The other day I tweeted this, and it drew more than the usual number of comments, and I thought I needed to develop it. Here is the tweet.
“Feel uncomfortable at a patriotic worship service? Don’t feel superior if you would also feel uncomfortable at a Fourth of July parade.”
The comments were mostly generated on Facebook, and I later added this to the discussion.
“My point is that many think they are uncomfortable at a patriotic worship service for high and noble theological reasons, when the actual reason is that they are just unpatriotic. I think we should flat out prohibit patriotic worship services, and then go down to the Fourth of July celebration to eat as many hot dogs as we can.”
In discussing this kind of thing, the issues get complicated fast, and so I thought I would try to do a little bit toward untangling them. If you want some additional thoughts, Toby Sumpter has some helpful ones here.
This whole thing is a complicated hierarchical issue, with layers and subtexts, and keep in mind the fact that these thoughts are simply preliminary.
A number of years ago, when George Bush Sr. launched Desert Storm, a dear saint who was leading our singing at the time called an audible and had us sing one of the patriotic hymns that was in our hymnal. The hymnal then was Great Hymns of the Faith, which we used to call Pretty Good Hymns of the Faith. Anyway, he had us sing that song, which caused some consternation in our congregation, as it should have. That was not the time or place for it.
But why? The simple (and simplistic) answer is that it was wrongheaded because it intruded “things American” into “the things of God.” No, the problem was that it did so in the wrong way, not that it did so.
Every time I get into the pulpit, I am bringing something thoroughly American into the worship service. I preach in American English, and I think in American categories. We do have some internationals in our midst, who are of course most welcome, but not enough to change the fundamental cultural “set” of the congregation. The whole thing is as American as all get out.
So why not wave the flag then? The answer is that to do so would be liturgically inept.
The whole worship service is human, but there are plenty of perfectly human and lawful activities that don’t belong there. Let’s start with taking showers, and move on to watching football on television, and so on. So while everything we do in a good worship service is entirely human, not everything that is human belongs there.
Lovemaking is lawful, and yet — despite that look on some worship leaders’ faces — it has no place in worship. A kindergartener’s birthday party is absolutely fine, but the celebratory atmosphere of that kind of party ought not be reproduced in a worship service, particularly not the party hats. A high pep rally before the big game is a lot of fun, and whooping it up while stomping on the bleachers only adds to the experience. But none of these activities are remotely similar to what a worship service should be like. They produce (lawful) affections that are not the affections that a worship service ought to produce. Worship is different. Worship of God is set apart from the rest of our lives. Worship is to be holy.
This is why we should not intrude a patriotic song or segment in a worship service. The issue is not whether the thing is lawful or good. The issue has to do with whether that particular sentiment belongs there. Is this what we came here to do? We are in the presence of the Most High God, and to take another example, we did not come here in order to sing Happy Birthday to somebody during the sharing time. That’s not what this event is. It does not matter if it really is the person’s birthday, or if we all really like him.
So let’s say I were to go to a veteran’s parade and watch elderly men who were young once, and who fought valiantly in destroyers at Midway, or in jungles at Guadalcanal, with mothers and wives and daughters and sons praying for them constantly. I experience a particular feeling of gratitude, that I ought to feel, but which I do not want to feel in a worship service. Why? Because it is not the same thing as worship. One time Nancy and I were in an airport when a company of soldiers came through and got a running ovation all through the terminal. It was appropriate honor, and you would have had to have been a block of ideological word not to feel the sheer goodness of it, but I would rather die than to put something like that in a worship service.
There happens to be an American flag on the wall where we worship, but that is only because we meet in a rented gym. When we have our own building, there will not be an American flag anywhere in it. It will be full of Americans though.
When we do it this way, foreigners can feel most welcome. They do not resent the fact that we approach worship the distinctive way we do because, after all, it was their decision to get on the plane to come here. No one to blame but themselves. But they appreciate the fact that there is no element of the service that excludes them by definition. They can say amen to everything.
So my concerns are liturgical. There are some very American elements in our worship service that do not conflict with the worship we are required offer up. We regularly pray for the president, for the Congress, and for the Supreme Court, praying for our rulers as Scripture instructs. We also include prayers for members of our congregation and community that are in the service. None of this upends the affections that we are supposed to be cultivating in worship (Heb. 12:28), and none of it contradicts the Pentecostal nature of the church around the world. When I am in another country, I expect them to pray for their scoundrels in high office, and I can enter in with that most universal word — amen.
Now let me bring it back to my initial point. There are some who would object to any patriotic elements in a service — and I would happen to agree with them on that point — but they are mistaken in thinking their concerns theological. If they were fully honest with themselves, they would actually discover they are hipsters who are embarrassed by any kind of natural affection that is not ironic, detached, and attempting to be cool. They feel suffocated by any kind of Norman Rockwellery. They think they are above something they are actually beneath. They think we ought not sing Happy Birthday to that guy in the worship service, and they think they have their principles on, but really they just don’t like him, and didn’t want to get him a present.
So set off a pile of fireworks tonight, shouting epithets about the House of Hanover. But by Sunday morning there should be no trace of what you have been up to, except perhaps, depending on how many you set off, a slight whiff of gunpowder.