Thursday, May 31, 2012
The Preacher’s Corner
Memorial Day is tinged with sadness
Memorial Day is an occasion that is always tinged with sadness for me because of the way it has been absorbed into other things. Memorial Day is now the first weekend in the summer, bracketed by Labor Day at the end. For many it means no more than that, although car dealers and furniture stores seem to think it is a good time for sales.
Memorial Day has a good claim on us locally, for what has now morphed into a national Memorial Day observance began informally after the Civil War when people went to the cemeteries in springtime to place flowers on the soldiers’ graves. Belle Strickland recorded one of the first of these occasions in her diary and it is a beautiful story to read.
My own grandmother (mother’s mother) always referred to the occasion as Decoration Day, and it would be the time for our annual trip to Missouri, to see all our relatives up there. Part of this trip would be a visit to the cemetery where grandfather was buried.
On a recent visit to the cemetery in Kentucky where my mother and daddy and his people rest, I found that Memorial Day flowers had been laid upon all the graves by some kind soul — a cousin, perhaps, whom I have never known?
Memorial Day raises the question for thoughtful people of how we might wish to be remembered. I have joked that some people give the preacher more to work with at funerals than others. That is no small consideration when I try to draw thoughts and memories together on behalf of a grieving family. I have more than once had to preside over the burial of someone whom I had known a long time, but about whom I could not think of much to say.
Some people dance at the edges of church and faith, just outside the reach of the preacher and the Lord. They are skilled at this, and I see it begin at an amazingly early age. Of course, some of the best people I’ve known are not church folk. Others are very private and do their good work, “without letting their left hand know what their right hand is doing.”
One of the most effusive Christians I ever encountered lived in my hometown. He bragged openly and often about how much he gave to the Lord’s work when in reality he never contributed a dime. Of course, in a small town everybody knew and, this is that gentleman’s memory.
God designed things, however, so that character shows through. It always does, no matter how much we try to decorate or camouflage ourselves.
I like what Dr. King said: “If any of you are around when I die, I don’t want a long funeral. If you get somebody to deliver a eulogy tell him not to talk too long. Tell him not to mention any of the awards that have been conferred on me — that is not important. But I would like somebody to say on that day that Martin Luther did try to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to visit those in prison; that he did try to love and serve humanity. Yes, and if you want to, say I was a drum major for righteousness, and all the other shallow things will not matter.”
There is a Peanuts cartoon in which Linus throws a stick for Snoopy to retrieve. His first dog instinct is to do what is expected of him, to chase that stick. But then he decides against that. “After I’m gone,” he says, “I want people to have more to say about me than just: ‘He was a nice guy. He chased sticks.’”
My old seminary professor used to define paganism in this rather shocking way. He said that “paganism finds the meaning of life simply in the intensification of the duties and pleasures of life.” In other words, paganism is not bawdy and licentious behavior — hedonism. It is not lawless or immoral. It is simply the failure to look up, to look at our neighbor, to do anything beyond the routines of life, except, perhaps, “offering a pinch of incense” every now and then to the gods.
Scotland’s James Simpson has remarked that there are two great beginnings in life: the day we are born, and the day we discover the meaning of life. He says, “2000 years have passed since Jesus walked the hills of Galilee yet still he is referred to as ‘the man for others,’ ‘the friend of publicans and sinners,’ and ‘the light and savior of the world.’” We are not called to save the world, but most of us can leave this world a bit better off than we found it.
Of course, we can get carried away. Do you remember the man who was given a medal for his humility, and they had to take it away because he started wearing it every day?
Thomas Jefferson thought about what he wanted on his tombstone. He ordered that it say, “Here lies Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia and author of the statute of religious freedom in Virginia.” No mention is made of the fact that he had been President of the United States. He obviously felt that religious freedom was more important than some of his other achievements.
I would not put a cloud over anyone’s Memorial Day weekend, but I hope we did, in the midst of the car sales, driving to the lake, family reunions, and mowing the lawn, “think upon these things.”
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