Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #024. First published in the St. Cloud Times July 28, 2009

"We here highly resolve ... that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom."

These words of the Gettysburg Address were read July 5 by a black Muslim Congressman to the musical accompaniment of "Lincoln Portrait," which was written by gay Jewish composer Aaron Copland.

There are probably a few of you who lament such an occasion as the death-knell of America, but I trust that the great majority of you understand why this gave me goose bumps in the best patriotic Fourth of July weekend I can remember.

It started the day before, on the Fourth itself, in Avon. Garrison Keillor celebrated the nation's 233rd birthday, and the 35th anniversary of "A Prairie Home Companion," with a show "as close to Lake Wobegon as we can get" that featured local folks and communicated the spirit and values of Central Minnesota to an audience of 10,000 and additional millions around the country and abroad.

It is no secret that Keillor is a strong political partisan, but on that afternoon in Avon the people onstage and the people in the audience were Americans first (I suspect that even the foreign visitors felt like honorary citizens).

Historical memory gave focus to what we have in common. Two World War II veterans, Clarence Fischbach from Sauk Centre and Ralph Lauer from Albany, were given more than sound-bite time to recount their experiences on the front lines in Europe. In the best Stearns County tradition, they understated their service, but the audience's standing ovation gave proof that we all knew what they did was more than "Whatever." All of us were cheering too for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there was nothing jingoistic about this display of loyalty to our country. Noted folk singer and St. John's University alumnus John McCutcheon sang a song he wrote with author Barbara Kingsolver, "Our Flag Was Still There," which includes these lines:

"And our flag is still there

For the saints and the sinners

Yes, our flag is still there

For all the losers and winners

For those of us who still dream

For those who still dare

For all the scorned and forgotten

Our flag is still there."

In a 2008 interview, McCutcheon underscored the sense of the song: "Nobody gets to dictate what being a patriot means."

On July 5 I attended a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra called "Salute to America!" It wasn't as informal and "down-home" as the event the day before in Avon. At Orchestra Hall you know you're not in the Lake Wobegon High School auditorium.

But there was a similar warmth of welcome, triggered by Sarah Hicks, assistant conductor and the first woman to hold a titled conductor post in the orchestra's 106-year history. She told us how her memories of hearing these works when she was growing up confirm her sense of the beauty and strength of America.

We heard, of course, John Philip Sousa (including his Foshay Tower March) and "Variations on America" by Charles Ives, that quintessentially American composer who revolutionized music while running a successful insurance business.

The highlight of the program was Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," written in 1942, when the world was at war. Brief passages from Lincoln's speeches weave in and out of the music. From his 1862 message to Congress: "As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew." And the climax, the final words of the Gettysburg Address: "We here highly resolve ... that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

The narrator was U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison who, famously, took the oath of office with his hand on Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Qur’an. The words of Lincoln spoken richly by someone who at the time the Constitution was written would have been considered three-fifths of a person, with music conducted splendidly by someone who at that time could not have voted — yes, our flag is still there.