Veterans' Day

Wreaths and Rememberance

By Jeff Laird

One of the strangest parts of life is the way appreciation lags so far behind experience. There are moments where the mind knows important things are happening, but the spirit doesn't feel it. It's not until later, sometimes years later, when we fully grasp what we were involved in. Even if what we're remembering is positive, there can be a strange regret that we weren't more self-aware when it actually happened. The old saying "If I only knew then what I know now" isn't always a wish to change the past. Sometimes, it's just a wish that our perspective had been different.

When I was in the eighth grade, our entire class went on a several-day trip to Washington, D.C. This went about the way you'd expect when you stuff a few hundred 13- and 14-year-olds into buses and drive them around the nation's capital for several days. We went to the same landmarks every tourist visits: the Washington Monument, Ford's Theater, Pennsylvania Avenue, and so forth.

One of the stops, however, wasn't quite so run-of-the-mill, even for a gang of young teens. Our group visited Arlington National Cemetery. Prior to the trip, four of us had been asked to participate in a special event being held that day. The four of us wore more formal clothes, brought along a wreath, and carried in front of a large crowd. There, we passed it to a serviceman who presented it at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The wreath-laying ceremony was solemn, and quiet, even with a crowd of teenagers. Even though my classmates were respectful, I was apparently one of the few who understood the gravity of the moment. I wore black. Friends asked me afterwards, "Why didn't you smile like the others?" There are pictures of me at the event, next to three other grinning kids, with a very somber expression on my face.

In my mind, I knew that what we were commemorating was serious. And sad. But what does a typical American 13-year-old really know about war, loss, separation, and heartbreak? Not much, which is why I don't blame my younger self's naïve version of respect for the whole thing.

Thinking about Veteran's Day, and that moment at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, brought this idea of time and appreciation to my mind. There are so many things in life we only really understand long after they're over. Then, we look back and wonder at how we could have been so trivial. Even if we weren't all that trivial!

Those who have raised children learn how life-changing the transition into parenthood is. But we tend to learn this, at the deeper, soul-and-spirit level, only by looking back. By thinking of days gone by and realizing that they're just that: gone. They were infants, but not anymore. They were toddlers, but not anymore. They needed help, but not anymore. Those moments and opportunities are what they were; only after time passes do we really grasp their importance.

For the Christian, there's a similar effect in our spiritual lives. For most of us, coming to faith in Christ isn't like being struck by lightning. Change can take time. We can appreciate the Grace of God, at the moment of salvation, so far as that goes. We know we have a need, that's why we respond. But it takes growth in the faith to really understand how profound that gift was. Even an enthusiastic convert is going to look back, someday, and see themselves as oblivious and unaware, by comparison.

I briefly considered the Naval Academy when I was in High School. I went through most of the application process, including references from my Representative. But, in the end, I decided on a public university, instead. That only makes my appreciation for our Veterans that much greater. They've made sacrifices so that I could make that choice — not be forced into it. They took risks so that I wouldn't have to take them. I live every day with benefits I've done almost nothing to earn, thanks to those who gave quite a bit — sometimes everything.

That's the kind of thing a middle-school kid can "get," in a way. But they haven't seen, experienced or learned enough to fully appreciate what it means. I can't go back and dial up extra wisdom in my 13-year-old self. Perspective requires time. What I can do is make a purposeful effort, now, to appreciate the moments I'm living in.

It also gives me hope, when I fall. I can look back at how far I've come in my spiritual life. And — Lord willing — have confidence in a future where I've gone even further. When I can look back, and shake my head at a weaker, less wise, less capable person. I can look forward to what God is capable of doing with me, by looking back on what He's done with me so far.

At the same time, I have to say this thought also gave me a sense of sadness. I appreciate my salvation more and more, each day. As a result, I try to live a life which honors that sacrifice. Knowing what I know now, I'd have whispered a soft, "I'm sorry," on the day I laid the wreath. The generation coming into power now — my generation — is dissolving the honor and freedom those men and women fought for. Instead of independence, dignity, and truth, this generation is drowning in selfish irrationality. Instead of liberty under control, we're choosing to be enslaved by self-indulgence.

I've lived almost twice as many years since that wreath ceremony as I did before it. Experience has made it clear how much I owe to other people, and their work. My salvation, I owe to a God who paid a price I had no hope of paying. My freedom, I owe to men and women who wrote blank checks to people they'd never meet. I can't make my younger self appreciate that more, nor can I force others to appreciate it now.

What I can do, with who and what I am today, is say, "thank you" to those who made the life I live possible. In particular, to those who literally fought and died so I wouldn't have to. I can encourage everyone to honor Veterans, and Veterans' Day, not only with a look to the past, but with an examination of the present and a hopeful plan for the future.

It's far better to look back and wince at well-meaning naivety, knowing you at least tried to honor the moment, than to take what you have for granted, and feel like a fool when you lose it.

May our nation never forget the privilege and responsibility of living where and when we do. Or the gift that is safety bought with the sacrifice of others. May we grasp the magnitude of that gift, and choose to use it each day for something better and nobler than selfishness. We make a point of this on Veteran's Day, but it's an attitude we should carry with us, always.

Image Credit: mintchipdesigns; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Celebrating-Holidays  | Christian-Life  | Personal-Life

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Published 11-9-15