Ten years ago today, I was having one of the loneliest days of the hardest year of my life. I was living on the other side of the world, enduring a long series of personal tragedies and professional disappointments that would eventually leave me beaten down into despondency and depression. On July 4, I was acutely aware that I was far away from the country that I loved on the day that we usually celebrate the very best of our history, ideals and institutions—things that have always meant more and more to me every year.
I spent the day wandering the streets alone. I took this picture on that walk. At one point, I ran into two friends from the church I had found there. They were also away from their home country—India—and we had a short talk about the significance of the day for Americans and why it was so strange for me to not be with other people who were also celebrating. I’m still not sure if they were on a date, or if my lonely patriotism confused them and made them uncomfortable, but either way, we pretty quickly went our separate ways.
A decade later, Independence Day comes as I’ve been dealing with the hardest stretch of life I’ve had since that truly brutal year. My wife and I are exhausted, I haven’t been healthy since May, and it seems like getting back to a baseline is going to be measured in months, not weeks. And in the midst of all of that, while I’m spending this Independence Day living in the heart of my country’s capital city, in some ways the country I love feels even farther away now than it did then: I have deep personal misgivings about my city’s increased emphasis on contemporary military iconography as part of celebrations that have always reminded more about the strength and power and beauty of our country’s ideas and ideals. For me, Independence Day has always been a celebration of the formation of a nation held together not by coercive force or ethnic tribalism, but by a shared commitment to trying out something new together.
Despite the fact that I left 2009 physically broken, emotionally depressed and spiritually dry, I also left that year more convinced than ever of God’s mercy, gentleness and community. I don’t think I will ever forget the first time I visited our little international church and looked out the window at a foreign landscape while singing God’s praises. The same God I worshiped in New York was present in this place, pouring out his Spirit on a land I never knew. He was already there before I got there, his body already gathered and tending to those around them. And should I leave, he would remain there, his body continuing to serve as his hands and feet until his Son returns. The magnitude of omnipresence hit me for the first time in my life.
And it was one of the very lowest moments of that year—a harrowing hour that I fully believed and accepted would end with my death—that revealed to me, then just a handful of years into my new Christian faith, that I truly do believe in the resurrection of the body into life everlasting, as the Apostle’s Creed describes it.
Today, I’m very, very tired, but I’m less afraid than I would have been ten years ago. I know that the same God who carried me through a lonely Independence Day on the other side of the world a decade ago is also at work in my life and in my city here and now. I know that the international church community that kept me afloat during that difficult year overseas is actually part of the same body as the church community that brought me back to spiritual health when I moved back to New York, the same body as the church community that is encouraging my wife and I in our exhaustion and in my (slower-than-ideal) recovery.
Since I came to faith, the Holy Spirit has at times refined my love for my country. Other times, he has challenged it. Other times, redeemed it, deepened it, humbled it, or purified it. Often, the Spirit has done many of those things at once. God’s work in our lives is not always simple, not always easy to understand, and does not always seem to follow a clear narrative arc. We can’t always see the conclusion—or even the next chapter—from our current position in the story. But comparing Independence Day today to Independence Day a decade ago, I’m more confident in the story-teller than I ever had been before.
I hope today was meaningful for you.
A version of this article was originally posted on Rick’s personal Instagram account.