by Leron Heath, DMin, adjunct professor at A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary
President Donald Trump’s formal inauguration ceremonies concluded Saturday, January 21, 2017, with the National Prayer Service held at Washington’s National Cathedral. Much was made about it being an interfaith service—Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í, and various expressions of our Christian faith. I tend to be leery of such things—too much civic religion. The gospel will be lost, I figure.
But, to my surprise, God still managed to “gain glory” (Exodus 14:4, 17). He has a way of doing that.
The service began with the congregation singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” The hymn starts out as an ode to our nation: “sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.” The early stanzas appear to be simply nationalistic affirmations of our great values of liberty and freedom. But in the final stanza God gains glory for Himself: “Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King.”
With the freshly inaugurated President seated in the front row, the congregation sang praises to Another. From the start—from the first hymn—we were reminded that the President’s reign is provisional, granted by God Himself, who alone is our one and true King.
After a few prayers, some readings, and a gospel choir singing “He Never Failed Me Yet,” we heard a woman’s enchanting voice sing “How Great Thou Art.” I thought she would maybe end after the third stanza about woods and forest, birds and trees, mountains and the gentle breezes—all safe enough. But she continued singing through those daring final gospel stanzas:
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art!”
As the unseen woman with the enchanting voice sang these final stanzas, the First Lady seemed genuinely moved. The camera televising the event moved in on her. She lowered her head, closed her eyes, and seemed to wipe away a few tears. As the hymn came to a close, she quickly stood to her feet and offered applause.
I think something happened—something good. The gospel had its way. The hymn moved something deep inside people, including the President and First Lady.
The service ended with the whole congregation singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Even the President and First Lady sang along. Once again, as with that first hymn, the early stanzas about “summer and winter and springtime and harvest” seem harmless enough, but they continued singing through the last gospel stanza:
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
In the midst of all our political turmoil and contemptuousness, God’s majesty and grace breaks through. By surprise, God gained glory for Himself at this “interfaith” National Prayer Service.
Two thoughts linger: First, God’s grace came through with music and song—through those great and precious hymns of the church. Second, the affirmation of our one true King, in the face of earthly power and authority, makes for good civic government.
1) Songs and Hymns
Our culture seems to be in no mood for Christian proclamations. People don’t like us telling them what to do. But they like our music: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137).
Somehow our music, our songs, our hymns break through to the hearts of our tormentors.
“It was the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open,” writes Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies, the story of her conversion to Christianity.
We do well to be attentive to the wonder and beauty of our songs of praise. When we sing them right, they have a way of splitting people wide open.
2) Church and Government
Government, with all its power and authority, needs the church to remind it of its boundaries—of its limits. We honor Caesar, but we worship our “great God and King.”
The President, along with all our civic authorities, are provisional leaders caring for the peace of the world until the arrival of our one true King. So, at the installation of our new President, we do well to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleasing to God” (1 Timothy 2:2–3).
When we are faithful to our part, God has His own surprising ways of gaining glory for Himself.