I am fanatical about the Christian Year and following the Lectionary. Yes – sometimes the joining of 3 scriptures doesn’t work well and, yes, much of the Old Testament is left out. Still, I love the movement through the year of the holy seasons – the roller coaster ride helps me to feel the emotions of each special time, and the lectionary forces me to preach on texts that I might otherwise not touch.
Because of this, I am careful about not, for example, singing Christmas carols during Advent or Easter hymns during Lent. I am also very much against patriotic songs – we are not an American church, and the words of most of those hymns are jingoistic and self-centered. At our best, America lives up to its creed of equality and liberty. At its worst, it approves of discrimination and bigotry.
But – yesterday we sang “America, the Beautiful”. I found myself getting annoyed with the idea, and got ready to be frustrated, once again, with having to mouth words that I often feel are not appropriate for Christian worship. And then – I sang the words – “America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!” The words seemed, to me, to ring more true than ever before. This time in our history is a frightening time for many – I had read that morning in our local newspaper that natural born citizens were being arrested as illegal immigrants. Why? Because of the color of their skin and the language they speak. I watch as children and parents seeking asylum – a legal process – have been separated and placed in detention centers.
At our worst, we approve of discrimination and bigotry, but that verse calls us to a higher expectation. Then the next verse. “America! America! May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine!” The challenge we face in a secular culture defined by law is to allow a little bit of morality into our actions. The problem is that morality is subjective, and cannot be legislated. Still, the hope of the founders of this noble experiment was that we would not only be a shining light of freedom in the 18th century, but that we would become more fair and beautiful as time went by. That all men would become all people. That slaves would be set free. That women would be allowed to vote. That this land, founded by illegal immigrants, patriarchy, white rule, and colonialism would evolve into a place of acceptance, law, and freedom. At our best, we are all of these things. At our worst – we are not.
So I will watch fireworks and listen to patriotic music and go to the Wyomissing parade because I believe in the dream that our founders dreamed. It is our job, as true patriots, to make sure that this dream does not become a nightmare. Peace – and happy Independence Day.
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary UCC in Reading, PA since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).