I rarely talk about religion on this blog, and talk even less about politics. I also tend to shy away from writing about my deepest feelings. But today I've had a rather profound moment and I want to reflect on it.
Four years ago, my family went bowling and I saw very sweet, little African American boy. He wore a Barack Obama t-shirt and for some reason, it really touched my heart. I loved it that this little boy had someone on that t-shirt he could identify with. It made me happy, quite frankly, that he could grow up in an America where the president looked like him. On the morning after the election, some dear friends told me about how happy their children were the morning after the election, how validating it was for them to see that the president shared their heritage.
I thought about that today. Long-time readers of my blog know that I'm a Mormon--a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm older and certainly much larger than that little boy. But this Mormon boy has been surprisingly choked up today when I consider that a Mormon will accept the nomination tonight of a major political party. In fact, as I sat at my desk today, it sort of hit me, and I started crying. I am surprised by how validating this feels, and how much it means to me.
I'm not talking about political preferences or ideology here. I'm talking about humanity. About the fact that a Mormon and African-American are running for President of the United States! For that matter, two Catholics are running for Vice President.
I love it that we live in a place where the highest office in the land is open to groups who were at one time excluded. I know one could plausibly argue that it's taken too long. We can have that discussion. Later. Today I feel really happy and I think we can all be proud of where we are, and where we are headed as a people, regardless of our partisan preferences.
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!
Yesterday was the anniversary of the Allied invasion at Normandy, a huge, risky move that ended up turning the course of the war and human history.
Of course the attack was ultimately successful but came at a terrible cost. My grandmother lost her brother on that day, and she was not exceptional in that regard. The older I get, the more I become interested in and aware of the human cost of great events. The regular men and women whose lives are effected and changed.
I found these words by President Reagan, speaking at a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary. He was speaking at Normandy to a group of American veterans--men who had grown old and gray but had returned to the site they had hallowed with their courage as young men. His words are far more eloquent than mine. The WWII generation is almost gone--and with them, the immediate, first-hand memory of what they did. It's important for us not to forget.
"Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith, and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge -- and pray God we have not lost it -- that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you."Link here for the full remarks.
It is a beautiful day in Nashville today. Almost, but not quite as beautiful as the crisp, golden fall day in New York City ten years ago.
9/11 is personal to me, to my family. We lived in NYC on that day. A dear friend lost a sister in the attack. I watched the second tower come down from my office window. We were not in danger, but our neighbor worked at the World Trade Center and narrowly missed death that day. In fact, she only lived because she ignored the "all clear" and decided not to go back in after the first plane hit and they were told the other buildings were fine. Later, as she fled, she had to dodge a tire flying through the air--part of the airplane's landing gear.
I regret that, like many other things, 9/11 has become politicized. It wasn't like that in the days immediately after. The horror of 9/11 brought people together in a remarkable way. New York City was a different place for several months. People made eye contact on the subway. They gave up seats to the elderly or pregnant women. They were courteous and kind.
And instead of being from Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan, instead of being Catholic or Jewish or atheists, instead of being white or black or hispanic, instead of being Puerto Ricans, Dominicans--we were all Americans.
American flags proliferated over night. They were every where. Apartments. Fire escapes. Car antennae. It was not nationalism or superiority. It was genuine love and unity. It was an impulse to link arms as we realized that what we took for granted might not be so unassailable.
I thank God that we have not had any more attacks on that scale since then and I honor the brave people who have stood between us and danger. Surely our relative peace has not happened simply because no one has tried to hurt us again.
I think of those brave firefighters and police officers who ran towards the hell that everyone else was running away from. Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). I mourn their loss and the loss of innocent life in those towers.
But I also mourn the loss of unity, the loss of togetherness that swelled up during those days during the aftermath. I mourn the quick, and entrenched return to our own tribes and ideological camps.It's not that I think we should all agree with each other on every thing. I don't, and that's not possible. It's not that I think that principled disagreement is never right. I think it's often important.
But I do wish we could be less strident, less hyper-politicized. The people who died that day died because they were Americans. They didn't die as Democrats or Republicans. The firefighters who gave their lives while trying to rescue people were trying to rescue other Americans, other humans. Their brothers and sisters.
I wish we could remember that.
One of the most amazing things I've ever seen happened on that day. It's something that has not been widely remembered in the collective consciousness and I think it's worth a look.
