The eve of July fourth was the perfect summer night. A group of us had gathered for a cookout and water balloon fight in a friend’s backyard to celebrate the holiday. I’d forgotten what it felt like to run barefoot through drought-dried grass, to squeal as I dodged balloons and shriek at their icy impact.
We wrapped ourselves in beach towels and ate cookie dough ice cream and strawberry cheesecake for dessert. At dusk we piled into a minivan with all the seats removed but the driver’s and front passenger’s, sitting back-to-back and thigh-to-thigh on the floor—a practice no more illegal than other Independence Day traditions that would be bursting from backyards all night long.
It was hot and stuffy and loud and glorious. Though no one spoke louder than usual, eleven adults packed into a minivan multiplied the decibel levels of conversation and laughter. I stuffed pieces of tissue into my ears and belted along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Too soon we arrived at the park and joined the crowd, spreading blankets and unfolding chairs. Waiting for the first rocket to crack the sky. Oohing and ahhhing over the colorful splays of light. Some providing live commentary, others laughing at an inside joke, and one wishing the rest of us would just shut up and watch the show.
Moments like these can give the illusion that all is right in the world, but storms of more than one kind were in the forecast. The family cookout the following day would be indoors, sheltered from threatening skies, a heat index in the triple digits, and breaking headlines of a parade shooting not thirty miles away.
* * * * *
Questions swirl faster than sparks across the black sky. What compels someone to aim an assault weapon at another who breathes the same humid air and walks the same crowded streets? Why would anyone want to end lives and grieve others? How can we celebrate the holiday with family and friends, knowing that other families and friends are suffering trauma and loss?
Knowing that, at any moment of any day, we too could cross the path of a sniper’s bullet?
This question haunted me while walking into church for Sunday worship the week prior. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Dobbs v. Jackson case provoked threats of violent protest, especially towards churches. My parish was taking the threat seriously. I walked up the six front steps to the center doors—the only unlocked set out of five entrances. Ushers stood on both sides like sentinels, and even their friendly “good morning” failed to conceal their heightened alertness, which mirrored mine as I entered the air-conditioned building and sat in a pew.
How long would walking into church feel like wearing a bullseye?
Losing the constitutional protection to end unborn lives was provoking some to threaten others—an alarming but logical progression. If an unborn life doesn’t matter, why should mine?
Even for those who believe life doesn’t begin at conception, that abortion doesn’t end a life but only prevents one from developing, the result is the same: no life. Pro-abortion, pro-choice, call it whatever. It’s all no-life.
While there is a practical difference between someone who supports abortion and someone who fires an assault rifle, both fail to see life as a gift. Sadder still is that, by denying the gift of another’s life, they miss the gift of their own.
Either life is a gift, or it’s a curse. Either life matters infinitely, or it doesn’t matter one iota.
If life is a curse, then those who live are no better than mere beasts hunted as prey. The question then becomes, why not end a life? If life is not good, then what’s the harm in taking it—from yourself or someone else? If life is a curse, then ending it is a relief.
But if life is a gift, then every life is a gift, whether unborn, unwanted, or untimely. And if every life is a gift, it is a gift from beginning to end: each moment sacred, the painful and heartbreaking as well as the joyful and hope-giving. And as a gift, life should be received with gratitude and celebration, with awe and reverence for this heavenly bestowing.
Maybe if people spent more time celebrating their own lives, they’d have less time (or reason) to end the lives of others.
But before I point any accusations and pull the trigger of judgment, I must ask myself: do I truly believe every life is a gift, including my own? Every moment, including this one? Do I live like I believe it?
Inhale, exhale. Repeat. Gift, gift, gift.
* * * * *
Events like mass shootings and court rulings make watching fireworks with friends seem insignificant. Why would summer evenings matter when the headlines are relentlessly heavy?
Or do shootings and rulings make these moments vitally important?
I crane my neck to catch every flare across the sky. I listen to my friends laugh and feel the humid July air embrace my skin. I think how quickly the summer passes, how fireworks fade too soon after bursting into being. How quickly life passes.
But moments like these remind me why I am alive, that life is a gift. And in this moment, I am alive to receive it with the giddy gratitude of a lavished child.
Tomorrow lies beyond my knowledge and control. I may never be able to save a life from being taken, snuffed out like the last ember of a firecracker. But I can affirm the gift of life by receiving the gift of now.
And maybe, like one sparkler’s flame igniting another, it will inspire others to recognize and celebrate the gift of their own.
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation