This week we commemorated Memorial Day, honoring the sacrifice of all fallen heroes who died in service during American wars. Memorial Day services are particularly big in the South. Back in Atlanta, I saw churches annually place countless small American flags on their property to remember those who have given their lives to protect the country. Driving home from church, there would be countless white crosses with the names of the soldiers killed during WWII, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, to name a few. Passing by the cross engraved “Korean War” I offered a brief prayer in remembrance and gratitude for all young men and women who paid with their lives to protect the freedom in Korean Peninsula. Korean Church of Atlanta UMC did its best to annually honor and thank the living veterans of the Korean War. We hosted a banquet for Korean War veterans; and a good number of times, we held special ceremonies to award them with medals from the Korean government. Presenting each elderly veteran with the medal, I said, “It is an honor to meet you, sir. Thank you,” and they would reply, “Thank you for having me tonight. The honor is all mine.” Those were some very special moments.
I used to actively take part in anti-war protests. After the outbreak of the Iraq War, I stood in front of the Federal Building in downtown Chicago holding up a sign “My taxes were used to make bombs that killed 150,000 Iraqi soldiers and they’re also the children of God!” At the protest of an Asian man with a clerical collar, some people got offended and yelled, “Go back to your country!” but mounted police stood by and watched over my safety all day until I finished my one-person protest. But whenever I was invited to pray for Memorial Day service, I gave thanks with all my heart for the veterans both deceased and living, and prayed for the safety of all soldiers deployed overseas, as well as police officers and fire responders who risk their lives in the service of others. After the prayer, military families, especially parents whose children were deployed, would come up to me to say thank you with teary eyes. In reply, I gave them a hug and said, “We owe you and your family a debt of gratitude.” The Southern culture had deep historical roots of racism, but when we prayed together for deployed family members, we all carried a similar sense of desperation. At least in those moments, we were all poor in spirit, all the same. While decisions for war are made by the president and policymakers, deployed men and women follow the call to serve their country. While we may be divided about government-made policies, we must pray for the safety and protection of all deployed soldiers serving overseas.
My father served as an army interpreter officer during the Korean War. I don’t recall my father ever speaking anything ill about North Korea’s leader Kim Il-Sung, but I do vividly remember how he prayed for peaceful reunification. He did so for the sake of his extended family in the North. The late Rev. Syngman Rhee, who at one point served as the president of the National Council of Churches USA and the first Asian American to serve as Moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly, was the Marine Corps Veteran of the Korean War whose father was martyred in North Korea. But Rev. Rhee devoted his whole life for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. I asked him how he could have no hard feelings toward the communist regime of the North that killed his father. The answer was, simply and plainly, that Rev. Rhee’s father used to preach ‘Jesus taught we must love our enemies,’ and so the best way to honor his father’s life and legacy is to love. Rev. Rhee requested in his will that I preside over his funeral although I am a Methodist pastor, so I gave the funeral sermon and benediction while then the current Moderator of the PCUSA who was a Palestinian did the liturgy. I think Rev. Rhee requested that I officiate his funeral so as to keep the hope for Korea’s reunification alive and carried on by the next generation.
In the Bible, “remembering” is the beginning of returning to the rightful place as God’s people. Remembering how God was faithful to his promises of liberation, restoration, and blessing throughout 400 years of slavery, 40 years of wilderness, 70 years in captivity is the most basic tenor that resounds in the Old Testament. And it is through this active remembering of God’s salvation history, we become a part of God’s covenant people. Jesus likewise commanded that we continue the holy communion in an act of remembrance of the new covenant that Christ enacted through giving his life, and in participating, we join with one another as one body of Jesus Christ.
For some time now, I had the feeling of unfulfilled assignment at heart. After my mother’s passing two years ago, I buried her together with my father who passed away 46 years earlier. Now the headstone had to be renewed, and for long I couldn’t decide on the inscription. Lately, I was looking over my father’s journals that he kept ever since he first fled to the South. He prepared a new journal at the start of every year and wrote “Sola Fide” on the cover page. There it is, I thought, the headstone inscription for my parents. “Sola Fide,” and “Sola Gratia.” And reflected in those words are my prayers, for the memory of my parents who lived by ‘Faith Alone, Grace Alone’ to guide me and my brothers, for generations to follow into the future.
May the blessing of remembrance be with us this week, as we honor those who gave their lives for our families, church, and the country.