Monday, July 20, 2009

From sea to shining sea

Belated thoughts on Independence Day weekend worship.

But first: an anagram for "belated" is "bleated." It's right I should keep this in mind when I write in this space from week to week.

On Sunday, July 5, we sang "America the Beautiful" in our morning services. No one I have talked with remembers this hymn being sung in worship at College Church. It was not put into the service without a great deal of thought, extended staff conversation, and personal reservation. In the end, while I know it was appreciated by many, and though it was my decision from beginning to end, I'm not sure it was a good idea.

I select hymns and choral music for morning services, based on the sermon text of the day. When things work, this gives a cohesiveness to the hour, usually without belaboring the preaching point; instead, there is a sense of complementarity between the singing and the preaching. It works.

I planned the July 5 service, along these lines, earlier than normal because I was going to be away the week the plan was due to be submitted. This gave me the opportunity to come back and look at it without the press of the planning schedule. It was only upon review that I realized, "oh right, this is the July 4 weekend." Because we often have conversations with congregants about things civic and patriotic - why don't we have a flag in the sanctuary? how come we never sing patriotic hymns? - I thought, well, what harm is there in considering a national hymn in this service? I can think of plenty of harm, actually, and believe with many that one of the great challenges and failures of the American church is mixing nationalism, patriotism, and conservative politics with evangelical faith. Still ...

Reading again the text of "America the Beautiful" I was struck that while it is a national song, it is quite clearly a prayer for our country. (Interestingly, after we sang it in service, many people commented that they could not remember having sung any verses but the opening.) Well, I thought upon reflection, what if we acknowledge the national holiday in a prayer hymn, following the time of congregational prayer. It was a given that (as is our custom) the morning prayer would include thanksgiving for the blessings of living in this land, and prayer for our leaders, justice, etc. You know, biblical content for praying for our nation. That would not comprise the entire prayer, but would be a part of it. Then we would end the prayer with a hymn (as we often do), this time a hymn of prayer for our country.

I took this question to the ministry staff. It prompted an engaged and stimulating discussion. Some of the reservations voiced were: * there is nothing Christological about the hymn (that's not a show-stopper, but it is a serious matter in our context) * can we posture the use of the hymn in a way that counters the intuitive "jingoistic" instinct of any national hymn? * though certain political types would be pleased by it, we can be sure others would be uncomfortable * what about the - not tiny - numbers of our congregation who are not Americans?

Well, it was a good discussion, and it also included good reasons to use the song. I left the meeting less inclined to put it in the service. But when it came time, and after more conversation, I decided to put it in. The pray-er in the service would set it up before he prayed ("this morning in our prayer we are going to give thanks for our independence; following prayer we will sing this hymn of prayer for our nation."), and following the general prayer and the Lord's Prayer, woud again point out its function in the service. All well and good.

In reality ... well, duh ... this really doesn't "sing" like a prayer hymn. And the force of our patriotic association was too strong for us to sing it "thoughtfully." It was a moment. Not the moment I had hoped, and not I think very effective or appropriate as Christian worship. I can think of only 3 dates that I would have tried this: Sunday, July 3; Sunday, July 4; or Sunday, July 5. July 2 would be early enough, and July 6 late enough, to "get by without it." I can't say now whether next year (Sunday, July 4, 2010) I am likely to do it again.

Still, I admire this hymn and celebrate its place in our national psyche. I am among those who would vote for it as our national anthem. One of the features that makes it weaker for use in Christian worship (Jesus has no place in it) actually strengthens its value as a hymn for all Americans. (Excluding, of course, atheists!) And my, does it teach me how to pray for the land that I love:
God shed his grace on thee; and crown thy good with brotherhood.
God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.

There are some historical or cultural problems, to be sure: the confusion of pilgrims with sternness (long and ably refuted as an unfair stereotype); the celebration of manifest destiny (ouch!); the very Euro-centric vision of it all. But I love the longing for (it is not a description of what exists, but a prayer for) "alabaster cities undimmed by human tears." It might not hurt for more people in this country to learn the verses to the full song, and enlarge our vision for the country.

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not express my thankfulness to have the freedom to not program a patriotic song in a worship service.


jaigner said...

Chuck -

I appreciate your thoughts very much. Many of us wish we had the freedom not to program patriotic music.

I am always uncomfortable with the priority given to civic holidays in worship. Of course, I am from a background that you mentioned which, horrifically in my opinion, preaches a conservative political agenda as if it were a mobilization of the gospel. I suppose there's nothing wrong with acknowledging a civic holiday through prayer or hymn, but it seems to me that we lose sight of our purpose if such is our theme for a service.

Of course, being familiar with College Church, I don't think that would be an issue.

Brizo Brown said...

I had no idea such thought and discussion went into choosing a hymn on Sunday morning, Chuck. I should not be surprised. For next year, how about:

"In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on."

Thanks for all you do.

Brian W.

Chuck King said...

Brian, good idea. Long before I came, and it stopped before I came as well, the Choir used to sing until the first Sunday in July. And they sang, always on that Sunday, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." So, there is precedent for your suggestion! And yes, that verse. Wow. Well, don't be surprised ...

Dan Martin said...

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free

Until you stop to realize that equating the life-giving work of Jesus Christ with the death-dealing work of the soldier is a study in contrasts (nay, opposites), NOT a simile to glorify in a hymn!

I appreciate the struggle you express. But to take a closer look at the words, don't you think

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!


O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

glorify a fairly revisionist and exceptionalist view of history? Somewhat at odds with the Prince of Peace, I should think...

Chuck King said...

Dan, yes, thanks. Actually the pilgrim verse has two problems with it - it misrepresents the pilgrims (see Robinson and Ryken and Packer) and as you point out there are massive problems with Manifest Destiny.

I am not a huge fan of The Battle Hymn, and am more pacifist than not. So I share your careful reading there. This would be a good thing to talk about over a cup of coffee!