At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming

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The twilight of the past age of America is indeed at the hour of its last gleaming. But let us remember two lessons from our national anthem and two from the song that has inspired my annual Independence Day reflections on hopeful realism here at HT.

From the national anthem:

  • At the twilight’s last gleaming, we proudly hail our country.
  • That which we proudly hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming may be seen again at the early light of the following dawn – even if only by the light of explosions from rockets and bombs.

The point of our national anthem is not that we do not pass through the dark night of terror and bombs. The point is that we can and may survive.

Right after 9/11, Dan Rather broke down on the Letterman show when he reflected that we could no longer say, with one of the later stanzas of the national anthem, “thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” But I think we can say it. The point was not that there were no tears; who could ever have been so foolish? The point was that the tears did not dim the cities – and so they do not.

The cities can be dimmed, however, by the disgraceful behavior of their citizens, including the citizens’ toleration of disgraceful behavior by their leaders. And so they now are, on both sides of the aisle.

Which brings us to Ray Charles, who sings that America is beautiful and asks that God shed his grace upon her – an observation still true and a prayer still well worth praying.

All the way back in July of last year – can we even remember a time so long ago? – when the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump was still unimaginable to almost all of us, I predicted “a dark five years followed by a new dawn.”

A new dawn from where? As I wrote when my daughter was in surgery, the signs of decline are always right where you look for them, but the signs of renewal never are.

Want a sign of hope? This past Sunday, the following sermon was preached (by video) in my church.

That’s a shortened version. Long version’s available on YouTube.

What’s striking is not only that there’s this much wisdom about the American political order in the American church, but that a pastor who reaches millions and is notorious for his sensitivity to cultural currents is willing to preach it in worship. If Andy Stanley is willing to preach this now, how many will preach something like it next year, when the need will be even more keenly felt?

This is, as I put it in my article a year go predicting five years’ darkness and then the dawn, “neither Falwell nor Benedict, but a new creation.”

Want another sign of hope? The New Disney Animation continues to turn American culture inside out. As I remarked at some length last year, the main reason our political institutions fail us is because other institutions that have greater cultural power have gone bad. But revolutionary forces are gathering strength in those non-political institutions.

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We are, indeed, entering in upon what will be years of very dark darkness. In the coming weeks I hope to find the spare time to return to the ins and outs of American politics, including the dismal foolishness that has been revealed lately in social conservative leaders (ecclesiastical and otherwise).

But the signs of a felt need for something greater, of a renewal, are all there. Success is not guaranteed if we try, but failure is guaranteed if we don’t.

And this is not our first national night – not by a long shot.

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I began this series in 2012 when my daughter, then six, encountered her first fireworks and was overjoyed – but I spent the time wondering if there was an America left worth saving for her. In the years since, as I have acknowledged worse and worse signs of decline, I have emphasized hope more and more.

This year, we didn’t get to see fireworks, except from a distance on our balcony. Life intervened, as it has a way of doing. But we did have a wonderful time, going back to where we used to live to see the parade there, and going to the carnival that was in town where we now live. And we got to talk together, as we couldn’t when she was six, about the meaning of America. I even got to tell her that our church was preaching it from the pulpit, which reinforces that it isn’t just her parents saying these things.

As I said last year: Trowel’s waiting. Get to work or get out of the way.