American Pastoral

God bless America, land that I love,

Stand beside her and guide her

Through the night with a light from above.

From the mountains, to the prairies,

To the oceans white with foam,

God bless America,

My home sweet home.

God bless America,

My home sweet home.

What happened to me this past Sunday was unique. I was driving to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown on the most beautiful morning I’ve seen during my year of ministry there. One stunning landscape after another graced my heart as well as my eyes: fall leaves, now decorating the roadsides in earnest, extending for miles; perfect mist rising from wetlands; lean, chestnut horses of the Amish shining in the early light; angus cows and calves wandering to find another tuft of grass.

Suddenly, of its own accord, “God Bless America” started in my mind. And taking in each new scenic blessing, I thought, “Wow, I really love my country.”

Years ago I considered Irving Berlin’s fond old nut to be primarily a national song, like “The Star Spangled Banner,” but now I take it as prayer more than patriotism, as love song more than victory celebration. No “bombs bursting in air” or heroic bravery in these lyrics. “God bless America” is a serenade, tearful with longing and affection: Mountains, prairies and oceans! “My home sweet home,” sung twice because once isn’t enough. “Land that I love.”

Love. Due to occupation or disposition, I think a lot about that word. What does loving another human being look like? Or what does it mean to love a land? Or a beagle or a calico? Or a soybean field wearing a crew cut after harvest?

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No surprise, my favorite description of love comes from the Bible. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth words that anybody who has attended a wedding or two might recognize: “Love never ends.” “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Once when I was in a wedding planning meeting, a middle-aged couple requested that we not read “that trite thing about love.”

Yeah, well, take 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 for a test drive, see how it handles over the pot holes and black ice of relationships:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

In the full thirteen verses of the poetic love hymn, one word is oddly missing: God. Paul wrote to a community in conflict about how people ought to treat each other. “God won’t do this for you,” the apostle’s omission suggests. “You have to take the burden of love upon yourselves.”

The lines are trite only if you read them with a sanguine smile. Otherwise, Paul’s song to the Corinthians lifts up an uncompromising way of life that I share with millions—I’m sure of it. Some of us go to church, some don’t. Some of us believe in God, some don’t, some aren’t sure, but we treasure each other anyway. We bear love’s calling in our chests, know it when we see it, recognize its desecration instantly, and fall short of its grace and glory moment by moment.

In fact, we fail to love so often that it makes us sick. We get furious, question whether our path is absurd and foolish, and give in to the behaviors and speech that grieve us the most.

But our calling abides and quietly awaits resurrection.

A mother holds her toddler’s hand and walks slowly so he can keep up.

Lovers share coffee, hold hands, give their entire presence to each other, listen and laugh.

Strangers greet each other with warmth and respect.

Such sightings make love rise within us again and give us what we need. Not the power of a fist, but the peace of an outstretched hand. Not a lust for winning, but a willingness to sacrifice.

Until our brokenness overwhelms us again, we do our flawed best.

We grab the hand of the foreigner in the ditch.

We make concessions for the common good.

We tell the truth, even when it might cost us.

We look to bring out the best in each other, not revel in the worst.

We see faces with skin different than ours and wonder if we’re looking into the eyes of new friends.

We remember that every human being has a story.

We admit that we may not be entirely in the right.

We don’t hit people when they’re down.

We teach our kids not to call other people names.

We may fight, but we shake hands and make up.

We don’t cheat.

We’re gentle with animals.

We stop to admire the soybean stubble, grateful that the farmer had a decent harvest.

Who are we? When we refuse to let fear, anger and selfishness get the best of us, we are Americans.

And now I speak only for myself: I want to be a worthy American, which is to say, a loving American; which is to say, not the hateful American I can often be.

When the “land that I love” takes my breath away as it so often does, I sometimes feel unworthy of the blazing trees of autumn, the morning fog, and the horses and cows so calm in the midst of our human drama.

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Land that I love. (Credit: ForestWander on Wikimedia Commons)

Then I remember the one gift I have to offer “my home sweet home.” I can love her, take tender care of her, and lavish her inhabitants with generosity and kindness.

I speak only for myself, but I’m not alone. Tens of millions of brothers and sisters sing with me, “God bless America,” and we know in our heart of hearts that courageous love for this land and each other is our highest national calling and our only hope for a great future.

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