I occasionally get into trouble at my church because we don’t sing national songs on July 4th. I tell people “I don’t do national holidays in church.” (I don’t do Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, either.) The truth is that the faith we proclaim when we gather for worship doesn’t really have much to say about national pride, military victory, or economic growth, and actually calls to to cross over, whenever we can, to be with those most unlike us and most outside our own comfort zones.
There is one Sunday when we do sing a national song at the church I serve: the Sunday after September 11. In the weeks following September 11, 2001, churches all over New York City outdid one another in epic musical offerings, perhaps as a way of reminding us that we were still alive, that it was possible to move past the numbness and experience something beautiful in the midst of what was otherwise horrible beyond words.
It was in one of those churches–I can’t recall which–that I rediscovered “O beautiful for spacious skies.” I certainly remembered, probably from childhood music class, the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain. But never until the week after 9/11 had I sung the words to that hymn as the prayer that they are, a prayer for humility and grace:
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
And that is my prayer for today.