July 4th has always been an outlier of a holiday for me. Perhaps if I grew up closer to the land of Indiana lakes, my feelings would be different. Instead, I grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where Julys were hot and fireworks were outlawed within city limits.
I only remember consciously watching 4th of July fireworks one time in my life. Decades later, I still remember that evening fairly well. Perhaps I was 8 years old or so. We parked our car at the house of a family whose kids my mom babysat and walked a couple blocks to the designated grassy knoll. Immediately after spreading out a couple of blankets in the sun-scorched yellow grass, the mosquitoes descended upon us all in a fury. We waited for the sky to darken. Anything to lessen the intense Texas heat and bring on the fun was welcome. I remember all of that but, surprisingly, not the fireworks themselves.
These days, living in a mixed-culture home, there are some holidays - most notably, Christmas - that have more significance than others. Other holidays, such as Columbus Day, have a negative connotation since my wife’s homeland was forcibly colonized by Spain shortly after the travels of Christopher Columbus. Not only am I grateful to have my wife’s perspective on life and culture close at hand, but I also had the benefit of living in three foreign countries between the ages of 13 and 30. Therefore, in our household, July 4th is a day reserved for heavy contemplation instead of fireworks, outdoor grilling, or lakeside festivities. It's always been that way and I imagine it always will be.
This year was no different. On Saturday, I watched the fantastic film production of the musical Hamilton for the very first time (I highly recommend it). I also stumbled upon a profound phrase in the Old Testament which put me in a highly-introspective mood for the rest of the day:
Strangers and sojourners.
Based on the context, it was a phrase spoken by God to Moses in the book of Leviticus in regards to the Promised Land. Fresh off of a four-century-long enslavement to the Egyptian empire, the Israelites found themselves wandering through the desert in search of a land they could finally call their own. Although God had promised it to them, they had yet to enter it. He was still preparing their hearts and minds, leaving it just out of reach. Even still, the thought of a home to call their own was exciting. This new land was so close, they could almost taste it; so close, they had already begun mentally decorating each brand new home that failed to even exist.
In the midst of all this anticipation, God made a sobering declaration about the land beyond the Jordan River:
“The land is Mine. You will only reside in it as strangers and sojourners.”
He then goes on to remind them that although they will soon steward the land on His behalf, it was their responsibility to renew it, make it right, and redeem it.
A few chapters prior to this declaration, another revolutionary statement was proclaimed for the very first time. He commanded the same people to:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When you span the six-chapter gap between these two statements, you see a well-lit path that’s impossible to ignore. God was actively preparing the hearts of the people He had recently brought out of slavery, showing them how to cultivate a society where the chief goal of community-building would be built on the premise of loving others. Not following His clearly-defined precepts - such as loving your neighbor as yourself - would put the whole nation-building process in jeopardy. For as easily as it had been received, it could just as quickly be lost.
Sadly, a few books later, that is what actually happened. Neighbor turned against neighbor. Citizens ignored the plight of the hungry, poor, and orphaned. Residents turned a blind eye to foreigners in need. Corruption and injustice were banners proudly waved from the highest office in the land. Eventually, the people who had inherited the land watched it all come crashing down. After repeated attempts to awaken them from their wayward path, young and old alike were shackled in chains and marched toward a foreign land where a second exile took place. After tasting paradise, they had somehow forgotten the promise they had made to renew, make right, and redeem the land.
Heavy stuff, right? I daresay the lesson above is just as applicable in our current day and age as it was a few thousand years ago. While the verse in Leviticus spoke of the land the Israelites were going to, I believe it also applies to the land we live in today. Just like them, we are merely strangers and sojourners passing through. Just like them, we have a responsibility to renew, make right, and redeem the land we live in. Just like them, we have a divine calling to love our neighbors as ourselves. Doing so is crucial to our calling and made possible by the incredible amount of freedom we possess in this nation.
For the rest of July 4th, I spent a significant amount of time contemplating all that I have been given just by being American. Am I using my blessings wisely? Am I redeeming the gifts I’ve been given for a greater currency? Am I loving my neighbor as myself? Do I mourn for the poor and the lonely? Do I abhor injustice in the world around me?Or am I content to just make plans for my own life and home, neglecting the cries of those outside my door?
I will not be here forever. I am only a stranger and sojourner passing through. Am I renewing, making right, and redeeming the time that has been given to me?
“Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better.”
Earlier this summer, NeighborLink welcomed two interns to our team thanks to a partnership with Brotherhood Mutual. One of those interns is Kyle Zurbach, a junior at Purdue University Fort Wayne. As our Volunteer Mobilization Intern, Kyle spends much of his time at volunteer sites assisting with a wide variety of projects submitted by neighbors around our community.
