When we lived in China during our second year of marriage, I learned that you can be homesick for a country. That in addition to missing family and friends, you can miss landscapes. Air. Earth.
I love the romantic idea of wanderer. I can imagine myself with a backpack and a worn pair of TOMS, walking the great wide world. I so want to be the girl who can pull of dreadlocks and a sweet bandana. I want my skin to be porous enough to absorb the beauty of a thousand different cultures and take them all the way in.
But during my year on the other side of the earth, I learned that I am rooted.
I looked for fragments of home during those months with a kind of desperation. I ate crap entirely for its familiar labels. Snickers bars. M&Ms. Entire cardboard tubes of Pringles. Every week, on our night off from teaching, Andrew and I took the bus 45-minutes to Jiaxing to eat familiar McDonalds cheeseburgers out of papery yellow wrappers. I gained a lot of weight.
I remember missing strange, specific things. Neighborhood playgrounds and blocks of cheddar cheese. Signs I could read and hair stylists who could tell me all about the latest celebrity gossip and thin, frozen pizzas. I missed garage sales. Quiet coffee shops. The same twenty pop songs looping on the radio.
The Century Mart down the road from our school had big plastic bins of chicken feet and cardboard boxes of “milk”, and it didn’t do it for me. I wanted Target. Cub Foods. The big-box stores of America that we rage against, except when we don’t have them.
In China, I understood that you are not just from a country. You are part of it. It is part of you.
Today is the fourth of July, and Pinterest is a blaze of red, white and blue. Food coloring! Frosting! Stars and stripes and sparklers and handmade pom poms. Little, individual American flags on sprinkle-covered cake pops.
Americans everywhere will dress their children in denim and red-and-white stripes and Instagram them eating corn on the cob.
And when I say that I am American, I mean it in the best way and the worst way. I am the good and the bad of it. The quiet and the loud. I am humble roots, pulling up, up, up by the bootstraps. Working hard. Earning my keep.
But also, I am brazen selfishness, taking things for granted others only dream of having. Overeating and overspending, every day throwing away uneaten food.
It is in me to be brave, to fight for the oppressed. But it is also in me to take. To elbow and push to get what I want. I come from those who led slaves to freedom under the cover of night; I come from the slave owners, from rationalizing injustice.
I was raised in the wild beauty of freedom and democracy. I grew up among finger paint and outdoor recess and Ducktales on television. Every year, I wrote an essay titled, “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up,” and I understood that anything was possible.
I am encouraged to dream big, but so often I use those Big Dreams to excuse myself from the hard, daily work of love. I have an unbelievable amount of resources, and more often than not, I use them to make my life easier instead of to alleviate the suffering of others.
I am free but often live as if I am not. I have the right to “pursue happiness,” and so I chase it, this phantom thing. I let myself believe that I deserve it, that it is the most important thing.
I am always asking for blessing. I forget that I am already blessed.
Today, there will be parades. The Shriners will drive by on their little carpets, wearing those hats with the tassels on them. There will be marching bands and horses and politicians flinging candy. The whole thing will smell of sweat and sunblock.
We celebrate the day that a country was born, and you don’t need to look farther than your TV or your Facebook newsfeed to see that the whole thing is hopelessly flawed. Notice the commercials, the commentaries, the signs and the slogans. The anger. The monologues. The hate.
But then, we’re all hopelessly flawed, aren’t we? Each of us carries the weight and light of our own country. The fireworks explode against our life’s landscape, and it is beautiful and dangerous all at once.
Night darkens into day, and we who run free in the wide love of God have a choice: to give into fear, or to be brave; to take or to give; to dream or to do; to hate or to love.
We can demand to be blessed. Or we can be the blessing.
(This post has been updated from the archives of the How to Talk Evangelical blog.)