The Uncomfortable Discipline of Remembering

by Barry Howard

As a pastor serving in an active military community, I am privileged to serve alongside those who serve or have valiantly served our country. In recent days I have enjoyed conversations with two retired Army chaplains, I have dialogued with recent graduates of the United States Naval Academy, and I have listened to the career story of a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who retired with 30 years of service.

But I also serve in a community where an extraordinarily large number of residents have lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister, friend or neighbor on the field of battle. Even during the past year I have shared eulogies at more than a dozen memorial services for veterans or their family members at the Barrancas National Cemetery at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.

So for me, Memorial Day invokes more of a sense of observance than of celebration. The last Monday in May does not usually generate as much holiday enthusiasm as Christmas, Easter, or Independence Day. However, we should be careful that the meaning of this holiday does not become lost in the busyness of our activities.

Memorial Day is not just another “day off” but a day to remember those who have lost their lives in the military service of our country. This is a day to remember those who, according to Henry Ward Beecher, “hover as a cloud of witnesses above this Nation.”

In a culture that is increasingly attention-deficient, remembering is a painful but necessary discipline. Revisiting stories from the battlefield may keep us consciously aware of the harsh realities of war. Exploring the historical narrative may enable us to learn from both the successes and the failures of our ancestors. When we remember the fallen we keep alive the individual and corporate legacies of valor and courage that inspire and challenge us to be responsible citizens of the free world.

When we fail to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us, we succumb to a convenient amnesia that eventually robs succeeding generations of acquaintance with our national heritage. To fail to remember creates a contagious apathy that leads to a neglect of both our freedom and our citizenship. To fail to remember can produce a false sense of security and an inaccurate perception that we are exempt from future warfare. If for no other reason, we should remember in order to guard against what George Washington called “the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Perhaps our high tech world is at times too much of a fantasy world. When we mute the self-serving and accusative political rhetoric, remembering our unabridged heritage can stir in us both a gut check and a reality check. The kind of remembering we need to do on Memorial Day is an uncomfortable but necessary discipline, a practice that forges vision from memory and distills wisdom from history.

In The Roadmender Margaret Fairless Barber suggests that “To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.”

This year, as we observe Memorial Day, let us take time to remember the men and women who served with distinction and made extraordinary sacrifices to establish and preserve our freedom. By remembering our heritage, may we be better equipped and motivated to engage the enemies of our day with courage, hope, and determination.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at First Baptist Church of Pensacola.)