Sunday, July 01, 2007

for the 4th of July

I saw purple mountains once. I will never forget it. We were driving up Interstate 81 through the Shanandoah Valley at dusk on an early spring evening, and the fading sunlight hit the mountains just right and they were deep purple.
So I can truly say, I have seen purple mountains majesty. I’ve seen the amber waves of grain, too, on drives across the Illinois prairie. I have seen the prodigious spires of the Colorado Rockies, and I have looked into the vast depths and stark beauty of the Grand Canyon. I have hiked a mountain in Maine and stood on its bald peak and pondered the beauty of northern forests. I have dipped my toes in the waters to two oceans and strolled lonely beaches at sunset.
I have walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and marveled at the audacity of those who built it, and I have stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and marveled at the audacity of the timeless dream that Martin Luther King articulated on that spot. I have climbed the steps of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July, and marveled at the audacity of liberty itself, and of this country conceived in that liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal.
I have seen America, and I love her dearly.
I have also seen mountains in Eastern Kentucky stripped of their peaks, standing naked against the sky, opened like some sprawling tin can so mining companies in distant cities can take the coal and leave not much behind but mountains moved and wealth removed.
I have seen the people in the hollows in the shadows of those stripped mountains, with their satellite dishes pointed toward distant dreams, struggling to make ends meet in an economy that has left them behind without a second thought.
I have seen the children playing in open fire hydrants in the July heat of Chicago’s West Side, blissfully ignorant of the social and economic and political forces that have conspired to leave them with inadequate housing, “underperforming” schools and crime-ridden streets.
I have seen the homeless on the front porches of Manhattan churches – dirty, disheveled, dispirited seeking sanctuary at the doors to the sanctuary.
I have seen the highways crisscrossing the land, jammed with July vacationers and heard in my mind Jack Kerouac’s line: “all that road going, all the people dreaming.”
I have seen America. And I love her dearly.
I have seen faithful people trying to make a difference in all of these places: an orthopedic surgeon relocating his practice to an Appalachian clinic; successful business people working to create opportunities in the inner city of Cleveland; teenagers hammering in the hills and in the cities to help where they can with what they’ve got to give; I have stood with the demonstrators joining in the spiritual discipline of political action saying “no” to war, saying “no” to unjust economic practices, and saying “yes” to equal rights and equal access to the wealth of this nation. I have marched with the crowds protesting war, calling for justice and shouting “this is what democracy looks like.” I have walked with faithful people holding audacious hope for the future in spite of the evidence of the present time, and danced with joy with them as the evidence itself changed and we marveled that God might, indeed, be doing a new thing in this country.
I have seen America. And I love her dearly.
I have heard New Yorkers curse as Greg Maddux hurled a shutout in Yankee Stadium. I have heard the crowd explode as Michael Jordan amazed the old Chicago Stadium. I have heard Bob Dylan sing Blowin in the Wind, and I’ve heard the Cleveland Symphony under the baton of John Williams playing the theme from Star Wars as lightning cracked around us and the heavens themselves echoed applause – I kid you not. And I have heard homeless men singing in a church choir, and heard, too, the cry of forgotten children.
I have heard America. And I love her dearly.
Many times, I have played pickup basketball in the crowded parks along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. I’ve played capture the flag with middle schoolers running around under a Kentucky moon. I’ve jumped off a cliff into a lake in West Virginia as my youth group looked on and said, “well, if David’s gonna jump, I’m gonna jump, too.” And they did – into cold, clear water that was like a joyous baptismal font. And no matter that I was run out of town by the leaders of the church whose young people jumped off a cliff after me – I see signs all around that our nation is moving, too slowly but moving still, to ever broader understandings of who is included when we say “all men are created equal”; and our church is moving as well, all too slowly, but still moving, to ever broader understanding of who is included when we say that God calls “women and men to all ministries of the church.” More and more, all means all – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or any other distinction all are created equal and all are called to serve. I see this, and I believe that God is doing a new thing.
I have worshipped across this country: sitting in silence in a Quaker meeting in Sante Fe; praying at a Temple service in Kentucky; receiving communion – against the Pope’s wishes – at a Roman Catholic wedding service in Chicago; I have sung praises to our God with teenagers on a mountain top in Colorado and on a rooftop in Manhattan; I have sung with my Jewish brothers and sisters; prayed with Imams; and worshipped with several thousand of my closest Presbyterian friends. I have barely tasted the rich religious diversity of this nation, but it makes me think that God might just be doing a new thing in this country.
I have seen and heard and felt and tasted and prayed with and for America. And I love her dearly.
It does not strike me as wrong, as inappropriate, as unfaithful to my calling to be a voice of progressive Christian faith to say, also, that I love my country.
If you drive past our house this week, you will see the American flag flying out front. I went right out and bought it after I heard that conservatives, in their voter registration and get out the vote drives target houses flying American flags because they have decided that only conservatives display the flag. I figure if nothing else, I’ll confuse them!
Since when, I want to know, do conservatives have a corner on patriotism, on love of country? Since when, I want to know, can only conservatives sing O Beautiful for Spacious Skies? Since when, I want to know, can only conservatives pause, this time of year, and speak of God and country?
I am not here to sing a na├»ve love song to this country. I will continue deep and profound criticism of her present leadership and its direction, of her militarism, her unjust economic practices at home and abroad, her willed-ignorance of international affairs and her abiding racism, sexism and homophobia. Indeed, true patriotism must always arise in the tension between the nation’s founding ideas and its present reality. True patriotism is a lover’s quarrel.
As William Sloan Coffin put it,
How do you love America? Don’t say, “My country, right or wrong.” That’s like saying, “My grandmother, drunk or sober”; it doesn’t get you anywhere. Don’t just salute the flag, and don’t burn it either. Wash it. Make it clean.
How do you love America? With the vision and compassion of Christ, with a transcendent ethic that alone can fulfill “the patriot’s dream that sees beyond the years, her alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.”
You see, the signal theological insight that we progressive people of faith can give to the nation is both simple and profound – and it strikes me as quintessentially American, too. It’s capture in a passage from Isaiah: “God is about to do a new thing! Behold! Can you not see it?”
Sure, we sing the songs of this nation this week, because that’s what we do on her birthday. But we sing them knowing that the God we worship is not America’s God, but rather the God who spins the whirling planets and holds all of creation – all nations and all peoples – in loving hands.
So I’ll sing the old national songs with gusto this week – because I’ve heard Arlo Guthrie sing This Land is Your Land; I’ve heard Aaron Copland conduct the National Symphony on the steps of the Capitol; and I’ve heard the Beach Boys sing California Girls in the shadow of the Washington Monument on the 4th of July – and all of that incredible mix of music rises like of hymn and fills my heart.
Indeed, when we pause to give thanks for the incredible richness that we enjoy in this nation, how can we keep from singing?

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