I grew up during the Cold War. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high as each side vied for the upper hand around the globe. In a frantic effort to keep the other side from ‘winning,’ conflicts and wars would begin to stem the tide of Communism or to stop Democracy in its tracks. Threats were made, shoes were pounded, and missiles were placed. A war between the two superpowers and their thousands of nuclear weapons seemed inevitable. Then something weird happened.
We won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed seemingly overnight. The Berlin Wall, a division for so many years, was torn down. The communist countries fragmented across Europe and Central Asia. Our great enemy was defeated.
For as long as I could remember, the United States was the 'good guy.' We were nearly always mentioned in comparison to ‘them.’ Songs like “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood made it clear. “At least I know I’m free.” Of course, that meant ‘they’ weren’t. The United States stood for freedom, independence, opportunity and apple pie. But without the great enemy, we had no one to compare ourselves to. We were the country that stepped into the gap in WWI. We courageously rebounded from Pearl Harbor to join forces with the Allies in WWII to defeat Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. We stayed firm while the Soviet Union collapsed. But who are we now?
It appeared, after 9-11, we had a reason to come together, a common enemy to fight. We are discovering that terrorism isn't defeated with bullets and bombs. It turns out that everyone is against terrorism. In that sense, we aren’t that special. We do not have a galvanizing force, a cause that unites and inspires us to rise to the occasion and it is tearing us apart.
Across the board, in media, politics, the internet, and social media, we have found more that divides us than what brings us together. We are told that if we disagree, we hate. Civil discourse is a thing of the past, exchanged for shouting matches and sound bites. Fissures and cracks become chasms we can’t seem to overcome.
Enter July 4th.
You could argue successfully that this holiday has lost its original meaning in the same way capitalism has swallowed Christmas and Easter. You would get no pushback from me on that. Still, if we look at what July 4th means, we have a chance, if only for a brief moment, to come together as a nation. If I could choose one word to describe what it means, I would choose ‘Opportunity.’
Our founding fathers wanted a land of opportunity to grow and develop without the oppression of British rule and taxation. They wrote documents, fought battles, alliances were made and broken, and the United States was born. We fought for this land and this opportunity. In fact, we fought one hundred years later, among ourselves for what this opportunity would look like. Our opportunity has been hard fought and won. It’s ours. We earned it.
So what kind of opportunity does July 4th bring?
Not long ago I attended a Major League baseball game. It was a beautiful summer evening, the kind perfect for baseball. There were beer, hotdogs, and people watching the game with anticipation. It couldn’t be more American. The good guys won, and after the game, the fans were treated to a beautiful firework display.
Some of the crowd had slowly shuffled from the stadium but those who stayed made their way to the lower levels and waited. The first steak of light turned the crowd a strange blue color as the firework launched high over our heads. When it exploded, it was close enough for sight and sound to go together. It created a semi-circle of white with another explosion of red in the middle. Despite the fact we were staring at a Chinese invention, everyone in the stands stared in awe. Red, white and blue glory. ‘Merica.
This scene was repeated over and over, with different colors and different sounds. You’ve seen it. It was amazing. For some reason, I decided to turn around and look at the crowd. What I saw left me speechless.
The faces of everyone watching were tinged with a slight sense of joy and hope as they lit up with red, blue, green or white colors. I saw different economic classes sitting together. There were different races all staring into the nights' sky hoping to see the next wonder. Different ages were transfixed as they gazed at the display.
Then it hit me.
This may be part of what heaven is like. All these folks, with all their differences and ideas and experiences mesmerized by what they are seeing. One thing, one person bringing peace, unity, and hope. Jesus. Could it be that part of what we experience in heaven is a sense of peace as we see our savior? It boggles the mind, but if I’m honest, I hope it contains something like that.
The 4th of July brings that scene to mind each year. And each year, whenever I watch fireworks, and whoever I am with, I look at the people. I watch their faces light up with wonder and hope, and I am reminded of heaven and the hope I have in Jesus.
Maybe it is a thin connection, but I think it is there. We pray “On earth as it is in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think we are supposed to wait around to go to heaven. Jesus invites us to participate in revealing His Kingdom on earth, here and now. Maybe not in totality, but signs, markers and experiences of a different kingdom, a different rule, and a distinct people. Our lives are to give glimpses and flashes of something incredible, something worthy of awe and wonder. God’s people are designed to re-present him to the world.
While those around us have their heads down or are mired in despair, we have the opportunity to reveal a different Way. Where there are discord and disunity, we have the opportunity to bring peace. We have the opportunity to point people in a different direction, lift their heads and help them get caught up in the beauty of God through His people. With every forgiveness offered or a kind word spoken, we flash brightly in the darkness. Every time we chose to bless and not curse, we explode against powers and principalities engulfing our lives. Whenever we lift our chins to the One who Saves, we receive the strength and power we need.
If we can so bask in the glow and beauty of Christ, we can reflect Him to those around us. Christians can be the very thing this country and world needs.
The 4th of July can be more than a reminder that we ‘aren’t them’ or that we won the Cold War. It doesn’t have to harken back 200 years. It can still propel us forward. We can still grasp the opportunity we have in Christ. It can be a reminder that we can be the beauty the world needs. The love of Christ is powerful enough to galvanize and unite people from across any spectrum for the purposes of God.
The next time you see some fireworks and think of America, think of the opportunity you have in Christ. Seize it and watch people fall in love with the one who can transfix and heal even the greatest chasms.