Seventeen years ago on this very day, my wife was due to give birth. We were in Jackson, Tennessee; it was blazing hot; and Jill was ready to burst. We walked our neighborhood incessantly, hoping to entice and coax our firstborn child to make his entrance into the world. He was having nothing of it. Day after day, Jill and I walked. Day after day, the baby obstinately stayed put.
Of course, our attention to this child had been attuned for a very long time, even longer than the nine months he had been forming in the womb. For the previous five years of our marriage, Jill and I had talked about the child we hoped, one day, to have. We had debated the values we would seek to instill in him. We had negotiated how we would plan for his future. We had dreamed of what impact he might make upon the world.
A full week after the due date, on July 7, the baby still offered no sign of his appearing, and our obstetrician decided to induce labor. We entered the hospital early that morning, Jill was given a healthy dose of Pitocin, and we expected that soon we’d have a cooing, gurgling baby. July 7 passed in discomfort but with no child. Twenty-four hours turned into thirty-six before Jill’s body and the baby showed any inclination to give birth. When things finally did start to happen, the baby became lodged in the birth canal, and there he stayed for what seemed like forever. Finally, his heartrate fell precipitously, and with such speed that I didn’t realize what was happening, the doctor used forceps to retrieve our son and pull him, seemingly against his will, into the world.
The baby didn’t cry. He was limp and lethargic. Looks of concern spread across the faces in the room. A special care nurse was summoned. An oxygen bag was applied. And I, a new and first time father, stood to the side paralyzed, wondering whether this event would end badly, whether the plans we’d made for nine months, whether the hopes we’d carried for five years, would leave us bereft.
It is impossible for me to celebrate my son’s birthday without dwelling upon, and sometimes losing myself within, the memory of his birth. I daresay my gratitude to God is deepened because, for a moment, I teetered on the very edge of loss. I also carry a potent sense of the precariousness of the project that is my son. Each of his birthdays, like the day of his actual birth, is a moment filled with hope, and anticipation, and apprehension for what the coming year may bring. All that preparation and planning that began five years before he entered the world is still operative.
My son’s birthday is the same week as Independence Day. Sometimes the two events get muddied in my thinking. I love them both, my son and the United States. The coincidence of these auspicious dates also reminds me that Independence Day is a birthday, the anniversary observance of the entrance into the world of something uniquely new.
For years before our nation’s birth, there were those who debated the values this new thing would embody. They planned for its arrival. They imagined the impact it would have on the world. What was born was not only, or even primarily, the legal entity of a nation, but rather an idea. And though the Founders’ understanding of God was not, on the whole, orthodox, the idea gestated by them was commensurate with the Gospel. The idea was that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is an idea about shared human dignity and worth, about the commonweal of which we are all a part, about being a city on a hill rather than a society in which any must crawl in the gutter.
The birth was announced on July 4, 1776, but the announcement came at the beginning rather than the end of the birthing process, and labor turned out to be painful, lengthy, and precarious. It began at Lexington and Concord, and it endured through Appomattox, two world wars, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, September 11, 2001. In truth, it continues today. There were times when the idea being birthed seemed stuck, when its heartbeat seemed to fade, when Americans felt paralyzed as events swirled around them, and in their fear didn’t know how to act or, worse yet, acted badly.
At such times, they might’ve given up on the idea. We still might. The laboring process faces us anew in every generation. We might decide that the idea isn’t what’s valuable, that it doesn’t matter, that we can abandon labor leaving the idea half-birthed, and live as Americans anyway.
But we cannot, any more than I could have walked out of the labor and delivery room seventeen years ago. My son was being born. There was nothing in this world more valuable or precious. All the planning, all the passion, all the love that brought us to that day hinged on the birth of that child. Whatever happened next, life would never be the same.
And the same is true of the United States. We are only American to the extent that our lives are dedicated wholly to the birth, health, and growth of a land marked by liberty for all. It is the land we bequeath to our flesh and blood children. It is the land that continues to be the iconic hope of the rest of the world. If we ever walk away from birthing the idea of the United States, then it will be stillborn, and in spirit, at least, this great nation will cease to be.
When my son was in peril in the moments after his birth, our saving grace was the doctor, who all the while tended to Jill and offered us both confident words of encouragement and resolve. In moments of our nation’s peril, sages and prophets have emerged who do the same. In December 1862, a year and a half after the outbreak of the Civil War and three months after the Battle of Antietam, which is still the bloodiest day in American history, Abraham Lincoln addressed Congress. He spoke to encourage the emancipation of Southern slaves, but his words are timeless, and they apply equally to any moment in our nation’s history when the laboring process is distressed, when we Americans allow our divisions to paralyze us.
At the end of his speech, Lincoln considered his generation’s legacy with both warning and hope. Hear his words, but allow them to speak to us. “We cannot escape history,” Lincoln said, “We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the [United States]. The world will not forget that we say this. We…hold the power, and bear the responsibility…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth…The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”[i]
As I post this, my almost seventeen-year-old son is on his way home from Costa Rica with fifteen of his fellow parishioners, where they have served as the hands and feet of Christ for people in grave need. All that planning, all that apprehension, all that hope…I am, this day, a proud father. I love my son.
I also love the idea of the United States, for which so many before us have given their hearts, their hopes, and their lives. With one another, and for those who look to us in hope across this globe, I pray that we will follow the way that is peaceful, generous, and just. If we do, then God will, indeed, forever bless.