I am thankful to be able to live in the United States, and on the 4th of July I am especially grateful for the liberties and freedom we have, and for those before us who made it possible. One of the freedoms I am most thankful is freedom of religion– our freedom to worship as we please, according to conscience.
I am thankful we don’t live in a society which does not allow freedom of worship, and which allows free discussion of various religious points of view, even as that means that people who believe differently than me have as much freedom as I do. America has been an amazing experiment, and even though people are concerned about the current state of our country, our politics, and our society at large, I am still so thankful to be living here.
I appreciate some patriotic songs more than others– especially when singing them in church. One reason I am sometimes apprehensive about singing songs praising our country in church is because in can sometimes (if not done appropriately) seem to mix church and state too much. I wouldn’t feel comfortable singing a song praising our church, for example, and some songs seem to praise our country (again, I love my country, and I love my church, and I love my wife– but I feel strange singing songs at Church about my love for them).
But all that said, I especially love certain songs we sing at church, and one we sang yesterday especially: America the Beautiful
I think I like this song because it not only speaks to what our country is, but to what it can be. There are many wonderful things our country has done and been, but without a hope for the future, a country will die I think. So its good to have lyrics which point to the constant-reforming mindset which has hope for what we can be, even if we aren’t there yet. That is especially encouraging at a time in our history when people often seem to talk like we have seen our best days and things are getting worse. That sort of talk and attitude can’t inspire people to their best.
So the first stanza goes:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Of course I love the lyrics which give us pictures of the beauty of the country, but I especially like “and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”. This is a good hope for us, a good thing to strive for– brotherhood. Unity is not something we feel as often in a country where we are not sure what it is that unifies us. In a country of divisive politics and self-centered agendas, it is hard to maintain the hope of brotherhood and unity. It is a struggle to maintain that sort of hope, and much easier to give in to the shrill voices of doom and disaster, or the melancholy cynicism which has already given up hope of anything better.
The second lyric is great as well:
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
These lyrics are refreshing because they admit that America has flaws, and hopes that God will heal them. It also points to the importance of self control, liberty, and adherence to law (justice) as foundational cornerstones of our countries strength. Our founding fathers had ideals of liberty and freedom which are remarkable and continue to be our guide and vision of what we hope for, despite our flaws. And what makes me especially hopeful is to know that such noble ideals could come from leaders who themselves were blind to some of their own flaws. For example, most of us would say slavery didn’t fit with the vision of liberty of our country– yet a lot of the founding fathers had slaves. Some think that diminishes the origins of our country– but I don’t. I think it is a real reason for hope to realize that flawed finite humans could give birth to such noble ideas which still inspire us to better things. It was in fact that vision from our founding fathers which eventually led our country to outlaw slavery which was so prevalent at the founding of our country! It is easy to point out flaws in todays leaders and government– but the hope I have is that such good things have come in the past from flawd leaders and governments– so good things will probably come from our own as well. Commitment to our country and our values does not mean that we think we are perfect, or that our history is not without its dark moments. One can be a patriot and admit flaws– especially if we continue to hope to correct those flaws. Patriotism is more about hope and devotion than it is about blind cheering.
Patriotism is sometimes confused with nationalism. Patriotism is devotion and faithfulness to your country. Nationalism is when you think your country is superior to all others. Now there may b e some ways in which the US is supeior to others– in terms of GDP, military strength, etc. But surely that isn’t why we are patriotic. The fathers of our country were patriots long before we had the largest GDP or Military strength in the world, and hopefully we can be patriots if ever we don’t. Patriotism is important for any country to prosper. France, Great Britain, Germany, Egypt, Australia and Japan all need a strong sense of patriotism in order for their countries to prosper and succeed– as much as the USA needs patriotism. Patriotism is commitment to your country, and if we are not unified in commitment to our country, we are in trouble. But again, this doesn’t mean that you think that your country is superior to all others. I can be a devoted father, but that doesn’t mean that I think my kid is superior to all others. I can be devoted to my job faithfully, but that doesn’t mean I think my job is superior to all others. I am super devoted to the state of Nebraska– I love it, I’m a huge fan, and I’d rather live here than most other places. But I’m not going to say Nebraska is superior to all other states– I don’t need to go there. My devotion doesn’t have to lead to my having a superiority complex.
The third stanza goes:
O beautiful for heroes prov’d
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.
First, a strong country will require selflessness, a willingness to put the good of others above our own. That is harder and harder to find today, but this song reminds us of it in our forefathers, and encourages us to it today. To live a selfish self-indulgent life is the opposite of this. Additionally, this lyric points to the refining process– God bringing it about so that the good we have is also noble. Many good things come through ignoble means, but the hope here is that the good we have will be brought about in noble ways, not through oppression or inappropriate means. We hope our country will be able to prosper and gain without that gain coming on the backs of others who suffer so we can have it good. This is a hope for just gain…
The last lyric points ultimately to a hope:
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
The dream of the patriot ‘sees beyond the years’– it is based in a hope for things to come. So if anyone gives up hoping for America, they are no longer a patriot. This is a challenge to any of us who feel surrounded by cynicism and despair talk. Strangely, it is sometimes comforting to wallow in a funk about how bad things are and how good the good old days were. But that is not patriotism, and its is, frankly, not very useful. It certainly isn’t what has helped bring about the good things we have in our country.
I am not too convinced that God loves Americans more than anyone else in the world, although God has certainly blessed us in ways other countries could only dream of. That leaves us with a great responsibility, even when it is difficult, to do what we can to live selflessly and for the greater good.
At this fourth of July, in the midst of a period where people seem more likely than ever to retreat into an isolationism and shield themselves from the rest of the world, to feel hopeless or overwhelmed with all the changes we are experiencing so quickly– it is important to remember in thankfulness what God has done for us, to remember how good we really do have it, and to recommit ourselves to faithfully hope for good things not because our hope is in our country, but because we hope in a God for whom all things are possible.
May God have mercy on us all.