Thursday, June 30, 2011

Freedom to Worship Our God

This Sunday is July 3, just one day removed from Independence Day.  Recognizing that, I want to give thanks for the privilege of living in America.  I am thankful for all of our freedoms.  I recognize that there are many places on this planet where Christians, in particular, are not free to gather to worship God.  And, I enjoy the festivities that come with the celebration of our American independence.  I enjoy the picnics and parades, the patriotic music, the community gatherings, and, of course, the fireworks. 

Having said that, every pastor must deal with the question of what to do on the Sunday nearest the Fourth of July.  Now, for some pastors, there is no question at all.  Some will be doing special patriotic services.  They will do these without a second thought.  Some will be planning to use such patriotic services as an evangelistic tool; promoting and advertising their patriotic service in order to get new people in.

I'm not one of those pastors.

Let me be quick to say, I think that it is fine, good, and even appropriate for churches to celebrate the Fourth together.  I think that it is fine, good, and even appropriate to have a time of musical celebration; a special service of sorts; maybe a choir cantata, or a service of patriotic hymns, or even a special preaching service (certainly it is good to have a pitch-in dinner!).  -  I just have a tremendous problem with the idea of such a service taking the place of the time when the Church gathers to worship our God.

I have seen it happen time and time again.  I have come away from such services recognizing that we have not praised or worshipped God at all.  We have, instead, "praised America."  Oh, we have invoked God in both prayers and in music, but God is almost always, exclusively invoked as a means of blessing this nation which we are engaged in praising.  -  Just take a quick look at the patriotic "hymns" found in our hymnals and see how God is used.

Let me use the Sing to the Lord hymnal from my denomination (Church of the Nazarene).  It lists eight hymns in the "Patriotic" section.  One is "O Canada!", and one is "God Save the Queen."  I think it is fair to skip those two!  -  Two others, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" and the national hymn, "God of Our Fathers," are likely not sung during "worship" on (or near) Independence Day or Memorial Day (at least that has been my experience).  -  However, that leaves these well known hymns:  "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" (the Battle Hymn), "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," "America, the Beautiful," and "The Star-spangled Banner."

With a few exceptions, I enjoy singing those songs outside of the worship setting.  However, let's take a quick look at them in connection to the setting of Christian worship.

"Mine Eyes . . ." is, of course, the "Battle Hymn."  This song, does, indeed, invoke God.  "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . ."  Yet, the song combines the purposes of God with the march of a nation at war.  God's wrath is being poured out, as "His truth is marching on."  In the final verse, we are reminded of Christ's birth, His glory that transfigures us, and His death "to make men holy."  However, the latter is expressed in the line that says, "As He died to make men holy, let us die ("live" in times of peace) to make men free, While God is marching on." 

Please hear me on this.  While profoundly grateful to those who have been willing to die for our freedom, I must note that, unlike Christ who died to make us holy, these brave men and women are not simply going forth to die.  They are willing to die, if need be.  They are putting their lives on the line.  However, as they do so, they are also going forth to defend us, to fight, to kill the enemy.  While their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice deserves our profound and deep gratitude, it is difficult for me to sing a song in the context of worship that intends to make the comparison between Christ who died to make us holy (while calling us to love our enemies), and those who are willing to die while fighting to kill our enemies.

I know, I know!  -  But please remember, we are trying to look at these songs from within the context of Christian Worship, and I find this to be problematic for Christian worship.

When we look to "My Country, "Tis of Thee," I think the title says it all.  We are singing, not of God, but of our country.  I like this song, and I like to sing it at patriotic gatherings, but ought we really sing a song in which the first three of four verses never mention God, but are focused on the praise of our country, and then call this Christian worship?  When we get to the fourth verse, it does sing to God.  But, immediately upon addressing God, we discover that the purpose of our singing to God is so that God will bless and protect our country of which God is declared to be "our King!"  -  So the entire focus of the song is on praising our nation, with the final verse asking our nation's King to bless and protect our nation.  -  Again, I like to sing the song in patriotic settings, but is this really a song fitting for the worship of God?

"America, the Beautiful" is a bit better than the last song in terms of invoking God.  Each verse praises America, and each verse ends asking God's various blessings upon America.  -  I like the song, but it is clear that the focus of praise is America.  God is recognized.  God is seen as needed.  God is invoked.  And I think that it is appropriate to ask for God's blessings upon the nation.  Yet, God is not the One who is praised and worshipped.

