Tonight my family gathered to celebrate my older sister’s birthday. All of the James kids and parents still live in Louisville, a fact that I didn’t think sounded all that remarkable until a friend told me that it really was. Both of my brother-in-laws are Ph.D. students who have the world open to them after graduation. Who knows where they’ll end up? These family gatherings are for a season, and are precious indeed.
On the drive to my sister’s a police car came behind me. I always notice marked cars, check my speedometer and make sure I’m buckled and signaling. But I never panic or run through emergency “What if” scenarios in my head. That is a luxury that many people in this country, including some friends, don’t have. When a police car gets close, they are worried, not because of what they have to hide but because of what they have to know. There are many people in this country for whom a simple 8 minute drive is laden with potential peril. I cannot even imagine myself in the same scenario.
We celebrated on my sister’s new patio. She has two boys, one 3 and the other nearly 2. The 3 year old got a prize from his parents for a successful episode of potty training: A toy gun. I played with toy guns for summers immemorial, so when my nephew brought me his new treasure, I looked on with admiration. It’s an impressively detailed, kid-sized AR assault rifle. I imagined my nephew playing in his yard with his toy gun, conquering evil emperor Zurg or Darth Vader. I never once worried that someone might think his plastic prop was real, that someone might call the police and that my nephew would find himself surrounded by strange men wearing black, in a life or death situation far beyond the comprehension of a 3 year old. Never once did I fear that.
We dined on pork chops straight from the grill, my wife’s homemade mashed potatoes, watermelon, key lime pie, and sweet iced tea. We sat and talked and laughed, about work, school, the Trinity (!), movies, having babies and not sleeping. Our hearts were light and merry, and we rejoiced in each other and in our family the same way we’ve rejoiced a billion other evenings. In the humid sphere of a backyard in July, we knew that we had each other, and the thought of anyone there not being there was as far from our minds as the rings of Saturn. There is my mom and dad, playing with their grandchildren. There is my wife, carrying our unborn son, whom we will welcome into the world with an army of families to love him. There is my brother-in-law, a brilliant scholar who will never lack for opportunities and admiration. Everything, everyone, seemed right where they belong, and the future, though veiled, felt as kind as the past.
I don’t know everything there is to know about my country. I’m not in expert in her politics, or well-trained in her demographics. But sitting down to a hot meal in the thick of summer, with family around me and no fear of any imminent harm, I realized that I believe something.
I believe every single American should have a chance to know what a night like tonight feels like.
I believe every single person in this country should be able to live accountable to God and justice, and free from the fear of ruthless or tyrannical forces. I believe the drives to summer barbecues should be expectant of joy and hope, not of chaos. I believe that everyone in this country ought to know how it feels to gather with their generations, with a life of hope and optimism spread before them.
I believe that social media is helpful in telling the facts but less helpful in telling the truth. I believe that it’s not the preeminent politicians or cultural icons who can bring a people together, but the thousands upon thousands of small churches that preach the gospel of peace. I don’t look to Washington or Hollywood for the balm to a hurting nation; I look first to the hills, from whence my help comes (Ps. 121:1-2).
Our country is like our own hearts: Awash in the contradictions of a humanity caught between the banishment from Eden and the glory of a new Jerusalem. We are just, yet unjust. We are righteous but then unrighteous. We clean the outside of the cup, but the inside we leave vile. That is not just a civics lesson. It’s the story of all the sick for whom Jesus came. We rejoice in America at the same time we grieve her sins. If there is contradiction in that, let it be the same contradiction inside of us.
And let us hope. Love hopes all things. Let us hope not because we know we can Fix Everything, but because when the United States is nothing more than an echo of a memory in human history, hope will live on.