The Common Good

Memorial Day: From Suffering to Hope

Suffering, with light at the end of the tunnel, hikrcn/ Shutterstock.com
Suffering, with light at the end of the tunnel, hikrcn/ Shutterstock.com

Memorial Day is a day to remember. A solemn holiday, it reminds us of the men and women who have died serving our country. Wreath-laying ceremonies and concerts fill the weekend, along with the placing of 250,000 American flags on the graves of Arlington National Cemetery. 

Decorating graves is the oldest of Memorial Day traditions. In fact, the holiday was originally called Decoration Day and honored the soldiers who died during the Civil War. Flowers were placed on graves every year on May 30, and after World War I the holiday expanded to include soldiers who died in any war. In 1971, it was moved to the last Monday in May to create a three-day Memorial Day Weekend.

And that, writes Everett Salyer of HEAVEmedia, “is when all hell broke loose.” For many Americans, the holiday became a celebratory weekend filled with grilling meat, drinking beer, splashing in pools, and watching stock car races. 

“Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day,” said the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2002, as they lamented “the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.” 

The VFW has a point. While we shouldn’t focus entirely on sacrificial death, neither should we ignore the process that moves us from suffering to hope. 

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul encourages us to “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4, NRSV). Skipping any of these steps leaves us with a long weekend that is pleasurable – but largely pointless.

From suffering to hope. That’s the process to remember on Memorial Day. It is needed as we reflect on recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the school shootings at Newtown, and the Boston Marathon bombings. We need it right now, as we struggle to comprehend the devastation of the massive tornado that hit Moore, Okla., this week, leaving dozens dead — including many children. “This terrible,” said a helicopter reporter. “This is war-zone terrible.”

Our progress toward hope begins in a war-zone, with a man named Alan Wood. He never claimed to be a hero, but wanted to honor the sacrifices made by his brothers on Iwo Jima during World War II. For five weeks in 1945, American forces fought to capture this volcanic island from the Japanese, and in the process about 6,800 U.S. troops died. 

Wood’s ship was beached close to the base of Mount Suribachi, a rocky 500-foot peak on Iwo Jima. After heavy fighting, American forces managed to scale the peak and hoist a flag — but the flag was too small.

A dusty, dirty, and tired Marine boarded Wood’s ship, asking for the biggest flag available. He needed something that could be seen, to give hope to the men still suffering through the invasion. 

Wood produced a 37-square-foot flag that he had discovered months earlier in a Pearl Harbor Navy depot. That flag was put on a length of water pipe and raised by five Marines and a Navy corpsman on the peak of Mount Suribachi. Photographer Joe Rosenthal took an iconic picture — a “frozen flash of history” — that won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize.

“He didn’t talk much about it,” reported Wood’s son. “He didn’t draw attention to himself. He was just there when someone needed a flag and he gave it to them.” At the end of the war, Wood said that he was humbled by the fact that “there were men among us who were able to face a situation like Iwo where human life is so cheap.”

From suffering to hope. Alan Wood endured fierce fighting and then returned home to work for nearly five decades at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles. He died last month, a surviving member of what has been called The Greatest Generation.

The apostle Paul wanted to give hope to Christians who were suffering in the Roman Empire due to high taxes, the oppressive control of the Roman military, and social pressure to worship the emperor. Paul faced this situation squarely and reminded the Romans that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1).

We are justified by faith — made right with God by our faith in Jesus. And the result of this justification is that we have a peace with God that goes far deeper than the Pax Romana established by Augustus Caesar. Paul reminds the Romans that their Lord is Jesus, rather than the emperor, and that his peace is part of the heavenly empire that is grounded in the grace and love of God.

Through Jesus, we have “obtained access to this grace in which we stand,” writes Paul; “and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (v. 2). The word “boast” is a bit problematic because it carries negative connotations. Alan Wood never boasted about providing the flag to the Marine at Iwo Jima, and we would think less highly of him if he did. But the original Greek word is translated in the NIV as “rejoice,” which gives a more positive spin on this celebration of sharing the glory of God.

Paul’s jubilant spirit carries over to the next verse, where he says that we also rejoice “in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (vv. 3-5). Paul rejoices in the progression from suffering to endurance to character to hope. He celebrates it in his own life, and challenges us to do the same.

Memorial Day is a time to remember suffering, but not to see it as an end in itself. Instead, pain is the beginning of a process that produces endurance, character, and ultimately hope. Paul says that we are able to get through tough times “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (v. 5), and this love enables us to endure the pain and injustice that is so often a part of life. As we endure, we develop the moral and ethical qualities that become known as character. And as we refine these qualities, we discover a deeper reservoir of hope in God.

Pain can actually move us closer to the God who is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. This is not because suffering is ever good, but because it is an experience we share with our Lord. Today is also Trinity Sunday, so we are reminded that suffering is a part of God’s own experience, especially in the cruelty that was inflicted on Jesus in his trial and crucifixion. He felt the kind of physical and mental agony that is often reserved for war zones, but he endured it and moved from the suffering of death to the hope of resurrection. 

Jesus is our one true Lord, over the human lords of Rome and Washington, D.C. Over the titans of Wall Street. Over the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. Over the stars of Hollywood. Over the terrorists of the Boston Marathon.

Suffering is a part of every human experience, even joyful celebrations at marathon finish lines. Because we live in a violent world, we should never expect anything to be pain-free, as much as we would like it to be.

Memorial Day reminds us of the men and women who have died for our country, but also the Savior who died on the cross. We recall their deaths with gratitude, because they continue to move us from suffering to hope. 

Henry G. Brinton writes for USA Today. Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, is author of The Welcoming Congregation. His ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

For Further Reading:

Chawkins, Steve, “Alan Wood, 90, provided iconic flag at Iwo Jima in World War II,” The Washington Post,April 30, 2013.

Salyer, Everett, “Memorial Day: The Controversy,” HEAVEmedia, May 27, 2011.

Willems, Kurt, “Behind Luke’s Gospel: The Roman Empire During the Time of Jesus,” Patheos.

Image: Suffering, with light at the end of the tunnel, hikrcn/ Shutterstock.com

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