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Reflections on the Fourth of July

Pastor Colin Phillips
Trinity United Methodist Church, Emmitsburg

(7/2016) The sun is streaming in through the window. Today is my birthday and I am sitting quietly at home. My wonderful wife is working, over in Carroll County. My daughter Abby is completing her last week at Catoctin High School before the Summer vacation.

Yesterday a monstrous Islamic terrorist murdered forty nine persons and wounded over fifty others in the early hours at an Orlando gay night club.

Yesterday also I was leading worship in the two United Methodist churches that I serve as pastor. It was Sunday in America.

The unspeakable tragedy and horror of that mass killing by an Islamic terrorist left me shaking with rage and pain and an overwhelming sense of loss. All the same, I’m so grateful that I could lead worship freely in a free country with free people. The Fourth of July is just around the corner, and I am so grateful to God that I am an American. The devastation cannot diminish my gratitude for America and to America.

I am English by birth and came to the United States in 1970 as a graduate student in my early twenties. A few years later I came through passport control again, but this time as an immigrant, carrying my chest x ray. I entered the country through Philadelphia, the very bedrock of the United States. In 1995 I became a citizen.

From the beginning I experienced the riches of the Christian heritage of this great country. I taught Sunday school at the famous First Baptist Church in Providence Rhode Island. I led a youth group at a large United Methodist Church in Warwick Rhode Island. I worshipped at the Newport Naval Base. The Vietnam Era was coming to a close.

It seemed back in 1970 as though Christianity was dying in England, and throughout Europe, but here it was dynamic and inspiring and I met so many fascinating, extraordinary American Christians. My first Christmas in the U.S. was spent in Texas and Louisiana, where I found the people I met to be hospitable and generous towards me beyond anything I had known before.

And in so many churches the United States flag stood by the altar, like a sentinel. But to my astonishment it hung also on the porches of American homes, and on flag poles in front yards, and still it is to be seen everywhere. I had never known such explicit patriotism in England.

Where I grew up, there is no ‘Fourth of July.’ There are important national occasions in England and it is a rich, fascinating cultural landscape, an extraordinary place, but there is no single day intended to rally the citizens around the flag and the legal document – the Constitution – which distils our covenant with each other. In Britain no such document exists.

My first Sunday as a pastor in America was July 3rd 1977. I was unprepared for the joyous outpouring of enthusiasm during the singing of "America the beautiful." People in my churches stood and sang those evocative, stirring words as though they really meant them, as though "God" and "country" were inextricably intertwined and could never be separated. Among the farms and small towns of Frederick County the Holy Spirit was moving, as it were from church to church, drawing so many small, enthusiastic congregations into one grateful, thankful people, ‘one nation under God.’

When I became an American citizen I was invited to march in the Towson Maryland July 4th Parade. I declined, mostly from shyness, because I never grew up with parades and it’s not my style. But in the United States there is so much diversity of culture and race and belief and lifestyle, there is so much freedom and there are so many ways to express it, so there is a place here for me, and for you, whatever our particularities may be.

Above all else, the vastness of America speaks to me. On the Fourth of July I am reminded and reassured that I am a citizen of the great national parks and national monuments. I love this corner of Maryland and Pennsylvania where we live, nestled below the hills and down the road from Gettysburg, but just beyond the hills begins the road to Colorado and the Gulf of Mexico and Olympia National Park, where the Pacific waters meet the mountains. And I dream of far-west Texas, where I have visited and hiked numerous times, and I give thanks to God for the freedom bestowed by our vast and astonishing landscapes of mountain and desert and wheat field and forest and water.

The freedom and diversity of America, her extraordinary people, everywhere across this land, bring some important reassurance to me as I cope with deep sadness and sense of loss this morning.

I recall the devastating news from yesterday from Orlando. Here in this nation many are struggling to cope, again. Freedom and free expression have their enemies, as we know, among the slaves of Satan. Dark forces, of which Jesus himself warned us during his earthly ministry, are ever-present, and they encroach upon each new day.

My prayers to Jesus Christ, my Savior, bring me back to believing and to faithful service even as I mourn those lives extinguished in Orlando. I am renewed by Christ’s gracious mercy towards me. And as the glorious Fourth of July draws closer, I see the stars and stripes not only waving on so many flagpoles but draped around my heart as well.

I will never give up my faith and I will not permit our freedoms to be forgotten or taken for granted in my soul. In our United Methodist tradition we are above all servants of one another, as ordained by God, and that’s the Spirit in which I seek to greet the Fourth of July.

We will defeat Islamic terrorism and we will continue to lift high the Cross of Christ, here in the United States. It goes without saying, actually. But it needs to be affirmed in our daily actions.

May the meaning and promise of the Fourth of July transcend our difficulties and differences. These are difficult days in America for all of us who love freedom and the free, peaceful expression of God-given living. We are challenged by the actions of terrorists and by the actions of those who perpetrate crimes of hatred against America and Americans. But in our faith and in our values we must not back down.

Later today I will be driving on the roads of Frederick County and Adams County. I shall pass by farms and houses where the flag of the United States is displayed. Just a handful of miles from here is the spot where President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It was Thursday November 19th 1863 when those words were spoken. Perhaps I’ll park my car and walk to that place this afternoon.

This morning, before breakfast, I prayed to God in the name of Jesus Christ, asking for comfort and strength and courage and hope for the families of those persons whose lives were taken in Orlando, and for the wounded, the survivors. You have done the same, I know. We’ll continue to pray as Christians and as Americans, as the Fourth of July draws closer and our destiny is affirmed.

Read other articles by Pastor Colin Phillips