Pastor's Corner: Remember to remember: Memorial Day thoughts
Last updated 6/3/2022 at 2:43pm
Human beings like to remember things ... special things. And they do so in remarkably creative ways. Americans are no different. In addition to building things, we also set aside certain days to remember someone or something that meant a lot to our collective experience as Americans. In November, we remember our veterans. And so we come to Memorial Day, a day to remember.
Take a look at Joshua 4:4-7. It refers to a memorial. The people of Israel were on the final leg of their journey to the Promised Land after fleeing from slavery in Egypt. One final barrier lay before them: the Jordan River. God instructed Joshua to send the priests, carrying the Ark of the Covenant into the river. As soon as their feet touched the water, the river parted, and it remained parted while the entire horde of Israel crossed on the dry riverbed.
This was an event worth memorializing, and God told Joshua to have one man from each of the 12 tribes take a stone from the riverbed and carry it onto the riverbank on the side of the newly entered territory. There, Joshua heaped the 12 stones up as a memorial - a monument - to commemorate God's intervention, parting the river for them. Notice Joshua's closing words: "So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever." Yeah, right, a memorial forever. Like that is going to happen. Perhaps predictably, subsequent generations of Israelites did not always care about the things their ancestors' monuments symbolized. Nobody was asking, "What do those stones mean?"
The same trend continues today regarding our memorials as new generations come along. Since they were not part of the events and factors that were important to their parents' and grandparents' generations, it's common for the younger cohorts not to assign those things the same value. That certainly became a problem for Israel. Despite the various monuments the people of one generation erected, the next generation invariably was less interested in what the stones represented. For some, they became mere piles of rock.
Joshua may have hoped that subsequent generations would ask, "What do those stones mean?" but, in fact, many of the newcomers didn't bother. One of God's chief charges against the people of Israel was, "They have forgotten me" (e.g., Jeremiah 18:15; Ezekiel 22:12). Before we bemoan this failure to remember, let's acknowledge that it's probably not even reasonable to expect something that commemorates a value or event for one generation to have the same meaning for later generations who weren't even born when the event being memorialized happened. Still, by ignoring history, we lose the benefits of learning from the past. We benefit from knowing what we as a people of this earth have gone through and where we as a people of faith have been. As someone has said, without knowing history we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
But here is a key insight: The meaning of past events can't be quite the same for us as for those who lived through them. So our job is not to force our kids to bow at our memorials, but to do what we can to help them understand why they have meaning for us! We can help them see our piles of stones, both literal and figurative ones, as, if not memorials, at least milestones on the journey of humankind.
In other words, every time we build a memorial, intentionally or otherwise, we can think of what it will mean both for the current generation and for the subsequent ones. They will be different things, but secondary meanings can be valid as well. Here, for example, are some things that a memorial can do, first for the generation that was there and then for those that come later:
A memorial can celebrate heroic or happy events and can mourn tragic ones. Israel's 12 stones testified to the current generation that God helped and guided them. As a milestone to the next generation, it witnesses that people earlier were helped, and gives those who weren't there a basis for concluding that they, too, can be helped by God.
A memorial can remind those who lived through the event of the terrible cost of war. As a milestone, it can cause subsequent generations to do all that is possible to avoid bloodshed. A memorial can promote healing for the people who were there or had loved ones there. Think, for example, about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Oklahoma City National Memorial. As milestones, they teach that people can deal with emotional pain and continue to live. A memorial can help the immediate generation realize that something significant happened that called for courage and sacrifice. As a milestone, it can communicate that each age has significant things that call for courage and sacrifice.
Monument builders don't have the power to force others to honor the monuments themselves, but they can do their best to help them understand the milestone implications. On a personal level, we want our children to see and understand what is important and valuable to us. We hope some of those things, including faith in God, will become of even greater value to them. But we don't want them bound or limited by our understandings and conclusions. We want what we have valued to inform them so they can go further, climb higher; reach better.
So, if we are in the monument-building generations, we ought to be less concerned that our monuments speak to the younger generations than that they understand why they speak to us. In time, they'll build their own monuments. But if we've been faithful in living up to the best our monuments represent, ours may serve as building blocks for theirs. And if you are in the generations coming on, don't be too quick to dismiss what may seem to be stuck-in-the-mud ways of doing things in the generations ahead of you. There are some values behind those things that in time, you're going to want to know about.
Pastor Michael O'Hearn
Hi-Line Lutheran Churches