These thoughts come a bit late after our 4th of July independence celebration (or “Happy America!” as my enthusiastic four-year-old son puts it), but I’ve been both on vacation and mulling these things around the gray matter before committing to pixels.
While on vacation, in a sandy-duned coastal town of northwest Michigan, I attended, wife and offspring in tow, a worship service in the Reformed Church of America following July 4th. In said worship service, the call to worship was decent, given by a gray-crowned gentleman full of faith and gravitas, a balancing contrast to the late-twenty/early-thirty-something pastor who would share the sermon later. What followed is what startled me. We proceeded to open worship with American the Beautiful, a song I like (once or twice a year, anyway) and remember learning in grade school choir along with Home on the Range and other musical Americana. The song in itself is healthily patriotic, praising the abundance and natural beauty of the US, and asking God to shed his grace upon her. If one was to complain about it, perhaps it would be for the line “crown thy good with brotherhood”, if this referred to some sort nationalistic brotherhood that trumped the waters of baptism. But such a complaint would be too fussy, even for me, since we take our oaths in God’s name and put it on our money as we should. There is a constitutioal separation of church and state, not of religion and state (nor can there be). We are hypocrites as a nation, but only hypocrites because we have a standard to be hypocritical to. This is better than no standard at all.
But what is America the Beautiful, an ode to country, doing in a Christian worship service? I should add that there was no mention in the service of America’s sins, her shortcomings, apostasy from Christ, 49 million dead babies in the name of democratic choice, racism, conspicuous consumption, nothing. So the ode to America really was unqualified praise (need I say worship?) of our country. And this in a relatively conservative (mainline reformed, at least for now) church. I should also add that we didn’t burn any candles or pray to Democracia or anything like that, but I do believe that the song itself was inappropriate and blasphemous, just like a poem about my mother would be if read in the call to worship. Now my mother is worthy of many poems, but I would be dishonoring her if I were to mingle my allegiance to the maker of heaven and earth with my loyalty to her. Get up, she too is human.
This got me thinking. Why is this sort of thing so difficult for people, even Bible-believing Christians, to see? Part of it comes from our failure to understand what worship is. If we believed that in the call to worship, the church was ushered into the presence of God and united with all the saints, it would be hard to dribble out a song to even the most righteous country, never mind America. “Oh, Triune God, Light Inexpressible, Holy, Holy, Holy! Would the four living creatures and 24 elders like to join me in a round of Yankee Doodle Dandy?”
So we miss the Godness of God, his majesty and glory, all of it present and requiring appropriate joy and solemnity in worship, but there is also something else. We miss true patriotism. Of course if we had the former, the latter would likely follow. But true patriotism couldn’t sing America the Beautiful without noting her current state, that freedom and rights used to mean something far different than they mean today, and that at this rate our country won’t make it to its 300th birthday. Too harsh? Jeremiah saw Jerusalem crushed by the Babylonians, and the killing, rape, cannibalism and exile that went with it.
My eyes will flow without ceasing, with respite, until Yahweh from heaven looks down and sees; my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the daughters of my city. Lamentations 3:49-51
And Jesus, the greater Jeremiah, wept over the destruction that would come to Jerusalem in 70AD, destroying the temple and reulting in so many crucifixions that Josephus said the crosses looked like a forest. He longed to gather the people under him like a hen her chicks, but they wouldn’t. But both prophets saw the justice of what had been and done and what would be done, respectively. No one truly loves his country who refuses to recognize and resist its sins. Every 4th of July ought to be a reminder that our founding fathers resisted tyranny, and again tyranny is upon us, but this time we have chosen it ourselves. Why is the state so enormous and even republicrats looking to it for salvation? Because it’s hard to find anyone who can see the difference between God and state, and the proper allegiance due to each. To us, Jesus might have said “Whoever loves city or state, county or country more than me cannot be my disciple.” The waters of baptism are thicker than blood and citizenship. This has to be recovered first in the church if we are going to have a beautiful America.