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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Stars and Stripes Forever

On the 4th of July I put on the white golf shirt with the American flags and blue stars on it my family bought for me a few years ago when I was riding on a float in a parade on the big day. I’ve had memorable moments in that shirt. Riding in the parade was a unique experience. Another year I was in a sour mood because I had to travel on business on the 4th of July but I put the shirt on anyway. My mood brightened as the flight attendants and car rental agents and toll takers I met that day unfailingly made comments about my shirt. By dusk I was walking on the Gettysburg battlefield in my shirt and feeling about as American as a person can feel.

Some of my family and friends say that they could never wear a shirt like this one. I have no problem with it. I consider myself a patriot. I love the America I learned about as a schoolboy many years ago, the one whose welcoming lady says to the world “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I learned in school that the secret of America was its great middle class; not many rich, not many poor, most of us solidly in the middle, the power resting in the middle class. In the 4th grade Miss Golden told us that the United States had a government of laws not people, that all people were equal in the sight of the law. I am a son of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” those who survived the Great Depression and fought World War II, and my dad, a combat veteran, was proud of the fact that our country stood up to fight for freedom around the world. My parents taught me that in America all people are equal, that you don’t judge people by their race or their ethnic background or their religion. I loved that America and I still do, and I think that makes me a patriot.

At the same time I am a patriot who sometimes finds himself in a lover’s quarrel with what the nation has become. On my more cynical days I wonder if we are not ready to remodel that welcoming lady, insofar as we are not much interested in welcoming “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Some Americans would like to get rid of those we already have. What used to be the great middle class is shrinking away as a few become richer and richer and many poorer and poorer and more and more power is vested in the hands of the rich. While the notion of being a government of laws rather than people is still appealing, the fact is that some of those in high places in this country seem to believe that the laws that apply to the rest of us do not apply to them. I’m not sure that the founding fathers and mothers would have been fond of the idea of American young people dying around the world to impose our view of how a society ought to be on some other society; or waging that war to defend the interests of the richest among us. And when it comes to not judging people on the basis of race or ethnic background or religion, my old hometown in Iowa was better at that than much of our society is today. We weren’t all Christians there and we weren’t all white skinned, but we were all Iowans, and that was all anybody needed to know.

Nevertheless I still love this nation or the dream of what this nation might be and when the 4th of July comes I put the shirt on and claim my own patriotism, even though there are some who would say that those of us who are locked in this endless lover’s quarrel with what the United States really is, as opposed to what it has always dreamed of being, are not really patriots at all. But I am a patriot, still in love with the dream.

My favorite moment on the 4th of July is the same every year. The band is playing its holiday concert, and as the finale draws near and the fireworks begin to light the night sky, the strains of “Stars and Stripes Forever” float through the air. The drums are going wild while the trumpets and the trombones and the tubas fight with the saxophones and clarinets for attention. And then, all of a sudden, the other instruments step back and the piccolos step forward to play their verse. My eyes always get wet when that happens. For those piccolos: they are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They are the very young and the very old, the homeless and the hungry, the ones who are not yet and the ones who have been forgotten. As the other instruments, the big and the strong and the powerful and the noisy step back, the piccolos step forward and on behalf of the little, the least, the last, the lost and the losers, they claim their share of the American dream, we are here, we are not leaving, we are not giving up, we are America; and my ownership in the American dream is stirred up again, and I am proud to be wearing the white golf shirt with the American flags and blue stars on it and to tell the world that I am a patriot.


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