Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Star-Spangled Banner

In 1979 my high school concert choir toured in Mexico, singing in schools and competing in a choral festival. One school in which we sang began their assembly by singing the Mexican national anthem, proudly and with gusto, to a recording on the PA system. Then they honored us by playing our national anthem for us to sing. Their recording had all four stanzas. After the first one we were all lost, and quite embarrassed at how little we knew of our national anthem.

How about you? Do you know all 4 stanzas? Do you know that it was not adopted as our national anthem until 1931? You probably do remember that it was written by Francis Scott Key while imprisoned on a British ship near Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
’Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our Trust"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I love our national anthem -- especially the two stanzas that I know from memory. It is very important to me, and it aggravates me when people fail to show proper decorum when it is sung at public events; but, it is not a hymn of Christian worship – even though it is in our hymnal. This Sunday in worship we will give humble thanks to God for our nation and fervently lift her up in prayer, but Communion will be our primary focus. That’s enough to think about for now.

Blogger's note: The above was all I had room for in my Wednesday evening rehearsal notes (1/2 page 8.5" x 11"), and I had to steal a little space from the other page to get that much. I didn't have room (nor perhaps the guts) to share the following:

When I have pointed out that our national anthem is not a hymn of Christian worship, people have questioned my patriotism and even my spiritual sensibility (probably why I didn't have the guts). I think our tendency in the American church to equate patriotism and Christianity probably arose particularly during the struggles of the two World Wars of the 20th century and the fervent prayers for our troops and leaders during those huge events of world-wide impact. It is not a stretch to see how that could happen. Similar emotions are evoked by both ... as well they should be. My heart should be stirred by songs of national importance. My heart should be stirred by the move of the Holy Spirit as I worship. But it is easy to accidentally allow the one to substitute for the other.

Broaden the perspective just a little bit. Imagine worshiping somewhere other than the United States (if you've never done this ... on a mission trip or for some other reason overseas, I highly recommend it). Case in point: in North Carolina one July, I played "My Country, 'tis of Thee" on my trumpet as an offertory. There was a Canadian in the congregation, a medical student studying with one of our local doctors. His question, "Why is he playing 'God Save the Queen'?" (it's the same tune, in case you're wondering).

I'm having a tough time bringing this plane down to land right now. My point is this: in worship, we do lift up our nation and her leaders in prayer. Failure to do so would be disobedient to clear instruction in scripture. We even take more care to do so surrounding days of national importance like July 4th. However, we do not give over the entire Sunday morning service to a patriotic emphasis. Our focus is Christ. None of our national songs that I can think of that do mention God (and we will sing them) mentions Christ at all. Our focus is Christ.

I have a feeling that somebody may skewer me on this one (fortunately my readership is slim). Hear my carefully again: I love my country, but our focus in worship is Christ.



Blogger JATB said...

At the opening of our worship, we say, "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen." Thus, we affirm that we gather in worship as citizens of the Kingdom of God, not as citizens of America. Scripture teaches that Christ has made us a kingdom of priests. In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek. I think emphasizing our identity as Americans in worship is misplaced. There is a time and a place for everything: corporate worship is the time to celebrate Jesus, not the time to celebrate America.

"The Star Spangled Banner" is not in our hymnal, nor is "My Country 'Tis of Thee". The only thing close to that in our hymnal is "God of Our Fathers," which, unlike the first two, is actually a hymn in praise of God. God said, "You shall have no other gods before me," so I'm very uncomfortable singing a song in praise of America in worship rather than a song in praise of God. Idolatry is idolatry, even if it is acceptable to most Christians.

I know this probably sounds very harsh to a lot of people, and I assure your readers that I am not un-patriotic (but I will stress that one not need be a Republican to be either a good Christian or a good American!), but Psalm 69 says "zeal for your house consumes me," and Hebrews 12 says "let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe." We need to be extra sure that God is the "infinite center" (to use Marva Dawn's phrase) of our worship.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Morris said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Morris said...

I agree. One of our choral pieces for Sunday, though, will be an arrangement of "America the Beautiful." Depending on who's grading it, it may fail the test because it doesn't mention Christ ... but neither does "God of Our Fathers." The lines are a bit more blurred with the former than the latter.

The reasons for doing things the way we do them can be difficult to communicate when responding to people who are upset because we don't go patriotic as often or as strongly as they want. Both parties leave the conversation feeling as if the other side just doesn't get it, because if they did get it we wouldn't be having the conversation.

I agree that emphasizing our identity as Americans in worship is misplaced. I do, however, think that corporate worship is an appropriate time to thank God for the opportunities our nation affords, to pray for our leaders, and to ask God to guide us to be the kind of citizens that will lead our nation in ways that honor Him.

Everything I'm reading lately is pointing me toward a Kingdom mindset ... and experiences worshiping overseas always broadens the perspective on that note (as does having a semi-adopted daughter whose mother is German and father American who grew up in Germany but came to college here in the states).

On the idolatry issue, I am convinced that we have numerous idols that draw our attention away from the only One worthy of our worship. Well intentioned, but misplaced emphasis on national pride is but one of these (see my previous post for another). Perhaps my favorite seminary professor, Paul A. Richardson (now teaching at our undergraduate alma mater) wrote: "God is the object - the only possible object - of our worship as believers. Lesser objectives, worthy though they may be in themselves, become idolatrous if they are the focus of our worship." ("The Primacy of Worship", REVIEW AND EXPOSITOR (1988), p. 85.

Bruce Leafblad wrote: "Our people don't know what it is because we leaders don't know what it is ... We don't know what it is experientially or theologically. We have called anything and everything worship." (source unknown)

The truth of Richardson's statement haunts me every time I encounter the tension between secular patriotism and Christian worship (several times a year). Leafblad's observation helps me understand one possible reason the tension exists. Our people don't know what worship isn't, so they get mad when we don't do something on Sunday morning (that may have been done in the past) that has nothing to do with celebrating Christ.

It's frustrating.

9:54 PM  

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