As I contemplate the upcoming fourth of July celebration, a couple of things have been running through my mind. Many years ago, on a bright sunshiny, really pleasant Spring day I happened to be biking through the Mall, and upon crossing the grounds of the Washington Monument I was struck by the large number of people engaged in a variety of small group activities. Some were tossing frisbees, others flying kites, others engaged in a variety of just fun things, and some were doing nothing, just stretched out on the grass enjoying the warmth of the sun. Everyone was so happy and carefree, exuberant even. I thought that the scene, ordinary as it seemed, was really remarkable. First because they have the time off from whatever work life they have. Secondly, they are free to just come here, to this beautiful open space, using it as if it were their own private property, doing fun playful things, without having had to ask someone beforehand or get some kind of permit. It was not always thus, and in many places of the world isn’t now. I thrilled at the realization of the freedom of activity we have and which was on display that day. It was a beautiful sight. I’ve never forgotten that flash of appreciation.
Second is a set of reflections on our recent trip to Richmond to see an art exhibit, different from those reflections I wrote about already. These reflections are on all the things that exist which make it possible to actually enjoy the freedom I have. Consider: I sit in a chair in my apartment, pick up a piece of plastic, press a few buttons, say a few words to a total stranger, retire for the night, and the next morning walk out of my building and there is a car and another total stranger waiting for me. I open a door and sit down and in a few minutes I am 20 miles away. I get out and wait a while and in a few minutes a train arrives, I walk up some steps, sit down and read a book or nap, and in two hours get up, walk down those same few steps and I am 200 miles away. For the next two days I have a comfortable and safe, luxurious even, place to be. Like all the miracles of nature that we take for granted because they surround us by the millions, like acorns turning into oak trees, are not all these institutions of civilization just too miraculous for words?
And reflecting further, there are all those institutions that I didn’t interact with directly that also make it possible for me to actually exercise the freedom I have, such as the structures and personnel of law enforcement that to a huge degree make it possible to walk around outside safe from marauding gangs. A currency and banking system keeps it all moving without having to rely solely on the kindness of strangers. Thanks to an army of trash collectors the streets are free of garbage, and I don’t have to fight off rats and feral dogs. I reflected also on our Armed Forces, on our submarines with ICBMs, the so-called ‘boomers’, positioned throughout the oceans, and on our high altitude bombers at the ready; all out of sight and out of mind but poised to defend from foreign invaders the territory where we have our homes, our agriculture production, and our commerce. How have I been so privileged that all these vast and complex social systems exist so that I can move about freely enjoying life, even to enjoying something so non-essential as seeing a collection of paintings of flowers? Truly they are a miraculous gift, as worthy of our mindful appreciation and protection as the miracles of nature.
For Independence Day
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn; Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 30-June-2015.