Monday, May 28, is an official holiday in America that we call Memorial Day. For the most part people across our land will celebrate the day with family and friends and food and fireworks and all of the things that have come to be a festival of kicking off the summer and vacation time — but it is Memorial Day, a day when we remember all of those who have given their service and so many who ultimately gave their lives for us to have freedom. It is hard for us to comprehend all of the people who made it possible for us to enjoy the blessings that we enjoy in America.
It’s a somber thought that gets lost in the blessings of the memorial festivities. Would you pause for a moment and just give some consideration to the Unknowns? Two categories of Unknowns I would like to address. One is the unknown soldiers who died in almost every war or skirmish we have fought. Very few things have I ever sat silently and watched and experienced that are more moving than the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. It is guarded day and night, 365 days a year. It represents all of the unknown soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who gave their lives and when found were unidentifiable and unknown.
War is a terrible thing, and it does terrible things to fallen warriors to the point that they may not be able to be recognized, identified, and forever will remain unknown. Some years ago, I was preaching in one of our Mississippi towns that had a large area in their cemetery filled with soldiers who had been killed in war. I went over and visited that part of the cemetery and walked from grave to grave, marker to marker, that was only identified with Unknown, Unknown, Unknown. I left there thinking about all of those people and they weighed heavy on my heart. I didn’t live when they were alive, and they are only represented by a marker that says Unknown.
Early one morning I walked back to the cemetery and went to that whole section and stood there before the marker Unknown and paused long enough to meditate or pray or try to think about who that person was and remember because whoever it was paid the ultimate sacrifice for all those who pass by to see the markers. One by one, I took the time, not sure how long it was, and stood there and wondered where they came from, who they had left behind when they went to war, and did they know Jesus.
One by one without rushing past anyone, I stood there and felt the enormity of the loss that was represented in that one small section of the cemetery of people who had given the ultimate sacrifice for my freedom and were unknown. Just a mental exercise of hearing about me doing that reminds me of the weight of concern and grief and appreciation that I felt simply by walking there, stopping, thinking, and moving to the next one. I am certainly aware of the fact that because I didn’t know them and had no idea what their circumstances were and knew nothing about their family, in an ongoing kind of consideration I thought about all of them, the Unknowns who laid down their lives for us.
The second thing that I would like for you to think about is the Unknowns who remain. When someone is killed in action, there is immense grief in a family, maybe in a church, in a community, in a state because of the loss that we all feel — but those who were the closest to that warrior are the ones who go on carrying the burden while the rest of us within days or weeks are back to life’s daily grind. They become those who remain alive and well, some of the Unknowns. There have been times when around Memorial Day I’m so mindful of many of those people who may be sitting out there about whom I don’t know what they’ve been feeling all these years. I may not have ever met them, but they are carrying that load. They may be someone who is a dear friend of mine. They never talk about what continues to come to their mind and heart and they ponder it daily. They are the Unknowns. I know you can’t go to every one of them on Memorial Day and say thank you for what your son or daughter did in blessing our nation. If you know them, try to find an appropriate way to bless them. If you don’t know them, thank God for the Unknowns that carry a burden that you most likely don’t carry. So often and to so many around them, the whole event fades in their memory and they become Unknowns.
Several years ago, I was at a graveside service of a friend who had died. When we arrived at the cemetery the funeral director came to me, aside from the rest of the people, and asked if I saw the couple standing about a hundred yards from where we were. He said they wanted to know if I would talk to them after the graveside service. I told him I would and asked who they were. He said he didn’t know them. I said, “I can’t tell from here if I know them or not.” He said, “Well, they know you and they would like to talk to you.” I said, “As soon as I get finished here, I’ll go talk to them.”
After we had the graveside service and people were leaving, I left to walk across the cemetery and there was this precious older couple who I immediately recognized when I got to them. I also recognized the place where we were standing is where decades before I had conducted the funeral and burial of their son who had been killed in action. The reason they wanted to talk with me is because it was there that they had the last contact with the remains of their son. There he was buried. I remembered them so well. I remembered their son’s death and hearing about him being killed in action. I remember the funeral. I remember being there with them at that place. While I remembered all that, I am confident there had never been a day, maybe not an hour, that they had not thought about the loss that they experienced. I suppose you could multiply that millions of times in the hearts and minds of a dad and mom, sister or brother, friend, pastor, schoolmate, and on and on the memories continue of the loss experienced. In some ways, they just become a part of the Unknowns out there.
Truth is that as we remember Memorial Day and remember the Unknowns, both those who have been lost and those who lost someone, there have been huge numbers in our national family. For instance, when you think just about the first war when we were fighting for our independence, while just over 50 men signed the Declaration of Independence, 25,324 soldiers died to seal the document. Then in the war supposedly to end all wars there were over 400,000 soldiers who died from America alone while soldiers from other countries raised the number who died into the multiple millions. War is a terrible thing.
Remembering those who were willing to fight for us is a worthy thing so today, pause and thank God for the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and all veterans, the people who live and work among us. Where you can, in ways that will be thoughtful, thank them for their service. While you may not know any of the Unknowns, you can pause at least to think about the hundreds of thousands who are only remembered as Unknown but are known to God. May God bless you in this day off on Monday, but think about those who gave it all for us.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.