God bless the USA—where we feast on good food, pretty lights, and loud sounds to celebrate the more intangible things like bounty and liberty and divine providence over a nation. Hamburgers and fireworks don’t really seem to get at the heart of the matter, but just like every American family out there, we joined in on the fun.
As you can see, it was a picture-perfect day. Great friends and family. Good times.
The setting of the sun was met with the pounding of feet up the stairs as young and old rushed to view five different fireworks shows we could see in the distance from the second story of our home. But, for the middle-aged men in our company in need of the rush of adrenaline, watching from afar brought little satisfaction. Enter the leftover bag of fireworks my husband bought at a roadside stand at New Year’s. We had only opened the sparklers. An array of pyrotechnics remained, beckoning the free and the brave.
I will admit that it is my natural tendency to be the party pooper when it comes to things like this. (Picture the mom from “A Christmas Story” chanting, “You’ll shoot your eye out! You’ll shoot your eye out!) But, as I am maturing, I am learning to let go more and also not to squash my husband’s need for adventure, risk, and excitement.
The neighborhood had conspicuously omitted the posting of signs this year that threatened lifetime imprisonment for setting off fireworks. Everyone noticed. It was like a war zone on my street. Cat’s away…mice will play.
Honestly, I’ve gotten so good at letting go lately that it hardly occurred to me to be concerned as we led 8 children and 8 adults out the front door like sheep to the slaughter. By the time I lugged out the second blanket on which our guests could rest while viewing the festivities, Bryan, giddy with excitement, was passing out pop caps to the kids. All the while, our next door neighbor and his teenage son had begun to set off some pretty impressive fireworks.
I stuffed down a few fleeting thoughts about my roof catching on fire. I tuned out the voices in my head… the lady on the local news warning about the danger of blowing off limbs and my mother’s stories about family fireworks mishaps. The fact that I was seated right next to my parents on the blanket made it harder, but I managed. I knew they secretly disapproved. But, they were quiet, and I suspect they had also resolved to let go a little and try to have some fun. As I wrestled with these thoughts, I said only one thing out loud: “This makes me a little nervous, but I am going to trust God to protect us.” And, with that, I did.
Not two minutes later, my neighbor and his son set off a doozie. And, it malfunctioned. Instead of shooting up, it shot directly into my yard--into my crowd of family and friends. It all happened so quickly, there was hardly time to react. I felt like I was in an action movie—you know the scene where a bomb explodes and the cameras turn to slow-motion…the actors brace themselves, arms in front of faces, and slowly turn away from the blazing fire, jumping to escape the aftermath? This was the scene.
All I could see was flaming light barreling toward me. The children began screaming and running toward the house. I picked up the nearest kid and yelled, “Get inside, NOW!” Once inside, chaos ensued. Children were crying hysterically and the older ones were comforting the younger ones. Parents were trying to figure out what had just happened. Even though it looked like instant death, not much injury was to be found. My friend’s husband was cut up a bit, and my father’s arm was mildly burned. My mother and one of the toddlers were complaining of temporary loss of hearing. Nothing caught on fire. Everyone else was unscathed.
My neighbor was mortified. Otherwise rational and cautious adults, my husband and I were embarrassed, too. We had all heard the warnings, but we did it anyway. We knew we were blessed to be ok. It was a close call. And, in our best estimation, our protection had been a miracle. I saw the explosion coming right at us as we rested on the blankets like sitting ducks. I swear that the hand of God or His angels must have pushed the fire away from us. It should have hurt us all.
As I have been processing this crazy end to an otherwise peaceful and bountiful Independence Day, several things have come to mind. Specifically, two conversations I have had with friends in recent days. One was with my friend Cindy—the one who was watching Audrey when she died. Cindy and I rarely talk these days. No particular reason. We parted ways a bit after the accident. I will admit this was my choice, due to the pain we each had that I was not personally strong enough to share with her. But, we have talked and seen each other since, and we share ties to friends and places. I think of her and pray for her often.
Cindy came to mind this summer after I neglected to pick up my nephew from vacation bible school. He is 6. I promised my sister-in-law, Tricia, I would bring him home. My plans to be at VBS changed due to family circumstances, and I informed everyone--but Tricia. I completely forgot Matthew. It wasn’t malicious. But, once I realized what I had done, I felt horrible about it. I love my nephew! How could I forget him?
I was squarely confronted with the reality of my humanity. If I could forget a kid, what else could I accidentally do? What am I capable of messing up? I immediately thought of Cindy. You can do almost everything right, and then in an instant, one mental slip, one back gets turned, and your life is never the same.
This kind of uncertainty is hard to live with. Most of the time, we try not to think about it too hard. But, when you face questions like these, you are forced to decide what you believe—especially what you believe about God.
I wrote Cindy again on the day I forgot Matthew. Our discussion over Facebook included one particularly astute observation on her part: “I don’t know why God sometimes has mercy on our incompetence and then fails other times to bless our vigilance.” Well said. Neither of us offered an answer to this sacred query. I could take a stab at it, but I would be grasping at the wind.
Fast forward to a conversation I had with a neighbor at the pool on the 3rd of July. The two of us share a tendency toward anxiety, perfectionism, and striving for control. We began to discuss these things, and she asked me, “Do you think that everything is pre-determined by God? If so, what good does it do to pray? Do our prayers actually do anything to change God’s mind, or does He have everything decided in advance?” These are really great questions. Legitimate ones debated at seminaries daily, I'm sure.
