Daniel Roberts did a lot in his 66 years (1841 – 1907). He was an Episcopal priest. He was also a private in the Civil War, a president of the New Hampshire historical society, a chaplain of the Grand Army of the Republic, and a member of the Knights Templar. In other words, he was an active member of the church and an active citizen of the United States.
Maybe this is where his one hymn might have something to say to those of us who also have a foot in both worlds. I am a Christian, born and bred. I am an American, born and bred. If I wrote a hymn that reflected both identities… would it sound anything like this?
Well – probably not. I’m not a musician, and I don’t have much in common with this man from the 19th century. But this week I have more in common with Daniel Roberts than on any other week of the year. It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and this same holiday was the occasion for Roberts to write “God of the Ages” (except for Roberts it was a sweet centennial, back in 1876).
So let’s take a look at this hymn. 142 years later, does it tell us anything about being a Christian and an American?
God of the ages, whose almighty hand
leads forth in beauty all the starry band
of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,
our grateful songs before thy throne arise.
As someone who’s fond of backpacking and snowboarding and the out-of-doors in general, I like this first verse. It tells me that God has always been our God – and we see evidence of God’s handiwork in the starry night sky. So we praise God!
Thy love divine hath led us in the past;
in this free land with thee our lot is cast;
be thou our ruler, guardian, guide, and stay,
thy Word our law, thy paths our chosen way.
God got us here to this land where we’re free. But there’s a funny thing about the gift of freedom: if we’re really free, it can leave us wandering and in need for direction. So we ask God to guide us, as God has before – to show us the Way.
From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence,
be thy strong arm our ever sure defense;
thy true religion in our hearts increase;
thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.
Now this one is interesting.
Roberts asks God to protect America from war and pestilence – to be America’s “strong arm.” Yet we’ve not been free of war since 1876: the Spanish-American War (1898), WWI (1914-1918), WWII (1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1960-1975), the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (2001, 2003), just to name the major ones. Neither have we been immune to pestilence: there’s been things like Tyhoid Mary (1906-1907), Spanish flu (1918), diphtheria (1921-1925), polio (peaking from 1916-1955), and currently, an opioid epidemic.
Apparently Roberts’ musical prayer fell on deaf ears. God has not protected us from war or pestilence.
But what has been true in the past 142 years was also true in the first 100 years of our country’s existence. When Roberts wrote “God of the Ages” there had already been the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1946-1848), and the Civil War (1861-1865). And there had already been yellow fever (1793), scarlet fever (starting in 1858), and cholera (three waves between 1832 and 1866).
Which begs the question: Why was Roberts praying for something God obviously wasn’t giving?
Well – why do any of us?
We pray for loved ones to be healed, income to be secured, relationships to be reconciled. We pray for peace – impossible but much-needed peace – and it never comes. Yet we keep praying.
Are we dense? Are we not taking the hint? Should we stop praying?
No. No. No.
In the same stanza, Roberts asks for God to increase the “true religion,” to nourish us with God’s goodness. It’s as though Roberts acknowledges that God is not a cosmic vending machine, where we insert prayers and receive the selected answer from slot A-5. It doesn’t work like that – not for us as individuals and not for us as a country. Sometimes I know exactly why: because out of ignorance of selfishness (or both) we pray for things that would ultimately be bad for us. But other times, I don’t know why. Why not keep us from war and pestilence, God? I don’t know.
But we keep turning to God, and we keep asking anyway. Jesus’ teaching on prayer reinforces that this isn’t annoying God – just the opposite, God encourages it. We’re to pray to God like a neighbor nagging in the middle of the night to borrow some bread. We keep at it, until our prayer is answered… or we realize that our prayer needs to be changed.
This is how Roberts prayed for America. And this is how we should, too.
When we look at our country, we might be tempted to throw our hands up in desperation… and throw in the towel as far as prayer is concerned. We’re too divided for reconciliation; too addicted for healing; too poor to have enough; too bloodthirsty for peace. Our problems are too complicated for resolution. Why bother praying for things that never seem to come?
We pray because we’re Christian, and because we’re American. Our faith gives us hope.
As we celebrate Independence Day this week, let’s commit ourselves to pray for our country every day. Pray for ideals that seem impossible, like peace and justice and true freedom for all. And if you lack the words on your own, use Roberts’:
Refresh thy people on their toilsome way;
lead us from night to never-ending day;
fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
and glory, laud, and praise be ever thine.