Finally, "The Star-spangled Banner" focuses upon our nations flag in the context of war.  The first two of three verses says nothing about God.  The final verse does, and it does so in a way that may be somewhat more fitting for worship in that it acknowledges that our nation is "heav'n-rescued," and it calls us to "Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation!"  -  Of all of the hymns that we have looked at, this is the only one which actually praises God.  This verse goes on to declare that our motto is, "In God is our trust!"

Now, my point in all of this is not to "rag on" these patriotic hymns.  As I have said (with some slight exceptions), I like to sing these songs.  I enjoy singing them in a patriotic setting.  I am thankful that God is invoked in such a patriotic setting.  I think that it is fine and good for a church to have a time when the people of the church can come together and celebrate our freedom and our nation.  I am just not willing to set aside our worship of God in order to praise our nation.  -  To do so, for me, would run awfully close to idolatry.  (But then again, please understand, that I am not willing to have gospel singing groups in for a "concert" in place of the worship of God's people, either.  I'm happy to have them on a Sunday night, or I am even willing to let them sing the "special" or offertory during worship, but I do not want them to take away the people's work of activelyworshipping God.)

In fact, I think it is at this point of the praise of our nation that the church in America comes the closest to overt idolatry.

I must confess, I was frustrated recently while attending a "Camp Meeting" service at an historic holiness Camp Meeting tabernacle in our area.  It was an open-air tabernacle.  On the front wall were the familiar words, "Holiness Unto the Lord."  But, as we sang one of the gospel songs, I found my self looking up to gaze on the cross above the pulpit . . . only there was no cross there.  Instead, the American flag was stretch open above the pulpit.  Oh, the pulpit was designed with a cross on the front, but no cross on the wall, just the American flag.  A cross could have added so much meaning as we were singing, but the flag only drew my focus away from God.

Of course, I have seen the pictures of the old "Glory Barn" of P. F. Bresee's day.  Bresee was the first general superintendent (bishop) and the principle founder of the Church of the Nazarene.  The "Glory Barn" was home for Los Angeles Nazarenes.  And I have seen the pictures of all of the American flags draped everywhere in celebration of Memorial Day and Independence Day.

One nation under God?
These days, I drive around and see churches, not just with American flags displayed, but with American flags flying over Christian flags.  It is clear the symbolism of flying flags.  It is also clear the symbolism of which flag goes on top.  In America, if a flag is flown on the same pole as the American flag, it is always flown under the American flag BECAUSE our ultimate/primary allegiance is to our nation.  But for Christians, our primary/first/ultimate allegiance is to Christ.  Nevertheless, to fly a Christian flag below any national flag is to symbolize that our allegiance to Christ is secondary to our allegiance to that nation.  That may not be what anyone intends to say, but that is the symbolism.  -  And that sounds a lot like idolatry.

I think that it is appropriate to be mindful of the holiday during our time of prayer, and perhaps even in the sermon, so long as it is done in a way that does not take the focus away from the God whom we worship.

What I would suggest is to encourage churches to plan to stay after worship for a pitch-in/pot luck dinner on the grounds, with games, followed by a patriotic service and celebration.  During that time of celebration, I would joyously encourage the singing of patriotic songs.  But when the Church gathers to worship, if I have any say in the matter, we will gather to worship God.

(As I close, I will confess, this year I'm on vacation over this weekend, so I am free from having to engage in this battle.  And honestly, I am thankful that I don't have to deal with it.  -  Who knows what I will get when I go to worship, Sunday.  I do hope, though, that I am able to worship God.)

Feel free to share your thoughts, but please try to be Christlike in doing so!


Andrew said...

I think you are right on target!

Eric + said...

I find it so strange that the very best patriotic hymn (Eternal Father Strong to Save) is so unknown. If we ever sing a patriotic hymn it is that one and it is connected to prayer time.

Jessica said...

Smart blog you've got here! I appreciate this post because you articulate so well what I have felt for a long time - that patriotism does often (usually) come in the form of idolatry. I am more uncomfortable with overt displays of patriotism than you are, however - perhaps because I can never seem to view them as "innocent." For example, I do not say the Pledge of Allegiance. This can make for awkward interactions. I think there are a number of pacifist Catholic types who feel as I do; though I often feel alone in my thinking. Thank you for expressing this as it is not a popular or easy viewpoint.

Hope you are well!

Jessica Savarese

Todd Stepp said...

Thanks, Jessica, for your comments!

I have in my hands, right now (well actually, I had to put it down so I could type, but . . .) that card you sent me in 2007. - That meant so much to me! I keep it in a little box I have in my study.

I pray you are doing well and that the Lord will richly bless you!

Pastor Todd+