especially for those who have died while serving. May their sacrifices serve the cause of peace, and may our nation be ever grateful for their service. With your wisdom and strength guide our military’s leaders, and give to all people a desire for justice and peace. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Of course, there are two extremes of recognizing Memorial Day in churches. One is to bedeck the church in red, white, and blue, to sing patriotic hymns, and to preach as if the United States is ancient Israel with a uniquely divine calling to be a light unto the world. Often, such preaching can degrade quickly into condemnations about human sexuality, political priorities, or liberalism and socialism.
Another extreme – often seen on the liturgical end of the spectrum – is to treat this day as if it didn’t exist, and only recognize the liturgical calendar (which, for this year, will be Holy Trinity Sunday). Because, some say, the church doesn’t “do” national holidays. It proclaims Christ.
Gathered in the pews that Sunday will be some people whose minds are on their loved ones who died in wars, or people whose hearts are filled with gratitude for the sacrifices of those who died in service to neighbor and nation.
Both extremes will fail to speak the Gospel to those who honor Memorial Day for what it is – a national day of remembrance and grieving.
There is no need to turn church into a patriotic rally. We proclaim Christ, after all, not nationalism or patriotism. Let the town square, the parade, the ceremony at the war memorial be where we wave flags and sing patriotic songs.
Yet, neither is there need to seek some sort of culturally-disconnected ecclesial purity. The church carries out its sacred ministry in a culture, in a country, among a people who have lives that extend beyond the church. We do ourselves no favors when we ignore observances that are on many people’s minds and hearts.
In my practice of ministry I have paused for a time of special prayer on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Following the Prayer of the Day or the Hymn of the Day, I address the congregation with words of appreciation for those who have served and died in the Armed Forces. It goes something like this:
“When you join the military, you give up part of yourself for the sake of neighbor and nation. You give up some of your freedom. You go where you’re told to go. You do what you’re told to do. It is one form of putting the needs of others before your own. And today, we pray to God in sorrow but also thanksgiving for those who died in service to our nation. Let us pray.”
Reminder: Memorial Day is not Armed Services Day (honoring those who are currently serving). Nor is it Veterans Day (honoring those who served and are no longer in the military). This is not a day to invite veterans or current service members forward for a blessing. To do so would likely make them incredibly uncomfortable. Veterans and service members often know better than most people the pain of losing someone in military service. They don’t want to be honored on this day. They want to remember their friends and their fellow service members who died wearing the same uniform they wore for years, or have the honor to still wear.