For Wilshire Baptist Church
Every night at about 11 p.m. we stand at Perry Kite’s bedside and pray The Lord’s Prayer. We’ve gotten in the habit before we pray of deciding which word we’re going to use when we come to the phrase about forgiveness: debts, sins or trespasses. It’s an acknowledgement of the varied traditions in the room. Some of us grew up saying “debts” as we read from the King James translation. At Wilshire we long ago chose “sins” as the preferred word. Some of the nurses aides say “trespasses.”
My 4th grade teacher was a devout Catholic and taught us to say “trespasses” as we recited the Lord’s prayer every morning. Yes, we could still pray in public schools back then. We still pray before home football and basketball games at Baylor, and I’m glad we do. A friend suggests that the person praying should be selected based on their win-loss record after praying at previous games. It’s a tongue-in-cheek recommendation, of course, but it stirs that notion deep inside me that God has favorites.
We also said the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag every morning in grade school and we still do that in a way at public events as we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That hasn’t always been the case. The song was first sung at a baseball game during WWI, it became the national anthem in 1931, and it spilled over from baseball to most major sporting events by the end of WWII. The song tells the story of a battle, and when we sing it with 60,000 other Americans it too can make us feel like God has favorites.
This past Sunday in church we sang “America the Beautiful,” a hymn laden with national pride, but we also sang a hymn that tells a different story:
This is My Song
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, Thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
I find it interesting that it was penned in 1934 at a time when the world’s future super powers were busy becoming super in the run-up to WWII. It’s the opposite of what you might expect considering the intense nationalism displayed in some countries around the world at the time. The hymn voices our preference and love for our own country, and yet recognizes that inhabitants of other lands feel the same way. It acknowledges a homeland bias, but this bias is not a dirty word because love of home is a God-given emotion in people of all lands.
When we pray with Perry Kite each night it’s in a room decorated with honors from his life. There are plaques noting his leadership and service at his church, and there are his medals and honorable discharge from his service in the Navy during WWII. On the wall is a portrait of the Kites taken for their church directory, and on the wall in the next room is a black and white portrait of a young sailor, arms crossed, ready to take on the world. In other words, the flag and the cross are both in that room.
The nurses aides who come daily and nightly work for a Christian-based hospice agency and many are from Ethiopia. We’ve learned how the Christian faith they practice in this country has been influenced by the culture of their homeland. They worship the same God and savior but in different ways. And perhaps somewhere back in their home of origin their family has a room similarly holding signs of their faith and their patriotism.
It’s a hard balance to keep – faith and patriotism, church and state. Extremists would have us bury our faith and bow to state, or dismantle state and bow only to God, or weave the two together so tightly that you can’t tell one from the other. None of those is a good way to be.
We still need both church and state – separate but working for the common good in their unique ways. We need the state for a civil society governed by laws that protect the rights and promote the welfare of all people, and we need the church to share with those people in word and deed the light, grace, peace and eternal love of the God who created them.
In the Christian church we often say that faith without works is dead. I also believe that patriotism without compassion and respect is equally dead. It’s fine to wave a flag and raise a cross, but neither should be wielded as a weapon – either separately or together. To do so is a sin, debt or trespass in any culture.
While “one nation under God” was added to our Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, it doesn’t mean that other nations are less guided by the same God. If anything it should be a reminder of who we represent in our dealings with each other in our community and around the globe. We’re not God’s favorites; we’re among God’s called.
The third verse of the hymn we sang on Sunday has some echoes of that prayer we say every night at the bedside:
“This is my prayer, O ruler of all nations:
Let thy reign come; on earth thy will be done.
In peace may all earth’s people draw together,
And hearts united learn to live as one.
Oh hear my prayer, Thou God of all the nations;
Myself I give Thee; let thy will be done.”
It’s a prayer for liberty and justice for all, and one that should be on our hearts both day and night.