I hope you heard Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan sing “The Last Full Measure of Devotion” at the State Funeral for President George H.W. Bush this week. I will never forget the first time I heard that song.
On Veteran’s Day in 1997, Jana and I were sitting with the Air Force Band in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. On the stage in front of us were President Clinton, who had just laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Joint Chiefs. Behind us were thousands of veterans and their families waving American flags. It was the most patriotic scene you can imagine, especially for us in that moment.
A few days before, our family had returned from two years in Brussels, Belgium so I could take command of the 11th Operations Group in Washington, DC. I was responsible for the Air Force Band, Air Force Honor Guard, and the Air Force chaplains at Arlington.
When Senior Master Sergeant Richard Pearson, backed by the rest of the “Singing Sergeants” and the entire Air Force Band, sang “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” I lost it. Jana and I were sitting in front of the French Horn section, and I remember wondering what they thought of their new boss, blubbering away. Over the next couple years, I got to hear Richard sing that song several times, always with the same effect. Ronan Tynan is great, but for me, Richard’s performance will always be the definitive one.
The song picks up a key phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as it honors those who gave their lives in service to country. It’s a patriotic anthem, not explicitly Christian. But since I’ve become a minister, I hear the song in a new way. It reminds me of Jesus Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant….”
There is nothing more touching or noble than someone who gives their life for another. How can we not be moved by the God who gave us his “last full measure of devotion?”