How to pray at a military grave

When we recently moved to Washington, DC, there was one tourist attraction at the top of my list to visit: Arlington National Cemetery. Eighteen years ago when I first went, it was an interesting historical place. But as I prepared for my second visit nearly two decades later, it was different.

Now I have friends buried there.

visiting the dead

I went with just a dozen yellow roses from the grocery store. I walked through the visitor center, tears blurring my vision, and boarded a bus that would take me to the individual graves. I went to Mark’s grave first, in Section 60. While looking up his name, I recognized many others. At the military school I attended, students memorize the full names of hundreds of their classmates. The names I recognized were my companions.

From the Mark stone, I looked up and saw the markers of two of my husband’s friends, Doug and Megan. He only brought a bouquet, with the intention of putting three flowers on the four graves that I came to visit. But now he wanted to place a flower on each name he recognized. He didn’t bring enough.

I placed the first flower and stood there, looking at the white granite and a name engraved so clearly. Now what? I bowed my head and waited. Just tears.

praying for the living

I pray? This was a holy moment, and my desire was to cry out to the Lord. But who or what should I pray for? Not my fallen friends. We do not pray for the dead, only for the living. Should I pray for comfort for their families? Or that their deaths would not be in vain? Or that God would be glorified in some way? Spiritual anguish mixed with pain and confusion.

Then relief washed over me as I remembered that Jesus told us how to pray. So I prayed the Our Father (Matthew 6:9–13).

My desire was to cry out to the Lord. But who or what should I pray for? We do not pray for the dead, only for the living.

When we pray the Our Father in times of pain and suffering, we tend to emphasize “Your kingdom come.” We cry, Free us from this sadness, pain and confusion and come now!

But standing in the cemetery, the Holy Spirit led me to pray for myself, for the here and now. The bodies of these friends are underground. Your time is up. While we rightly take our pain to the Lord and await the return of Christ, we must also remember that God is still at work today, on earth among the living.

Your will be done on earth and in me as it is in heavenI prayed over and over again. Your will be done on earth, in me and for me. Use me how you want.

Instrument of God’s Will

Walking down a hill at the end of my visit, I passed an area with older markers, tombstones of different shapes and sizes, with names and dates from the 19th century. The inscription on a stone in this military cemetery took me by surprise: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will inherit the land.”

It reminded me of the prayer, written by Francis of Assisi, that we sang as a teenager at my high school in East Africa. when i pray Your will be done on earth as it is in heavenThis is my wish:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hate, let me sow love;
Where there is pain, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, happiness.
Oh Divine Master, grant me not to search so much
to be comforted as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved how to love
For it is by giving that we receive;
it is by forgiving that we are forgiven;
and it is by dying that we are born to eternal life.

There are more than 400,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery. And unless Christ returns first, I too may be buried there. They were real people leading fulfilling lives. As we remember his sacrifice and mourn the reality and tragedy of death, we can look with hope to the triumphant return of Christ.

While we rightly look forward to the return of Christ, we must also remember that God is still at work today, on earth among the living.

But let’s not forget that as long as we have breath, God is not done with us. While those who died in Christ now bear witness that God’s will is done in heaven, we still have the opportunity to participate in his will being done on earth.

I will return to Arlington with my husband and children. We will tell stories of our friends. It is my privilege to honor their families by remembering them. And we will pray as the Lord taught us to pray, saying: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.