America will observe Memorial Day on Monday, May 25. Traditionally, Memorial Day weekend is regarded as the beginning of the summer season, a time when many Americans have an extra day off from work, go on vacation or host backyard cookouts with family, friends and neighbors. Of course, this Memorial Day is going to look very different because of the impacts of COVID-19.
While weekend plans may have changed for many, Memorial Day itself has not. In fact, I think staying put on Memorial Day will allow us greater time for reflection on the day’s significance.
Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor the men and women of our Armed Forces who have laid down their lives in service to our country. They answered the call to protect our freedom, and they paid the ultimate price.
Because of the past and present sacrifices of the members of our Armed Forces, we have the freedom to worship, to speak our minds and to gather together. As a pastor and evangelist, I am so thankful I have the ability to openly share the hope of Jesus with others. In many countries around the world, pastors and evangelists do not have that right. Instead, they are forced to have “underground” or “house” churches, which God continues to use mightily. Sadly, we are often so accustomed to our freedom here in America that we take it for granted. We fail to honor our heroes.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a “hero” as “one who shows great courage.” But I’d like to expand this definition. I believe a hero is not only someone who is courageous, but someone who makes a sacrifice, who regards the interests and well-being of others as greater than his or her own. Someone who is even willing to die for others — someone like Army Staff Sgt. Travis W. Atkins.
On June 1, 2007, Staff Sgt. Atkins was leading a squad charged with securing a town in northern Iraq when he was informed that two suspected insurgents had been spotted nearby. Atkins’ team intercepted the two insurgents and ordered them to stop and be searched. But when Atkins approached them, they resisted and the situation quickly escalated to hand-to-hand combat, with Atkins trying to wrestle one of them into submission.
According to the Army’s record of the events, “As the hand-to-hand battle continued, the insurgent was able to reach the suicide vest under his clothing. At that point, Atkins wrapped the insurgent up and threw him to the ground, away from his Soldiers who were standing a few feet away.
“Aware of the imminent danger, Atkins threw himself on top of the suicide bomber, pinning him to the ground and shielding his Soldiers from the imminent explosion while bearing the brunt of the blast as the bomb detonated.”
Atkins’ heroic and selfless act saved the lives of three other soldiers who were with him. On March 27, 2019 — nearly 12 years after the events in Iraq — President Donald Trump awarded him the Medal of Honor at a ceremony in the White House.
Sgt. Atkins’ sacrifice reminds me of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15:13, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NLT). Sgt. Atkins, and many other men and women like him, showed not only the greatest measure of courage and devotion for one’s country, but also the greatest measure of love we can have for one another.
We should remember, honor and imitate the mindset of these brave Americans, especially on this Memorial Day when we are all battling as a nation against COVID-19.
Greg Laurie is the pastor and founder of the Harvest churches in California and Hawaii and of Harvest Crusades. He is an evangelist and a best-selling author. His books include “Hope for Hurting Hearts” and “Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon.”