Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Prayer and a Plan for Our Nation

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our
heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove
ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will.
Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and
pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion;
from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend
our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes
brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue
with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust
the authority of government, that there may be justice and
peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we
may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.
In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness,
and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail;
all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"A Prayer for our Country," BCP p. 820

On the day after our national elections, I offered special prayers and thanksgivings at Morning Prayer, and was drawn to offer the above prayer at the end of the service. This is an old prayer, using old language -- and yet, it is oddly modern and to-the-point today. The election we have just concluded was largely a referendum on what sort of a Union we think we should be. The "Prayer for our Country" reminds us that what many people have said they want to see in a new chapter of American life and history is in many ways simply the living out of the ideals that have always been with us as a nation... but have over recent decades been allowed to atrophy in an atmosphere of toxic partisanship, consumeristic greed, imperialistic swagger, and rampant, selfish individualism. It is this "anti-culture," this diminished view of our ideals that many have said must change.

The Prayer for our Country is not a partisan prayer; neither are the ideals it sets forth. It begins with an admission that we have been given a good land for our heritage. That land comes with a complicated history, one with many sorrows and wrongs, and well as glories and rights. Our awareness of both the great gift we have been given and the history that comes with it requires from us what the prayer states: humility. We are bidden to ask God in our humility to make us a people mindful of the Divine favor and always glad -- not ashamed or grudging or out of obligation, but glad -- to do God's will. 

And what is that will for our nation? The prayer illustrates it, first by positive examples: Honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. This is not a choice between personal or societal morality: it is a requirement that we as individuals and as a nation be about both. Then, the prayer tells us what we must not allow: violence, discord, confusion, pride, arrogance, and "every evil way." Ours must be a nation of reasoned, reflective, and respectful governance and discourse -- personally and societally. 

Beyond this, the prayer calls upon God to defend the liberties we enjoy. This, too, is a call for the members of our society to take the very fact of liberty seriously, and not to erode it through fear, partisanship, ideology, or any mistaken form patriotism. In times of crisis, this is of particular concern.

Then, we ask God to make the ideal of E pluribus unum a reality, re-affirming the delicate balance between the variety of peoples and unity of a People in ways not unlike the doctrine of the Holy Trinity affirms both God's unity and triplicity at once. What this calls upon each of us to sacrifice is something we would do well to ponder, especially in an era of instant communication and winner-takes-all thinking.

The prayer continues by calling upon God to give us that spirit of wisdom which alone will allow us to transcend our own smallness, asking that spirit be given to our elected leaders, to whom a democratic nation must entrust its governance. But the leadership of our nation has that power only, as the prayer reminds us, so that all may have justice, peace, and the capacity (by being obedient to the precepts God has laid down for humanity) to show forth God's praise to all the nations of the earth. In an extraordinary way, our nation -- though not an officially Christian nation -- is called upon by this prayer to be an evangelical nation. We are to show forth God's praise by embodying God's will for humanity in justice and peace. Again, this is not about partisanship, but about the deepest meaning of patriotism... a concern with the true "fatherland" of the Father, the Kingdom of God which is already among us wherever Christians preach, teach, and live out the Gospel.

The prayer concludes with a form of warning: in times of prosperity we must be thankful rather than complacent or arrogant (that is one of the key issues behind this election, it seems), and "in the day of trouble," our confidence in God must not be allowed to falter. Thus, the prayer ends by asking us the question: are we willing as Christians to make our commitment to our shared civil society part of our discipleship, or are we content to let our nation's shared life reflect only our passions and anxieties?

In earlier Prayer Books, the prayers for the State and Civil Authority were much more in evidence than in the current book. In the aftermath of Vietnam, the 1960's, the Civil Rights movement's early struggles and first victories, Watergate, and a general trend to denigrate Government, we have tended to treat the Ship of State as either a kind of show-boat for ideology or a garbage-scow to be used and abused by whomever is in office at the time. It is neither. It is a vessel on which all of us depend. It demands our prayerful attention and our effective stewardship. All the prayers for our national life in the Book of Common Prayer deserve new attention, as does the repair of our civil society in this new day for America. As Christians, we must begin in prayer, where we will, I believe, find out there is a plan -- not a Democratic or a Republican plan, but a Divine Plan. That plan is based on an enduring belief that, as one of the two mottos on the National Seal states: Annuit coeptis: "He [God] approves our undertakings," when we accept our duty to each other and to our nation with the solemnity and high purpose found in this prayer.

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