Memorial Day: Celebrating Imperfect Sacrifice

In light of the Memorial Day celebrations, I’m reposting something I initially wrote as a note for Facebook last year.  May your day be a blessed time of remembrance and rest: 

How does one think about and celebrate Memorial Day in light of the Gospel? On a day that remembers those who “gave” their lives in service to this country, how does one think about such sacrifice in light of God’s word? On the one hand, the question is a bit asinine. It’s in vogue these days to question everything, especially anything that seems too pregnant with patriotism or pro-Americanism. On the other hand, the question is exactly the sort a Christian ought to ask. Because we live as God’s people in a strange land, as sojourners whose true citizenship lies in heaven, then we ought to consider how to rightly engage the ceremonies and memorials of a passing temporal kingdom.

If it ever was “impersonal” for me, Memorial Day ceased to be so in 2007. That was the year I deployed to northern Iraq, and the names from that time stay with me; not as a burden, but certainly as a memory. They include Ryan Balmer and Matt Kuglics, two men who died in Kirkuk, Iraq on 5 Jun 07. They include Dave Weiger and Nate Schuldheiss, who both perished in November 2007 near Balad Air Base, Iraq. Finally, I also remember Derek Dobogai, an Army captain who died along with thirteen others, also nearby Kirkuk, Iraq. More than most, these names remain etched in my memory; men whose lives intersected mine in one fashion or another (albeit in relatively tangential ways), and who, ten years ago, paid the final price in service of their country.

How then do I think about such sacrifice? Not all sacrifice is inherently good. With the exception of the God-man himself, Jesus, even the most altruistic of human action finds itself corrupted by human pride. Indeed, Scripture makes it clear that sacrifice apart from the worship of God is an abomination: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight…The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, how much more when he brings it with evil intent!” (Proverbs 15:8, 21:27). This is strong language indeed. If wickedness encompasses anything inherently opposed to God, then how should I think about those whose “ultimate sacrifice” of their lives – even in service to their country – occurred as they stood in opposition to their Creator?

And yet, along with language like this, we also hear the Bible encouraging us to acknowledge the good even of imperfect sacrifice. We hear Jesus say things like: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” – John 15:13 (Note: While this statement foreshadows Jesus’ own sacrifice a few chapters forward in John, his statement suggests something profound in any similar act of self-sacrificial love). We hear stories of the Roman centurion whose Godward philanthropy benefited the Jews (Luke 7:3-5). We may even remember the sacrifice of others gladly entered into on our behalf – like a man in southwestern Saudi Arabia sitting in an airport who once directed a clearly “fish-out-of-water” stranger (namely me) toward his flight. In short, life is complicated, particularly when one tries to understand the tangled depths of humanity and its sin nature. Praise God for his wisdom that far surpasses our own!

So then, in light of this complexity, let me offer a few thoughts on how we might think well on Memorial Day:

I can be thankful that it is not mine to judge the heart of another – Rather, I can honor and rejoice over sacrifice that is prima facie “good,” leaving the ultimate judgment of any such act to the wisdom of Jesus.

I can mourn sin that makes the sacrifice of a life necessary, even as I praise God that his justice has, and will, triumph– The fact that we have a day like Memorial Day is a somber reminder of the consequences of sin.

I can remember that even warfare can be a good, holy (dare I say it), and sanctified endeavor, particularly when undertaken by a believer in submission to King Jesus – Undoubtedly this statement requires further unpacking that I won’t attempt here. Suffice it to say, it is right and good that some should study, train, and prepare for difficult service on the battlefield, even service unto death.

I can rejoice over the ways in which the character of God shines through even in sub-standard sacrifice – Laying down one’s life on behalf of another points backward to the cross, whether the one sacrificing realizes it or not.

I can let the Memorial Day of a temporal kingdom raise to mind a cross at Golgotha – Memorial Day in the present is a shadow reminder of the cross-bound memorial God’s people will celebrate for eternity.

I can be thankful for the ways in which sacrifice accomplishes the sovereign purpose of God – God works through sacrifice, often despite the mindset of the one sacrificing. I am thankful that no life is wasted in the unfolding of God’s sovereign purpose for his creation.

I can be thankful for the way in which sacrifices recalled on Memorial Day served to restrain evil – Flawed though they were, the sacrifices I remember on Memorial Day – certainly those noted above – served to restrain great evil. For that I am thankful.

Yes, Memorial Day is a complicated holiday, and our celebration of it must be similarly complicated. But nonetheless it is a day worthy of note, because what it calls to mind is worthy of honor. So, I honor and am grateful for the sacrifice of men like Ryan Balmer, Matt Kuglics, Dave Weiger, Nate Schuldheiss, and Derek Dobogai. May their families this season find the comfort of salvation in the Prince of Peace.


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