All the members of the U.S. Congress--senators, congressmen and women came out on the steps of the capitol and held a press conference. They said the things you would expect and had a moment of silence. But watch a few minutes into it. Something really remarkable happens then--something that provides a wonderful metaphor for the way forward.
I don't hear Democrat voices or Republican voices. I just hear Americans singing, acknowledging that we are together and that we need help and guidance.
I'm going to be reflecting in the next few days about why I love this country and what makes it special. There are so many marvelous things, intrinsic and external that make America a remarkable place to live.
But, there is one thing that is critical to all of those other things: the U.S. Military. One of the things I lament most about our overly-politicized age is that supporting soldiers has become a partisan issue. I think that is wrong. A serviceman or woman who puts their life on the line is not a Republican or Democrat. They are a human being making sacrifices for others and we need to remember that. One does not have to agree with everything the military is ordered to do or like military culture to be grateful to the brave people who serve.
I know that there have been times when those wearing the country's uniform did things that were wrong and I don't excuse that. However, when we talk about America, we have to remember to compare her to real countries, not hoped-for utopias. I would also add that the fact that bad behavior outrages us as much as it does is the exception that proves the rule.
I believe that by any historical standard, the U.S. Military is one of the most humane, responsible and benign forces ever. That is all the more impressive when one considers how powerful they are. No other country has ever had such a powerful military or been so restrained in how they use it.
No other military has been deployed so many times for humanitarian purposes. The number of times American blood has been shed to help other countries is truly remarkable.
Part of this is because of the way our Founders structured the government. Civilian control is a big deal. However, part of it is also the character of those who serve.
I've been privileged to know a number of servicemen and women over the years. I taught evening classes for a few semesters at a military base. Like the rest of us, there are the good and bad apples, I suppose, but my experience was that there was a fundamental decency and goodness about those who wear or wore their country's uniform. There is a real courage and honor to these people, a willingness to protect others at the cost of their own lives. In more dangerous times, this was something that was considered a necessary masculine virtue. As our day-to-day lives have become more safe physically and less strenuous, this trait has receded and is almost seen as being quaint and old-fashioned. Today, one finds it very rarely outside of police, firefighters, and the military. But there is a real nobility about it, in my opinion, and it deserves to be lauded and celebrated.
Last night, I was asked to speak at a patriotic concert. One of the songs the choir sang was a medley featuring the theme songs of each of the major branches of the U.S. Military. As the choir sings, the convention is those in the audience who have served in that branch of the service stand up so they can be recognized for their service.
I've seen this a few times and it reduces me to tears in just a few minutes every time. Seeing real people stand up and thinking about the sacrifice they were willing to make for the freedom and protection of those they don't know always touches my deeply.
I think of the hours of training, the physical deprivation and suffering, the danger and the emotional toll. I think of lost comrades and families left behind. There is a powerful human drama behind each of those who stands. And, of course, for everyone who stands, there those who cannot stand because they didn't come back.
I'm grateful for the service of all the men and women who have worn their country's uniform over the years. Our freedoms are wonderful, precious, and glorious. But they are only as good as the strength we have to defend and protect them. The world is, and has always been, a dangerous place.
So, to all veterans, and to those who serve now: thank you for protecting me and my family. Thank you for all you do and for doing it so well.
I found a clip of the song I mentioned above and hope you enjoy it.
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....
Unless you're living in a cave, you've heard the latest economic numbers are bad. Which just bolsters the case of those who say the glory days of the U.S are over. A lot of people think it's just a matter of how we manage the decline. My friends on the left think we live in an unsustainable, unjust nation. My friends on the right are pretty sure we are a few steps away from socialism and total moral decay.
I'm not making fun of any of these positions--things are difficult now, and a lot of people are hurting. And I understand we face serious problems, and I can find myself getting worried and nervous, too.
When I feel collected and gathered and together, I feel calm. We've been through rough patches before--and we've made it. Maybe this time is different. I can't say for sure. But if I had to lay my money, I'd bet on America to come through again.
This song isn't about America, but it's a lovely song with words composed by a writer who lived in a time of great cynicism and doubt. The words he wrote make sense in the context of the play (South Pacific) but they also capture his personal credo. And I think it's worth thinking about.
Whatever else, it also expresses how I feel. Especially on a summer night when the mist is out and fireflies are flickering. It's a lovely song, sung by the talented Kelli O'Hara.
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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