I confess – I am a big fan of birthdays – mine or anybody else’s. I mean no matter whose birthday it is, you still get cake and ice cream, right? And that’s my second confession for today – ice cream is my number one favorite food of all time. That being said, you can see why I am sad that so many birthdays have gone uncelebrated since mid-March due to COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings.
Especially when we are young, birthdays are eagerly anticipated events, with much planning going beforehand to determine venue, food, decorations, guest list, games or activities etc. This seems to apply more to children’s birthday parties than those we have as we get older. But still, we like to celebrate the lives of those we love in some special, meaningful way.
Some birthdays seem more important than others because we deem them milestones, such as turning one or sixteen or twenty-one or sixty-five or ninety. Still every birthday is reason enough to celebrate in its own right. How many grandparents have missed celebrating the birthdays of their grandchildren during this time? How many long planned parties have been cancelled or postponed?
These birthdays, these milestones of our lives, have gone unmarked and uncelebrated during this time when places have been closed and even family gatherings forbidden. Maybe we could ask the question, “if there’s no cake, no candles, no ice cream and no singing – am I really a year older?” We shouldn’t have to add a year to our age if there was no cake or ice cream. That just doesn’t seem fair.
This is the time when we usually celebrate another birthday, the birthday of our country, the United States of America. Her birthday has always been celebrated in grand style. From fire works to fish fries, from parades to picnics, from grand concerts to countless small town celebrations, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, we all take time to celebrate our freedom as we celebrate our country’s birthday.
She was born under difficult circumstances, our country and she has faced many times when she was in critical condition, fighting for her very survival. We weren’t alive then, we don’t realize how hard our country has fought to stay alive. We have no idea what life without freedom would be like. We take for granted what we have never been without.
Abraham Lincoln referred to America’s birth and purpose in his Gettysburg Address calling the United States a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Yes, the United States was born out of a peoples’ desire to be free and a peoples’ belief in the equality of all. They no longer wanted to be ruled by the royal monarchy of England but wanted to establish their own government.
Eighty-seven years before Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address, in our Declaration of Independence from England, our founding fathers clearly stated this self-evident truth saying, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And so our country came to be, born out of a desire to be a free and self-governing people.
Born out of the Revolutionary War and having survived the War of 1812, our country now found herself on yet another battlefield listening to Lincoln saying these words, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that (our) nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” It didn’t look good for America. We were a young country struggling to survive.
You see, ironically, some in the country were not living out the ideals upon which our country was founded. They were free from the crown of England but they were now enslaving other people. The free were now taking away the freedom of others. This could not continue.
This reminds me of the story in Matthew 18 of a King who was going to put a man in jail because the man owed the King a huge debt, not possible to ever repay in a lifetime. But the man begged for mercy, so the King cancelled his debt thereby setting him free to live his life. But this man then found someone who owed him a small amount and had that person put in jail because he could not pay.
How could someone who had been set free turn around and enslave someone else? It cannot be allowed. And that was the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln issued and signed on January 1, 1863 – to free any person held as a slave. Slavery could not continue in this country. Slavery is incompatible with a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal because they are created by God, for God, in His image. And so it came to pass that Lincoln and others found themselves on the battlefield of Gettysburg on that November day in 1863.
Lincoln said on that battlefield that day “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -” Today, on this birthday of our country, we find ourselves on the battlefield once again. We have been engaged in battling the invisible enemy of us all, COVID-19 and the also invisible, even more debilitating, enemy of our souls, fear. But as our battle with COVID-19 and fear continues, our country is now called to battle another enemy simultaneously.
The enemy, injustice accompanied by prejudice, has come to claim our country once again. The choice is ours. Will we allow our country to die or will we fight to give her “a new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln resolved at Gettysburg that day? If she ceases to exist on our watch, we are conceding that all who have died in the service of this, their beloved country over the years, have now died in vain.
Nathan Hale’s last words before he was hanged on Sept. 22, 1776 by the British as he fought for our independence, ring down through every era to today. “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Lincoln would give his life in the service of this country, fighting for the abolition of slavery. He was assassinated in 1865. Little more than one hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King would likewise be assassinated, giving his life in the service of this country, trying to help her live up to the ideals stated in her constitution.
In fact, Dr. King was not seeking the death of America. He was challenging her to make good on her promises and reach her potential as a people and as a nation. In his famous “I have a dream” speech, he said it was time to cash the check America had written so many years ago. Without tearing down a single statue, Dr. King issued the greatest speech of all time and forced this country forward into fulfilling her unkept promises made so long ago.
The Gettysburg address was given on a battlefield. Today, a day we should be celebrating our country on her birthday – every city is a battlefield, every conversation a minefield, every word a weapon – every act of discrimination a defeat, every act of courage, caring and justice a victory.
Today, the battle is not waged so much over possession of a fort or a hill or a valley – rather the battle is for the hearts and minds of the people who call this country home. Lies and twisted half-truths take many prisoners, leaving them no longer free to think for themselves, no longer free to speak or to live as they choose. Truth – their only hope of regaining lost freedoms.
We have come too far to give up now. If we don’t remember our past we will have no idea how far we have come. Conceived in liberty, we are still a very young country compared to other nations, only two-hundred forty-four years old. We must continue to grow into our founding documents, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, these must not be erased from our history and therefore eventually from our memories.
We must heed Lincoln’s words, we must “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion . . .” We must resolve, they shall not have died in vain.
As I write this, my thoughts turn toward our veterans everywhere. You have served our country with self sacrifice and honor. We owe you an unrepayable debt. But one thing is sure. Defacing your memorials and erasing the record of your service and sacrifice serves no positive purpose and makes no one’s life any better. No one is any safer or any freer due to destruction and demolition of public property.
Are we still the land of the free and the home of the brave? It has not felt like this is true in recent months. People seem afraid to fly an American flag or to stand up in support of the country that has given them the freedom, safety and peace to pursue their dreams of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Why would we not want to fight for our country, to make her better, rather than to tear her down and erase her heritage, which is to erase our own heritage. Just because a past is painful, does not mean it is not beneficial. We have already witnessed through history our country slowly, painfully but purposefully correcting her mistakes.
I think our focus has been held captive by an incomplete picture of the reality that is our country. What we give our thoughts to is so important. Consider these words from Philippians 4:8,
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He chose for His inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12)
I pray that we will celebrate our country’s birthday today, giving thanks for the freedoms and protections she has provided us in the past and remembering the sacrifices of all who have gone before us, giving their lives so that this country might live. She deserves a celebration. Their memories deserve to be honored.
sincerely, Grace Day