America The Beautiful // Love and Longing

I love America.

I suppose it almost goes without saying, since I’ve lived here all my life and have little to compare it to, outside of occasional visits elsewhere. But I really do. I’ve seen a good deal of this land, and I think it is winsome and beautiful and routinely spectacular. The beauty can sneak up on you. Several years ago, we visited some friends who live on a farm in the backcountry of Iowa. We were there on a summer night and the sun was setting. The cicadas sang their song in the trees, the wind danced on the tops of the cornstalks, and fireflies lit up the night. We cooked s’mores and watched our kids play and I suddenly the iconic line from Field of Dreams came rushing at me—“Is this heaven?” asks John Kinsella to his son, Ray. “It’s Iowa,” Ray replies.

It can do that to you, this place. There’s something enchanting about it. The mountains of Colorado (my backyard) and the great wide vistas of Utah and the forests and rivers and lakes of the upper Midwest—say nothing of the views along the Pennsylvania turnpike or the colors of a Virginia Fall or the way the sunlight shimmers on the water as day ebbs in California. I’m grateful to live here. Some of God’s best work, I’m convinced.

And the people. My goodness, the people. My family hails from central Wisconsin and most of them still live there, which means I’ve got a big old soft spot in my heart for long vowels and hard work and five-o’clock-sharp dinners and the utterly charming need to explain how you never pay full price for anything, toothpaste included. Wisconsinites. Lord, love em. Beautiful people. I’ve lived in Oklahoma and Chicago and fell in love with those folks too. Chicagoans: self-confident, gritty midwestern folk with a metropolitan flair. That’s a tough balance to strike, and they do it as well as any. And Oklahoma. Southern hospitality is a real thing, let me tell you. Some of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet, to whom I’m eternally indebted for letting me borrow “y’all”—as fine a term of collective address as you’re likely to find in this or any language; only surpassed, in my opinion, by “all y’all”, which is the linguistic equivalent of biscuits and gravy: not strictly necessary, but doesn’t it just feel right? My southern friends are on to something.

Everywhere I’ve lived I’ve found people to appreciate and admire, and whenever I travel, I find myself more and more grateful for the tapestry of culture and custom and history that is our country. It’s a beautiful place. I give thanks for it.

My gratitude for it has grown as I’ve gotten older. I’ve also become, I think, more aware of its flaws. Don’t worry–I’m not conjuring the old political fights here. Liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, who’s right and who’s wrong. I am, I’ll admit, dreadfully weary of those conversations, bored stiff by the lightless heat they tend to produce. Nor am I trotting out the now well-worn ivory-tower theological chatter that positions America as yet one more instantiation of the biblical idea of “empire” and critiques it as such. It’s not that it’s wrong—surely America as a global superpower, like all superpowers past and present, falls under the judgment and justice of the Almighty—it’s just that such talk often feels like a trojan horse smuggling in cynicism, contempt cloaked in theological garb. I did it for a bit there, Lord forgive me. But can’t do it anymore. My heart won’t let me.

Partially I think my heart forbids all of that because it’s too easy. Too predictable. All the moves have already been played. We know how this game ends and the thought of playing it again seems like a poor use of time and energy, at the very least. But the greater reason I think has to do with the nature of such abstracting. If we’re not careful, it’ll blind us to the real thing, marring not only our perception of it but our contact with it as well.

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Lately I’ve found myself reading Mary Oliver, one of our finest modern poets. I read her in the mornings while sitting on my porch, usually following a time of prayer, after my eyes and heart have opened just a little to the sheer “thereness” and wonder of it all—that God is real and that I am alive and that each day I am born again into a thousand glories that do not depend on me but, all the same, welcome my presence. Mary helps me open my eyes a little wider. I read lines like this…

Hello, sun in my face.

Hello, you who make the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the

miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light–

good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.

(Why I Wake Early, Mary Oliver)

…and something too large for words steals in. I realize again that grace is everywhere, in all things, the very foundation of being. That’s the power of the poets. They help us become aware of the givenness of the created order—of rocks and trees and skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought—teaching us to apprehend it all not with abstraction and still less with antagonism but with appreciation, with humility, with awe—with love. We come awake to how precious and sacred and fragile life is, how delicate and easily disturbed the beauty of peace is, and how we depend on it for our very survival.

