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Our Forgotten Honor: A Memorial Day Reflection by Tim Willard

I remember not liking him at first. I was an eighteen year-old know-it-all with a weak jump shot; he was a six-foot-something, glasses-wearing dad who out-played everyone in the church gym that Monday night. I don’t remember much of the game, but he stuck in my brain. He never seemed to tire, and never quit smiling.

Afterwards, my father told me the wiry man was a doctor and Army reservist named Mark Connelly. I was surprised that he was a physician, but more surprised that he felt compelled to serve our country by caring for the wounded.

After that night, I never saw Dr. Connelly again.

Weeks later, my mother called to tell me that Dr. Connelly was killed in action during the Gulf War. He had just called home to talk to his family and was on his way back to base when disaster struck. His wife and two children survive him.

His memorial service was one of the most powerful I’ve attended. The community dearly loved him and our church congregation seemed to heave from the loss. Pastor and Army Colonel Jerry Young led the service, charged with remembering and burying a husband, father, professional and brother-in-arms. I have never forgotten the tears that fell that day.

Many years later, Dr. Mark Connelly’s memory returns as I begin planning my family’s Memorial Day picnic. My two small daughters will play in the sprinkler and my in-laws will help grill the burgers and prepare the salad. We will celebrate our life together, eat a bit too much and plant some herbs.

As I reflected on what this holiday actually means, I happened to look at Floyd’s house next door. This middle-aged Jersey native who attends church on Sunday and loves his three grown daughters has lined his entire yard with American flags. He is thankful—thankful for the men and women who paid the ultimate price for our burgers and fries and Cokes and gardens and the ability to live with little regard for our security and safety.

I know it’s increasingly unpopular to show Christian pride of country. I’ve discussed with young leaders whether or not it is appropriate to recognize holidays like Memorial Day and Independence Day in our churches. I’m often astonished at the growing lack of honor some display toward our veterans. For us who sacrifice little—if anything—and yet have no qualms about enjoying the luxury and freedom provided by this country we belie our lack of gratitude with our cavalier attitudes toward the mixture of faith and country. Have we grown so pious?

I find myself offering disclaimers to statements that might be misunderstood as too patriotic, and I certainly don’t fly the colors on my front porch. After all, I’m a citizen of heaven, right?

This weekend I took some time to look at some familiar passages in Scripture. In Romans 13, I was reminded how the Apostle Paul urged the 1st century Christians to be good citizens, living in submission to the God-established rulers. In verses such as Isaiah 40:15, Daniel 2:12 and Proverbs 8:15,16, I was struck by the overwhelming notion that God holds all kings and kingdoms under his sovereign rule.

I know the debate surrounding Christians in the military or even Christians celebrating holidays of a supposed imperial government will not be solved in this forum. But I do believe one thing can be remedied: our Christian spirit. The underlying citizen-ethic in Scripture is submission and humility, an ethic modeled by the centurion in Luke 7:1-10 and Christ himself before Pilate.

Waving a flag or observing a moment of silence on this “Day of Decoration” (as it was formerly called in 1868) does not imply support for every American initiative, both foreign and domestic. It simply honors the men and women who have given their lives serving their fellow citizens and for those who daily fight to protect something they believe serves the common good of all humankind: freedom.

Dr. Mark Connelly’s commitment to the good of others in a time of war makes me shudder. His memory shames me for all the times I withhold honor from those who deserve it. I wonder if this Memorial Day we can find the space in our picnics and parties and hipster theology to observe a moment of silence for the Mark Connelly’s of the world. Let us raise our glasses and in thankful chorus toast the lives of those made our day-off so special.

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Do you agree with Tim that Christians have developed a stigma when it comes to anything that smacks of “nationalism?” Do you have reservations about celebrating Memorial Day or Independence Day or even displaying an American flag in church?