By John Laing
I have a small collection of “war Bibles” carried by U.S. soldiers and sailors in our various wars (Revolutionary up to the current Global War on Terror). Many have personal notes from family members, Sunday School teachers, and sweethearts.
Those Bibles were given in the hopes that they would be a source of comfort and peace in an environment of conflict and death. I have researched the lives and military careers of some of the individuals and have imagined how they made use of those little books.
Some returned after the war(s), but some did not. It always strikes me that each Bible represents an average American family like my own who loves their soldier/sailor/airman/marine/coast guardsman and wishes the best for them. When I read the personal notes and reflections inside, I often pause and pray for those families, knowing that God has them in His loving hands.
Memorial Day offers us a time to recognize the martyrs of our nation; it is a day we set aside to honor and remember those who gave their lives in service to the United States and the ideals of her people enshrined in the Constitution.
For those in the military community, it can be particularly moving and a time of acute sensitivity. We not only remember and honor heroes far removed, but we recall and commemorate those we knew intimately, cared deeply for, and still miss: our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and colleagues. Many will no doubt recall personal experiences in which they were injured or their lives were in danger, and they may be looking for hope and meaning.
The Christian church has its own memorial day of sorts. All Saints Day, celebrated annually on Nov. 1, is a day in which many Christians remember those who have gone before us in the faith and paid the ultimate price for the sake of the Gospel.
In the book of Hebrews, the author offers encouraging words of hope to a dispersed and persecuted Jewish Christian community. They have already suffered some loss but have not yet had to face martyrdom (10:32-36; 12:4). The writer encourages his audience to a life of faithful endurance, pointing them to Jesus Christ as the key to finding the needed strength.
After reminding them of Christ’s magnificence as the divine Son, agent of creation, radiance of God’s glory, and by His very nature, God, the author points the Hebrews to three things to consider for aid in endurance: 1) those who have gone before in the faith, 2) the goal toward which they strive (i.e., Christlikeness and our heavenly home), and 3) Jesus, the author and perfector of faith.
At the beginning of chapter 12, the author of Hebrews encourages his audience to run the race with endurance because they (we) are surrounded by a large number of witnesses. He refers them back to chapter 11 — the roll call of faith — which begins by recounting great acts of faith and culminates by noting the courageous resolve of prophets and others killed for their faith (11:32-38). Those who went before serve as an example and an encouragement for us to remain faithful.
In the early church, stories of martyrs were told to encourage Christians to remain steadfast, even in the face of persecution, even if they were called upon to give their lives for Christ. These stories tell of how those persons testified to Christ not only in life but also in death, and they serve to strengthen Christians by providing examples of faithfulness grounded in the hope of a future resurrection and eternal life with Christ.
In an analogous way on Memorial Day, when we reflect on the stories of heroism and sacrifice of those men and women who put on the uniform, we are inspired in several ways.
First, we are stirred with a sense of thanksgiving for those who have sacrificed so that we may enjoy the freedoms of our nation that are grounded in our creation in God’s image.
Second, we are moved to consider how we may serve our local communities, states, and nation. We gain a greater appreciation for what it means to be a participant in society and are impressed with the responsibilities of citizenship.
Last, we hope to use those stories to inspire future generations of Americans to grasp the ideals of duty, honor, integrity, loyalty, commitment, selfless service, respect, excellence and courage that are so central to the armed forces and that touch upon the ideals of Christian character.
We Baptists have always cherished the notion of religious freedom like that found in the First Amendment, partly because our forebears were often persecuted (even by other Christians) and partly because many were simply convinced of liberty of conscience.
As Americans, we benefit from the service and sacrifice of our military members. This Memorial Day, may we all offer thanksgiving to God for the men and women who have died defending our ideals, may we support their families, and may we pray for those who continue to serve and place themselves in harm’s way on our behalf, whether in the various armed forces or in support of their mission.
John D. Laing teaches systematic theology, philosophy and chaplaincy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a colonel in the United States Army Reserves, serving as the senior chaplain for the Texas Military Department.