Fireworks and freedom

There’s that kid in me that’s always loved the spectacle of a good fireworks show. I didn’t see many of them growing up. But after I became a dad and the kids were old enough to enjoy it, my wife and I took them to the park every Fourth of July to join our neighbors and watch the sky explode with light.

My kids are grown and gone now, and that family ritual has gone with them. I miss it. Part of it, of course, is just the sheer razzle-dazzle of the pyrotechnics. I’ll never forget the year my wife and I were literally in the middle of the show, high in a tower on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, with the fireworks bursting around us. But the more important part is that feeling of nostalgia for a bygone era, for the best of what once was. I can still go see fireworks, of course, but it’s not the same.

Last year, under COVID, our community fireworks show was suspended, just one more piece of normalcy stolen away by the pandemic. This year, the show is back (or so they say: we’ll see tonight), but there will be no gathering. People will simply stay home and watch from their backyards and driveways. It’s certainly better than having no fireworks at all, and I’m grateful for that. But it’s still one more small reminder of what’s changed and what’s been lost.

The use of fireworks to celebrate the Fourth dates all the way back to July 4, 1777, the first anniversary of the congressional adoption of the Declaration of Independence (it took another month for all the signatures to be collected). You can imagine the jubilation, when the Declaration and its significance was still fresh in the colonists’ minds and hearts.

But what does it mean to us today?

. . .

The summer of 2020 and beyond saw fireworks of other kinds: flashpoints of hatred and violence, explosions of incendiary rhetoric. I am grateful to be a citizen of the United States, but grieved to see the divides and incivility that still plague our nation.

The Fourth of July was meant to be a celebration of liberty, of freedom from tyranny. But without a transformation of the human spirit, we will by the bent of our broken nature impose tyrannies of our own. This day is an opportunity, as we watch fireworks light up the night sky, to sit back and ponder the meaning and purpose of our freedom.

The Bible knows the meaning of freedom from oppression. The psalmists and prophets wrote eloquently of God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for those who were the victims of the wickedness and deceit of the powerful. For those who are on the bottom rung of a nation’s social ladder, and wittingly or unwittingly kept there by those above, this is where we must begin.

But the biblical notion of freedom is never just “freedom from,” but “freedom to.” Even in American history, after all, independence was not just about the freedom from tyranny and monarchy, but the freedom to worship. Likewise, in the psalms, it’s not just freedom from being oppressed by the wicked, but freedom to follow God’s way. To the apostle Paul, it’s not just freedom from being slaves to sin, but the freedom to present our lives to God in obedience to righteousness.

Freedom, for a believer, can never be only what has been called “the right to be let alone.” Ultimately, it is the freedom to love, especially when hatred presses in from every side.

So, enjoy the show tonight.

Then be the show, to let others know what the freedom from God is for: the freedom to love as God has loved us.