We Remember

Reading ~ “Remembering Well” ~ Paul S. Sawyer 

The first time I ever played “Taps” was at summer camp when I was ten years old. That was the year I started playing trumpet, so I can only imagine how it sounded. I know there was no way that I could have hit the high note near the end.

The first time I played Taps in honor of those who died was in high school, when I was contacted by the local Legion commander. He asked if I would mind occasionally being called on to play Taps at graveside services for veterans. I agreed.

For the next couple of years, when there was a need, I would take my place with the Legion honor guard, wait for the three volleys of shots to ring out, and play the simple 24 notes of Taps as clearly and as best I could.

Each time, the Legion commander would quietly slip me a ten dollar bill — and that’s about all that Taps meant to me, for a while: it was easy to do, it got me out of school, and I earned a little money.

And then one day that changed.

The man I was called upon to play for that day was the father of one of my Boy Scout leaders. Back then, like most of the adults I knew, I thought my assistant scoutmaster was pretty old. But his father was a World War II veteran, so now, thinking back, that means that both my leader and his father were relatively young—too young—for their places there that morning, as the honored dead and as the grieving son.

That day, as I began to play Taps, this man—who I knew as wise, and kind, and relatively hard in the Old Boy, Boy Scout, wilderness leader sort of way— fell to his knees, overwhelmed with tears.

I’m not sure how I made it through the whole piece that day, but after that I thought I might never be able to play Taps again.

Today, whether I’m playing it or hearing it, Taps means something close to what it once meant, to the reasons for which it was written and originally used.

Once upon a time, Taps was a signal that the camp was relatively safe. It meant that you were not under siege, or under attack of any kind. It meant that you were reasonably sure that there were no enemy soldiers to worry about at least a bugle call’s distance away.

To a whole camp of soldiers, the notes of Taps meant that, unless you were on duty, you could close your eyes and you could sleep in peace.

I didn’t know that story, or that sentiment all those years ago, when I played Taps for pocket money in the local cemetery. But in that meaning of Taps, something speaks to me in my heart and soul about dying, and, for those of us who remain, about remembering well.

 

 

Reading ~ A Reading for Two Voices by Kendyl Gibbons

When death comes suddenly, taking just one friend, or in a magnitude beyond our comprehension,
in horror and disbelief, we remember.

When bright and innocent lives are cut short, without warning or mercy,
in agony and outrage, we remember.

When a long life closes with honor and thankfulness,
in reluctant submission and gratitude, we remember.

When bereavement and loss seem to be everywhere we turn, and the world goes dark,
in emptiness and pain, we remember.

When help and comfort must be given to the afflicted, and the work of our hands is needed,
in duty and sacrifice, we remember.

When arrangements must be made, and the severed threads bound up,
in ritual and custom, we remember.

When it feels that nothing matters, and life as it once was seems distant and unreal,
in sorrow and numbness, we remember.

When grief comes upon us in waves, and the helpless heart overflows,
in sadness and aching tears, we remember.

When words at last become meaningless, and the only peace lies inward,
in silence and solitude, we remember.

When communities come together, and the hurt is shared,
in mutual comfort and consolation, we remember.

When a strain of music, or a familiar image, brings a gentle wistful smile,
in tenderness and nostalgia, we remember.

When the spirit of life beckons us to lift our eyes to all that remains true and good,
in dedication and trust, we remember.

When the lessons of mutual help and understanding taught by tragedy live on in us to bless the world,
in love and kinship, we remember.

When we come to honor those we have lost by learning to cherish more dearly those around us,
in generosity and gratitude, we remember.

  

Sermon

An undisputed tradition about Memorial Day is that it is the unofficial start of summer – particularly in places like here where warmer weather really doesn’t arrive until about now. An undisputed fact about Memorial Day is that its origins have nothing to do with the coming of the summer season. Beyond that, well, as it turns out, Memorial Day is complicated. It is complicated in its origins and it is complicated in its contemporary manifestations of military prowess.

It is generally agreed that the beginnings of Memorial Day date from the American Civil War. What I had always heard is that it was initiated by the military to commemorate their dead. One historical version is that:

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America.

Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11.

