This will be the first Memorial Day in a couple of years when I’m not asked to do the community’s Memorial Day prayer.
It’s a task that falls upon one of the clergy in town, depending upon the size of the community. When I served in Westhampton, MA, I was the only pastor in town. My previous church in Lenox, MA (the town just south of Pittsfield) also asked its clergy to lead the community in prayer. Here, in Pittsfield, where I both serve and live, it seems that one of the Catholic priests always gets the call.
Not that I’m complaining… On one hand leading the community’s Memorial Day prayer is an honor. On the other hand, I like doing the Memorial Day stuff without having the responsibility of being a public dignitary that day.
I remember, though, the first time I had to lead the prayer. I thought that it should be pretty easy. How much time should a minute-long prayer take to write? But when I started writing it, I realized there are all sorts of issues with prayer in this public venue, which makes conscientiously writing this prayer difficult. Even now, having done several of them, I set aside time, maybe an hour, to write one.
The first issue is not everyone is of the same faith. As a Christian, we almost reflexively conclude our prayers with something to the effect, “We ask this in the name of Christ Jesus…” At public ceremonies like this not everyone is a Christian. That also means avoiding other subtle Christian references, such as Holy Spirit. A second issue is not everyone believes in God. Well, I don’t avoid saying, “God.” On the other hand, I don’t want to be heavy-handed about God, either.
It’s also easy to get caught in the moment of the day. Usually the prayer comes after the town parade. It may start the ceremony or it may come in the middle or it may come at the end. Nevertheless, the ceremony usually includes a local veteran or someone on active duty, who talks about the honor of serving this nation or maybe of sacrifices men and women in the service have made. The ceremony usually includes a local official, such as a selectman or representative to the state legislature. American flags and patriotic music round out the atmosphere.
That’s another issue with the prayer. I don’t want to sound nationalistic, which is easy to do with the day’s theme, yet I want to be honorably patriotic.
The prayer is also a day to make a subtle point about war as contrary to the gospel. Let’s just add a bit of complexity about the ambiguity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, at least for me, I have difficulty saying that they died for just cause and yet, I don’t want to say or imply that their deaths were in vain.
Here’s one of the prayers I wrote. I delivered this one in Lenox on Memorial Day 2010:
Holy, eternal, and compassionate God, through the years, men and women have left this community to serve this nation when it called. They were our family, our friends, and our neighbors. They served to defend liberty that we cherish and assume as a right. They served to liberate those crushed by oppression. We celebrate and give thanks for those who returned to Lenox as well as countless others who returned to their homes and communities across this great land. Yet, O God, we know that we gather here today because many fell in battle never to fight again. Though their names may be unknown to us, you know them. Though their faces may fade from our memories, you see them in their eternal youth. We pause today to remember and honor the courage of these men and women. We remember and give thanks for their sacrifice. We grieve that their lives were cut short and this world was deprived of their gifts all too soon. While the loss of loved ones struck down in the prime of their lives will always leave aching hearts in the bosom of family and friends, may they find your love and compassion filling their emptiness.
Most importantly, O God, we pray that the world’s political leadership will take to heart the stories and accounts of war told by the veterans who nobly fought. Grant that our leaders will remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Grant their stories and accounts of war will bear witness to war’s brutality and madness such that our leaders shall find war to be the most abhorrent of all options to settle differences and that they come to understand that extending your reconciling love to all people will achieve your peace and your justice. Help us and instill in us true faith and trust in the transforming power of love. Amen.