This Is the Way Walk in It: Known But to God

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This Is the Way Walk in It

Known But to God

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Washington D.C. was under siege! No, it wasn't the British invading again. Thankfully, the War of 1812 was long over. What was setting its sights on the U.S. capital in 2003 was the impending massive force of Hurricane Isabel.

As is normal in such abnormal circumstances, it was this metropolis's turn to methodically "batten down the hatches" and ride out the storm. Freeways were jammed as people streamed out of the city for safer ground. Congress adjourned for two days in preparation for nature's onslaught. But while traffic jams and congressional closures were taking up most of the nightly news airtime, the networks also reported on the unalterable ritual of guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The networks reported that the soldiers on duty at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery across the river in Virginia had been granted permission to suspend their assignment for their own welfare. If the storm became too severe or life-threatening, they had contingency plans to retreat to nearby secure locations, but even from there they would still be able to view and offer security to the honored remains within the whitened monument.

But it never happened. Steve Vogel, Washington Post reporter, caught the spirit of the tomb's sentinels when he quoted Sergeant First Class Fredrick Geary, officer in charge, saying, "Other than something earth shattering, we had no intention of doing anything other than our duty" ("Tomb Guards Stand Sentinel," Oct. 2, 2003).

Soaked to the bone in the pelting rain, they would continue their renowned back-and-forth march of 21 steps. During that dark and dreary night, 20 trees would come down in the near vicinity of their duty. But they never faltered. They would not abandon their duty to honor the unidentified remains of their fallen comrades within the tomb. It reminded all that their lone walk before a marble sarcophagus was not merely a job, but a calling and honor not to be easily cast aside or abandoned for momentary convenience.

As I write four years later, a soldier is stepping back and forth, this very moment, as has been done since Sept. 24, 1930. And their step has not altered.

Just what can be known?

But what is the story behind this story of valor in the face of a storm? This story is about more than the remains of the fallen encased in honor. It is the story of the living who honorably march before them. This episode in 2003 chronicles more than an event. It also displays a dedicated existence.

World War I was an incredible time of devastation upon the plains of Europe. The technology of warfare had far surpassed the antiquated methodology of military deployments. The result was horrendous carnage wrought on the vigorous youth of an entire generation. When the guns went quiet and the smoke had cleared, there were far too many corpses on far too many battlefields and many could not be identified.

Putting a face on the faceless

After the war, nation after nation built monuments to honor the memory of the unidentified fallen. Many nations decided to put a face of honor on the faceless and extol their sacrifice.

The British started the trend in 1920, when, with great pomp and ceremony, they enshrined the remains of "an unknown" in Westminster Abbey, which houses the notables of British history. Part of the inscription on the marker stone reads: "They buried him among the kings, because he had done good towards God and toward his house."

A year later the French would follow the British lead and enshrine "an unknown" under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

America would begin its own process in 1921 by exhuming four bodies of unrecognizable remains from four different battlefield cemeteries in Europe. But only one, through a long and calculated ceremony of mutual honor, would be selected for the long journey home.

The journey proceeded from the shores of France to lying in state in the rotunda of the nation's capital. All of official Washington D.C., from the president on down, would walk behind the lonely casket riding on a flag-draped caisson as it proceeded toward its resting place. Thousands solemnly lined the streets in respect.

Never before had a single dead soldier received such adulation from the living. At the ceremony, President Warren Harding laid upon the casket the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. The flag on the coffin would not be given from but to the president, who acted as the next of kin. Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1921, would be a very special day.

Ultimately, a formal and lasting shrine of honor was built above the lone soldier. The marbled sarcophagus has three figures on it with visual impressions of victory, valor and peace. There is only one inscription on the tomb: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."

Since that time, the remains have never known a lonely day as an honor guard of the Third Infantry keeps him company. Over the years, remains of individuals from World War II and the Korean conflict have been given the same honor at this spot.

