article for June 27, 2010

The Fourth of July weekend will soon be upon us.  On this holiday, several decades ago, I can recall stuffing my small, “Dial Soap” scrubbed body into my summertime pajamas. We would load up the station wagon with blan­kets, popcorn, a pile of kids, and two parents. My dad would park as close to the front of the “Sixty-Six Drive-in” theatre as our neck muscles would allow. The heat from the car’s engine would radiate through the blanket on the car’s hood as we watched “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” or “The Swiss Family Robinson,” or “Flubber,” or whatever else Walt Disney had shown in the real thea­tres a year or two ago.

The truth is, on the Fourth-of-July, the movie really was beside the point. It was merely a warm-up act. When the echoes from those tiny little speakers lodged in a hundred car’s windows fell silent, and the projector with the June bugs dancing in its diffuse light was shut down, the real excitement began. Everyone became like little boys wait­ing in line outside of the men’s room. We just couldn’t wait. Someone would honk a horn that would be an­swered by another horn. Rhythmic clapping, and shout­ing were sometimes included in this prelude.

Finally the anticipation gave way to an almost impercep­tible dot of light arcing into the air just beyond the screen. A sound, as if a giant Alka Seltzer tablet had been dipped for a brief second into a swimming pool, accompanied the sparkling, ascending orb. With a “thud,” a colorful spider would stretch its fifty-foot legs overhead to an admiring chorus of “Ooh!” “Ahh!” This scene would repeat itself twenty five times or so until the “Grand Finale.” Several volleys of three or four of these gunpowder animated creatures would ascend into the night sky, strike a pose, and quickly dissipate, leaving a momentary smoke footprint. The evening would con­clude with the car applause of simultaneous horn honk­ing.

Farmers from my grandpa’s generation had more than just fireworks on their minds around this time of year. They had an old saying about how the corn was supposed to be “knee high by the Fourth of July.” These days, with the aid of agricultural science, farmers look for their corn to be at least shoulder high by this time of year.

Farmers aren’t the only ones who have changed their Fourth of July expectations, I moved to Saint Louis dur­ing that period of history when they still referred to the municipal celebration of “The Fourth” as the “VP Fair.  Like a hay-seed that had blown in off the prairie, 1 sat slack-jawed on the hill under the Gateway Arch as one grand finale-sized cluster of pyrotechnics followed an­other.    Monster speakers amplified a patriotic sound track that replaced the old familiar “Ooh’s,” and”Ahh’s!” of my childhood. By the time this pyro-gasm concluded, I was sure that the amount of gunpowder ignited sur­passed that of the entire Revolutionary War. In the midst of such abundance, I wondered if anyone fully appreci­ated the beauty of any “single” firework.

At one point in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 9: 51-62), Jesus met up with an enthusiastic applicant for disciple-ship. He warned him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (vs. 58). The not-so-hidden message for any would-be disciple was, “Only whole hearted followers need apply.” Appearing as it does on this, our Fourth of July weekend, this Gospel seemed to issue a kind of spe­cial call to American disciples. In the land of towering cornfields, and fire works, in the horn of plenty that we call home, this Gospel offered an opportunity to reflect upon our relationship with a potential encumbrance to whole-hearted discipleship.

Every shining gift carries with it a shadow. Our national shadow might simply be the flip side of our tremendous gifts. The drive to achieve more and do better may carry within it the seeds of a weighty consumerism that presses down upon us in a hundred unconscious ways. From the vantage point of my family’s picnic blanket, I don’t think anyone is reaping more enjoyment from our township’s million dollar fireworks displays than the $500.00 shows of thirty years ago.

This Fourth of July we will celebrate the sacrifices that have made this land of abundant resources possible. This year, could you also contemplate simplifying some area of your life so that you can welcome in a little more of that freedom that is your birthright?

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