There are a lot of things that I am happy to have never had to experience. This occurred to me recently as I and my family were visiting my brother-in-law and his wife. Billy, that's him in the picture) is a career soldier with the United States Army. His wife Ching serves in the United States Navy and conveniently they are both stationed in Hawaii. They rented us a tidy little cottage maintained by the Department of Defense at the edge of Barber's Point, a Coast Guard Air Station on the southwestern corner of Oahu. Our back door opened up to about 15 yards of beach and the Pacific Ocean, a view which I spent plenty of time lazily staring at throughout our visit. As I faced southward in my plastic deck chair, keeping watch over the surfers and anticipating the next seal to swim ashore for a nap in the sun, oil tankers and cruise ships drifted across the horizon. About 25 miles to my left against the backdrop Diamond Head the Honolulu skyline glistened in the sun. The crashing of the waves drowned out almost every other noise, the exception being the occasional military aircraft performing training exercises. Further out over the ocean a steady stream of commercial jetliners flew in and out of the capital city.
While watching the distant planes descending and rising slowly out of the city I realized that closer to Honolulu but almost halfway between my deck chair and the tallest hotel in town, and very close to the airport, there is an inlet known as Pearl Harbor. On a quiet December Sunday in 1941 that inlet was of course the site of a surprise attack upon the United States by the Japanese, meant to draw America into World War II...and it worked. In the space of a few hours the Pacific Fleet was decimated. More importantly 2,403 Americans were killed. So I sat, in my deck chair, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been in that spot 72 years and 3 and a half months earlier, to witness swarms of enemy aircraft approaching overhead and suddenly realize that the serene ocean served only to disguise other swarms of submarines and torpedoes. I tried to imagine the noise, the sounds, and the feeling of the vibrations from explosion after sickening explosion. I tried to imagine watching helplessly, from that point, as plumes of thick black smoke towered into the air.
I couldn't imagine it. I'm glad that I don't have to.
No doubt the closest thing to Pearl Harbor that I have experienced in my lifetime occurred on September 11, 2001. Five months after our wedding I'd gotten up, sent my wife off to school where she taught, and settled down to do some reading. It was a beautiful day and it never occurred to me to ruin it by turning on the television or radio. Thus it came as quite a shock when I received a call from the office alerting me to the fact that all hell had broken loose just 50 miles north of our apartment. "You need to get to the church now. We're calling people who work in or near the Pentagon to make sure they're okay!"
The point is that as human beings we have the capacity to do horrible stuff to one another. Certainly the United States of America and members of its military have also been proven capable of injustice. None of us, despite all our striving, is above reproach. Yet most of us haven't come face to face with the horrifying circumstances or had to deal directly with the most serious consequences of madness, injustice, and war. While I came a little closer to 9/11 than I would have preferred I still count myself fortunate to not have experienced the loss of any friends or loved ones in that or any other such melee. Billy has come close to being counted in those ranks, but he's managed to make it home from every one of his tours to Iraq and other places, though not without some scratches, broken bones, and a few horrible memories I'm sure he prefers not to talk about in the company of civilians. I'm glad to have never been any closer than 50 miles or my imagination to the sights and sounds of war. The grace of God affords me this luxury and the United States Armed Forces, a group of which I have no desire to be a part, is in large part the means by which God provides this particular grace to me.
If and when you go to church this Sunday, please make no mistake. Worship services are meant to honor God and reflect upon the grace of Jesus Christ, giving thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are not to be established for the glory of men or women. However, supposing that many ministers (including probably, me) will in some way, shape, or form acknowledge in a special way on Memorial Day Weekend the service of those in uniform, it is altogether appropriate and indeed necessary to express gratitude to them and ultimately to God for the sacrifices that these public servants are willing to make on our behalf. Whether the individual serviceman or servicewoman understands it or not, is there anything more Christ-like than one's willingness to give his or her very life in order to protect most of us from even having to think about such matters as these?