I was beginning my junior year at Lamar University in 1976 when July 4th marked the bi-centennial of the United States of America. I remember all the celebrations and parades, the flotilla of ships in the inter-coastal canal three blocks from my apartment in Port Arthur, Texas, and the red, white, and blue bunting, signs, and decorations that covered everything. That evening they had a huge fireworks display over the water, patriotic songs booming for all to hear with the staccato popping and rumbling of the pyrotechnics ripping through the atmosphere. Everyone waved a little American flag, men grew beards for some reason, and patriotism was the soup du jour.
When it was all over I went home I remember being troubled about a lack of the zeal that I thought I should be experiencing.
Thirty four years later I still wrestle with that lack of zeal, an anemic patriotism that haunts me and, frankly, makes me feel guilty.
I've wondered if it is because I did not serve in the military. I turned 18 at the end of 1973, after a cease fire was agreed upon, the Vietnam draft ended, and U.S. troops were pulled out. On Veterans Day in my church we always recognize the men and women who served our Nation, and with pride they stand to a rousing applause by our congregation. I'm humbled by the stories they tell of being a mere teenager, jumping into the dark night by parachute on D-Day, flying the Burma Hump, or eating sand as they crawled the Pacific beaches. I recall a Junior High history teacher telling us of swimming in the burning oil at Pearl Harbor and of a church member's memories of manning a gun on a helicopter over the rice patties of Vietnam.
The nearest thing to such an experience in my life is answering the call to jury duty.
It is certainly not a heritage issue for me. We are all but certain Jacob Idom served in the Continental Army and military records show that my family served in every war since. My father was stationed at Hot Springs, Arkansas between World War II and Korea, trained in artillery and John Philip Sousa. He played the trumpet and saxophone in the Army band, and moonlighted at night for parties in the Officer's club. He said he played Taps at over 100 military funerals in his lifetime.
I know what my problem is. My lack of patriotism comes from a different citizenship than being American.
I have a loyalty deeper than Old Glory waving in the Baltimore harbor, deeper than the "rockets' red glare," deeper still than "We the people."
My patriotism is ultimately to the cross and my citizenship is in a creed that is even more sacred to me than the Pledge of Allegiance. From the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in the Holy catholic church," that is, the church universal. My patriotism, if it may be called such, is to the Body of Christ first and foremost. From that steeple I view both my patriotism and my love of country, but not limited to my country. My patriotism is not geographic, but includes all countries, all lands and homes and governments wherein any brother or any sister lifts first the cross of Christ as their symbol.
Am I an unworthy citizen, an ungrateful American, benefiting from the patriotism and duty of others? Yes, I am in many ways. But I am also a proud citizen, one who prays for and celebrates in dignity the sacrifices and service of the many who paved the way for my liberty. I vote, I pay my taxes, I respect my neighbor, and I stand when the flag enters. But, I am not better, not more deserving, not more blessed than any other child of any other country. Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's is not difficult, for the ultimate rendering is unto God for me.
There is a great hymn written by Lloyd Stone in 1934 entitled, This Is My Song. I find one stanza hauntingly reflective of my patriotism.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is. But by the grace of God, it is a heart that is not bound by nationalism, but by a sacred shrine that transcends being American. And therein I find a sense of joy in celebrating my Independence Day while praying for the Independence Day of Grace for all others.