Saturday, May 28, 2005

Memorial Day Reflections

This is Memorial Day weekend. I know that Memorial Day is “officially” going to be celebrated on Monday. I also know that people are “celebrating” Memorial Day all weekend with picnics, parties, mini-vacations, etc. There will also be those in uniform or who once wore a uniform or who loved someone who died in a uniform, who will attend some sort of memorial service. I suspect these folks will be in the minority.

Today I have been reflecting on this holiday we call Memorial Day. When I prepared worship services on a regular basis, I often had difficulty around national holidays. Sometimes the patriotic and martial music that music directors selected for such services were overwhelming to me. Somehow, as with the picnics, parties, and mini-vacations that folks use to celebrate, that sort of music seems out of place.

As I remember its history, Memorial Day—originally called Decoration Day—was first observed on May 30, 1868. It was the result of General Orders 11, published by General John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. Logan stated that the purpose of the day was to honor the memory of his departed comrades—comrades who died in the U.S. Civil War.

I suppose we still use the day to honor the memories of those who have died in the wars of this nation. And I suppose that each generation truly has the memories of fallen comrades, children, lovers, spouses, and friends to honor and remember. By my count, the United States has engaged in fifty wars, declared and undeclared, since 1775 and the beginning of the American Revolution. No generation in the history of our nation has not known war. Most Americans have lived through as many as 4-5 wars in their lifetime.

So I ask the question: how best do we celebrate this day of remembrance? For some reason, martial music and political speeches seem to me, at least, as inappropriate as those recreational activities that ignore the day’s history and purpose

I’m not sure if that was a rhetorical question, but I do have a possible answer to it. I suggest that we look to our northern neighbor, Canada. Sometime a year or so ago, someone sent me a video—or perhaps I found it on the Internet (I don’t remember)—centered on a song written by Terry Kelly.

The story behind the song is that Terry was in a shopping mall in Nova Scotia on November 11, 1999—Canadian Remembrance Day—when a request came over the store’s loudspeaker system asking customers pause for two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m. in remembrance of the veterans who had sacrificed so much for them. The song came out of Terry's anger that at least one patron of the mall refused to observe the pittance of two minutes of silence.

You can see and hear this video as well as read the story behind the song and its lyrics at the Pittance of Time website. Just click on these words A Pittance of Time and the hyperlink will take you there.

I really urge you to follow that hyperlink and experience the video. It presents something each of us can do this Memorial Day weekend, no matter how else we celebrate it.

So, may I also suggest that sometime this Memorial Day weekend you, as the song says:

Take two minutes, would you mind?
It’s a pittance of time
For the boys and the girls who went over
In peace may they rest,
may we never forget why they died.
It’s a pittance of time.


  1. I admit, I don't use memorial day for it's original purpose. I do use it to take special time out to remember my own family and friends who have died. This also then leads to special time with my living family members to remember not to take them or my time with them for granted. I agree though that that is not the true original purpose for memorial day.

  2. Thank you, sonson: again your words have roused in me the need to ruminate on my own words. Your admission that you don’t use Memorial Day for its original purpose is mine, too. It was very late in my life before I thought of it is more than a day off or a time to have fun.

    As a child all of the warm weather holidays seemed the same, except that on July 4th we had fireworks. My mother’s extended family and their guests would gather in an uncle’s large yard and have a picnic. That was it: there was no talk about the “purpose” of the day and so we children saw each holiday as the same.

    I carried this perception of those holidays well into my adulthood. Even as an army officer, when my unit parade on a national holiday, I never thought about its purpose.

    I supposed that changed a few years ago when I was invited to a Memorial Day service by an ex-Marine who was a member of the congregation I was pastoring. It wasn’t too long after the Gulf War and I was still mourning the death of a young man—the age of my oldest son—who died a horrible death in that was as a result of “friendly fire.” Remembering that he was one of only 148 who were killed in battle during the Gulf War hit me hard during that Memorial Day service.

    It also was the beginning of my remembering the personal friends who had been killed or maimed during the twenty or so wars and “interventions” in which the United States has been involved during my lifetime. I though about those friends yesterday: twelve killed and four maimed for life—and that doesn’t include those who have been psychologically wounded by their participation in war.

    When I first saw the video based upon Terry Kelly’s song, A Pittance of Time, I didn’t get the point. I saw the Canadian veterans marching through the store; I was the war and battle scenes; I saw the coffin draped by the Canadian flag. I did not see the father who ignored the request for two minutes of silence. When I did, and realized that I was more like that man than I was like Terry Kelly, I felt much as King David must have felt when the prophet Nathan said to him, “You are the man” in regard to the killing of Uriah the Hittite.

    Someone once said that writers (and preachers) are at their best when they write (preach) to themselves. I think that is exactly what I was doing in writing yesterday’s blog.

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