A 4th Prayer

Blind Faith (No. 26, 2017)
Weekly Devotional for June 29, 2017
A 4th Prayer

Few people will be aware that they will be praying over and over
during the upcoming Independence Day/Fourth of July holiday. Fireworks,
cookouts, water sports, and (as usual) shopping special sales will energize
Americans in celebration of the nation’s birthday. According to multiple
national statistical surveys, well less than 40% of America’s citizens will
participate in organized religious activities during the week or extended
weekend. Nevertheless many will pray, some with accompanying sincere
emotion.

The often repeated prayer will be Irving Berlin’s beloved “other
national anthem,” God Bless America. The short, easily singable song will be
sung in worship services and in public gatherings of all kinds from sea to
shining sea! If singers pay attention to the words they heartily intone –
which few ever do – they might recognize that the central phrase, “God bless
America,” sounds like a prayer. How many realize to whom they are praying or
what they are asking for is an open question. But the song was born in the
prayer Irving Berlin heard as a small boy repeatedly from his mother’s lips.

Five year-old Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline) immigrated to
the U.S. with his parents and 5 siblings in 1893 to escape severe
persecution of Jews in Russia. They settled in New York where his father
served as a synagogue cantor. Often young Israel would hear his mother
breathe the prayer, “God bless America,” as she gave thanks for the country
that offered her family freedom from oppression and hope for a better way of
life. Moses Baline, Israel’s father, died in 1901. At age 14 Israel began
working the streets of New York as a “busker,” singing for whatever coins or
cash passersby might give. In 1911 when he published his first song, the
typesetter misspelled his name as “I. Berlin.” Israel thought that “Irving
Berlin” sounded more American and changed his name.

In 1918 Irving Berlin became a naturalized citizen of the U.S.
Shortly afterward he was drafted and stationed at Camp Upton, on Long
Island, New York. He wrote a musical revue to raise spirits and money during
WW-I. One of the songs was cut from the show’s comedic score. Berlin always
saved his partially-written or unused musical creations for later
possibilities, so he put “God Bless America” away in his trunk. Twenty years
later, as Hitler rose to power and WW-II loomed, Berlin wanted to write a
song of peace. After several songs failed to express his intentions he
remembered the song he had packed away. Rising star Kate Smith was looking
for a song of peace for her Armistice Day radio broadcast commemorating the
20th anniversary of the end of WW-I. On November 11, 1938 she sang “God
Bless America” for its first public performance. The song was immediately
embraced by the American people. In subsequent years – especially following
the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – the song has been sung at
sporting events, public gatherings, and many other settings, often
substituting in places where the Star Spangled Banner typically might be
featured.

The nature of “God Bless America” as a prayer is certain from
the introduction Berlin included with the familiar words of the song. Kate
Smith most often sang the introductory words when she performed her
signature anthem. You can hear Kate Smith’s debut performance of “God Bless
America” at the following YouTube link:

The lyrics clearly set the patriotic inspiration of the song and call
for it to be sung as a prayer:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:
God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her Through the night with a light from above;
From the mountains, to the prairies, To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America, my home, sweet home.
God bless America, my home, sweet home
(“God Bless America,” Irving Berlin, 1918, revised 1938)

The words of an immigrant fleeing anti-Semitic persecution, drawing upon his
Jewish mother’s grateful prayer for his adopted country, became one of the
most widely cherished and repeated prayers for God’s blessings and grace in
American culture. Remember, it is a prayer. It is addressed to Almighty God
as a personal expression of gratitude for God’s guidance and goodness.

The phrase, “God bless America” is repeated so often and so
casually in contemporary use that it has lost much of its meaning as a
prayer. It seems sometimes to be little more than an indicator that a
political speech has concluded. But when you hear the song or the phrase
this 4th of July week, remember that it is a prayer. It affirms the truth
from scripture that “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains
me.” (Psalms 54:4 NIV) Rather than presuming upon or haughtily directing
God’s blessing, with attention to the more humble posture of the song’s
introduction we can pray and seek God’s grace. Then we can affirm, “So we
say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can
man do to me?'” (Hebrews 13:6 NIV)

Join multitudes of Americans in fervent, thoughtful prayer this
4th of July. Sing the prayer with gusto, and pray it with a sincerely
grateful heart.

– J. Edward Culpepper

You can receive Blind Faith weekly via e-mail. Either click the
“Subscription” link on this page, or send the message “Subscribe to Blind
Faith” to eculpepper1@comcast.net.