Until a couple of years ago, I would have described myself as a moderate about singing patriotic hymns in church. I wouldn’t design a whole service around patriotic themes; usually I allowed time for a patriotic sing-along before the start of the worship service proper. My philosophy was to keep what was usually a communion service on the first Sunday in July separate from nationalistic themes. I would tell myself, there is no other place where people sing together anymore. And some – even most – of those songs include themes that call us to be better.
We get into trouble when we consider them descriptive rather than aspirational.
This past Sunday I worshipped at kathrynzj’s church; her attitude about those songs is similar, but for reasons having to do with the installation of a new sound system and the resulting limited rehearsal time for her musician, two patriotic hymns were part of the service.
I can remember listening rhapsodically to a broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” from Wolf Trap in which Garrison Keillor had the audience singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” a capella; I remember wishing I could have been there to feel the sound rise around me.
This past Sunday, though, I was crying by the time we got to verse 4.
Our fathers’ God to, Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!
I’m past grieving now for the idealized America my parents let me believe in, because they hope it would be true, protecting me from the racism they wished were solved, promoting values of equality and fairness and kindness to others, particularly those less fortunate than we were.
I’m crying now because when freedom’s holy light shines bright we see every sin that plagues us. Worse, we see how many people in this country positively rejoice in those sins of violence and cruelty when they serve a White Supremacist agenda. Power now seems to belong to the cruelest, the unkindest, the most selfish among us, people who understand freedom as whatever profits the individual.
Today I am looking for and finding signs of hope, not the kind of candy-coated, bunting-inspired hope of past 4ths of July, but the gritty determination of activists, pastors, moms, and many other ordinary people determined to help others, to embody the values I cherish, values I derive from my faith, values I believe will bring freedom and liberation: inclusion, cooperation, and mercy.
I pray for the day when our land will be bright with freedom’s holy light, a freedom that will no longer be merely aspirational, a freedom that makes manifest God’s commonwealth of love.