I cannot help but make connections between these three situations (the fireworks close call, the tragic death of my child, and the philosophical wondering of my neighbor). Is God really in control? If so, why does He sometimes let really bad things happen, even when you are doing everything “right”? And, why does He sometimes protect us, even when we make less than stellar decisions? In a world that is this unpredictable (and, truthfully, seemingly unjust), how do we battle fear? How do we avoid freaking out?
The answer to these questions is the delicate, but firm underpinning of my reality in the aftermath of Audrey’s death. If I don’t get this one right, I may not be able to get out of bed tomorrow. In situation after situation, I face this conundrum. Is God really trustworthy? Can I rely on Him? How careful do I need to be? How wise? How cautious? How much depends on me anyway? And, with so many unknowns, how do I rest?
I might be assuming things, but I think my neighbor is weary of her hyper-vigilance. I have been there. I think that deep down she desires peace, but it eludes her. She is just not sure if she can let go—if she should. If God’s protection is so elusive, then, it seems, so is our peace. If He won’t keep us safe, then we conclude that we will have to self-protect—or at least die of stress while trying.
But, is there another alternative?
I think so. But, it is not for the faint of heart. It is TRUSTING GOD--for real.
This is a tough pill for me to swallow because it means I have to admit my limitations and my fallibility and my childlike perception of the world compared to the way God sees things. It means I have to admit I will not figure things out no matter how long I study and seek and conjecture. It means I throw my pride into the fire and allow God to be God. It means that I admit to God that I haven’t really been trusting Him even though I said I was—that it is damn near impossible for me to do without His help.
It involves total surrender. It involves ceasing to thrash against the things I don’t understand and cannot control. It says, “Thy will be done.”—and means it.
And, it assumes there is a Keeper of all things who is love and who will redeem. One who has a plan and who cannot be thwarted. One who hears our prayers and responds—sometimes standing His ground, sometimes bending to our pleas because of love, mercy, and grace—but always, always doing what He wants to do because it is right and good and perfect. One who may have everything pre-determined (or may change His mind). What's it to me? One whose ends justify the means. One who knows more than I do. One who does not have to explain Himself to me. One who has earned my respect and my submission.
It involves more than a feeling or a leaning toward God. It requires, I believe, an outright force of our will to choose to honor God with the trust He deserves--because He is holy. It is a decision we make—sometimes 100 times a day.
God is not surprised by our difficulty releasing our illusion of control. Satan wants equal standing with God, too. Are we really different? We have such a hard time giving God the power (that, ironically, He already has). But, those of us who really want peace and who really claim to follow Christ will not be allowed to stay in this place of rebellion. I believe that at some point, the Holy Spirit will be knocking on the door of our hearts asking, “Why don’t you trust me? Don’t you know who I am?”
This is exactly what happened in Job’s case. He experienced every kind of personal tragedy known to mankind all at once. He “trusted” God at first, but it didn’t take Job long to realize that his trust in God had not been tested before. He had not really had to see what it meant—to see whether he did or not. As he began to question God, many theories as to why God acted or didn’t act came out in conversation with friends. But, the problem with all of those theories was that they were wrong. God said so. And, the funny thing is that when God decided to respond, He didn’t find it necessary to explain Himself. He did, however, find it necessary to correct all of the people who were trying to figure Him out and who were grossly misrepresenting Him. The bottom line? God does what He wants. He knows more than we do. He has not found that it would be beneficial to entirely explain Himself to us. Maybe even if we knew the “why’s”, we still couldn’t accept or understand it all. God does what brings Himself glory. Period.
I can't help but pause and ask myself: Am I ok with this? Have I accepted this about my God?
I am comforted that even though God does not feel the need to explain Himself, He has been gracious to give us many, many examples in Scripture of His character…many instances of His interactions with His beloved children that show His power, His compassion, and His love. And, He has revealed to us His plan for redemption of all of the things that cause us fear and pain. He sent Jesus to die in our place—His own son. And, He has given us time to respond to Him. He will send Jesus back at the right time. And, someday, He will establish His kingdom on earth and live with us-- and everything will submit to His authority. There will be no more tears or crying or suffering.
The only real path to peace is in accepting what God has revealed to us, deeming it enough, and choosing to rest in it. It is in the bending of the knee—in completely chaining ourselves to God's authority and sovereignty-- that we find true freedom. What a surprising mystery this is!
What does this mean for me in real life? Well, Bryan and I cleanly resolved never to buy roadside fireworks again—or to watch others light them. We didn’t even need to discuss it. One knowing look, and that was that. We may be done with fireworks, but what about the next time I let the kids jump on the trampoline or the next time I change lanes and have to swerve because someone is in my blind spot? God may protect us, but He may not. We have experienced the worst loss I can imagine, and there is no guarantee that we’ve reached our quota of tragedies. Life is risky. If we don’t want to be paralyzed—if we want to really live--we are going to have to choose to accept the unpredictable, wild nature of our world and of our God.
And, we can do it gladly. ‘Cause we know how this ends. And, between here and there, we don’t have to be bound by fear. We can be freak-out free. So can you.