Posted: July 6th, 2012

God's Country

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema

Thoughts for the Fourth from a Michigander at large in his native habitat

As I write this reflection, I am sitting in the shade of a grove of white pines alongside lovely little Echo Lake in Oscoda County, Michigan. There is no traffic noise, no car stereos or TVs; no sound but the wind in the treetops and the twittering of birds. At water’s edge, I see a sunfish darting around a log.  Dragonflies and damselflies buzz past me.  Off along the path are tiny blossoms of wildflowers in eye-popping shades of orange, yellow, and purple.

Who made this sweet summertime scene?  Surely He cannot be far away.  This is nothing other than God’s country.  Not just because I find myself at a church camp, but because rural Michigan itself just shimmers with the Creator Spirit.

I had the same feeling as intensely the week before also, when I drove up to Marquette to offer the Divine Liturgy at the parish there.  After Sunday services I drove up to Copper Harbor, at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  I took some time to hike around in the wilderness places of that untamed region around Lake Superior.  Pure Michigan … pure joy.

I don’t claim anything more for my native state than I would allow for any American anywhere.  Travelling around the country, I have seen the mountains of Appalachia, the deserts of the Southwest, the rain forest of the Alaskan panhandle, the Big Sky country of the prairies, and the beaches of the Gulf Coast.  Every citizen of this land can rightly think of his home as God’s country.

I suppose I will be accused of touting the idea of “American Exceptionalism.”  I.e., I think my nation is different from every other nation in the world.  Well, I do.  After all, we accept that every child of God reflects some different aspect of our common Heavenly Father. Each person is unique, and we celebrate that.  But the Creator of every continent also reveals Himself in the variety of His geographical handiwork.  Every country’s landscape inspires us to contemplate God in a different way.  Some places fill us with awe and even dread.  Some places emanate the mysteriousness of the divine nature.  Some places give us a sense of God’s power and wisdom.

What about America?  I think America is special: I feel that Freedom is written into her very landscape.  Ours is a vast land of fertile soil, favorable seasons, long and navigable waterways, abundant creatures, majestic but also manageable mountains.  (When I lived in Springfield, Massachusetts—in the shadow of Mount Tom and Mount Toby—a visitor remarked on the curiousness of being on a “first-name basis” with the local summits!)

Immigrants could settle where they felt most at home.  The Swedes and Norwegians found a familiar climate in Wisconsin and Minnesota; the Dutch made a new home in Western Michigan. The Greeks, true to their enterprising nature, built a new life in all kinds of places. In a country so large and free, those who came by choice could also choose any place to live. This was a freedom that the Old World could not so readily offer them.

Most importantly, no law abridging freedom of worship could easily be enforced in a country as large and traversable as ours.  The believer of a different stripe could always pull up stakes and move a little further away from those who would suppress his religion.  In this rich and hospitable land, there would be no more justification for holy wars: brothers of different creeds could opt to live apart and prosper in peace under the same laws.  I may not agree with the theology of the Mormons or the Amish, but their continued presence around our country (despite periods of persecution) is a great testament to the freedom that suffuses our soil and flows in our rivers.

The first colonists of the New World certainly felt this way about their new home.  They gave their settlements names like Salem and Providence and Philadelphia, reflecting their strong sense that this land was a place that would nurture faith and freedom together.  Is it any wonder that so many of our patriotic songs praise the very land itself—her spacious skies, her amber waves of grain?  As I hiked up and down the ridges of Isle Royale recently, I had in mind the hymn “America,” and particularly the second verse:

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.

The whole world is God’s world, and so every country is God’s country.  But America is God’s country in a special way.  America is the land that proves that Mankind’s truest destiny is to be free from every tyranny, every necessity.  May America stay true to her calling, and may we Americans never sell our birthright of liberty for the pottage of political expediency.  Now and forevermore, God bless America, land that I love!

A Happy and Safe Fourth of July to All!

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