Like many whose lives were disrupted by the Vietnam War, I became confused about patriotism.

As a child, I had clarity. Patriotism meant stirring songs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag in our classroom, photos of my father in uniform, collecting candidates' lapel pins, feeling grief when President Kennedy was assassinated.

But then patriotism got confused with politics. As an unpopular war proceeded, some claimed that true "patriots" were those who held one set of views, and all others betrayed flag and country.

Maybe it is always thus. Maybe partisans always seize the powerful symbols of patriotism to advance their cause. They do so with religion and race, as well, sometimes joining all three in a powerful demagogic brew.

I lost more than innocence. I lost touch with Pledge and Anthem. If patriotism meant one angry slice of the American pie and not the foundation on which we all walked, if the symbols of patriotism could became weapons in a fight against each other, familiar rituals lost their joy.

Terrorists attacking our nation's largest city and capitol have cleared that air.

This is our homeland under attack. Not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, not liberals or conservatives, not hateful suspicions, not economic theories, not a majority race or a majority religion, not one set of "family values" versus another, but our homeland, this "sweet land of liberty."

On the first Sunday of this new era, leading worship in the next county, we set aside the usual hymns and liturgical niceties. We substituted patriotic songs. I asked a veteran (US Marines, Lebanon, 1957) to carry the American flag in procession.

I could hardly sing a word of "America," not because I was still confused about patriotism, but because years of loss surged to the surface and I needed to compose myself.

Instead of ritual words, I told about my week since the attacks began. I asked the faithful to tell where they were on Tuesday and how their week had gone. They told powerful stories of worry, pain, anger, disbelief, shutting down, clinging to family.

I offered brief homiletic guidance, as well, but mainly I was confirmed in my belief that this is a time for us to talk, not to orate; to listen to each other, not to stake out positions.

Driving home, I listened to the start of a BBC concert. An American conductor happened to be at the podium in London. He said the British musicians had altered the program and would perform "from our hearts and souls to yours."

From the nation whose shelling inspired the original came: "O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?"

I sang along, as best I could manage.

As if for the first time, the Anthem was not the backdrop to American athletes preening at the Olympics, not a prelude to some political convention that would marginalize all but true believers, not the comforting ritual whose Amen is "Play ball!"

Composed nearly 200 years ago, the last time America was attacked by a regressive society which found American freedom threatening, the anthem suddenly gave voice to a live question.

Through rockets and bombs, through the smoke of "war's desolation," is the flag still there? Is "the land of the free" intact?

We must not let patriotism get squandered again. We will disagree in these tense times. Some will cry for vengeance, others for restraint. Some will pick up arms eagerly, some reluctantly, some not at all. Some will rally around the president, and others will question his every move. Some will demand justice through missiles, and others will insist that we study hatred toward America.

Patriotism isn't the property of one political persuasion. It is the ground on which we all speak freely, disagree openly, hold our leaders accountable and worship as we feel called.

The "star-spangled banner" waves over a land where mosque, synagogue and church can share an intersection, where flaws can be mended, where "liberty in law" is real, and where brotherhood -- multihued, multivalued, sometimes offensive, never complete but always yearned for-- does spread "from sea to shining sea."

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