God Bless America - Weight and Light

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.)

 

 

23 comments

  1. Grace b.

    So good! Drippy poetic beautifulnesss. Love it!

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  2. Beautiful, Addie. And SO true, every piece of it — the good, the bad and the ugly. Yeah, that pretty much describes my inner life (and outer one too, at points!) and our country’s remarkable split personality. I am so grateful we are free to write about it, talk about it, try to change it. THAT’s what I celebrate every 4th, I think.

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  3. I also lived in China the second and third year of my marriage…after living there 6 years before I met my husband. I’ve also learned that as much as you miss a place, the ‘new’ place becomes a part of your being. My heart longs for both places in different ways. I also learned that it doesn’t matter where you go, most natives will be nationalistic…sometimes to a fault. (That includes my country.) But there is still no place like the USA, with all her faults mixed with blessings. But that is life, eh?

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    • Absolutely. My year in China was a bit of a struggle. Because I didn’t know the language or culture very well, I existed at the edge of it, never truly letting myself fall in love with it. So my experience is different than yours…but I think about that with other places I’ve visited and that have become part of me.

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  4. as an MK (missionary kid) and TCK (third culture kid) who isn’t always sure about how to feel about being an American, thank you for this. I love the phrase “Each of us carries the weight and light of our own country.” i have found that to be true – no matter where I live. we are all flawed and we are all longing for the eternal, perfect home even as we taste some goodness here.

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    • “all longing for the eternal, perfect home even as we taste some goodness here” — yes. Love.

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  5. Gary

    “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.”

    Each person, in every nation, struggles with these defects. We all also struggle with a contradiction, in that we travel to other countries because of some cultural or geographical characteristic AND if we stay long enough, try to bring part of our culture with us.

    Gradually, America is losing it’s identity because every one coming here to live/enjoy/progress also establishes their part of their culture, for the same reasons you and your readers did. This is neither right nor wrong, it simply IS.

    I wonder what America and Americans will look and sound like when it and we are as old as Europe, Africa, or India? If we could just incorporate the best of ourselves and our countries, in each place, we will have accomplished our Lord’s desire.

    Great thoughts and insight.

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    • Very interesting thoughts. The best of ourselves and our countries…yes…and I would say of our faith.

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      • Gary

        “yes…and I would say of our faith.”

        I stand corrected. As an active Christian, I assume including our Faith is understood, which is incorrect. I have never agreed with uncontrolled, unlimited freedoms for everyone immigrating here to live. Ever time Israel allowed other religions into their country, they adulterated their focus on the one true God and began backsliding.

        The same is happening here, with our governments support, and we are losing our spiritual identity, focus and strength. This topic is WAY too complicated for a comment section.

        Make it a wonderful day.

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  6. Addie, you’re so good at the tension between things. I’m feeling a lot of joy and gratitude today, but it’s all mixed up with a deep sadness and sense of personal complicity. You’re good company for me. Thank you for this.

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  7. “You do not just live in a world, but a world lives in you.” (Buechner)

    And these worlds are both terrible and beautiful – the perfect paradox that only adds up in the alphabet of grace.

    Lovely words, Addie. Thanks.

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    • I love that Frederick Buechner. He’s amazing. Thanks for sharing that quote here, Kelli.

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  8. Truer words…
    This deeply resonated in me as an expat in Peru. I have a love/hate relationship with my home culture and thus with myself. Thanks for putting it into perfect words!

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  9. Oddly enough, it was after living in a foreign country for eleven years that I realized how deep the roots I’d put down there went. Twenty-four years after returning I still miss the country I lived in.

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    • I still miss the 4th of July parties from my childhood held at embassies in Pakistan and from my adult world in both Pakistan and Egypt. While we’ve done the small town parade thing the last few years it doesn’t represent my roots. I do believe becoming rooted in another country allows you to see the US with new eyesight and greater clarity of good and of bad.

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    • Yes. And I love what Marilyn said: “I do believe becoming rooted in another country allows you to see the US with new eyesight and greater clarity of good and of bad.” Yes. I didn’t do a great job of becoming rooted in the Chinese culture — like you both did in the countries where you lived (a regret of mine, to be sure) — but I still believe that it helped me to see the US in a different, more complex way. Any travel will do that if you keep your eyes open.

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  10. These words are so true, and speak so well to the paradox of loving our country, as humans, in a fallen world. Of and in sometimes, struggling to be in not of.

    Reply

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