As Ward reminded me a couple times, Memorial Day is for soldiers who died in battle. Veterans Day is for all those who served either in wartime or peacetime.
However, I would dare say that for those who served in military battle, a little piece of you dies there on that battle field. Some survive, others do not and those in battle experience this firsthand. How could this not be so? And for any soldier in battle, there is always that first clash with the gunfire, the smoke, the screams, the chaos, the fear – that first battle takes away the innocence that came before it. Innocence dies in war.
So, yes, Memorial Day is for the sacred purpose of remembering those who died in battle on behalf of our Country. But let us never forget that for all those who've seen combat, a little of themselves died - the innocence of youth, the comfort of peace, and, most sadly, the lives of brothers and sisters. For combat veterans, Memorial Day is especially difficult. They share the grief of the families who've lost so much because of humanity's failure to find peace void of war. So keep combat veterans along with gold star families especially close in your thoughts and prayers this weekend.
This I learned from the person I remember this morning, my childhood minister, Morgan Jones. Some 30 years before he helped found the church my family attended, Morgan was a soldier in the great conflict known as World War II. In fact, he was part of the pivotal Normandy invasions that turned the tide of the war and led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
I recall one morning traveling with my father and Morgan to a Bible Study. Morgan was a pretty studied guy, and loved to teach the Bible and biblical theology. He would travel all around Columbia, Greene, and even Dutchess Counties in upstate New York holding Bible studies in people’s homes throughout the week. He put a lot of miles on his vehicle, I can tell you that.
Well, my dad loved to attend these Bible studies and did so as often as he could. I enjoyed joining along. When I was in high school, maybe my sophomore year, my father and I would meet Morgan at the Great American shopping plaza in Cairo, NY where the Great American Grocery store stood, my first place of employment. Morgan would pick us up in his beloved red Toyota Tercel and drive up Windham mountain to a Bible study at the Hitchcocks just outside Windham, New York.
On Memorial Day, must have been 1987, my father and I met Morgan as usual. Bible Study for Morgan should never take a day-off. My father, a veteran himself, in a good mood that day, greeted Morgan with a “Happy Memorial Day.” Morgan was noticeably somber, and as we got in the car and settled in, he quipped, “Happy Memorial Day. Nothing happy about it.”
My father a history buff, and always curious about people and their stories, sort of inquired about Morgan’s service during World War II. I too was curious about this. We knew from his messages on Sunday morning that he was there at Normandy on D-Day. But my father wanted to know a little more detail about his experience. But Morgan shut the questions down rather quickly. He didn’t want to talk about it. The silence after Morgan rather strongly shut verbal recollections down, it said enough. War is hell, that silence cried.
What we did come to know about Morgan’s experience as a soldier we learned from what he shared from the pulpit. His service during World War II was pivotal to the direction of his life. Part of his duties was as the military chaplain’s escort. Morgan talked about how he wasn’t very religious at this point.
He grew up in the tough environs of the Bronx in New York City. Morgan told stories about growing up on the tough streets of the City. He was a bit of rascal and was not immune to getting into trouble. He was not so studious either. He grew up in a working poor family. His father was tough on him and drank too much. From an early age, he was pushed to work and make the family some money. So from an early age, he was a message courier. He’d deliver packages on his bike from office to office throughout Manhattan, a common job for kids in the City at the time. He grew up fast, saw a lot, and much of it not good or highlighting the good.
Still, Morgan came to really respect the chaplain. His spirituality was first tilled by this chaplain he drove around, spent some time with. He also experienced the chaplain lead worship services and amid the fear of war felt comforted. Morgan’s relationship with the chaplain was the first movement toward his journey to becoming a pastor. The Evangelical tradition calls this, “planting the seed of salvation.”
What Morgan also once shared from the pulpit was that amid the utter fear and chaos of storming the beaches of Normandy, he made a fateful promise. Influenced by the chaplain’s faith and faithfulness, surrounded by the horrors of war, and in that hellish moment seeing comrades die around him, Morgan made the promise that if he survived this horror, if he made it out alive, he’d commit his life to serving God in memory of his fallen comrades.
He survived. And kept his promise.
I am sure Morgan’s meeting his wife there in France after the invasion of Normandy helped too. Mary Jane, who was truly one the saintliest persons I’ve ever met, was an Army nurse who arrived in France and tended to the wounded after D-Day. That is where she met Morgan
Through the G.I. Bill, Morgan went off to Bible college. He attended Columbia Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina, the college Mary Jane was attending before she entered the Army Nurse Corps.
After college, Morgan became a missionary. By that time, he was married and had a couple kids. But he chose to take the gospel to the remote indigenous tribes of South America. Morgan often told stories about translating the Bible into a language that was not yet a written language. It required him to transpose the language first and then eventually translate the New Testament into that newly transposed language. Yes, Morgan was a brilliant guy.
He eventually returned home. His family would grow to be a family of 8, Morgan, Mary Jane, and six boys. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister but eventually founded a Baptist-style Bible church in upstate New York. Clermont Bible Church. That is where my family met him, I merely a baby.
He was my first mentor. Not only that, his influence was so great on our family, that even after he left Clermont, his influence remained via recordings of his sermons. My brothers Bill and Brett were deeply influenced by those sermons, so much so that they too became preachers. My youngest brother Brett, the one whom I shared about a couple weeks that he just graduated college? Well, he graduated from Morgan and Mary Jane’s alma mater, now called Columbia International University.
All that said, I know if Morgan was around today he’d probably be a bit disappointed in me, though he’d enjoy having a good theological discussion. I left the fold and faith he so powerfully was a part of and helped lead. I could not accept the answer he once gave to a question I remember a Bible Study student once asked him – what about those who’ve never heard the gospel or even the name Jesus Christ? How could they end up in hell for something they could not help?
My eventual Universalist faith gave me the answer - God as loving father will reconcile all back to himself. My faith in that answer would saddened him, I know.
But I’ve learned this in my 46 years. Part of growing up is learning to accept the fact that you can never make everyone happy. Sometimes being true to yourself and your faith means disappointing those who love you and whom you love.
Nonetheless, something always remains in those important relationships. For me and my memory of Morgan, what remains is my deep sense of gratitude for his life, his ministry, his influence on my life.
So on this Sunday before Memorial Day, I remember Morgan, the war veteran who stormed the beaches of Normandy and left a little of himself there and experienced the sad silence of loss from then on. I remember Morgan the military-chaplain-mentored pastor of Clermont Bible Church who dedicated his life to ministry and to the good news of Jesus. I remember my first mentor and a good man who still looms large in the memory of the Erickson family and in this Christian Universalist who still considers him a central part of my own journey to ministry.