Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day 2018: A Fast Day, Despite the Cookouts

The denominational church I grew up in is Protestant, and we didn't follow the church year celebrated by our more liturgical brethren. We observed Christmas and Easter (including Palm Sunday) with decorations and special programs, including a living Nativity scene, an Easter egg hunt, and special music. 

The MOST special music programs I recall were those which featured the little kids. Not only were they utterly charming, with their sweet little voices singing 'Silent Night' and 'Away In A Manger', but it gave us older kids a chance to act goofy, by making faces at whatever small siblings were in the program. It was nearly-free monkeyshines, too; the little ones were so cute, even as they waved back in the middle of a song, that our parents never snatched a knot in us, as they were wont to do on other occasions.

Secular holidays, like the 4th of July, were observed, as was the semi-secular Thanksgiving. The other days and seasons in the church year. we ignored.  We had no Advent, no Epiphany, no Ash Wednesday, no Lent, no Holy Week with Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, and definitely no Pentecost, because the Pentecostals were just....strange, at least to my family & church group.

At age 19, as a heathen with a solid Sunday School background, I joined the United States Army and was shipped off to Germany. There I encountered a different kind of church, where the congregation consisted mostly of first-and-only-term enlisted men, half of whom  (like me) found God after the strength and variety of drugs available had stomped our brains flat. This almost-underground church met in barracks rooms and mess halls, and ran shuttles to other bases where coffee houses, Bible studies, and evening worship services were held for the benefit of the spiritually-minded trooper. And I attended my first Pentecostal service, and once my heart started beating again, I discovered I rather enjoyed the energy.

I drew close to the chaplain assigned to the hospital where I was eventually stationed. He helped me, a LOT, when I needed it. The military chapel is non-denominational, but the chaplains are all ordained by a recognized denomination before they enter the service, and this chaplain was a Methodist. That's part of the reason that I joined the Methodist Church, a few years later, and a couple of years after that, I decided to give seminary a try. 

Seminary was a pretty horrid experience for me, but I DID pick up some truth while there. One I REALLY wasn't expecting was a profound love and respect for the liturgy. I found that saying the familiar words prepared my mind and spirit to receive the things of God, and I also found great value in reciting the same phrases that were being spoken in many languages all over the world, and in some cases had been a part of church worship for centuries. 

I also discovered that hymns had more than a first, second, and last verse. In fact, there are some hymns which MUST be sung in their entirety in order to deliver the message. Don't believe me? Well, read the words to "The Star Spangled Banner" sometime. The FIRST verse, which is all that you ever hear sung, has a dismal end.  It's not until the last lines of the second verse that the victory creeps in, and the third verse is a triumphant sneer at the vanquished enemy; but, it is the LAST verse, the verse nobody ever sings, that really makes my inner Patriot shout, and weep for joy and gratitude. I will leave the examination of the words as an exercise for the reader.

And one more thing that I learned, is that my religious education had been WOEFULLY neglected. As I mentioned earlier, my boyhood church observed religious and secular feasts. And the food and the trappings were good; however, you don't get the benefit of a feast if you have never had the benefit of a fast. 

The only fasts I knew anything about prior to 1978 included Lent, which I believe is the most common fast in the Christian Church. Also, when I was a boy, the Catholic Church had a practice of fasting from meat on Fridays. My only personal experience with Jewish fasts came in 1974, when  I spent all of Yom Kippur in the company of a Jewish soldier; today, I wish I had observed the fast with him. I am aware that other traditions also include fasts, but prior to my time in the seminary, these were all I had knowledge of.

Ignorance of the spiritual discipline of fasting is on my mind today. Just as my boyhood church had forgotten the fast as an act of spiritual discipline, it seems that my country has also forgotten the meaning of Memorial Day. While I am always grateful to have my military service recognized, Memorial Day is not for veterans. Veterans have a day: it's November 11. Memorial Day is a time to reflect on the sacrifice made by our honored dead. 

I do not condemn firing up the grill today for a cookout, but if that is ALL that Memorial Day means, it is a national, and personal tragedy. Not only that, but ALL feasts will lose a great deal of their significance if there is never a fast. It doesn't have to be a fast from food; it could just be a few minutes, taken from the doings of the day, to meditate on an appropriate thought.

Here is what occurs to me as the most appropriate thought; I hope you will take the time to read these few words, spoken 155 years ago:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham LincolnNovember 19, 1863

Peace be on your household. 

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