I’m sitting in our flat here in the UK. It’s a dreary morning. The mist hangs on the windows. I watch our three kids eat their breakfast. I’m thinking of William Stacy, someone like my fourth great uncle in 1775.
When he heard about the British at Concord he grabbed his commission from the Crown. Rushing to the town square where a crowd had gathered, he stood up. Eyes on him, he tore up his commission. His words broke the silence, “I don’t know about you but I will not serve a King who murders his own countrymen.” He formed a Revolutionary militia on the spot.
I’m wondering what William Stacy would say to me, living in the land he fought to leave. I look again to my kids, two with light skin, one with dark skin. Bound by blood and the bond of word & deed. Like the Avett Brothers sang, “there is nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.” We’ve sung this song as a family.
But today, I’m thinking about the song they’ll sing as Americans. They’re over there across from me, just eating their breakfast in the UK. For the first time, I don’t wonder if they’ll be asking me why we sang patriotic songs instead of Jesus songs at church.
When Jesus’ Kingdom comes, when God’s will is completely done on earth as it is in heaven, will it look like the United States of America? I can’t imagine it will.
I want these kids to hear the song of heaven louder than the song of America. The one God’s people have always struggled to sing. “How” they asked “can we sing the Lord’s song in a forgeign land?” (Psalm 137.4) I never want the song of America to drown out the song of heaven in their lungs. Even if the song of heaven is harder to sing.
What of “America the Beautiful”? America is not just beautiful, it is also a burden. How could it be anything else? Here in the UK, I can look from same side of the ocean as my ancestors. Here, I’m confronted with the truth that some crossed—by force— this same sea not with hopes of freedom, but with horror. How can we sing of a beauty “from sea to shining sea” without hearing the dirge sung from those trampled in the race to connect the American coasts?
And yet, everywhere I turn in Britain I see memorials to American dead. These too have sung a song. Just as much a part of the American symphony as the old spirituals. The burden of America is to hear the full symphony, the major and minor notes. The burden is to face this music for ourselves, and write the next line or two.
I look at my kids again. Americans, all of them. Part of the generational American symphony. They, like me, are caught up in this great experiment of song. One that seems to hang on our collective ability to hear all the songs of our past, and tune to a vision of a better future. But I hope they see from me a song sung before 1776, a song that will be sung well after the American coda.
And just maybe, with them singing that song of heaven, they won’t be captive to an American song. Maybe then they’ll be able to write something beautiful for America and the world in their day. Precisely because they learned to hear and sing the song of heaven, first.