Cross and Flag

My irascible sometime friend and former work supervisor, Tim, once went ballistic in my presence over the historic fact that U.S. presidents including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and in the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson on various occasions had issued public calls for “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” 

Our flag. “US Flag” by jnn1776 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Tim—alas, now deceased—was a military man. He was quite intelligent, tolerably well-educated, and always in the grip of a steamy anger that was never far from the surface. He had been raised in a Catholic family but in adulthood described himself as “agnostic.” 

He made no quarrel with presidential calls for fasting and prayer. He understood that even in a nation that prohibits “an establishment of Religion,” a leader may give voice to the general religious impulses of the people. But he did not think a chief executive should call for the country to be humiliated.

“Cross” by dino_b is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Tim was a notable narcissist, full of pride in himself and esteeming pride as a general virtue in all cases. He considered humiliation as the one thing to be avoided above all. Therefore, to call for humiliation of the whole nation was tantamount to treason. After all—the British, the Germans, and the Japanese had tried to humiliate us and we had not let them get away with it. Why, then, do it to ourselves?

With more time and more patience, had I been wiser and deeper, I might have helped Tim understand the concept of national humiliation in a larger context. But I did not.

In his sensitivity to that issue, Tim inadvertently put his finger on a key dimension of America’s church-state relationship. If we understand our nation’s affairs to fall within the Providence of a Power who calls each of us to approach life with Christ-like humility, then it seems  proper for all of us, as a body politic, periodically to be humbled. To be reminded, that is, of our proper place in the world under the overarching care of God.

“Humiliation” in this sense may be what Lincoln had in mind when he said, in his Second Inaugural Address,

Abraham Lincoln. “twlncn63” by gvgoebel is licensed under CC PDM 1.0 

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” 

That kind of thinking, I believe, is what Washington, Lincoln, and others meant when they called for national “humiliation.”

Past generations have mostly understood and assumed a close kinship between our lives as Christians and our lives as citizens. Alhough the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has always forbidden the government to prescribe forms of prayer and worship, nobody construed it to prevent Americans from expressing our religious affiliations and sentiments in our public lives.

Under such a general understanding, it seemed perfectly natural to Americans of the mid-twentieth century to salute our national sovereignty by displaying flags in our houses of worship and recognizing national holidays during regular worship services. But expectations and understandings are much different today.

Our pastor—no bomb-throwing activist, she—called our attention to three articles in the current online Alban Weekly dealing with churches’ sometimes uneasy relationship with Independence Day celebrations. She wanted to know what we thought about them. The leading piece, a nine-year-old reflection from Duke University’s Faith & Leadership website, titled “What to do about the 4th,” written by a retired Methodist minister named Ed Moore, mentioned some “local traditions” that he called “affronting.” These were: “an American flag draped over the Lord’s Table, the Pledge of Allegiance included in the liturgy, or the choir expecting to deliver a patriotic anthem.”

I suppose these “local traditions” must exist somewhere in Christendom, or Rev. Moore would not have called them out. But they must be exceeding rare. In all my years I have never seen any of these “affronting” cases included in the worship of any churches I have attended. Using the U.S. flag as a communion cloth or a chancel parament? Such a practice must be abhorrent both to Christians and to patriots (bearing in mind that many of us aspire to be both).

Some patriotic expression in worship space, however, has been a commonplace in most churches since the dim past. It might take the form of red/white/blue floral decorations on July Fourth (a practice Rev. Moore okays, faintly); or the display of the flag somewhere in the worship space; or the singing of a patriotic song such as “America the Beautiful” by the congregation on the Fourth, in place of a regular hymn.

The reason such practices come under the microscope of critical examination now is not that we somehow are better educated than our grandparents about the implications of the Establishment Clause. Rather, it’s because we now live in a society that is markedly less religious than theirs was. I believe we are the poorer for that. But it does not follow that those who still keep the faith must embrace a sharp divorce between that faith and our inner sense of national identity. There can be room for both.

The Christian flag.

In the church where I have been a member for the past forty years, we have never practiced extreme liturgical patriotism. Sometimes we sing a patriotic song or two on national holidays. We used to display a U.S. flag and a “Christian flag” in our sanctuary. We retired those flags a while back; I am not aware of any complaints about that. 

