I recently read a book entitled Neptune’s Inferno. It is a history of the series of surface battles between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the U. S. Navy in 1942 that were fought near the island of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. So many ships were sunk in those battles that Savo Sound, the area where much of the fighting occurred, was nicknamed Ironbottom Sound by the American sailors. The battle for Guadalcanal was a desperate one, fought by the Americans on a shoestring. For a time the possibility of losing the battle for the island loomed perilously large. A defeat for the American forces there would have been disastrous. The naval battles, fought primarily by cruisers and destroyers, proved pivotal. The Japanese were supplying and reinforcing their troops on the island nightly by using destroyers to deliver supplies and fresh troops. After some initial terrible losses the U. S. Navy was eventually able to defeat the Japanese forces in the area and gain control of the seas. This had the effect of stranding the Japanese troops on the island and leading to eventual victory in the battle for Guadalcanal. The island proved to be the high water mark for the Japanese in their advance across the Pacific. After that defeat they were in effect retreating until the end of the war three years later.
It is good to remember. When it comes to honoring those who have fought on our behalf I confess I have a tendency toward the melodramatic. I don’t want to become maudlin, but I also want to never take for granted what others have suffered for me. The theme that pops up when I reflect on Memorial Day is sacrifice. The sacrifice of those who have died is obvious, but even those who didn’t die also made huge sacrifices. I thought about those sailors I read about in the Guadalcanal area and realized that even if they survived they still sacrificed. They gave up years of their lives to live in often extremely difficult conditions far from their loved ones and went through horrifying experiences. Many were wounded. Many more were left with memories of bloodshed and horror that would haunt them the rest of their days. Joe James Custer, a war correspondent who witnessed some of the fighting near Guadalcanal first hand, later wrote about his experience of visiting the survivors of those awful battles. He said he had looked into their eyes and seen right through into their minds and souls, and found reflections of pain in a blackness that he called something new for psychiatrists to work on. He said, “they had undergone agonies of body and mind that were impossible to contemplate except by those who had actually been there…the scale of violence was impossible to reckon with.” Leonard Joslin, a survivor of the U. S. S. Quincy, one of the U. S. cruisers that was sunk, said, “Years later I’d have nightmares…I would see the ship coming into port. I’d see men waving. I could see the signal bridge. I knew that I was supposed to be up there. But the ship would fade away…Many times, years later even, I would dream of this ship, and the men. And they’re waving at me.”
When I think about things like that I realize I don’t know much about sacrifice. I found myself more than slightly annoyed today because I had to spend a frustrating hour on the telephone with a credit card company futilely trying to resolve a problem. I got unduly worked up about this terrible inconvenience at one point. Yeah, that was quite a sacrifice. I had to spend an hour out of my day, a holiday, a beautiful holiday no less, on the phone knocking my head against a wall. How terrible. Such a big sacrifice. Of course, the sacrifice I was making was in the service of…me! I am all too easily annoyed by something I feel unnecessary or inconvenient because it makes me go out of my way. It all seems to be about me.
Memorial Day is a good thing that calls on us to remember and honor those who have sacrificed for others. But even that practice calls to me to go a few steps further. It calls to me to ask how I am sacrificing for others. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the epitome of sacrifice. Ephesians 5:2 says he “loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” In that same verse Paul said we should also “live a life of love” just as Jesus did. Jesus called us to deny ourselves, to follow his example of love and sacrifice. So much of my time, my energy, my thoughts and my passion, is aimed at the service of me. I’m not alone in this problem. It’s true of all of us. Though we find it hard to believe, that obsession eventually proves empty. It leads to a dead end. Jesus calls us to just the opposite. He calls us to life, but that life is found in sacrifice. Even as we honor today those who have sacrificed for us, it is good to break out of the cycle of self-obsession, to ask God to help us see ways we can sacrifice first to serve and honor him, then to serve others.