The Alabaster City

I’ve always thought our national anthem should be “America the Beautiful”.  It captures so much of what America is on her best days.  (And it is easy to sing!). It pictures the unparalleled geographical variety of this vast country, much of which Bill and I as traveling troubadours have been privileged to experience.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Historically, this has been a nation formed from vast migrations of peoples from all over the world, yet whatever our countries of origin, there is a corresponding terrain in America to make us feel at home. Rugged coastlines? They are here in both our northeastern and northwestern states.  Vast plains covered with miles of golden grains and grasses?  The belly of America is the breadbasket of the world.  Parched arid deserts?  Ah, yes, we have those, too, stretching for miles across the badlands with shifting sands hot enough to scorch the toughest of the brave.  There are the painted deserts and the red rocks, rocks bigger than a cathedral, but looking more like stacked giant loaves of baked bread.  Did your family immigrate from the high mountains? There are in America the great Rockies with peaks to take your breath away or the mist-shrouded Smokies covered with forests so green and lush even artists never tire of trying to capture their mystery and nuances of color as the seasons change.

Photo by Lucas Finley

Photo by Lucas Finley

Did your ancestors make their living from the sea?  The Great Lakes are seas with—can you believe it?—fresh water fed by deep springs; great boats can sail from “sea” to “sea”.  And what of those warm countries where magnolias perfume the night air, and giant pines drop pine cones as big as your head, where peaches and sweet apricots fall in juicy, golden pools and where oranges and grapefruit drop in your own back yard?  We just call that the South.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

So this song captures the endless variety of a great land “from sea to shining sea.” But it captures much more than a welcoming terrain and breathtaking vistas.  It captures the character of people who have endured, suffered, and persisted in believing that there must always be a cause worth dying for.  While admitting that our country has not always been noble and admirable, we have sought to forgive each other our short comings and have aspired to higher goals and better character.  We have chosen to never give up even on ourselves.

The song encourages us, when we are too reactionary and sometimes downright vindictive, to pray for more self-control and to ask God for the character to show mercy instead of revenge.

Oh, beautiful for patriot dreams that see beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.

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If we who love our great land lose our vision, our drive to keep believing that there is a dream out there for a more perfect union and an ideal that could become a reality, we will slide into the oblivion of lost nations and forgotten people.  If we accept more and more as the norm, filthy streets, polluted waters, crumbling infrastructure, and children crying in the night because there is no one sober or sane enough to feed them, we will quit singing any national anthems or respecting any song of freedom.  If through the darkness we stop pressing toward the goal of “alabaster cities” that gleam in the dawn of a new day, “undimmed by human tears”, we will be destined to disintegrate into dust and end with a whimper.  If violence replaces graciousness, if anger eclipses mercy, if rancor drowns out laughter and misery extinguishes the flame of hope, there will be no nation and, eventually no such thing as beauty or aspirations.

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It is we who belong to another Kingdom, who are called to be light in the darkness,  yeast in the loaf, salt for preserving and bringing out the delicious savor—it is we who must daily lift our nation’s aspirations to  a better city, a new standard, a more worthy goal. 

Until this nation has a new birth of freedom, we must hold high a more holy model and work to realize a more compassionate community by living—each of us every day—in a way that convinces the desperate that at least in our corner of the world God’s Kingdom can come on earth as it is in heaven.

America the Beautiful

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 they 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

Katharine Lee Bates

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