HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (BP) -- Pastor Phil Kramer knows that "freedom isn't free" is not just an abstract concept or clever catchphrase.
As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a former U.S. Army chaplain, he has conducted many funerals for soldiers killed in the line of duty, many of them young men and women under 30. He keeps in touch with some of their families.
"As human beings we're busy people, and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the freedom that we have, the freedom that we enjoy, is paid for with a price," Kramer said. "And that price includes the blood of hundreds of thousands of men and women who have given the last full measure of devotion."
Now retired from the Army and serving as lead pastor of Crossgate Church in Hot Springs, Kramer is using "Freedom Isn't Free" as the theme for his message this May 24, in observance of Memorial Day weekend.
Kramer was saved at age 17 and felt a call to vocational ministry soon after. He spent four years serving in the Marine Corps before attending college and seminary. He pastored Southern Baptist churches in Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina and Illinois.
In 2004, Kramer began 16 years of service as an Army chaplain. He was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan nine times.
Though chaplaincy seemed a perfect fit for his military experience and ministry calling, he always felt drawn to serving in the local church.
"While I loved being a chaplain and serving the soldiers, every day my heart beat for the local church," he said. God began the process of leading him back to the pastorate about four years ago, and in December 2019 he accepted the call to pastor Crossgate Church.
Like many churches, Crossgate has been meeting exclusively online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Simplified services involving a welcome message, worship music and a sermon are pre-recorded and presented online on Sunday mornings for the congregation to participate from home.
This Sunday's service will be conducted in the same format, but with meaningful additions. Kramer plans to use passages from the book of John to explore two types of costly freedoms -- the freedom that Americans enjoy, and the freedom believers experience in Christ.
As he discusses the cost of national freedom, Kramer will share stories and pay tribute to the servicemen and women he has known who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
He described John 15:13 -- "No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends" -- as "a soldier's verse."
The ultimate sacrifice of Christ allows believers to experience ultimate freedom.
"Jesus paid an incredible price for the freedom that we enjoy in Christ, and we don't want to take that for granted either," he said.
In remembrance of that sacrifice, he and his family will observe the Lord's Supper after the message and encourage the congregation watching from home to participate.
Although Memorial Day observances at national cemeteries around the country have been suspended this year due to COVID-19, Kramer recorded a video at the Little Rock National Cemetery with additional reflections about Memorial Day. The video will be posted on the church's social media accounts on Monday.
Kramer said an emphasis on Memorial Day is needed now more than ever. He sees a significant disconnect between military and civilian life because fewer young people have personal connections to people who have served in the military than older generations did.
"Because of that disconnect, I think most Americans are not callous, they're just oblivious to some of the sacrifices that military families make, especially the Gold Star families who have actually lost someone [in the line of duty]," he said.
Showing love and support to Gold Star families is another important aspect of Memorial Day -- reassuring them that their loved ones will not be forgotten. Kramer said believers should take the opportunity to pray specifically for those families, as well as for Southern Baptist chaplains serving troops on the front lines.
Believers can also reflect and rejoice in their God-given freedoms, and be thankful for those who defend those freedoms.
"When I think about the people who are sacrificing their well-being and putting their lives on the line, and those who have died, I think about how they are defending the Constitution of the United States," he said. "God has given us our religious liberty, and the Constitution just happens to be the vehicle for that."
Rebecca Manry is a communications specialist with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.