Saturday, July 4, 2009

Celebrating Independence Day

(photo from the June 26 production of I Sing America in Pine Valley)

When I think of the 4th of July, the birthday of our country, I think first of music. All of the other elements are wonderful: children watching fireworks in awe, families at the beach and grilling dinner together, flags flying. But for me, music comes to mind first.

As we watch the fireworks displays from my parents' rooftop deck in Pacific Beach, we tune the radio to the station that has set the displays to music. "I'm Proud to be an American" from the first Gulf War always brings me to tears, but it's the old hymns I love best. "America" ("Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain....") and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" are near the top of the list, but my favorite, one that we often sing at Lake Murray Community Church each year near the 4th of July, is Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic":

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet;
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free;
[originally …let us die to make men free]
While God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.
The website states about this patriotic hymn:

"This hymn was born during the American [C]ivil [W]ar, when [Julia Ward] Howe visited a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington, D. C. She heard the soldiers singing the song “John Brown’s Body,” and was taken with the strong marching beat. She wrote the words the next day:

'I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.'

The hymn appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. It was sung at the funerals of British statesman Winston Churchill, American senator Robert Kennedy, and American presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon."

The power of this hymn's lines, written when the survival of our country was most endangered, staggers me every time. And when those incredible words are set to the militant march of "John Brown's Body," I find myself moved beyond words. Our country is far from perfect, but it seems to be the best that there is on the face of the earth. As one of my students reminded me this morning on Facebook, "our freedom was not free." It was paid for by the sacrifices of our soldiers, of our slaves, of our demonstrators, of our people of principle like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among so many others whose names are forgotten.

And it is still being paid for in the sacrifices of our young men and women today. I am proud that two of my nephews (Karen's boys) are serving our country now, and that their sister, my niece, just completed Basic Training. My uncle served in Vietnam; his father (my mother's father) was on the USS Ward which fired the first American shot of World War II when they sank a Japanese submarine just outside Pearl Harbor 90 minutes before the full attack began. And several young men and women from our Lake Murray family are serving or have served as well. All have returned home safely thus far; we pray they remain so.

No, our country isn't perfect. There is so much room for improvement that it boggles one's mind. And as we celebrate this 233rd birthday of our country's Declaration of Independence, we have to remember that we are still a young country. Yet, for all our relative youth, we are a unique country that shelters the world's "huddled masses" -- a beacon of hope to many who come here for a fresh start despite our obvious imperfections.

This morning I opened my 1928 Book of Common Prayer as usual and turned the pages past the Office of Morning Prayer, the Office of Evening Prayer, to a section entitled "Prayers and Thanksgivings" where I read and prayed this prayer for our country:
For Our Country:
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favour and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government [especially Barack our President, Arnold our Governor, our leaders in Congress and the State Legislature, and the judges across our land], that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So with this prayer in our mind, and with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" ringing in our ears, may we celebrate this Birthday of our Nation's Independence with joy and purpose, not mindlessly but with thanksgiving to the One who provided this land for us, remembering our responsibilities to other nations, our brothers and sisters, who are far less fortunate -- and less free -- than we are.


Jane D. said...

Susanne I find it very inspirational to hear you speaking about your country like this, you have prompted me to get more serious in my prayers for my country.

Susanne Barrett said...

It's all in the prayer book! :) I love that the BCP already has those prayers written out for us. It's definitely one of the reasons I love the Anglican faith.

Oh, guess what patriotic hymn we sang today at Lake Murray (our evangelical church)? Yep, "Battle Hymn of the Republic"!


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