Hymn-Prayer for National Holidays

This post is really a way to preserve a link to new hymn lyrics for the tune “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  You skip my ramblings below and find those lyrics at the bottom.

Memorial Day approacheth, and if your church is like mine, it means that national hymns and patriotic songs are edging their way into your liturgy.

Probably not even edging, actually.  America doesn’t edge.  America strides boldly forth, and you shall not be able to remove her patriotic signature from the Sundays falling closest to Memorial Day/Fourth of July/Veterans’ Day with a really big stick.  Even trying to do so, I learned in seminary, is almost on par with the #1 Sure Fire Way to Lose Your First Call: removing the American flag from the altar.

Wikimedia commons.

I’ve found that when I share the fear and trembling with which seminarians discuss the dreaded Flag on the Altar issue with people not immersed in congregational culture, the reaction is an overwhelming “What’s the big deal?”  Normal people (I use the phrase loosely) understand neither why it’s so important to certain congregants to have the flag up there, nor why pastors have it in for poor Old Glory.

Normal people, I covet your innocence. Maybe you’d like to stop reading here.

From the point of view of many (though not all) congregants, I think there are several things going on that make that flag’s presence so important.  First, the childhoods of many congregants were lived in a time when religious institutions strongly supported nationalism–I think this was especially the case from the WWII era up until the Vietnam War.

Join me, for example, for a trip down memory lane: the cover of the March 1945 edition of The Lutheran Standard (mouthpiece of a major Lutheran church body).  It reads: “AMERICA, BEWARE OF ALIEN GODS!” The accompanying caption continues: “Democracy. Communism. Fascism. Let’s look at the foundations—and results—of these systems of government!” You can predict how the article continues:

“True to a universal principle, the Russian constitution also has a religious foundation—atheism. … The unchristian nature of its creed shows itself in that the individual is lost in the community. Not so Christianity. Not so a government that learns from Christ.”

Without going down the rabbit-hole of ranting about the importance of the community/ekklesia in the biblical witness (cf. any of Paul’s letters, EVER), suffice it to say that the Lutheran political-religious lens has changed a bit since the postwar era.  But many of our congregants still feel a strong sense of nostalgia for the time when they opened worship by singing “God Bless America,” and when it was inconceivable for one’s national identity to be in conflict with one’s religious identity.

But nostalgia LIES, my friends!  Even during WWII, Lutheran congregations were experiencing a major shake-up as far as nationalism and religious loyalty went…’cause, y’see, it’s awfully awkward to be a national church body with a strong German immigrant heritage, complete with German-speaking congregations and people who will simply not stop bringing kuchen to church potlucks (thank goodness, because YUM), when America is at war with Germany.

If you are a proud Lutheran of German heritage, what do you do when your country goes to war with your ancestral home?

That niggly little question opens up onto the reasons why my seminary taught me that–pragmatic realities of employment needs aside–the flag doesn’t belong on the altar.

The flag is a symbol of national identity and loyalty, and it is a pretty amazing thing that we worship in a country where freedom of religion is guaranteed, where equality is so highly valued (if not always realized), where we enjoy rights and privileges that citizens of many other countries do not.

But we do not gather on Sundays to worship America.  We gather on Sundays to worship God.  And to conflate God with country can lead us down some pretty dark paths, because while I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where Jesus used loyalty to Rome to advance the kingdom of God (unless you count the crucifixion?), history is rife with examples where nations co-opted religion to advance political causes.

German Christians celebrating Luther-Day in Berlin in 1933. Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway.  All of this is to explain why, when I went to review the worship bulletin for this coming Sunday, I had that same sinking feeling I get when the dang flag comes up when I saw that the sending hymn was “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

Samuel Francis Smith was a seminarian at Andover Theological Seminary when he sat down and poured out the lyrics in what I can only imagine was a profoundly caffeinated single half-hour in 1831.  I can’t find anything to indicate that he meant for it to be a hymn.  Maybe he did, though you’d really hope that a theology student setting out to write a hymn might manage to fit a mention of God in before the very last verse.

The song is not addressed to God, except for that last verse.  It is addressed to America.  It doesn’t meet the basic requirement of a worship song, unless we’ve seriously mistaken what it is that we’re worshiping.

So I called our awesome organist and asked if she’d mind if I changed the lyrics.  Our awesome organist said that it was fine with her, as long as we still honored the troops.

And see, I think that intention is actually really great, and one of the reasons why it’s so hard to pry national songs out of worship: people associate the singing of these songs with honoring those who have died.  Often, the total and complete absence of any mention of our soldiers (as in “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”) doesn’t even matter.  It’s the feelings that these songs evoke that are so powerful.

So, I struck out for a happy medium between having an actual worship song, having a song that does what we think national songs do when often they don’t actually, and still getting to sing something to the tune we know and love…

…and, bonus, got to use my arcane knowledge of how to conjugate verbs with “thou”…

…as I drafted a new set of lyrics to set to the tune of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”  You can download them below.  The tune is in the public domain, and the lyrics are available under a Creative Commons Attribution License, so go to town.

Lord God, all praise to thee
For the sweet liberties
To which we cling;
Freedom to worship thee,
To seek equality,
And strive to happy be.
Let praises ring!

 Bless Thou this land so sweet:
Orchards and fields of wheat,
Hill, sea, and plain!
Teach us to serve and keep
This earth from which we reap
The countless blessings deep
Thou dost ordain.

 And for those lives laid down
Beneath War’s awful frown,
For these we plead:
Rest for the blessed dead,
And that where blood was shed
Goodwill may flow’r instead.
O, Peace, make speed! 

Thou, through Thy endless reign,
Hast ruled with gentle main;
Kind, just, steadfast.
Grant in this earthly realm
Rulers at ev’ry helm
Who guide us straight and well
‘Til trumpet blast!

 

PDF file with music: Lord_God,_All_Praise_to_Thee

 

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3 Replies to “Hymn-Prayer for National Holidays”

  1. Even as a secular sort, I can appreciate some of these lyrics (esp. “And that where blood was shed, Goodwill may flow’r instead”). What I most appreciate is your discomfort for the flag in the sanctuary and “America worship.” Our nationalism has indeed become a religion of sorts, and even when I was “in the pulpit” I felt the flag had no place in the sanctuary. I wish you well addressing this deep-set part of the national psyche! (by the way, I have similar issues with the pledge. . .but then, I’m a non-theist American who does not say “under God”).

  2. What a beautiful new hymn–well-thought out! Now, what do we do with “Onward, Christian Soldiers?” David walked out of church as a teenager when that was sung. Hope we can make it back from IN and WI in time to wish you well, Victoria. We’re in Door County, WI, right now.–Martha

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