July 4: Celebrate, but remember the sacrifice

By William O. “Bud” Reeves Special Contributor Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage. –Psalm 33:12 My generation is not the most patriotic in our nation’s history. We came of age in the era of the Vietnam War and Watergate. We were inspired by protest songs and freedom marches. We learned to mistrust our government and institutions, a cynicism that is bearing bitter fruit today across our culture. It was not cool to love your country. Now that I am older, perhaps more mature, I find myself more patriotic than I was in my younger years. Or at least I am more appreciative of the blessings of being born and living in the United States of America. Part of that appreciation comes from a more intimate acquaintance with how things are in other countries; part of it is because despite all we have been through, we are still holding together. July 4 is a big deal. We should pull out the fireworks and the food and celebrate the birthday of our country. But for me, in the last few years, Memorial Day has become the more significant national holiday. I like to watch the Memorial Day concert from our nation’s capital aired on PBS. Invariably, my throat gets tight and tears roll down my cheeks as I see the stories of brave soldiers who gave their lives for our country. Standing at the graveside of a veteran, my eyes well up when “Taps” is played. We live in a broken, sinful, violent world. While I do not glorify war or violence, I honor those who put their lives in danger, some to the point of death, for the cause of freedom. I glorify those who have thought and talked and written to create and preserve the democratic ideal that is America. Likewise, in my spiritual journey, I realize Easter is a big deal. We should celebrate the resurrection. It is the victory of God in Christ over evil, sin and death. But for me, as my faith has matured, Good Friday has become equally important in the story of God’s salvation. It is on the cross that we see the depth and power of God’s love and grace. It’s all about the sacrifice. The indifference and even disdain with which I viewed the military back in the Vietnam years has given way to gratitude for those who have died, been wounded or disrupted their lives to serve. The indifference and disdain that accompanied Jesus to his crucifixion gave way to wonder at what God was willing to do to save us poor sinners: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). I love America, my country, my home. We are far from perfect, but I think sometimes we focus far too much on our imperfections. The rancor of our social and political discourse is disheartening. But we are still the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” America is still the grand experiment in democracy and human potential, exploring a new way to be a society for 238 years. No other nation comes close. Tom Brokaw, in his book The Greatest Generation, closes with a touching scene. In exquisite prose, he describes his uncle and a friend placing small American flags on the graves of veterans for Memorial Day. He writes, “It was a ceremony of honor, remembrance, and renewal played out in countless other cemeteries across the land by members of a generation that gave so much and asked so little in return.” On this July 4 across our land, we will play out a celebration remembering and honoring the spirit of America. I hope it is more than fireworks and cookouts and a three-day weekend. I hope it helps renew the commitment we share to the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. It could happen. I never served in the military; I’ve been in a different army my entire adult life. I have been engaged in spiritual warfare, but it is a gentler kind of combat. I hope it has been a force for peace. I wonder if in generations to come, will anyone get a lump in their throat or a tear in their eye when they remember and honor the sacrifices this generation made for the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Will our service in this time be a source of renewal for the church in future generations? That, too, could happen. The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as superintendent of the Northwest District. Email: breeves@arumc.org.