I’ve loved fireworks ever since I was a boy, though I seldom had the chance to see them in person. That probably explains why, one 4th of July when my parents were out, I decided to create my own pyrotechnics. (Warning: stunt performed by professional numskull. Do not try this at home.)
Happening on a small package of Chinese New Year firecrackers tucked away in a drawer, I hit on a plan. I carefully unrolled each firecracker and collected all the silvery-gray gunpowder together in a small pile. I found a wooden spool that had been emptied of thread, and filled the cavity with the gunpowder. Out in the driveway, I lit the fuse and counted as it burned down…one, two, three. Then I threw my little bomb into the air as high as I could. At the top of its arc, it made a satisfying flash, blowing the spool to pieces. I thought of keeping a piece as a souvenir, but decided to get rid of the evidence instead.
The good news was that I was smart enough to make it work. The bad news is that I was dumb enough to try it in the first place. If that thing had gone off in my hand, you’d be calling me Lefty.
Fireworks displays go all the way back to the very first celebrations of American independence from British rule. In 1776, John Adams, who would later become our second president, was an influential Boston lawyer chosen to be a delegate to the Continental Congress where the colonies voted on July 2nd to declare independence. Elated, Adams wrote this in a letter to his wife Abigail on July 3rd:
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
He was right that Americans would commemorate their independence ever after, but wrong about the date: instead of celebrating the July 2nd vote, Independence Day became the date on the written Declaration of Independence, which Adams helped to draft.
I wonder if the religious language in the quote above might sound quaint to modern ears. Adams suggests that independence should be commemorated “as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.”
Personally, I’ve never considered either barbecues or fireworks to be acts of devotion (though the way some guys gather at the grill, you’d think it was a shrine). And I’m leery of assuming too much about what Adams meant; much of American civil religion co-opts biblical language and metaphors in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the biblical story.
But perhaps it’s a good reminder to reflect on the nature of freedom. To use a somewhat well-worn distinction, there’s a difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” The former is what we normally think of freedom: freedom from oppression, from coercion. In its most general sense, it morphs into the presumed right of individuals to do whatever they please, as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others. “It’s a free country,” we’re apt to say, meaning, Hey, do whatever you want, just don’t bother me about it. “Freedom to,” however, is more forward-looking; freedom from oppression is not an end in itself, but a necessary means to achieve some greater purpose.
The same distinction applies to our understanding of the gospel. Read Romans 6. We are not only freed from the penalty of sin, but from slavery to it (vss. 11-14). And why? We are not free to do whatever we please (vss. 1-2), but to willingly submit ourselves as slaves to righteousness (vss. 15-18).
If we think of freedom in terms of “freedom from,” then the phrase “slaves to righteousness” sounds oppressive, as if the Christian life was all about rule-keeping. But the truth is that the holiness about which Paul writes in this passage is the first and best destiny for which we were created. “Eternal life” doesn’t just mean unending life in heaven, it means experiencing a bit of heaven now, here, on this earth, because we have been freed from slavery to sin and therefore freed to serve God as we were meant to.
So Happy 4th of July. Enjoy your barbecues. And when you gather to say a blessing for the meal, don’t thank our Founding Fathers for political independence; thank our Heavenly Father for both the freedom from sin, and the freedom to serve.