Life, liberty and the pursuit: Church and country nostalgia

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Fourth of July week always brings emotions of nostalgia for me. It hearkens back to childhood days when life was simpler by comparison, and the world, at least to my childlike understanding, was more unified and bright than it seems in the midst of adult cynicism.

There was no separation of church and state, because in church we would sing, “This is my Father’s World,” and know that the unifying love of God was the same love that was at work in a world where something as simple as a Coke commercial would easily reflect a Gospel theme of “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

The week of the Fourth was when our cousins would get together, and there would be flags and fireworks, but mostly family all mixed together. And when I think back, I have some pretty consistent images.

“Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

That little song was one of the first ones I ever learned. It seemed to me to be the real motto of Church, and may have had more influence on me than any of my esteemed theological classes, studies of Dr. King, or calls for diversity in Social Justice. Even as a child, I knew that those colors mentioned in the song were first of all not literal skin tones, nor were they totally inclusive in what one might infer, but rather that EVERYONE was a child who Jesus loves. No matter what ethnicity or nationality one might look like they have in their background, Jesus loves those little children. That’s the way my childlike soul heard the song and saw the Church a half a century ago, and that’s the way I still try to envision it even when forces of evil try to convince us differently.

And the country I remember growing up in that half a century ago was called the UNITED States of America. I remember being so proud as a child in Mrs. Hamilton’s first-grade class at William Street School in Goldsboro as we would start the day pledging allegiance to the flag that tied us all together. And what was cool was we looked like what we sang about in that church song, because we really looked like all the children of the world!

My nostalgia touchstone for my view of country is some kind of Norman Rockwell picture that I’m pretty sure my memories have cobbled together. The closest real painting of his is called, “Golden Rule,” and features people young to old, of many various ethnicities and faiths, many in prayerful poses, with the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” superimposed across the painting. To me it is that diversity collected around the commonality of humanity that has always seemed to be the cementing feature of what unites our states of being in our county.

When asked about his painting, Rockwell himself said: “The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.”

He made that print as the Saturday Evening Post cover for April 1,1961, but not surprisingly, it now hangs in the New York City headquarters of the United Nations.

I suppose the surprising thing about my nostalgia is not that my memories are probably way oversimplified and purified through the years, but rather that the ideals of both church and country were so clearly about being together in unity, appreciation, respect — and most importantly — love.

In the simplest of terms, from the vantage of the Church, if Jesus loves all the children, then why should I not love those whom Jesus loves? And from the vantage of our country, maybe we should over emphasize the “United” in our very name, especially when we remember that for almost a quarter of a millennium, we have been gathering our very ancestors from far distant shores and cultures to make the melting pot we enjoy today.

For of the things that stand out during the week of the Fourth, the flags and fireworks are fine, but it is the family that we love, the family that we choose as our own and the family that we ultimately ARE in all its diversity, call it Church or call it Country, that gives meaning to life, to liberty and to our pursuit of happiness.

Would that what seems as only nostalgia could be deemed today’s reality.

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 26 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.