For many, the Fourth of July, the declaration of the United States’ independence from Mother England, means a day off work, a time for picnics, music festivals, fireworks displays.
This time each year always triggers fond memories of childhood gatherings at Doc Brenneman’s farmstead near Doylestown, Pa., with other families from my home congregation. Weather permitting, we spent the entire day enjoying bounteous fare, swimming and softball, capped off with a display of mostly legal fountains, jumping jacks and sparklers (don’t think even these simple pyrotechnics are legal there now).
This day has a particularly special meaning for me and wife Anna since July 4, 1972. That’s when our plans to spend the day at a park near Brandywine, W.Va., were slightly altered as we shot off the opposite direction to Rockingham Memorial Hospital.
Our firstborn firecracker, Jennifer Lyn Bishop, exploded onto the scene at 10:26 that morning, less than 45 minutes after we arrived at RMH – didn’t even see the entire “Beverly Hillbillies” rerun in the waiting room (no Lamaze classes those days) – before word came, “It’s a girl.”
Jenny Lyn arrived three weeks earlier than expected, changing our plans not only for the Fourth of July, but helping prepare us for the innumerable schedule changes to come.
In the centennial year, 1976, a second daughter continued a tradition of arriving suddenly, as we went directly from watching a long (at least for Anna) movie at EMU to the RMH emergency room around 10:30 p.m. A discombobulated dad raced to the delivery room, hospital robe on backwards, as Sara Ann Bishop burst into the world about ten minutes into October 3.
Time rushes on, and Anna and I pant and puff to keep up with our six grandkids who live close by.
July 4 also gives opportunity to count not only the joys that far outnumber of trials and sorrows of raising a family, but also to reflect on other blessings I enjoy as a citizen of this nation.
Much has been said in the past and continues to be proclaimed from pulpits and periodicals, particularly within the Peace Church tradition and the Mennonite denomination to which I belong, about what it means for Christians to be citizens of two realms – members of the Kingdom of God and of the kingdom of this world. So what does it mean to seek to be a faithful follower of Christ and at the same time meet responsibilities that accompany earthly citizenship?
For me, this includes paying taxes, albeit having problems with the inordinate amount that goes toward national defense and financing wars that our country has been embroiled in past and present, being an informed citizen and exercising the right to vote in national, state and local elections, and praying for those in positions of power and authority, even when their decisions conflict with my own convictions.
I can have a sense of pride in my country – a patriotic spirit, if you will – without becoming swallowed up in a blind nationalism. (A piece in a well-known satire magazine years ago defined a patriot as “one who loves his country while hating 90 percent of the people who live in it”).
The Declaration of Independence – wouldn’t hurt any of us, myself included, to go back and review that hallowed document – guarantees us freedom of speech, which among other things allows us to write letters to the editor and contact our elected officials stating exactly how we feel on a given issue or policy. We can take a minority position, state it explicitly through a variety of organized and informal channels or debate it in the marketplace, knowing that we won’t be shipped off somewhere in the middle of the night because we challenged the established order.
I’ve never lived in another country but several family members and friends who have returned with a similar message: one doesn’t begin to appreciate the US until he or she has spent time in a land where persons who criticize the government or speak out and work for peace and justice do so at their own risk.
This July 4, I’m not advocating an “America, love it or leave it” mentality. Instead, I commend an “America, love it and change it” attitude, because people who truly revere this country want only the best for it. That may include not agreeing with everything it does “in the national interest.” Being able to say so freely and openly is among the many things I’m thankful for, as a citizen of both a heavenly and earthly kingdom.
God bless America? How about “America, bless God”?
– Column by Jim Bishop