“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

In reading a little bit more about Memorial Day, it seems that some historians credit freed slaves from the South with the origins of Memorial Day, though it was not called Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, freed slaves gathered in Charleston, South Carolina to commemorate the death of Union soldiers and the end of the American Civil War. Three years later, General John Logan issued a special order that May 30, 1868 be observed as Decoration Day, the first Memorial Day — a day set aside “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”

So, General Logan gets the credit for Decoration Day which became our Memorial Day. As with so many holidays, the dominant culture controls the story and the ritual. It is interesting, however, to learn that quite possibly, it was African Americans who first set aside a special time to honor Union soldiers who had died in a POW camp in South Carolina. For them, the cause of freedom was everything and it seemed right and fitting to remember the soldiers who died fighting so that they might live in freedom. The ideals and dreams of a people to be free and autonomous is very American.

Now, we celebrate Memorial Day as a tribute to all our military personnel who die in war. We wave flags and we march in parades and the band plays John Phillip Sousa marches. As you know, in Maine, each cemetery is required to have a small US flag placed at the grave of every veteran on Memorial Day and July 4th and Veterans Day. Yesterday, I was in Greenville at the town cemetery, to lay to rest my friend’s mother. Those little flags are all in place in Greenville – hundreds of them fluttering in the soft afternoon breeze as we gathered to commit the earthly remains of a mother to the earth. One cannot help but be moved by the sight of so many flags on so many graves. I have never been to Arlington National Cemetery. Maybe some of you have. I cannot imagine the enormity of the endless rows of graves marking the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guard personnel who are buried there – each with a simple white marker and small US flag.

We remember them.

Perhaps there is nothing complicated about remembering to honor our fallen men and women. We pause and gather our thoughts and prayers of gratitude.

And then, for me, it does get complicated. It gets complicated because I see how the solemn ritual of remembering our dead gets altered to be a glorification of war. It is one thing to be proud of military service. It is quite another thing to equate pride of service with glorification of war.

One of my colleagues is a minister serving small congregations in New Hampshire and Vermont. She is also a chaplain to first responders – police and firefighters. She is a firefighter. She is an EMT. She is a member of our Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry Team and she goes where she is needed to serve our people and help them through some very rough times. She is proud to wear her first responder uniform. She is proud to wear the stole of ministry. She is proud to serve. She is patriotic in the ways that we all are patriotic. And, she knows that it is complicated.

This weekend she is remembering her father. He served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. My father did as well. Her father was a pilot. My father was an engineer who kept the planes working safely. We remember them.

She also says this week that we, as a nation, have lost our way. We are asked to set aside a little time on Memorial Day to remember and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We do so gratefully. There is more required of us. We are required to be citizens; citizens who take very seriously the call to arms that may result in the death of many. We are required to be citizens who hold our elected officials – those who have the authority and responsibility to send our youth into battle – accountable for each and every death. We must hold ourselves and our elected officials to the highest standards and ideals of our nation. Standards of freedom and justice and equality. I agree.

Are those the standards that determine our military involvement in the world today? I wonder. The use of military force is a very serious decision and the use of military personnel in armed and violent conflict is a very serious decision. I fear that the allure of money and power is stronger than our ideals. I fear that the greed of the already wealthy to amass an even greater fortune can pull our country into armed and violent conflict. I even fear that sometimes our leaders put personal wealth and power ahead of the national good and when they do, our people in uniform pay for that selfish greed with their lives. That is not a just cause. Not even one life can be sacrificed on the altar of profit and power. Not even one.

We remember those who died in battle defending freedom and justice and equality. Will we also be called upon to remember those who will die defending profits and corporate or personal power? I pray not.

War is complicated. Yes, I know. I also know that war is not the answer. Killing is not the solution to injustice. Killing compounds injustice. Sometimes I park behind Kent Price as we line up for choir practice. The bumper sticker on his mini cooper reads: I’m Already Against the Next War. Me too. I see some of the things our government says and does in the world and it seems that we are almost encouraging war as a way of expanding the military industrial complex and its hunger for profits.

Surely after all the centuries of war, we know that we cannot solve through force whatever current problem we seek to resolve. Let us not use Memorial Day to glorify or justify war.

Let us remember our dead by honoring and respecting the living. Let us lift up the ideals and dreams that energize our nation and make us the patriotic Americans we are. It’s not too late. It’s not a lost cause. It is our birthright and our responsibility. For all those who have died in service to our country, may we reward their sacrifice by refusing to require that same ultimate sacrifice from our children and their children.

When I hear Taps played at a burial, tears come to my eyes. Let us rise up and resist any call to arms in the service of unjust causes.

When we come to honor those we have lost by learning to cherish more dearly those around us,
in generosity and gratitude, we remember.

Blessed Be. I Love You. Amen.

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Rev. Margaret A. Beckman

Rev. Margaret A. Beckman

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