The encounter with this utter and gratuitous “thereness”–if you’ll let it–over time works a deep change in your perception of things. It does mine, anyway. Over the years I’ve grown, I think, in my sense of and respect for the mystery of being human and what we need to live and thrive—and I pray accordingly. I walk the neighborhood late at night or early in the morning and, with the perception of glory still radiant in my soul, bathe each home in prayer. Simple prayers, biblical ones. That the Spirit would fall with tenderness. That the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. That bitterness and hostility, greed and ambition—those things that our fathers and mothers of old told us would plunge our lives into ruin and oblivion—would be far from each home. That the light of Christ would light up the darkness, making each family a cradle of the undiminished life of God.

Before long, my prayers fan out into city and region and finally, country. As I think about the people spread out across our great land, my heart swells. America the Beautiful—old friend. I pray prayers of gratitude for what it is and how it also has cradled life and for the many ways in which it has championed great things. I pray for flourishing. That the righteousness, peace, and joy that are only possible in what the ancient Hebrews called the Ruach Adonai—the Breath of the Lord—would shine wherever people together live and move and have their being. I pray for the preservation of what is right and best, what is unique and irreplaceable, in each of the many cultures that make up this country, and that the Lord in his mercy would teach us to fall in love with what is good and true and beautiful, planting in our collective soul a deep thirst for wisdom and an affection for one another and strengthening in us a rock-solid determination to live consistently with the old virtues—justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude.

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I pray these things not because I have an ideological axe to grind but because I think they are right, because they accord with the givenness of our nature, and because I have seen that in their absence, humanity is not only harmed, but gravely threatened. And that is why, as often as not, along with my prayers of great gratitude and blessing comes incredible heartache, gushing up from the same fount. Because life is delicate and sacred and given straight from the hand of the Creator, I deplore the serial mistreatment of humanity that we have proven ourselves only too capable of. Because deep, hard-earned wisdom is essential to our flourishing, I deplore the fascination with the instant and the trivial that is becoming characteristic of our culture. Because, as the founder of Hasidic Judaism once said, forgetfulness leads to exile, I deplore the ways in which we disregard our fathers and mothers whose voices span the millennia and consistently opt for an arrogant and all-too-glib “now-we-know-ism” which history will certainly weigh in the scales and find wanting.

These things hurt us. They hurt all of us. They should grieve us. And they should lead us to prayer. Because I love this place, I pray for Pentecost. I’m not talking about an upsurge in religious enthusiasm primarily here—although I think the awakening of holy affection is good as far as it goes—but for, well, fire. The Holy Fire of God that cleanses and heals as it scorches and burns. I pray that constantly. And I don’t pray it upon certain groups, mind you. Dear God, how easy it is to turn righteous prayers to unrighteous ends—like, say, the desire to see the voices we disagree with silenced. Let it be far from us. No, when I pray for Pentecost, I pray for it upon all of us, that merciful God would burn out of us all that warps and wounds our life together.

I don’t pray that because I have any delusion that America is capable of a return to some kind of original innocence—our history, after all, contains as much ugliness as beauty. Some things are better left behind us. Still less do I pray it because I think that America can become the city of God. It can’t. Nothing built of human hands can.

I pray it because Jesus taught us to pray for the hallowing of the Divine Name and for the coming of the kingdom and for the accomplishment of the Divine will, as surely on earth as in heaven. Because he taught us to pray that there would be enough bread for everyone to eat and that our relationships with each other would be marked by generosity and forgiveness, untainted by bitterness and hostility, and that we would not succumb to the power of the Evil One who befouls our minds with greed and murder and torment and who deludes into believing that we are enemies of one another and of God himself when in fact Christ has made peace between us by hold blood. Mercy, deliver us.

I pray those prayers over our country—like I pray them over my family and my church—because the Lord gave them, and I cannot do better than he. And because I think that in praying them there is hope that like the man laying by the pool of Bethesda, my sin-sick old friend America may yet rise up and walk, and that the old pledge of liberty and justice for all—unrealizable, I grant—might more deeply shape our common life, a promise approximated but never attained, an ongoing moral effort that serves, however faintly, as a signpost of the Kingdom yet to come—the Kingdom to which this kingdom, like every earthly kingdom, like every human being, will finally answer.

Yeah, she’s flawed. I’ll give ya that. I see it, too. But my goodness, she’s beautiful. And this Independence Day I’m praying long and deep for her.

Lord, hear it.

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