God Bless America
Forty years ago this month, on Labor Day 1961, the German cargo boat Carl Fritzen, which I had boarded at the Liverpool docks 11 days earlier, began its entry into Chesapeake Bay. We sailed past the beach where the Jamestown settlers had landed in 1607 where they gave thanks to God on the sands for their arrival, dedicating America to his glory. We docked in Norfolk. On that holiday Americans were at play: the water skis, the speedboats, the fishing and the barbecues were sights I had seen in hundreds of photographs, but I was now a part of it. Entry was no problem. I presented the officials with a huge X-ray of my chest which I had been required to have taken by the Welsh Embassy at Cardiff (long closed), and suitably impressed they stamped my passport for ‘unlimited entries to the land of the free, and opened the doors of the USA to me. Soon I was another anonymous inhabitant, sitting on a Greyhound on the road to New York.
I never saw that city so attractive again as it was that September week, clean streets, wide boulevards, opulent and safe. Such a contrast with the cities of the UK a that time. No pollution, and no threat. Familiar and unfamiliar sights were visited, the Guggenheim museum, the Red Circle line boat trip on East River and the Hudson, an evening at Yankee Stadium to see Roger Marris hit homer 52 on his way to beating Babe Ruth’s record (‘but there were fewer games in the season in Babe’s days,’ Babe’s admirers pointed out). But there wasn’t much preaching anywhere.
For the next three years I lived in America. It was 1971 before my wife and daughters were introduced to the USA and they have come to appreciate it almost as much as I do. A niece we took with us twenty years later fell hopelessly in love with America not wanting to return and it was not long before she married an American pilot. How can any British child not ‘lurve’ America? Now, so very fortunately, hardly a year goes by without a visit, and still the pulse beats more rapidly after passing through immigration and customs and picking up my case from the carousel. I go through the doors greeting friends and I am there again in the United States of America. What a remarkable country it is, amongst the greatest in the history of the world?
In September 1961 autumn was on its way to Philadelphia and outside the stores in Glenside there were those plump, brilliant orange pumpkins for sale heralding the arrival of Halloween. I get an ache of nostalgia from that memory alone, and all that is associated with it. Forty years have gone by . . . what privileged years they were at Westminster Seminary. How I failed to take full advantage of them. Many sweet memories: — the new foods: the fruit, vegetables and meat on display in the vast foodstores: bagels and cream cheese and lox, the food malls, salad bars and sushi and chop suey: clam chowder: crab meat in melted cheese: the ice-creams: donuts. Eating out is still easy and inexpensive. Then Thanksgiving came along–we have nothing like it, the most spiritual and non-covetous annual festival in the world. Cruising along Inter-states in a loaned car nowadays hearing Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Christian Radio. Would he have approved of my listening to holy preaching in a car? The four seasons. The beautiful fall colours. Those sudden snowfalls in the winter, headlights cutting through large flakes slowly swirling more.
But the aspects of life in the USA I miss more are of course human rather than culinary and physical. Although one should not generalise about nations and people, there are qualities which can be described as being ‘typically American.’ Openness is one of them. A free society. The right to know something. Banks are more accessible and the staff more smiley and ‘Hi!’ and ‘Have a nice day!’ in their greetings. Americans tend to be much franker that their British counterparts. Only in America has a church-goer described my sermon to me as ‘quite good.’ It was exactly that. When they ask you to come to their towns, visit them and stay with them they are in dead earnest.
Optimism is another endearing feature. Americans used to do much less whinging than people on this side of the Atlantic. The US is a ‘can do’ society. Despite the growing signs of an economic crisis now emerging Americans seem confident that they can cope with it. The terrible events of September 2001, never to be forgotten, will also be transcended with that same determination and hope. Americans are also generous to a fault. There have been few acts of international philanthropy so magnanimous as the setting up of the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. Can you imagine any other nation acting with such open-handedness? That same generosity is seen in the bursaries they give to theological students (how otherwise would I have been able to study at Westminster Seminary?). Their unfailing support of missionary endeavour is a reason for the wide expansion of the gospel into the Third World.
Most of all, church life and family life sets a standard for the rest of Christendom. There is true godliness and spiritual maturity in Christian homes with their dedication to the education of their children, instilling biblical family values and a work ethic. There is a commitment to the life of their congregations which is waning here. How they pray for their nation. Scarcely a church did not open its doors and announce a prayer meeting this week, and millions across America attended. The followers of the Lord Jesus have established an alternative community of friendship and service centred on home and church. At times I feel we are falling further and further behind American Christians–not just financially and numerically (where we can never compete), or in the extraordinary para-church world of Christian organisations, but in basic discipleship, overcoming the world through faith, and loving the brethren fervently.
And what am I glad to leave behind as I fly back to Wales? Not very much. 100 degree days, the newspapers, denominational and missionary bureaucrats, the church music staff, worship leaders, church bulletins, uneven concrete block sidewalks, their ‘Christian’ book shops, sweaty joggers pounding away under the sun, the roads on the fringes of each town with their neon light signs. They are all the same everywhere from Miami to Maine, polyester clothes (in that climate), television, that it is impossible to go anywhere without a motor car, and how few blacks there are in Reformed churches. That’s not much of a grumble is it? And I had to scratch my head to make up that list. They grumble about the same things too.
Of course, I am writing all this circling around the terrible events of the past week. You know why I am saying all this like this. It has been a black week of woe never to be forgotten while moons wax and wane. Who will ever forget what happened to the World Trade Center? I am trying to express my affection, admiration, respect, depression and the ache. It returns with every news broadcast and newspaper. I feel like stopping any American I see here in Wales and saying, ‘I am so sorry. What else can one say? I had to write a few emails to some American friends immediately and just say, ‘So sorry. So very sorry.’ It was my grief too. I had to call some friends here and say, ‘Have you heard the news? Are you watching the TV?’ It was live on every channel hour after hour. We watched for some hours CNN broadcasting so measuredly, with dignity and sobriety, from New York. We live in a global village.
Where would we be without America? Would we have come under the domination of Hitler or Stalin? We certainly would not have been free Europe without America. We are under American influence, and they are under ours. Our security and danger are as keenly felt in the US as theirs are felt in England and Wales. Indeed, there now seems to be far more honest loyalty to British laws and institutions in America than there is in Britain. The shared legal heritage remains with its associated habits of adversarial government, open discussion, and public spirit. So too remains the basic loyalty which goes back to our Shakespeare, before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The demise of America would bring incalculable loss to Great Britain.
The attack on New York and Washington this week was an attack on a political tradition, noble ideas of constitutional government and common law which are Britain’s basic freedoms. The heaviest of spirits hangs over us, and it will be weeks before they will be lifted. We are so sorry for what happened. We grieve with you, and pray for the American church at this dark hour.
God bless America.
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