Contemplating America the Beautiful After 25 Years in the Former USSR and in the Light of Psalm 19

 Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, by George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) embodies some of the essence of America the Beautiful.

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, by George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) embodies some of the essence of America the Beautiful.

Happy July 4th! We at SRS want to thank you for your generous prayers and support of our church planting movement throughout the former Soviet Union. This blog is part of my July 3rd sermon at Sherwood Shores Chapel, on Lake Texoma, Texas. 

One of the greatest privileges I have as I travel and preach in churches in the USA (I have now preached and shared the ministry in over 100, counting Canada) is to let American believers know that we have a lot to be thankful to God for and that we are not as bad off as many American Christians think we are.    

I would like to continue my ministry to this beloved country today by sharing with you what specifically my living 25 years abroad has made me thankful for. 

And one song that I began singing in 1964 every week in public school summarizes right well what I am thankful for as an American.  That song is America the Beautiful.

The words are:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining
sea!

  Katherine Lee Bates, authoress of  America the Beautiful  , 1859-1929

Katherine Lee Bates, authoress of America the Beautiful , 1859-1929

As Katherine Bates, first of all, I am thankful for the amazing physical beauty of the United States.  

In 1893, Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College in the North East and took a train trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and she wrote them down upon returning to her hotel room.

What impresses Russians the most when they come to Texas is how big the sky is, and how awe inspiring Texas clouds are, and sometimes terrifying. Texans are more accountable to God to appreciate Psalm 19 than Russians from St. Petersburg, where we have 290 overcast days a year (75 sunny). After 25 years of darkness I love the sun in Texas, even when it's hot.

The Bible also tells us to pay attention to God’s creation around us. Psalm 19:1-6 for instance reads:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

 Albert Bierstadt,  Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains ,  California,  1868 captures more dramatically the landscape that Catherine Bates praises in  America the Beautiful.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868 captures more dramatically the landscape that Catherine Bates praises in America the Beautiful.

Secondly, we need to celebrate the Biblical roots of the moral vision for America in America the Beautiful.

I believe what Miss Bates wanted us to see in her hymn was that America’s physical beauty should call us to moral beauty. This is what she means, perhaps, by and crown thy good with brotherhood. And moral beauty is possible only through our souls being confirmed in self-control, our liberty in law, with all success nobleness, and every gain divine. The author rooted her meditation in the moral path of the feet of stern Pilgrims. The Pilgrims' basis for everything was the law of God in the Bible. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law, did not mean natural law or man-made laws, but God’s law, the Bible. In 1784 most New England children learned their ABC’s by reading the New England Primer below.

For most of our founding fathers, and the Pilgrims, the Bible was meant to be and was our lingua franca, our common American tongue. They believed Psalm 19:7-11:

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.

This approach is why George Washington took the oath of office as our first President by swearing on the Bible. He understood that all of man’s laws, including our US Constitution, must be governed by and based on God’s higher law, if they are to have any real authority, and lead the nation to true righteousness. 

One area of self-control and law we as Americans still enjoy due to God’s grace and our forefather’s vision and faithfulness to that vision for America is honesty in business and government.  

Our America is viewed as a land of opportunity based mainly on this remnant of our Puritan heritage. We do not believe in authorities stealing from the people. This is one of the main reasons why between 22 and 42 million immigrants were living here in 2015.  

At http://www.worldaudit.org/corruption.htm we see that the USA is rated close to the top for the least corrupt and close to the top for the most free nations in the world. Denmark gets a 1 for least corrupt, and 1 for most free. The USA is 14 and 14.  Mexico gets an 83 and a 68, but Russia gets a whopping 105 and 129.  North Korea ranks a 149 and a 150, and is the worst ranked in the world. This means that sadly Russia is 7 times more corrupt than the USA, and 8 times less free.

Realize, there is a reason that as more people have immigrated to the USA as have immigrated to all the other first world countries combined.  It is because here they believe they will have an opportunity to reach their potential in life.  And that is primarily because we as a people still believe in honesty. And this honesty was instilled in us through our forefathers by the law of God in places like Leviticus 19:11, You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.

In this area God has shed His grace on us, brethren, and this one thing completely changes how you experience life on a daily basis.  It makes you smile a lot more than people do from countries that do not practice such justice.

 Me and my grandson from Russia, Zachary Lewisovich Purcell smiling yesterday.

Me and my grandson from Russia, Zachary Lewisovich Purcell smiling yesterday.

Thirdly, Katherine Bates rests everything that makes America a unique nation on God’s grace.  

To this day when I sing the words, God shed His grace on thee, I hear “God has shed is grace on thee.”  Some then and now will say that she is not talking about Biblical grace through Christ, but simply civil grace through some vague divinity.  But all of her language points to the goodness of the God of the Bible, and the grace our Pilgrim forefathers believed in.  

And what is that grace?  Why do we have the strength to confirm our liberty in law, and have every gain be divine?  Psalm 19 reveals the source of God’s grace. 

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.

The whole word of God, law of Moses and the New Testament are the only sources of God’s transforming grace made available to us in time and history through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christ alone liberates from sin.

But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:22-23)

Again, when our American forefathers spoke of liberty, they meant freedom from tyranny that kept us from being able to freely serve God according to the Bible. This is the kind of freedom many of the countries of the world do not have, including Russia, at least not anything like the freedom we have in America. They meant what Galatians 5:1 and 13 mean:

For freedom Christ has set us free…for you were called to freedom brethren, but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another

This 4th of July I want to challenge you to view America through the eyes of an Indian Christian named Vishal Mangalwadi. His book is entitled The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization. It will make you more grateful to be an American than you have ever been. (You may purchase it for $7.99 on Kindle at Amazon)

In summary, America the Beautiful leads us to the great paradox of the God of Scripture mentioned in Rom. 11:22, note then the kindness and severity of God!

The God of the founders of Amerca was more holy than we take Him to be, and is therefore more merciful than we can understand Him to be. This leads us to the final section of Psalm 19 which today must be our prayer for our beloved nation:

Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me [and America] from secret faults. Keep back thy servant [and America] also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me or her: then shall I [and America] be upright, and I and she shall be innocent from the great transgression. Let the words of [the American] mouth and the meditation of [the American] heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Without the humility and brokenness before God that Catherine Bates calls us to, as does this Psalm, we are lost as a people and a nation.  

One visitor to America 200 years ago laid the responsibility for rightly using God’s amazing grace to us on the Church.  He wrote: 

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Amen.

Blake Purcell