Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Silent Tears — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on May 27th, 2012

I was seven years old

the only time I ever saw my father cry.

I did not understand it, and though it scared me,

I knew somehow that his tears were sacred.

The tears that fell from his eyes were silent tears,

and I never spoke about them

till Memorial Day a few years ago.

I stood, not at his side, but behind him,

as his hands traced their way

across names on the Vietnam war memorial.

I was a child, what did I know of war?

The view of war of a seven year old boy

is romantic and full of dirt forts and toy guns.

But my father was a soldier,

the grandson of a medal of honor winning soldier…

and my father knew war and its aftermath.

The names that my father traced

across the memorial that day

were names of fallen friends and comrades.

They were names of those who had seen war at his side,

and had not lived to tell about it.

He did not have to tell me to hush.

He did not have to tell me to be respectful.

Somehow, I knew from the moment we arrived

that this place was holy, that this place was sacred.

Though I did not have the words to describe it at the time,

I knew that for my father,

visiting the Memorial was a religious journey,

and touching that wall was an act of faith.

It was the faith of a soldier.
When I speak of a soldier’s faith,

I do not mean their religious denomination,

whether they are Catholic or Jewish,

Muslim or Protestant, Buddhist or Wiccan.

Soldiers, sailors, guardians, Airmen, and Marines

come in all of these and many more.

No, what I mean by the faith of a solider

is that faith which binds all of these together.

It is the faith that my father showed me,

on that day when we stood

before a long, black wall filled with names.

Two years later, I saw that same faith

in my Grandfather, my mother’s father,

as we stood in an extinct volcano in Hawaii,

now a cemetery and memorial

for all those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines

who died in the Pacific campaigns of WWII.

He did not cry then, he just stood silently.

The tears came the following day,

when after several hours of driving,

my father, my mother, my grandfather and I

found a concrete bunker on a lonely stretch of beach

not far from the highway.



As we stopped the car,

my grandfather slowly stepped out,

walked across the beach,

placed his hand on the remains of the bunker and wept.

We all stood behind him, not knowing what to do,

until my father walked up to him

and placed his arm around my grandfather.

My mother leaned down to me,

and told me that this bunker

was were my grandfather had lived during the war,

where he had fought, and where he had lost friends.

For my grandfather, this bunker was a holy, sacred place.

A lock and a chain had been placed on the metal door,

to keep kids out of it,

and the concrete was covered with graffiti.

The place smelled of abandonment and neglect…

but for my grandfather,

there was no more sacred site in the whole world.


My grandfather was a Navy man and a Sailor,

and spent the years after Pearl Harbor

as a part of the defense of the Hawaiian Islands.

In the images, of my grandfather,

with his hand outstretched to touch a crumbling concrete bunker,

and of my father with his hand outstretched

to trace a name across a long, black wall,

I witnessed faith.

Much of our society has come to misuse that word, faith.

Many have come to use that word as if it means “belief”.

But faith is not something you can adopt,

it is not something that you can choose to believe in.

Faith is not a nickname for your particular set of religious beliefs,

nor is it a mantle you can put on at particular times,

say, on Sunday morning.

Faith is an elemental part of our nature,

a part that wells up unbidden

from the deepest aspects of what makes us human.


We hold faith in things and in people…

faith in family, faith in humanity, faith in ourselves,

and faith in that which is divine in this universe.

But the faith that my father, and my grandfather

were expressing on the days that I saw them cry

was not a faith in any of these things.

It was a faith in each other.

A faith in every other soldier, sailor, airman or marine

who went through the hell of war with them.
A Soldier does not fight in war

because they believe in the cause

of the politicians who ordered it.

Whether or not a soldier believes in the “cause” is irrelevant.

No cause, no ideal will be enough to hold you

through the hell of war.
A Soldier does not fight in war because of the pay…

the pay is not enough for that.

In our nation, with the best equipped, most funded,

and most dangerous military this world has ever seen,

many of our enlisted soldiers with families

depend upon foodstamps to feed those families each month.

Notice we have to pay our contractors/mercenaries

a lot more than we pay our soldiers.

A Soldier does not fight for glory…

at least not for long.

There is little that is glorious in war,

except perhaps the faith that it brings out in the soldier.

All of the medals, all of the ribbons and all of the honors…

they are symbols not of glory, but of faith.

Medals are nice and pretty,

until you realize that the cost of each one is way, way too high.

A cost in lives, in blood, in sweat, and in tears.


Ask a veteran why they wear their medals on their suit jacket,

and the answer will more often than not be

so that they will always remember those

who were never able to wear the medals they had earned.

A Soldier’s faith is not in yourself,

but rather in those with whom you serve.

It is a faith that, no matter what happens,

the brothers, and now sisters on either side of you

will not leave you behind,

they will not betray you,

and they will fight to defend and protect you,

as you do the same for them.

Ideals might cause one to enlist,

or bring an officer to accepting a commission,

but they will not be what holds that person

in the face of enemy fire.

