Our church dedicates one service each year, on or about the 4th of July, to honor our military servicemembers. It’s a wonderful event, and they pull out all the stops. The church building is decorated in red, white, and blue bunting, the local fire department brings a couple of ladder trucks to raise a gigantic flag in the parking lot, and small flags are distributed for the congregation to wave during the service. Active-duty and retired military personnel are encouraged to wear their uniforms. The service features patriotic hymns, and is climaxed by the playing of each military branch’s marching song, while servicemembers past and present assemble at the front of the auditorium to thunderous applause.
It takes my breath away, just a little. First, because of the sheer numbers of military people who step forward to be recognized, men and women who served in World War II and every conflict since then, some wearing their original uniforms, many who are genuine war heroes. I go through the year unaware there are so many sitting near me each Sunday. It’s also a humbling experience, being a newly-retired Cold Warrior who never fired a shot or caught a bullet, to be surrounded by this weight of history and heroism, wondering what in the sam hill I’m doing there. My family and I made a variety of small sacrifices during my time of duty, but it was nothing compared to what many of these folks had to endure. One thing I’ve noticed we do share is a common discomfort with the spotlight. We didn’t enter military life for the applause, and we certainly never expected this kind of celebration. It means a lot, though, and we’re thankful.
I think it’s right, and good, and needful to honor those who have offered their lives on behalf of their nation, family, and friends. In that it is ultimately driven by unselfish love, it is a sacrifice in the image of that sacrifice offered by Christ on behalf of the world. This is not to say that all wars are just or all deaths on the field of battle are noble or redeeming, but there is an undeniable virtue on display when someone places themselves between their loved ones and the forces of darkness, knowing there’s a strong chance they will die in the offering.
There’s another aspect of the celebration service, though, that bothered me, and I’ll reflect on that in Part 2.