Memorial Day is a national holiday of purely secular origin; a day set aside to remember and honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. This presents churches with something of a dilemma every time the last Sunday of May rolls around. How are they to worship in a biblically faithful way while acknowledging, in some appropriate manner during the service, the nation’s honored dead? I have no intention of delving into that question here. I mention it only as a serious lead-in for this recounting of what will probably be considered one of the more light-hearted moments during my early years in ministry.
I had been at my first parish, serving a small suburban congregation in southern Ohio, when I first encountered the Memorial Day dilemma. The chairwoman of the altar guild told me that it was customary on Memorial Day weekend to place an army rifle with a combat helmet upright against the communion table. This struck me as something less than appropriate but, not wanting to cause an uproar so early in my tenure at my first church, I deferred taking any action at the time. I simply made a note that the issue would have to be addressed before the following year.
It so happened that when the following year rolled around, all too soon, Memorial Day weekend coincided with Pentecost Sunday, another one of those celebrations in which it was “customary” for the altar guild to place a special decoration in the sanctuary. Hanging over the communion table was a huge brass cross. For Pentecost, the altar guild would place at the top of the cross a white dove, descending.
On Saturday afternoon before Pentecost/Memorial Day Sunday, I walked into the sanctuary and was greeted with a most hideous sight. There was the dove, descending from the top of the brass cross, directly in the line of fire of the army rifle standing upright against the communion table! If I had any hesitation about finally addressing the issue of having a gun in the sanctuary, I overcame it in an instant. There was no way I was going to allow such a sacrilege to take place.
Taking a deep breath, I called the chairwoman of the altar guild. “I’m sorry,” I said, “But this arrangement is inappropriate.” I then suggested we remove the rifle from the sanctuary and place it in the narthex so that the worshipers could acknowledge Memorial Day as they entered the building and then celebrate Pentecost as they entered the sanctuary (I was a Methodist at the time, not yet familiar with that wonderful Anglican term, “nave”). The plan seemed good to the altar guild and, amazingly enough, I did not hear one complaint from any church member over the change.
A confrontation I had dreaded for over a year ended, literally, without a shot being fired. Nevertheless, that image of the sweet heavenly dove in the crosshairs of a musket is a Memorial Day memory a pastor can never forget.