The heart behind the steps

But what do we know of the men who watch over these unknown warriors "known but to God"? Americans at one time or another have seen brief snippets on television of the soldiers moving back and forth before the tomb as the president lays a wreath of honor on Memorial Day. But snapshots only offer the color of an event and not the full spectrum of a dedicated life's existence.

These individuals are selected from the highest caliber of candidates. They normally commit one year of their life to guard this monument. These individuals must dress themselves in front of a full-length mirror, for there can be no wrinkles, folds or lint found on their uniforms so as to respect the fallen. It normally takes the sentinels about eight hours to "prep" for their duty.

These are the men and women who pace 21 steps in giving full honor to their fallen comrades, much as a 21-gun salute is offered a head of state. Then, these guards turn and face the monument for 21 seconds, again giving full honor to the living memory of the deceased, before they walk their walk again. They stand guard 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The Creed of the Sentinels says this:

"My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted. In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter. And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection. Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability. It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud. Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance."

The ultimate Keeper of souls

As Christians, we have the honor to serve the One who is identified on the Tomb of the Unknowns. I'm not speaking of the fallen soldier, but the One who knows the soldier—God, the ultimate Keeper of all souls, who is truly eternally vigilant! We have the privilege of knowing through God's promises and the prophecies of the Bible that He is going to offer hope to the hopeless and identity to those who thought they were lost or forgotten and buried with the dust of time.

God's message to us in Ezekiel 37 speaks in context to the house of Israel, but I believe its implications are much wider to the entire house of humanity.

Notice verses 3 to 6: "And He said to me, 'Son of man, can these bones live?' So I answered, 'O Lord GOD, You know.' Again He said to me, 'Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, "O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: 'Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinew on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you: and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.'"'"

Just imagine the multiple tombs to the unknown throughout the world, whose remains have this rendezvous with God's promises.

Just imagine as God resurrects those initially born in His image and likeness and miraculously and lovingly recovers their unidentifiable faces with flesh, sinew and muscles that can muster an identifiable smile as they express the sheer exhilaration of God's merciful touch. Just imagine when all the unknowns get to meet the only One who knew them!

Until that time

Until that time, as followers of Jesus Christ, God has commissioned us to walk a walk of honor and respect toward all the unknowns of all the ages and to Him, who alone knows each of them and each of us—yes, you! It is a way of life that demands even more dedication than the incredibly focused personnel who honor our war dead.

Like them, we respect the dead by how we, the living, live. We respect our God by the daily steps we take in following the walk Jesus Christ set before us. We pause and even hesitate as we step forward into life's challenges, because our 21 steps honor more than an earthly king or fallen hero, but the very King of the universe.

As Christians, we, too, have a creed that molds our everyday existence. It is short, simple and to the point—"I shall love the Lord My God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind. And, I shall love my neighbor as myself" (adapted from Matthew 22:37-39 Matthew 22:37-39 [37] Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. [38] This is the first and great commandment. [39] And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
American King James Version×

I think we can all appreciate the reality of potential storms in our lives that will threaten to shut down our spiritual calling as much as the storm that affected the U.S. capital in 2003 and, yes, for a moment tested the creed of the honor guard at Arlington Cemetery.

Perhaps even at this reading, there are some personal storm winds blowing your way that send the message, "You've done enough for God, now take some time off for yourself. Everyone else will understand, because everyone else is doing it."

Well, take a deep breath and simply ask, "What do I stand for and who do I live for? Is my world 'event-driven' or 'existence-based'?" Perhaps the echoes of encouragement of "This is the way, walk in it" (Isaiah 30:21 Isaiah 30:21And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
American King James Version×
) are best personified by the loving determination of the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns, who, when faced with the fury of a hurricane, simply responded, not with words, but a slow, steady, methodical walk back and forth before the object of their honor.

Oh yes, "talk is cheap" and creeds are but platitudes except when you see the talker "walk the walk" in the face of turbulence! And whether or not someone sees your own personal determination in the face of adversity, don't worry—because the footsteps of our heart are sometimes "known but to God," and that's enough.