Happy 4th of July! This is one of my favorite holidays of the whole year. But, on this Independence Day, I've never been more worried about my country. And I lived through the climax of the Cold War, the recession of the 70s, 9/11 and other serious problems.
Today, I'm more worried about the moral, emotional, and spiritual state of the country. Sure, we face a lot of problems. But my greatest fears are that there is such a contentious, poisonous atmosphere that we've lost the feeling of what it means to be Americans. Not conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, or any other group--but Americans. In my grandmother's time, that meant something. As recently as my youth, and young adulthood, it still meant something.
So, I do worry about all the issues we argue about today. But I worry most of all about the nature of our arguments. What happens if one side finally wins--only to realize there is no country left, only factions and fragments?
Parts of the country are literally on fire today. We owe tremendous amounts of money. Millions of our fellows out of work. Others suffer from financial and health problems. And, above it all, we are suspicious and mistrustful of one another.
If ever we needed God's blessings, the time is now. So, this 4th of July, I express my gratitude to God for this amazing country, and humbly pray that He will continue to bless America.
Today, as my personal celebration I offer two songs and pray that they may be so.
If you want to read about the backstory behind this song, click here.
One of my favorite songs is America the Beautiful. I love that it is aspirational, not only celebratory. It acknowledges and asks for God's assistance in improving: "May God thy gold refine til all success be nobleness and every gain divine." I love this song, and I love Ray Charles singing it! I love what that means--the song and the larger message of the singer.
"And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea."
Happy 4th of July, brothers and sisters!
I'm sitting on my back deck right now, typing this entry on my laptop. It is a beautiful, cool night. I can hear frogs and crickets and birds, and other night animals. It's late, but there are a few fireflies still out. The stars are sparkling above me in a clear sky.
I'm sipping Ginger Ale as the scent of a citronella candle keeps the bugs at bay. The miracle of wirless internet allows me sit on my deck furniture and type this. In a few minutes, when I'm done, I'll go inside my house and use the wireless to watch a movie that streams from Netflix.
The fact that I have the opportunity to do this is, historically speaking, a miracle. That we live in a society prosperous enough to have the ability to create non-necessary consumer goods is really quite stunning. The fact that a school teacher can live in his own house on his own wooded parcel of land is equally stunning. Simply put, we do less work for more reward than ever in history--and the work we do tends to be more intrinsically rewarding, less dangerous and grueling.
I am not sure we contemplate or consider what a miracle we live today and how the vast majority of humanity, both those living now and especially those in the past, would be stunned at the fact that here and now, the middle and even lower classes to some extent, live better in many respects than the kings and chiefs that ruled them.
In these relative terms, life is very good for us, all our problems notwithstanding. I don't believe this is accidental. I don't profess to be a historian, but I enjoy reading, and it seems to me that a pretty clear case can be made that the exceptional circumstances we enjoy have come about mostly because of the trajectory of freedom over the last few centuries. We are feasting on freedom's fruits today (if also coping with some cultural indigestion because of unwise consumption of the same fruit).
This is one reason I passionately love this country. To me, America is an incarnation of freedom, the idea given form. As with all practical embodiments of an idea, it's imperfect, but glorious nevertheless.
The 4th of July is one of my very favorite holidays and I want to celebrate with some thoughts, stories, and songs. You know, sort of a 12 Days of Christmas, but for the 4th of July. I hope you'll join me.
Here is the first story and song.
In 1893, five-year old Israel Baline stood and watched a mob burn his family’s house down. The Balines were Jewish, and in turn-of-the-century Russia, that meant persecution, oppression, and even death. Still, his family was lucky. Although the mob burned their home, the Balines were alive. Many others were not so fortunate.
Chased away by growing persecution, the Balines joined the human flood of immigrants pouring out of Eastern Europe and made the long, dangerous voyage to America.
Once there, they joined the swelling population on the Lower East Side of New York City and began trying to make a life in a place that was so foreign it was more like a different world than a different country.
When Israel’s father died three years later, the nine-year old boy quit school to get a job to support the family. He began by selling newspapers. He worked hard and endured difficult conditions for years and years. Finally, he got a job as singing waiter. Although he didn’t have the best voice, he quickly gained a reputation for his clever satires of contemporary songs. Using the piano in the back of the restaurant, he taught himself to play the piano. Eventually, he got a job with a music publisher as a song plugger, and then managed to get a song published.
When his song was published, his name was misspelled. Rather than correcting, it, he decided to use the more American name his publisher accidentally gave him.
He continued to write songs and people continued to buy them. In the next 60 years, he wrote the words and music to approximately 1500 songs, becoming famous, rich, and a major part of the culture of his adopted land.
During World War I, he wanted to support his country by writing a patriotic song, but he was unhappy with the results, so he put the song away instead of publishing it.
Years later, when World War II broke out, he pulled the song out again. He made a few adjustments, and felt that the song now fit the circumstances. He published it and it became a hit--and then moved to iconic status. Here are the words he wrote.
When the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer--
God bless America, land that I love.
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairie, to the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home.
(Below is a video of Kate Smith singing the song. I like her version because even though she's not my favorite singer and is a bit over the top, she was the one who performed the sung back when Berlin first published it, so I see her performance as being significant)
Irving Berlin was the young Jewish boy who watched his home burn in flames, and later became a famous American songwriter. When he talked about a blessed land, and land he loved, he knew what he was talking about and didn’t speak in theoretical terms. For him, America was a the place that had given refuge to his family. A place that had provided an uneducated boy with a chance to work hard and become incredibly successful. A place that had provided an immigrant a chance to become one of the most quintessential Americans ever.
To be continued....
For some reason I cannot yet fathom, my wife loves me. After almost 18 years, this woman knows every weakness, flaw, and foible. She's not blind to my flaws, but for some reason she loves me anyway. She even seems to think I'm pretty good and that I also have good things, too.
I am tempted to assume that I've just hoodwinked her--but I know that's not true. A) She's too smart and B) we've been married too long.
I feel the same way about this country that my wife must feel about me.
I'm not blind to it's flaws or it's mistakes. I understand that it isn't heaven-on-earth.
If we assume that perfection is possible, then I suppose that we will always be disappointed (in countries and spouses). If, however, we take the opposite stance and acknowledge that nothing (no place, no person) in this life, is perfect and that flaws are inevitable, we free ourselves to be happy and grateful for the good.
And this weekend, I am grateful for the good! I am grateful to live in a country that has been the delivery vehicle for bringing so many blessings to so many people. I am grateful to live in a country where I am free, a country where there are so many fundamentally decent people--a country where millions of people are trying to come.
This weekend I'm not in the mood to argue about policies or platforms. I am deeply grateful to be an American and I want to bask in that.
Several years ago, when we lived in NYC, we spent the 4th of July visiting Ellis Island in the morning. In the evening, we went to a party with members of our congregation--almost all of whom were recent immigrants to this country. These two experiences were bookends for me--and they both made me profoundly grateful to be here.
Next week, we can all start arguing again. But let's take a break this weekend and just be Americans--grateful Americans.
Happy birthday, USA!
God bless America.
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