Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day Prayer

Yesterday, Memorial Day, I offered the invocation and benediction at the annual ceremony at the FDR Presidential Library Rose Garden.

It is a difficult prayer for me for a couple of reasons. First, the audience is not parishioners - it is a diverse group who do not pray as we do, and since many are not Christian, to offer a prayer that speaks to all is difficult. Second, Memorial Day is not a church feast. It is a state holiday that runs the risk of asking for the trappings of religion without wanting the admonitions of that religion.
Third, and this is most difficult for me, the admonitions of our religion do not play well with what Memorial Day has become for many people: cheerleading for our military exploits, lionization of those who die (giving the "ultimate sacrifice").

Quite apart from the fact that Christians do not believe dying is the "ultimate sacrifice" since we live eternally with Christ [in fact, it seems a greater sacrifice to be, for example, to be gravely and permanently injured, living the rest of your life with missing body parts, brain damage, the inability to hold down a job and so on] -- quite apart from that, there is the issue of the church rarely approving of war.

There is the fact that many of our wars do not measure up to the rhetoric surrounding this holiday, as if every conflict we ever entered were noble or holy. Most, in fact, are not. Too many are exploits in search of greater power or resources that do not belong to us. The phrase "national interest," replaced "national defense" long ago.

I am not a complete pacifist, mind you, but it is my Christian belief that every war, even the most justifiable (World War II fits into that category), is a failure on all sides. Let us remember that even World War II had culpability on all sides. Remember those war reparations after World War I (the war we couldn't decide which side to take)? The reparations were so severe that Germans felt they had nothing left to lose and nobody to trust in the world but themselves. A mentality like that gives lots of room to convincing madmen like Hitler.

With that in mind, I take issue with those who want to celebrate the fallen. There is nothing to celebrate in the circumstances of their deaths, as some would contend. All we can do is remember and grieve that we have not figured out how to live as adults, that we have not learned - and maybe do not want - to live as Christ would have us.

And so, although I try never to yell - for yelling is never heard - I pray at these ceremonies in that uncomfortable space of honoring the dead but never the failure of humanity that led to their deaths. Here is my prayer from yesterday's ceremony:

Heavenly Father,

Today is Memorial Day.

Yet, we do not come to celebrate

We do not come to cheer.

We come to mourn.

We come to grieve

Unnumbered lives lost in unnumbered wars,

none of their making,

all of them tragic.

We do not presume to know

The motives of every fallen warrior:

Some fought for love of country,

Or Love of family,

Others for love of tradition

Or adventure.

Some fought simply that they might go home.

Their reasons for fighting are theirs alone to know,

Their loss is ours to remember together.

Holy God,

This is Memorial Day.

We do not come to celebrate,

We come to mourn,

We come to repent.

To repent of

Our impatience and – as the prayer book says –

Intemperate love of worldly things

That lead to such times where soldiers die.

We repent

And rededicate ourselves today

In the name of those who fell,

To work for a world of peace.

Loving God,

This is Memorial Day,

And so we pray,

Let us remember

That we may make such wars

A thing our children -

YOUR children -

will never know again. Amen.