I Heard The Mystic Chords Today

People at Memorial Day Observance Mystic chords
Memorial Day observance in Lyons, WI

Did you hear the mystic chords today?

You’re not so sure how they sound?

That’s okay.

The Sound Of Mystic Chords

They sounded like “Present arms,” and “To the front salute,” from a weak veteran with a strong voice.

They sounded like America the Beautiful and The Battle Hymn of the Republic sung from the heart.

And they sounded like Amazing Grace from droning bagpipes while the rippling flag was raised, and Taps.

These are the chords that restored our memory. These are the mystic chords.

Mystic Chords Of Memory

But the mystic chords also sounded like these words from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My dad read those words aloud at the observance at the Lyons Town Hall this morning.

Mystic chords of memory—the sound of the phrase drew me in. But what did Lincoln mean?

I did some digging.

Mystic Chords Of Collective Memory

I found Wildred McClay, in this piece he wrote for The Heritage Foundation.


To understand what sort of appeal Lincoln was making with these words we need to recall the setting in which the address was given in March of 1861. In the wake of Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 without the support of a single Southern state, seven states from the Deep South had already left the Union, and the crucial border states were on the verge of doing so as well. The Union that Lincoln so greatly cherished seemed to be dissolving before his eyes…

For Lincoln, the battlefields and patriot graves deserved our reverence not simply for sentimental reasons, or out of reverence for our ancestors’ great sacrifices, but because of the cause for which they sacrificed. It would not have been enough had they merely died for the 19th-century equivalent of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. They died, as Lincoln expressed it in the Gettysburg Address, in order that government of the people, by the people, and for the people “shall not perish from the earth.” They died, he asserted, to sustain the possibility of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

“The Discipline Of Collective Memory”

McClay continues,

In the end, communities and nation-states are constituted and sustained by such shared memories — by stories of foundation, conflict, and perseverance. The leap of imagination and faith, from the thinness and unreliability of our individual memory to the richness of collective memory, that is the leap of civilized life; and the discipline of collective memory is the task not only of the historian, but of every one of us.

Historical consciousness draws us out of a narrow preoccupation with the present and with our “selves,” and ushers us into another, larger world — a public world that “cultures” us, in all the senses of that word.

This is our task. The mystic chords are God-sent to rouse us, together, to remember what matters. We interpret our present through the sacred past, rather than deconstruct the past to make sense of the fleeting present.

The mystic chords call us to this. They are all about collective memory, about remembering shared stories together. This holds us together.

Patriots do this. Christians do this. We remember our story together.

“A Memorial People”

The boys and I do not have individual memories of those who died in war. But we are not excused from remembering. It remains our duty to remember them. We believers are, as Jon Bloom explained, “a memorial people.”

So with help from the veterans and the song leader and my dad, and with gratitude—to those who gave all to preserve this nation and the Lord who rules all nations—we did that. We had our memory restored.

For who can possibly sing, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” without her Christian memory being stirred? I cannot. “He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

Those 15 minutes in the parking lot this morning drew us “out of a narrow preoccupation with the present and with ourselves.”

Which is a very good place to be.

What mystic chords took you there today?

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you…

John 15:13-14a

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