A dozen bug bites and the tall grass of an Indiana field. The crash of Pacific waves against the rocky Oregon shore. Muddy ground and banjo music in a valley in the mountains of West Virginia. The sandy beach of Lake Michigan with the Chicago sky-scrapers towering behind me. Standing in the middle of a car-less Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia.
These are places from which I have seen fireworks on the 4th of July. I tell time, situate my memories in their historical context, with these memories. They tell the story of my nomadic heart. They tell the stories of people I shared life with in all those places. The stories of communities God has blessed me with no matter where I’ve been.
I am not a very patriotic person. I spend a lot of time questioning our allegiance to a country when as a Christian I claim allegiance only to God. I critique the policies of my government that hold up the rich and oppress the poor. I lament much about the founding of this country and the damage that lingers on today in the hearts and lives of the people who call this land home, and those who used to.
Yet on July 4th I can be often be found wearing red, white, and blue and watching fireworks light up the sky. It’s a day of memory and refocusing for me.
When I was in high school, I was on a mission trip in England and one night the leaders divided the room into four – one box for each quadrant of the globe. I ended up in the north-west hemisphere. North America.
My 17 year old heart was initially disappointed. I wanted something a little more exotic. I was willing to go. I dreamed of being a missionary somewhere, anywhere. I was willing to rough it. I was willing to sacrifice. But, I prayed that night for my hemisphere. For North America – the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
A few weeks later I returned from my mission trip and found myself seated on grass in my home town, waiting for the firework show to start. I could not get that prayer time off my mind as I watched the strangers in front of me ooh and ahh at the flashes of light above our head.
“These are your people.” It was a clear message to my heart. I would love and serve the people of the United States.
That next summer was West Virginia. Indiana was a couple years later. Then Oregon. A few more years on that grass in my hometown. Fireworks above Chicago for a few years. And then it was Philadelphia. Sometimes I was visiting, sometimes it was my new home. Every year I’d stop staring at the fireworks and would look at the people and I would pray. “These are my people.”
Last year, I moved away from Pennsylvania a couple weeks after the 4th of July. The golf course across the street from my house there typically had a fireworks show on the 3rd of July, but it had been rained out that that year. So, instead, on the night that I was preparing to leave, to move back to Georgia to once again love my people there, the sky outside my bedroom window began to light up with loud explosions. My roommate and I watched the fireworks out the window in our almost-empty apartment. Everything had been packed away, we would drive away the next day and not return to this place.
Moving back to Georgia was the scariest move I ever made. I didn’t know what I was doing when I got here. I have family and friends here – but I didn’t know my purpose, my direction, or have any real solid plans. The fireworks that night were my reminder, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Go where I call.”
And so I am here for a Georgia 4th of July. I’m not particularly planning to go see the fireworks this year. I have plans with a friend. I might catch a few bursts in the rear view mirror as I drive home from dinner – the unavoidable annual booms and flashes of light a reminder of the calling on my life. That there is a plan and a purpose even when I don’t clearly see what it is.
It is the memory of all those communities that I’ve shared the holiday with that reminds me that I am on the right path. God has always provided direction and guidance and the beautiful gift of people to share meals with and laugh with and serve with.