Over the past week and a half, Kyle has been stuck at home due to issues related to COVID-19 within his family. During that time, Kyle has been self-isolating from work and the world around him while navigating the uncertainties caused by the virus. Although Kyle and his family are doing great, we continue to lift them up in prayer.
Through this unforeseen detour, Kyle has continued to add value to NeighborLink in many ways. Since he has been part of our team for just over a month, we thought it would be a great time for you to get to know him better. We asked him what his greatest takeaways have been so far in his five-week journey as NeighborLink’s Volunteer Mobilization Intern. Here’s what he had to say:
During isolation, I have been able to reflect on the great experiences and interactions I've had so far while working at NeighborLink.
When I began my internship, I noticed that all of the staff had a true understanding of what being a neighbor really is. For most of my life, I believed that a neighbor was only someone who lived within the boundaries of my own personal neighborhood.
However, as I got to know to my fellow coworkers and we began to speak more about the in’s and out’s of NeighborLink, it didn’t take long for me to have a change of heart. It was then that I finally understood who my neighbors truly are. They aren’t just the people who live in the confines of my own neighborhood. Instead, they’re anyone and everyone I come in contact with. My neighbors, I now believe, might look, speak, and act differently than me, but they all deserve to be helped and listened to.
While learning all of this, I also started helping to identify and lead projects with my coworkers Derrick and Jeff. These two guys have done a really great job in helping me understand what my role at NeighborLink really is.
At this point, I have participated in a wide variety of projects, including mowing, landscaping, painting, and ramp building. One of my favorite projects so far was helping to build a ramp for a senior neighbor named Brenda. It was amazing to be part of the team that created the ramp for her because I know it will help Brenda’s overall quality of life. While we were onsite, Brenda was still recovering in the hospital and not able to see the work that had just been completed. Although I was not able to meet her, I found joy in knowing that she was my neighbor.
Overall, the last five weeks have been deeply impactful for me, especially in terms of how I view others. No longer do I look at others as strangers but as neighbors who I can love and care for, even without seeing them face to face.
I fell asleep both troubled and disturbed. This sometimes happens when opposing thoughts collide within the hours I'm awake. On one side were love and respect. On the other, concepts of right and wrong. How does one balance them all out?
Thankfully, there was quiet in the stillness. I welcomed it, for there were too many voices competing for my attention. Some were joyous. Others were angry. Many taunted, while a number seemed deaf and mute. A handful spoke in peace. What was my timbre? The day had come and gone, yet still I didn't know.
Impatiently, I threw my own voice to the stillness of the night. "What am I supposed to think, God?"
There was no response, just the inner workings of a highly-confused mind. I did not like that at all.
"I'm serious! I need to know. What am I supposed to believe? I only ask because I want to know how best to serve You. Can’t You see that I'm honestly seeking truth? So what is it?” I felt the silence shift. “What is truth?” Before that three-word question had yet been fully spoken, I felt and heard an answer:
It sounded like something God would say, so I grasped the opportunity to ask more questions. "What am I supposed to think? What am I supposed to do?"
"Follow me. Love others."
"Follow me and love others."
It seemed too simple. I assumed there must be more to do and understand, so I pressed the matter further. "I'm worried, Lord. We're so divided in this nation. Everything is such a mess. Sometimes it feels like everything is falling apart."
"Do you think this is your home? Your true nationality?"
I told Him no.
"First you are Mine. You're under My banner. Today you are a pilgrim."
I began to understand but still I was troubled. "How do I choose sides and still make a difference in the lives of others, Lord?"
Did I feel laughter? Not the mocking sort, but the fatherly sound a dad would make when watching his child struggle with a newly-learned task. "I'm not a politician. Now just follow Me. Remember, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."
In my mind, I saw a forest path. Ahead of me was Him. To the sides was everything else. The only obstacles I would ever face while following Him were the ones to left and right. Never to my front.
I rolled over, smiled, and nodded. There was freedom. Peace.
Laws have been passed, wars have been waged, empires have come and gone, and borders have shifted like sands in a barren desert. Monuments rise and fall, just as buildings decay and topple like dirt. Many of us will live to see eighty years and some will even see the dawning of a century or more. What was said yesterday will be said again tomorrow, for there is nothing new under the sun.
Through it all, One remains. Through it, all I am His. Through it all, He has called us to love each other. Through it all, He beckons us to freedom in truth.
Do you hear it? Sometimes you must first evict the noise, replacing it with silence.