“Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it ‘Ebenezer,’ saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” — I Samuel 7:12
On May 30, 1868, a crowd of 5,000 people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery for the first, of what would become an annual, Decoration Day address.
Flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers and the crowd listened to a speech by James A. Garfield, then an Ohio congressman who had served as a major general in the Civil War. He said, “With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the conning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
Monday we will celebrate Decoration Day, which we now call Memorial Day. This Memorial Day will be quite different. There will be no parades with veterans from World War II and other wars and conflicts marching, no evening fireworks displays, no picnics, or citywide celebrations.
But as President Ronald Regan stated in an address at Arlington National Cemetery in 1982, “We must honor them — not for their sakes alone, but for our own. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice. Our first obligation to them is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden.”
In our little country church we used to sing a hymn written in the 1700s, “Come, Thou Fount.” The second verse begins with, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, higher by Thy help I’m come.” As a boy I had no idea what an Ebenezer was. Later I learned it was a memorial stone raised by the prophet Samuel after Israel defeated the Philistines at Mizpah, “a stone of help.” (I Samuel 7:12) It was a victory for Israel not by their might but by the Lord and Samuel wanted the people to remember it.
Memory is a great gift. Without it we would stumble through a world of confusion, unable to profit from anything that we had learned. We would not even know that we needed water to quench our thirst or to drive on the right side of the road or to pay our taxes by April 15th. That is why we have memory aids. We need them so that we won’t forget those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
And yet, we do forget. I went to the drugstore recently to pick up a prescription for my wife. The lady asked me for Dolores’ birthday. I hesitated and then gave her the month and year. She asked for the day of the month. I said, “I think it is....” I was wrong! I have never forgotten her birth date in over 55 years! Fortunately the lady knew me and suggested a date, and I said, “Yes, that’s it! Please don’t tell my wife!”
How quickly we can forget. Monuments and memorials are important. But do you know what is even more tragic than forgetting our heritage and freedom’s price, or me forgetting my wife’s birth date? It is forgetting how much we owe to God.
Each Sunday is really a memorial day. Each Sunday is a day to remind us of God’s love and kindness to us. Like Samuel of old, we are to remember, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
Emmett Murphy is a retired Christian church pastor.