In a few days, Americans will again celebrate Memorial Day. This is one of a number of patriotic holidays Americans celebrate every year. On days such as this we usually find ourselves singing and listening to patriotic songs, especially the song written by a Russian immigrant named Irving Berlin. The one called God Bless America. When I was serving as a United Methodist Church pastor, I made sure that we sang that song on the Sunday before Memorial Day. One year I heard someone say something implying that Christians had no business singing that song in church. She said that song was an arrogant statement of American patriotism. Instead of focusing on God, our focus was on were not focusing on America.
I thought about what was being said. I wondered if it what she said was really true. Was our focus on the nation instead of on God? The more I thought about it, the more I had to agree that it was true sometimes for some people. including myself. Yes, God Bless America is often sung and spoken more out of pride in the nation than as a prayer directed to God. As a result I spent some time discussing this with God, so I could understand what it really means for Christian and other Americans to sing the song God Bless America in a religious setting. Here’s the conclusion that came to me.
To begin with, consider what it means to ask God to bless us. What does it mean to be blessed? What is a blessing? All too often we think of a blessing as getting something we want, which we believe is going to make us feel good. If we like the way our lives are going, we are likely to say that God has blessed us. And we might be right, but not necessarily.
To be blessed in the Biblical sense is not simply a matter of God giving us the good life. It s not about how much God gives us. It is about God giving us whatever we need to live in accordance with God’s will and to accept responsibility to live as God intends. God can give us financial riches, but unless we are using them to serve our less fortunate neighbors, we are not blessed. God can give a church beautiful facilities, but unless the people are praying, searching the scriptures, and proclaiming the gospel to the world, that church is not blessed. God can give a nation a wealth of natural and human resources, but unless that nation allows God to use it to demonstrate and maintain the kind of order God intends for the world, it is not blessed.
With that understanding of blessing, let’s consider the meaning of God Bless America. I don’t know exactly what Irving Berlin had in mind when he wrote the song. But I do believe he understood the Biblical meaning of blessing, as I have explained. He wrote the song in the form of a prayer, directed to God. It is not a statement intended to impress other people with our patriotism. He wrote it during World War I, but it didn’t catch on with the American public until World War II. But I believe it caught on with God from the moment that that three word prayer first crossed God’s mind.
Berlin’s undertanding of blessing was that God will “stand beside her and guide her”. He understood that it was not enough just to ask God to stand beside our nation, giving us the good life. He understood that the nation must turn to God and allow God to guide her. The implication was and is that God will make it possible for us to follow God’s guidance. . While Berlin didn’t use the word Grace, he was asking God for just that. All the grace we need – everything necessary – for this nation to obediently follow the guidance God gives us.
I can’t be sure, but I believe that when Berlin wrote the song – this prayer – he was asking God to continue doing what he knew God had already been doing. I can’t be sure, but I believe that he believed God had been blessing America, going back to colonial days, to the landing of the Pilgrims, to the voyage of Columbus. I believe he understood that God was giving us all we needed to be the nation God created us to be.
And what was this nation created to be? To be one of those nations which God chose for the awesome responsibility of glorifying God before the world. One of those nations God chose to use to demonstrate, establish, and maintain the kind of order under which God intended the world to live. The nation that understands that while God might call upon it to use military and police powers for God’s puproses, the source of power was and is God, and that power is to be used only under God’s direction.
And what is the nature of that order? I believe Jesus summarizes it for us in the two great commandments – love God and love our neighbor. And the great commission – make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them all that Jesus commanded. This order will not be totally fulfilled until Jesus comes again, when he will fully establish the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Until then there will be all kinds of evil perpetrated in this world. The Bible tells us that God uses nations, their leadership, and governments, to provide for the order that is needed, until Jesus returns. God has been and is now using the USA and other nations for that purpose.
When nations and their governments use the resources – including grace – that God gives them to establish and maintain God’s order, in accordance wth God’s will, then that nation is belessed by God. However, Biblical and other sources of history remind us that, over the past 4,000 years, nations and empires that might have been blessed by God were not.
The problem with those nations, and with some nations today, is that they asked God to bless them, but they didn’t know what it meant to be a nation blessed by God. They thought that to be blessed by God meant to have prosperity, security, power, and control. They refused to hear that God expected them to use all these good things to serve God’s purposes. which in the end would be good for them and their neighbors. They determined to use these resources God had given them to acquire even more of the same, at the expense of, instead of in support of, their neighbors.
Goid has blessed this nation over the past 500 years, and continues to do so. For now, I believe God is reminding us to be careful about how we use statements like”God Bless America”, “In God We Trust”, and “One nation, under God”. That we should not use them merely as expressions of pride in our nation, but then fail to live as though we really do trust in God, or as one nation under God, without accepting the awesome responsibility that comes when God does bless America. If we misuse these words, putting the focus on America instead of God, our destiny will be to become just one more nation which lost God’s belessing.
God is reminding us that when we say “in God We Trust” we need to live as thought we really do trust him, When we say “one nation, under God”, we need to live as though we really believe God is in control. When we sing or display the words God Bless America, it should be with the Biblical understanding that God will give us everything we need- both the resources and the awesome rewponsibilty – that goes with being the nation which God has chosen to speak and act in his name before the world. God is reminding us that if we do that, we will continue to be a nation blessed by God, and God will continue as a blessing to the world. May God always bless America.
Grace and peace, Ray
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Patty Perez and Ray Gough
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