The money a soldier receives is a pittance

compared to the price they,

and their families, are so often called to pay.


And the glory of medals and honors is overwhelmed

by the spiritual cost that many combat soldiers face

for the remainder of their days.

A spiritual cost that my father and grandfather showed me

with their tears, as they visited those sacred places.

Before I go any further, let me say that I am not glorifying war.

I am a Universalist who believes in Hell,

and that Hell is war.

It is a hell of our own making,

that exists in this life,

and it is one of the deepest and most destructive aspects

of who we are as the human race.

Our maturity as a species,

hopefully to come soon,

will require that we find ways

to deal with this aspect of our nature,

and find ways to truly grow beyond

this human need for war.
It has been to my blessing that,

during my own military service,

it was the aftermath of war to which I was most exposed,

not combat itself.

I trace the path that brought me

to my Unitarian Universalist Faith

back to the devastation I witnessed in Bosnia y Herzegovina,

where I served as a Peacekeeper

after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed.

I trace my Unitarian Universalist faith

back to the poverty I saw

in the war-torn aftermath of El Salvador.

Had I not served as a soldier and a peacekeeper,

I might never have found my Unitarian Universalist Faith…

But I also hold the faith of a soldier,

and that faith is different.


My Unitarian Universalist faith is a sacred trust and promise

that I make with the world.

It is a faith that I will be a positive,

productive force for a more just and sustainable way of life.

It is my promise to that which is divine within this universe.

My faith of a soldier, however,

is a sacred promise to never forget

the memory of those who have served,

to not leave them behind,

to stand with them as they walk through

this hell of our own creation,

to keep their memory when they fall to that hell,

and to take care of their families

whether they come home or not.

Some might think these two faiths contradictory…

but I could not hold one without the other.


Our society has come to treat Memorial Day

as a “secular” holiday, implying that it is not a day of faith.

It has become a time for many to go to the beach,

have an outdoor barbecue,

or to find extra special pricing

on items at your local department store.

Memorial day has come to be defined

by many as “The Unofficial start of Summer”,

or as a chance to catch up on some yardwork.

And yet, for myself, for my father, for my grandfather,

and for countless fellow veterans,

serving members of our military,

families of those who serve or have served,

and for those who have lost close friends,

this is not a secular holiday.

Tomorrow is Sacred.





The true meaning of Memorial Day is to remember.

It is to remember that the cost of war

is almost always way too high.

The true meaning of Memorial Day is not to honor our dead,

but to remember the price they paid.

To remember the price their families pay.

To remember the physical and psychic wounds

that the survivors of war, on all sides,

carry with them till the end of their days.

To remember the lives never lived.

To remember the horrors unleashed

upon civilian populations by the tools of modern warfare.

To remember…
No matter our views on war,

no matter our views on any particular war,

tomorrow is a sacred day

A National Day of Mourning.

Whether you yourself have ever served in the military

is not important.


For some of us, tomorrow is a day for silent tears,

for touching a wall, and for remembering those

who served with you in a concrete bunker.

It is a day to remember those who walked

through hell with you,

and those who walked through hell for you.


It is a day to remember our sacred promise

not only to the memories of those who have fallen,

but also our sacred responsibility

to the lives of those who have lived,

wounded in body and spirit…

and to remember all of the casualties of war,

even those of the ones we label “enemy”

and of those so callously called “collateral damage”.

The wars in our time have produced a higher percentage

of injured and maimed soldiers than any war in history,

and in the coming years we all share the responsibility

to help heal their wounded hearts, spirits, and bodies.
The wars in our time have produced what all wars produce,

broken families, broken hearts, and broken lives,

both here in America as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We share a sacred responsibility to all of those lives,

both here and afar.

Our movement of religious liberalism

has not always been known for its acceptance

of this kind of faith… of the faith of a soldier,

and I think that lack has caused us

to lose some credibility in our work

to keep the sacred promise we make

with the world as Unitarian Universalists.

If we are ever to make progress

in removing the evil of warfare

from what it means to be human,

we can only do so if we keep the faith

with those who have served.


If we do that, I think we could become

a rallying point for those former soldiers,

like myself, who through the horrors of war

and its aftermath have found themselves dedicated to peace.

War is best opposed by those who have seen it,

but those who have experienced war

will not keep faith with us as Unitarian Universalists

if we do not learn to keep faith with them

as Soldiers, Sailors, Guardians, Airmen, and Marines.

Of all of the holidays officially recognized

in the United States, there is none more sacred

than that of Memorial Day.

Not because of the wars,

but because of the men and women

who walked through hell during them.

Not because of any glory,

but because of the humanity

that can still shine through

this destructive and evil aspect

of our very human nature.


Not because of ceremony,

but because of the sacred promise and trust

that such ceremony represents.

If you do not feel the burning

of a soldier’s faith in your own heart,

then I ask that you join in supporting

those of us in your midst that do.

Because for those who do feel the faith of a soldier,

tomorrow is sacred beyond measure.

Place your arms around our shoulders,

as we weep silent tears.


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