“Non nobis solum nati sumus." (Not for ourselves alone are we born.)
--Marcus Tullius Cicero
It gets me every time.
No matter how often I preside as clergy at the funeral of a military veteran or active service person, the haunting ritual at the end of the graveside service always moves me. It fills my eyes with tears. Gives me a lump in my throat, as I place my hand over my heart and watch…
“Taps” is played on a trumpet and its mournful notes wash over the assembled and the hushed cemetery. Two service people—an honor guard—approach the flag-draped casket, reverently lift up the stars and stripes, and neatly fold it into a fabric triangle. Finally, one from that guard approaches a widow or widower, or the eldest surviving son or daughter, or a relative, and presents them with the flag. What’s not often heard by those assembled, are the words always spoken by the soldier, as the flag is handed over.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army (or Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.”
A grateful nation.
Grateful, because that man or woman was called to serve or chose to serve, the United States of America. His country. Her home. He was summoned through the draft, or inspired to join up, because of Pearl Harbor or 9/11. She joined with others, in service to a cause greater than herself: to defend the nation she loved or to give back in gratitude for her homeland.
But here’s the real civic miracle symbolized in that ritual. They served. Served. Me and you. Served fellow citizens, millions of people, most of whom were strangers to them. They served, sacrificed a chunk of their lives and precious time with family and loved ones. They stepped out of careers or school. They left behind sweethearts or children. They served, sometimes in not so hard places, but often in the worst of places. On the beaches of Normandy or the jungles of Pacific islands or in Vietnam, or on the cold plains of Korea, or the sweltering sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. They served, in the prime of their lives, as a nation sent forth its sons and daughters.
And always their example makes me wonder, even worry: could I do that? Serve, as they did, as so many millions still serve this day? Could you? Would you, if asked, if needed by our nation, leave it all behind and serve? When I die, will the nation I call home, be grateful for the one life that I’ve lived, the causes I’ve served?
In these cynical, sometimes nihilistic times, it is all too easy to forget our shared civic life and responsibilities. This call to serve. It is so tempting to just leave it up to somebody else to do our heavy lifting. To snarkily dismiss the notion of a citizen’s duty as quaint, old fashioned, the vestige of an earlier age. But when we do so, we forget that individual and communal service to others: this is what truly made and makes a nation great. That when the call goes out for sacrifice, citizens respond.
For America is not finally “great” because of the size of our GDP or the wealth of the few or the fame of our pseudo heroes or the allure of power. America was and is a “great” nation for the most noble of ideals. Like freedom and folks ready to defend it. Community and a commitment to living a life not just for “me” but also for “thee”. Patriotism: not the cheap kind, sporting a .99 cent flag lapel pin or knowing all the words to the national anthem. That’s easy. Real patriotism is stepping up and serving your neighbor and it happens in the military and many other settings too. Service: in faith communities and families, in suburban neighborhoods and on city streets, in running a business or volunteering to coach kids, or serving on a town board or feeding the hungry.
Service is life, in a way. We all got to where we are in this life because some one else sacrificed on our behalf. They served us. Remember?
So my prayer for this Memorial Day weekend is simple. In between all the soccer tournaments and baseball games and barbeques and flag waving, may each of us as citizens and humans consider just what we are doing to serve others. The smallest life is one devoted to self alone. The greatest life always seeks to serve others. In gratitude, let’s not forget that.
Happy Memorial Day.