Who Knew? God is in ‘Taps’

God is everywhere in America, as always.

military Taps song
U.S. Army bugler plays “Taps” at Arlington National Cemetery military funeral on March 11, 2009. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

Even if you don’t believe.

Even if you can’t locate Him.

References to the divine are even found in “Taps,” the lonesome, moving death dirge of fallen warriors routinely sounded at military funerals.

That is the reality of living in a country with a long and fervent Christian tradition, where more than 70 percent of citizens self-identify as God-fearing and Jesus-loving Christians today. Godliness constantly seeps into everything nationwide, generally unnoticed.

I didn’t even know any lyrics were attached to “Taps,” the deeply somber, achingly respectful lament to a soldier’s honorable death. But there are, nominally credited to a man named Horace Lorenzo Trim.

I learned of the lyrics’ existence in a front-page article this week in a local weekly newspaper in our area, The Alexandria (South Dakota) Herald, about a recording of the “Taps” tune and lyrics, and a related video, by Jimmy Weber, an Alexandria native and musician.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Weber said he arranged the song in honor of fellow Alexandrian and veteran Staff Sgt. Greg Wagner, who was killed in 2006 serving in Iraq. Weber told the Herald that when he vowed to produce the song, “it was a promise that I thought I could never keep.” Ultimately, he arranged the piece with only three of the five extant lyrical stanzas.

Lyrics of all stanzas are below:

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Fading light, dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.

Thanks and praise, for our days,
‘Neath the sun, ‘neath the stars, neath the sky;
As we go, this we know, God is nigh.

Sun has set, shadows come,
Time has fled, Scouts must go to their beds
Always true to the promise that they made.

While the light fades from sight,
And the stars gleaming rays softly send,
To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend.

Weber said even he didn’t know any lyrics were associated with “Taps” when he started trying to write song in honor of his fallen friend. But then someone sent them to him.

“Nobody’s ever been able to really prove who wrote these lyrics … but what I did know was that they were public domain,” he said, because the song dates before copyright laws were first codified in 1923.

Weber debuted his lyricized version of “Taps” and a related video on May 23 this year at the annual Hansen County Lincoln Day Dinner, at which Republican candidates for state and local offices presented their political positions. But Weber said his version of “Taps” is in no way political but rather a call for citizens to support the nation and its government by getting involved in the necessary and important work of citizenship.

“It’s important for young people to get involved in the process,” he explained. “That’s what they fought for — not for people to sit at home and do nothing, then complain on social media. They need to get involved and learn enough about it that they can defend it — not with your fists, but with your intellect. … If we aren’t engaged in the process, then what did they die for?”

It’s a very practical message of peaceful responsibility, and ultimate sacrifice. Of respect for those who, for love of country and for duty, willingly, even passionately, put themselves in harm’s way. But, as in the presumed lyrics of “Taps,” it is also a message of divine transcendence.

“Ultimately,” he said, “[when] a soldier, a sailor, an airman or a marine gives their life, they’re finding the ultimate rest in Heaven. That’s the theme. … [the song] echoes up to Heaven the sacred melody and serves as a reminder of the reasons we are free.”

Inarguably, these are authentically powerful words and sentiments, and should never be disrespected or dismissed.

But with such cultural touchstones in America, the saving graces of religion automatically and continuously perpetuate. For Christians, still the nation’s dominant sect of religious believers, this is seen as a good, even necessary, effect of faith.

For nonbelievers, on the other hand, it’s complicated. For them, continued belief in supernatural beings and realms is worrisome. But, simultaneously, the love and kindness and loyalty that faith routinely bestows is deeply moving and hopeful.

This is what makes the path to a more secular republic seem endless, because analyzing the roots of people’s potent, heart-felt emotions especially in the face of tragedy necessarily feels cruel and uncaring.

It’s utterly impossible for most of us, I suspect — believers and skeptics alike — to hear the mournful strains of “Taps” and not sense something that feels religious and momentous welling up inside. It is a deeply human tendency.

So we instinctively, reverently honor those who have sacrificed everything for God and country, as did Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, in which he famously said:

“… from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Even the sainted Lincoln, never a religious man, felt compelled to do so.

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