God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
– John Milton
Of the three days Americans most associate with patriotism – the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day – it is that last one that seems to get short shrift.
The glorious Fourth has the songs, picnics, fireworks. Plus, our Founding Fathers were fortuitous in declaring our independence at what has turned out to be the height of the summer vacation season… the time of year that for many of us feels the most like freedom.
Memorial Day somehow blends our joy at the prospect of summer with our bittersweet reflections on sacrifice and loss. It makes for an oddly effective combination of anticipation and remembrance… heating up the barbecue, tearing up at “Taps.”
That leaves Veterans Day. News programs give us sweet clips of happy soldiers and sailors coming home to excited spouses and children, and aging men in ill-fitting old uniforms, saluting the flag. If it’s not your son or uncle or sister getting off the transport plane or your grandpa standing at attention, it can feel a little like you’re watching someone else’s home movies.
It’s just human nature. We’re better at celebrating victory and honoring those who gave all than we are at commemorating what seem (in our comfortable existence) like more mundane sacrifices. Memorial Day remembers those who died fighting. Veterans Day, to those who haven’t served, can seem more like we’re honoring those who, well, lined up for inspection… marched… pulled some KP and guard duty… and came home.
Yes, we acknowledge it, but to a culture constantly urged to look askance at anything military, the occasion doesn’t lend itself to as many wet eyes and knots in the throat. It’s almost as though, in some mild way, we penalize people for not being “real” heroes. For simply… serving. And yet, these veterans are the ones with whom many of us should identify most closely.
Daily, in our own familiar settings and routines, we are surrounded by co-workers and family members – even strangers – whose service goes unnoticed and unappreciated. At an outdoor mall the other day, I came upon a woman mopping the endless cobblestones. I wondered what it’s like for her to do that, every day, as hundreds of people mill around and push past her, never saying thank you, never making eye contact… never really noticing her at all.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you are pulling that kind of anonymous, thankless duty yourself. People don’t celebrate you. They just depend on you – at the office, at home, in your civic and church responsibilities – to be “armed and ready.” To man your post. To hold the fort.
I am fond of a moment in an old Western movie when a woman marvels at why one man chose to stay behind, and risk his life, so that she and another man could escape mortal danger. “Why would he do that?” she asks. “Why would he stay?”
Her companion looks at her for a moment. “Somebody always stays,” he finally says. “All over the world… somebody has to stay. Somebody gets it done.”
I hear that, and think of the hundreds of anonymous souls who starved and shivered in the snows of Valley Forge. Who didn’t desert, in the face of famine and smallpox… drilling with Von Steuben in their bloody, stocking feet, wondering if they might get shoes or even a musket before spring brought the world’s mightiest army down on top of them.
I think of the Allied soldiers staggering up those blood-red Normandy beaches, the horrors of “the Bulge” still before them. Of the Marines on Bataan and Corregidor, cut off, running out of ammunition, waiting for the Japanese to close in, and the unspeakable brutalities to come.
You could multiply all that by ten thousand trenches and half a million foxholes… all the lonely outposts, besieged bunkers, and off-the-record missions of a dozen wars from Lexington to Mogadishu. Veterans Day is our best effort to honor those who put on a uniform and chose, for a while, to stay.
It is that choosing, really, that we celebrate. Veterans Day reminds us that the blunt, enduring value of soldiers is simply that they sign on for sacrifice. They actually take an oath to stay… in those moments, and places, when everyone else chooses to go.
To do that, soldiers actually have to subdue that most aggressive of all human impulses: self-preservation. They have to determine that, at least for this little, hard while, their lives will not be their own. How to explain that commitment to a society whose rising mantra insists that nothing matters but me – that reality is what I say it is – that your duty is to keep me comfortable and undisturbed? Heroism, of a kind, our culture appreciates, but simple, selfless service? The idea is as uncomfortable for us as it was for those disciples, squirming while Jesus washed their feet.
Anyone who follows His example is going to find himself an oddity in the current culture. But Christians, like veterans, have signed on for sacrifice. We try to forget that, but Paul reminds us:
“Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Veterans Day reminds us that to be a Christian is to be “in the army,” and not our own. And, as terrible casualty reports of the martyrs pour in from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East… as the legal attacks escalate here at home – it’s a day as good as any for remembering those still standing, who are not ashamed of their faith. They’ve “put on the uniform,” and daily… in the office, on campus, at home, in the public square… choose to stay.
May God bless all those who serve, and stand, and wait for Him. May He bless our veterans who honored our flag with their selflessness, and the families who ached and prayed for their safe return. And may He bless our nation, as the war for religious freedom burns on.