On the Fourth of July, you asked me a question. With our red, white, and blue shirts on, lawn chairs and little flags in hand, and the parade coming down the street I told you we were celebrating America’s birthday. And then you asked it as only a three-year-old could.
“Dad, what’s America?”
What could I say?
America is where your mom’s ancestor came over on the Mayflower, looking for golden shores and a new life. Through cold winters that matched her name (Constance Snow, they had both in abundance) they built a home in the Northeast. Your ancestors did well, settled, owned property. When the star spangled banner flew over a new country our spirits soared with it. Your mother’s middle name is Snow, a reminder of where you came from.
America is where your great-grandfather came across the border from Mexico, looking to escape violence, after his father’s business was burned to the ground. With a long walk through the desert and short walk over a bridge in El Paso, he came to America. He survived the Great Depression to return and build a business, scraping and scrapping through lean years to own a business and earn respect. His kids grew up proud to be Americans, eating enchiladas, drinking Coca-Cola and watching football. Your last name is a reminder of where you came from.
When you look out on the Massachusetts Bay at sunrise or the Franklin Mountains at sunset I think you still see a glimmer of what your ancestors saw when they came here, looking for golden shores.
But there’s something else you must know about this place, son. We could not outrun the things we ran from. We could not outrun them because we carried them in our hearts.
When your forefathers rejoiced to see these words “All men are created equal” they were true, but not true for everyone. Because some of the people your ancestors in the south worked alongside had a different skin color. Because the words didn’t apply to them. And because of this your ancestors in the North fought your ancestors in the South. The fields soaked with the blood of slaves were soaked with the blood of brothers against brothers.
But it didn’t start with that war and didn’t end with it either.
My grandmother grew up in a tiny town in New Mexico, company town, a segregated town, where the kids with skin her color went to one school and the kids with skin like your mom went to another. When I ask her about it now she says “It was fine. Everyone was friendly. But they did have a pool we couldn’t use.”
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My grandfather grew up in California, a white town, where the other kid with skin like his at school pretended he was Italian. They made fun of his English and his race. Later “they” looked like crooked customs inspectors who didn’t like the first Hispanic broker in the area. When I asked him about it, he said, “I fought every day at school. But I never let them push me down again.”
We had hoped to leave behind the brokenness of the world here, but we carried it with us, we broke what we found here, and we wondered why.
Because the story never started with America, son, or even the native people that drew pictures in the caves near us. The story started with a perfect garden and a good king. But we grew restless and proud and believed the lie that freedom from him is what would make us truly happy. And outside the garden, we found that our happiness was with him in the garden we left behind, but when we turned around it had withered and died.
So we built kingdoms of our own. They rose and fell. We hoped we could rebuild the garden from the dust of the earth, but it kept blowing away. Then one day the King returned—good, just, powerful, true. And in return we killed him.
But before he died he told us the best and hardest news we could hear: He had a kingdom, and we could enter it, but it was not of this world. And when we killed him the story didn’t end, it restarted. When his heart started beating again his kingdom exploded out into the world.
This king will return one day, but for now, he waits. He waits because he’s gathering people for his kingdom. It’s growing, swelling, pushing back the darkness. It’s coming alive in the hearts of wayward teens and former drug addicts and little boys in Sunday School.
The truth is that sometimes we think the kingdom has come in America. But gently the King shakes his head. He tells us to be grateful for the glimpses, to pray for our country, but to loosen our grip so that we can tighten it on what we can’t see.
There are two things people will tell you about America, son: The first is that once upon a time we were truly great and we just need to return there. The second is that our history is only dark but one day soon we’ll find true greatness. Don’t believe either of them.
I weep son, I weep when I see our flag. I weep for the days when people spit on my grandfather, while the flag fluttered on its pole in the schoolyard. I weep because people give speeches saying babies even a month before their due date can have their hearts stopped with poison or plyers and people cheer (you were born a month early, son) while the flag flies behind them.
I weep because people there is money in fat bank accounts pulled from people who had barely any to start with. I weep because so many kids grow up without dads, or moms, or family, or food.
I have to tell you this, not because I hate our country, but because I love it.
I rejoice, son, when I see our flag. I rejoice when I walk the National Mall to the Lincoln Monument holding your mom’s hand. I rejoice when I see our paper publish pictures of moms and dads and old women taking the oath of allegiance.
I rejoice when old men remove their hats and hold them over their hearts before the first pitch starts. I rejoice when I see the flag in my office that flew on the Fourth of July in Afghanistan in an Apache chopper. I rejoice when I drive by your Grandpa’s old house and see where he died, after coming here with nothing. I rejoice when I visit the grave of your Mississippi granddad, yards away from the place they played taps and folded the flag so carefully before they handed it to your Nana.
When I see our flag everything in me screams “I belong here” and “I don’t belong here” and some days it’s hard to drown out the noise.
This is America, son, broken and glorious.
This is not what we expected to find on these golden shores. But this is what we have.
It is our homeland but it is not our home. On November 8th at bedtime, we’ll pray for our Presidents and judges and future. We’ll pray for freedom to ring out and justice to roll down like waters. We’ll thank God for what has been and pray for what could be. But most of all we’ll pray for the King to return.
On that day our King will take the flag and wipe the stains away. He’ll take the stars and make them shine brighter. And when he’s finished we’ll see that the flag we longed for was always there, just behind the stripes and threads. And he’ll raise this new flag high. And your ancestors from Italy and Mexico and England and Spain will cheer, and we’ll cheer too. And then the song will start, a little like the hymns they sang on the boat over, a little like the spirituals of the Southern fields, a little like the trumpets of the border. And on that day we’ll know that we’re finally home.
So keep waving your flag on the fourth of July son, and keep praying for the day it changes colors.
Keep loving our flag son, and keep longing for the day it’s replaced with a better one.