This is a piece that I wrote for our 2016 Memorial Day Service at West Lisbon Cemetery. Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served and sacrificed for our country!
Decoration Day began in 1868 after the American Civil War to remember those solders who gave their lives in the conflict and to decorate their graves. The holiday eventually extended to the remembrance of all our fallen soldiers.
I never served in the military. As a boy, I do remember feeling a certain awe and wonder about the life of a soldier. I took a shot at the ASVAB In high school, because of that wonder, and if I’m honest, because of the potential financial help for college, but it never went any further than that.
The wonder and awe that I felt as a boy came from the stories that my father and grandfather would tell about their experiences in the military. These men were giants to me. Both of them were in the army. My father didn’t serve in a conflict, but served in Germany during peace-time. My grandfather served as military police at the end of WWII. Most of their stories told of their experiences in a different culture, rather than battle at the front lines. Grandpa could describe the post-war scene, but he hadn’t been there for much of the fighting.
However, there was one more man in my family that had seen the reality of war. My uncle, Bill Pennington, fought in the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945), which was toward the end of the war. The Germans pulled off a surprise attack on the Allied forces; however, the Allies were able to recover and organize themselves and win the battle, which depleted the German forces to such an extent that some credit it as the battle that ended the war.
My uncle Bill is a large man, tall and broad as a house. He’s a fox hunter, fox hounds and all. When he told me stories as boy, I felt that I gazed into the soul of a man who had experienced something too great for words. This man would cry when he spoke about the things he saw. At the same time, war had left him extremely gentle and tender, especially to children, and vulgar and hard when it comes to even a sniff of injustice. Uncle Bill scared me and comforted me at the same time. He scared me because he spoke of a world that was awesome and terrible. He comforted me because I knew he, and other men like him, would protect me.
The Hearts of Soldiers and Veterans
As I talk and listen to soldiers whom I know, I discover that the heart of a soldier is a complex place, where deep thoughts about God and the world reside. In 1 Samuel 17:38–40, we find part of a very, very familiar story. Which of us upon hearing the story of David and Goliath have not imagined ourselves, sling in hand, launching a single stone at the giant, and knocking him straight dead? Prior to the battle, remember the scene where David is trying out Saul’s armor.
Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.
Have you ever read the story of David and Goliath and wondered, “Why wouldn’t anyone except David approach this brute?” I mean, yes, he was big, but surely out of the whole army of Israel there was someone who would go at this guy, right? In his book Manners and Customs of Bible Times, Ralph Gower tells us something going on behind the scenes,
Saul’s helmet and armor were probably almost unique in Israel at the time, available to him because he was king. It was not at all unusual for a soldier to be armed with only a weapon such as a sling. Saul was anxious to protect David with the armor because it was a custom that champions should decide the outcome of slavery rather than a general battle in which the majority of the opposition would be maimed or killed. Saul wanted to take no chances (233).
The Israelite soldiers were not merely scared of losing a single battle to Goliath, but they carried the burden of possible failure that would lead to the subjection of their families to slavery. No one wants to be responsible for bringing such a thing on the people, so they altogether as one man hesitated. Into this scene, steps David, the young shepherd who had looked into the eyes of lions and bears, and fought them off to protect the sheep. He knew that Goliath wasn’t going away. No doubt, he had not planned to go to battle that day when he first set out to deliver provisions to his brothers. But the giant was like a lion or bear who had his prey right where he wanted it. David trusted the Lord to accomplish his will through him, and he desired freedom for his people rather than slavery to fear or to the Philistines.
Saul tried to take every precaution to protect David, but the armor didn’t fit. Yet David in that moment had all that he needed. He had the heart of a soldier, a heart that was willing to encourage a nation, a heart that was willing to stand in the way of the oncoming enemy, and a heart that trusted God with the outcome for his own glory and purposes. The heart of a soldier plunges into deep places, where heavy costs are calculated.
As we remember those soldiers who are no longer with us, may we give thanks for their burden and struggle, for they carried it for our sakes. May we also consider the living soldiers among us. Both those who are here with us, our veterans, but also those who are active and on duty somewhere in our world. You may ask, “What can I do?” My pastoral counsel would be to regularly pray and give to them God’s word, because God affects and transforms the heart. Since soldiering requires so much heart, pray and give them God’s word.