Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
July 9, 2017
When God Sheds His Grace
While none of us can sing “America the Beautiful” quite like Ray Charles sings it, most of us enjoy singing this popular national hymn. Katherine Lee Bates wrote the song in 1893. Her inspiration was the view of America from Pike’s Peak in Colorado. It was there, she said, that “the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”
Each verse concludes with a prayer or an appeal to God, the most memorable of which is “America! America! God shed his grace on thee.” When we immerse ourselves in the grace of God, good things happen to us. Bates mentions in her hymn blessings that God’s grace can provide us.
One of those blessings is brotherhood: “And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!” When God sheds his grace on us, we value brotherhood but God does not thrust it upon us. True brotherhood is an achievement and we can only achieve it by loving and respecting others, especially those who disagree with our values and opinions.
Sad to say, we have a long way to go in becoming a true brotherhood as a nation. There is too much hatred, ridicule and ugly name-calling among us. Too many liberals and conservatives hate each other. Republicans and Democrats are seldom brothers working together. Though we cannot legislate kindness and respect for others, we can work to overcome the hatred that exists. We can encourage and demonstrate respect for those with whom we disagree.
Christians have no choice in the matter. While the President is the Commander-in-Chief of our nation, we who follow Christ have another Commander-in-Chief of a higher rank, Jesus Christ our Lord. And we are under orders, this order especially: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:12). Jesus does not allow us the option of hating people whose opinions on the issues of the day are different from our own.
Saint Paul gives us another insight about what God expects of us: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).
My brothers and sisters, let us who follow Christ resolve to set an example in our own community by refusing to resort to hatred, insults, name-calling and dissension. Let us resolve to love and respect those who have different opinions about the values we cherish. Prove that you value brotherhood by doing your part to reduce the hatred and ill will that exists in America today. When you feel anger and disgust rising up from what some people say, let this be a signal to pray that God will help you resist hatred and name-calling. You have the privilege of being a Peacemaker.
A second blessing provided by God’s grace is love of country. In the second verse of the song, we sing “O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.” Our veterans, especially those who died defending our nation, are people who loved their country “more than self.”
I am embarrassed and ashamed when I see NFL players refuse to stand and honor the American flag. I think of the thousands of our military whose coffins have been draped with an American flag as their bodies were returned home for grieving families to bury. The least I can do to show my gratitude to those heroes is to honor the flag for which they died. Surely, when we reflect on the many ways God has shed his grace on our nation, we will be moved to love our country.
I love the story Senator John McCain has shared about Mike Christian, a Naval officer from Alabama who was a fellow prisoner with McCain during the five and half years that McCain was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Using a bamboo needle, handkerchiefs and pieces of clothing, Mike made an American flag and sewed it on the inside of his shirt. Every afternoon, before they had a bowl of soup, McCain said, “we would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall of the cell and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance.” One day the guards discovered Mike’s flag, destroyed it and beat Mike severely for two hours in front of the other prisoners. After Mike was returned to the cell, and the excitement had died down, McCain looked in the corner of the room and saw in the dim light Mike with a piece of red cloth and another bamboo needle, and though his eyes were almost shut from his beating, he was making another American flag. Remember that scene the next time you get to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance.
While it is a noble thing to love our country, those who follow Christ will remember that we are not only American citizens, we are also citizens of heaven. This troubled world “is not our final home.” We are bound for the Promised Land! I love to sing, “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar, for the Father waits over the way to prepare us a dwelling place there. In the sweet, by and by….” While we love our country, and want it to set an example to the world that we are a caring, peace-loving nation that values human life, we can rejoice in the vision Saint Paul gives us: For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:10).
My walking stick reminds me that my body is not what it used to be. As my body continues to weaken I thank God for his promise of a new body with which I will one day “walk in Jerusalem just like John!”
Recently my friend David Housel from Auburn wrote about a poignant phrase in Bates’ hymn: “thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” David recalled the emotional moment when Dan Rather, still observing the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, said words which David said he wished Rather had not said: “It is evident that we can no longer count on the width of oceans to protect us from our enemies as it has throughout our history. War has come to our shores, to our homeland. We know now that we are vulnerable as we’ve never been before. We’ll never be able to sing ‘America the Beautiful’ the same way again… not that part about ‘alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears…We can’t say that anymore.” Dan Rather fought back tears as he spoke. David said last Sunday he had to stop singing when the crowd as his church got to that phrase about “undimmed by human tears.”
Tears are a part of the human journey. We may shout and shine and have a time now and then, but sooner or later all of us come to those moments when we are brought to our knees by some tragedy and we cannot stop the flow of tears. While the loss of loved ones will bring us to tears, the awareness of our sinfulness can also break us down.
This earthly life is so brief. Death is just ahead for all of us no matter our age. Where will we be after death? The Bible warns us that “the wages of sin is death,” and after death my sins can leave me with “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” suffering in outer darkness – unless I have received the free gift of salvation by trusting Christ! So when God sheds his grace on us, we realize that we can take our tears to Jesus who will exchange them for a double portion of his joy. That is God’s remedy when our eyes are dimmed with tears.
I will mention one more blessing that flows from God’s grace: the mending of our flaws. Katherine Bates includes this appeal: “God mend thine every flaw.” She is asking God to mend our nation’s flaws. But the nation’s flaws are our flaws, so we need to make it personal: God, mend my every flaw. God delights to have us pray that prayer for that is the mission of his Son: to forgive our sins and mend our flaws. That is what Jesus has been doing for two thousand years – loving each of us in spite of our sins, mending our flaws and giving us a fresh start to live a meaningful life.
So thank you Katherine Bates for the gift of “America the Beautiful” and for reminding us that wonderful things happen when God sheds his grace on us! + + +