But should we, at some future time, choose to restore flags to our worship space, that would not show that we had sold out our Christian faith to some crypto-fascist conspiracy. It would only signal that fashions, or group preferences, had shifted slightly.

Some wise person once decreed that sleeping dogs ought to be permitted their slumber. Despite any number of learned articles that may be written, already or in the future, I doubt that most American church people feel any great tension between their devotion to Christ and their loyalty to our country.

I’ll bet my combustible friend Tim, if he were here today, would at least agree with that.

What’s So Good About It?

We show up for choir rehearsal fifty minutes before the Good Friday evening service, ready to do our time-hallowed chore.

Our pastor, with a smile, points out something new. In the entry hall, on exactly the corner of wall where your eye would naturally expect it: 

It is astounding. Our Strategic Planning Team has installed signs to assist first-time visitors. They give just the information that visitors have  been needing ever since the church opened its doors!

This sudden case of our old congregation Doing Something Right For a Change, and with only six months’ prior discussion, lifts a corner of my spirits, unexpectedly. Our church has been shrinking for at least thirty years; I have lost hope for its survival beyond the next crisis. But now, this new lettering stands against my creeping despair, stuck boldly on the wall, staking a claim on the Kingdom yet to come. 

When the shock of it subsides, we go ahead and rehearse our music. 

At seven o’clock the service begins. We are thirty-one souls, counting the pastor, the music director, the guest musician, the ten choir members, and two small children. The twenty-nine adults are mostly grayhairs, but there are also a few middle-aged stalwarts and even a college student home for the weekend.

Good Friday Worship

Good Friday is the most somber day in the Christian year. We’ve been remembering the death of Jesus on the cross for two thousand years. There is nothing light or hopeful in it. But we mull it over with God in worship once a year. It’s always pretty much the same.

Albrecht Dürer, Praying Hands.

Our church’s usual Good Friday evening service is a modified “Tenebrae” service. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, amid scripture readings and music. When all the light has been snuffed out, we will go our ways in silence, to wait for Resurrection morning.

This year’s Good Friday music includes five hymns for all to sing: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “What Wondrous Love Is This?”, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  There are two piano solos from our music director, Robert Eversman; and oboe and English horn solos by Claire Workinger.

About the middle of the service, we regulars in the choir sing “Worthy Is the Lamb.” Accompanied expertly by Robert on piano and Claire on oboe, our anthem reaches a solemn grandeur two steps above the potential of our imperfect voices. 

Church members stand in the pulpit and read scripture—familiar words from Matthew, Luke, Isaiah, and John, telling of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake. The pitches, the tempoes, the accents and articulations of their voices are all different, but their seriousness of purpose is all the same. Terry’s old voice wavers and weaves its way through the text, suggesting more truth and light yet to break forth from ancient verses; Becky’s young voice is clear and declarative, grounded in the present, looking forward. 

When Jesus has once again been crucified and prepared for burial, we turn out the remaining lights and go home. 

Visible Saints

From my seat in the choir I have watched and listened to my friends in faith. Most are people I have known for years or decades, in holy covenant with the Lord. Two or three are more recent friends, but as a general thing I have many years’ accumulated exposure to the diverse outlooks of our members. 

Their approaches to religion—the private religion deep in one’s heart—are quite varied. Some are conventionally pious, all the way through (yes, that really is who they are). Some are imbued with a secular outlook that largely conceals the “religion” or “spirituality” living in their souls. There are many blends of the sacred and the profane. Some members may be just confused; others, awestruck observers of life. 

What strikes me tonight is their steadiness in attending to the task of worship. Liturgy is said to be “the work of the people” in worshiping God. And so it has been on this night. Each member of this tired, dwindling, cranky, much-loved church—from the freshest/tenderest to the oldest/most battle-hardened—came here to voice a shared agenda of ancient worship, right smack in the midst of all the uncertainty and mayhem of life. Just to do what we have always done, because that’s what we do  . . . because God matters to us.

Thank you, Lord, I hear myself pray—thank you for these people, my friends, who come at your call to worship even in the darkest times. 

However few in number, however poor in spirit, there is something real, authentic, and perpetual—not duplicated elsewhere in our lives—when we gather for worship.

World without end, Amen.