Singing to America
This past November, as we wrapped up our worship service, we moved from the message to the closing hymn. The closing hymn that Sunday was chosen as a way to recognize Veterans’ Day. It was America the Beautiful, and as my eyes scanned the page, as my voice sang the words to the song, I noticed something.
Look, it’s not the first time we’ve sung America the Beautiful. As a United Methodist, somehow, it’s in our hymnal (the book with all our worship songs… from 1989, so you know it’s up to date). I’m certain we sang it when I was growing up in the church. I know we’ve sang it before in churches since I started ministry. Maybe I was just paying more attention to the words this time (believe it or not, some pastors have other things on their minds on Sunday morning than the hymns that are being sung). Maybe I just in a new place as a pastor.
The words began to trail off, my stomach started to turn a little. I realized that we were closing our worship service, a service that focused on our reliance upon God above all else, I realized that we were singing a closing hymn in which the subject being praised was not God.
We weren’t singing about God’s faithfulness. We weren’t singing about how God provides in the difficult times. We weren’t even singing about anything Christian in a very real sense. We were singing about America. We were praising America. We changed our focus from the eternal God to the wonder and majesty of… our country. It made me sick.
Now, if you’re still with me, hear me out on this. I’m proud to be an American. I feel like I won the geographic lottery when I was born in America. Though some of the statistics may not bear this out, I believe that I live in one of the greatest countries in the world. Sure, there’s a fair amount of American pride in that statement, but I would hope that anybody born in any country would have a measure of pride in the place they call home (yes, I recognize that I say this as a middle-class white male who has never had to face racial prejudice, and there are people with fully legitimate concerns and horrible experiences in this country).
However, when I’m in worship, my head, my heart, my spirit need to be in a different place. It’s not about patriotism when we gather for worship. It’s about something far greater. It’s about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God transcends political lines. It is not held back by border security or physical barriers. The kingdom of God cannot be contained or controlled by one group of people, no matter how right and righteous they think they are (and often, the more right and righteous you believe yourself to be, the less you actually are, but that’s a different story). But, here we were singing praise to America, and occasionally commenting on how God has blessed it.
I came to an important conclusion that morning. I really, really don’t like patriotic hymns. They make me sick and uncomfortable. They disturb my spirit. Frankly, they blur the line between patriotism and faith, and that has done a lot of damage to the witness of the gospel, especially in recent years.
I wish I could remember what church it was, but there was one very large church, probably somewhere in Texas (Dallas, maybe?), in which, during the worship service, people were singing a patriotic hymn and waving little American flags… and the pastor was right up front on stage leading the way. It pissed me off.
The church is no place for such displays. If you want to cheer America and wave flags, that’s fine. That’s great. Enjoy the freedom that we have as Americans to do so. Do it at a parade. Do it in your front yard. Do it at a ball game. Don’t do it in the church. Because the church is about more than one country.
“for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” — Luke 2:30–32
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” — Matthew 28:19
“For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” — Galatians 3:28
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all.” — Colossian 3:11
When we believe that God has (and should) bless us more than the rest of the world, we start going down a dangerous trail. We start to believe that we are more special, and because we are more special, we deserve special treatment. We begin to see others as… well… other, as “those people”.
The Danger of Seeing “Those People”
“Those people” are not as worthy as we are. “Those people” don’t belong here. “They” don’t deserve God’s blessings like “we” do. All of the sudden, it becomes easy to justify holding people who don’t look like us and aren’t “from around here” in cages and call them “illegals”. (Seeking asylum is not illegal; it is an international human right according to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) The ironic thing is that we cage up and separate the families who are trying to immigrate legally, while ignoring the brokenness of our system in the first place. We start blaming victims for the deaths of their own children, instead of caring for them, offering hope and grace — the same hope and grace that we only have because we won the geographic lottery.
Why is it when people live in poverty stricken, violent areas in the US, we tell them they need to move somewhere else, but when people who live in poverty stricken, violent areas in other countries come seeking asylum, we tell them they should go back home?
This is what happens when we start praising our country, and not our God. We lose perspective. We lose our humanity. We become selfish and self-centered. We talk about making America great, while exemplifying it’s worst qualities, instead of what made it great in the first place.
Stop With the Patriotism in Worship
One of the first churches I served as a tiny little church in a very rural area. It averaged about 25 on a Sunday. It was full of great people. Hardworking, blue collar people who were faithful to that church. It was one of those churches where you knew everybody, where they sat and if they were out of town that morning.
As often happens in small churches like this, there was a lot of emphasis on these patriotic holidays. In fact, for some unknown reason, Flag Day was also an important day for us to recognize in this church. Flag Day. When the heck is Flag Day?! What the heck is Flag Day?! I STILL DON’T KNOW!!!
I don’t mind recognizing and thanking those who have served in the armed forces. It is a brief acknowledgement that they gave a significant portion of their lives for other people. But I’m not going to sing songs to them and praise them for it.
I don’t mind praying for our country and the leadership in our country. In facts, somebody wrote an anonymous note on our prayer slips once that told me I should “take those government clowns off our prayer list”. It was not received well. In fact, I think the less you like those in elected leadership positions, the MORE you should be praying for them.
But when we cross the line from recognizing these things to praising them, instead of God, we have gone too far.
Putting Your Praise Where It Belongs
As I reflect back on that morning, and that feeling of uneasiness, I am finally able to put into words the feeling in the pit of my stomach that morning. Simply put, it was idolatry.
Idolatry is giving praise to something that is not worthy of it. It is putting the object ahead of God. Idolatry is singing praises to a country instead of the Lord. America the Beautiful is a great song. I didn’t come here today to knock the song. I came to knock the placement.
As the pastor, it is fully my responsibility to lead the worship service. I didn’t select the hymn, but I did give final approval on the service itself. And in doing so, I allowed my congregation to sing praises to something that was not fit for praise in a worship context. It is a failure on my part that I do not intend on repeating.
So, what does your pastor want to say to you about patriotic holidays? We hate the push to recognize them in the context of worship. They have no place in the sanctuary, and we would much rather take the Sunday off than have to deal with the crap-storm that is going to come from ignoring it. But, as a pastor, sometimes, you just have to put on your waders and deal with the crap-storm.