How to Define a Patriot

Last week I drove my teenage son to a United States Marine Corp recruiting office. Enlisting has been his dream since he was a toddler, but encouraging the dreams of a toddler was easy. Seeing your son step up to defend our country in an age of terror and brutality? That’s hard on a momma’s heart.

And then I remembered a story from long ago, one that gave me courage.

Several years ago, my parents sold their sold their ranch in Texas and moved to Georgia to be closer to their grandchildren, including my three kids. My kids were always begging to go over and raid Grammy’s pantry, or build something in Grandpa’s workshop.

One afternoon I picked up James’ little sister, my five-year-old daughter Elise, from their house after another fun day with my parents.

On the way home, I noticed that Elise looking out the minivan window, a sad expression on her face. “What is it, hon?” I asked.

“It’s Grandpa and Grandma. I just feel really sorry for them,” she whispered.

“Why?”

Elise sighed. “I was just wondering, aren’t they ever gonna have kids of their own?”

I laughed all the way home.

Elise understood that her grandparents were also my parents but she was not yet able to really comprehend the meaning of that fact.

Of course, I knew that, in time, Elise would understand. But children can know facts without understanding them. I wonder, then, if I am like Elise in my understanding of the founding of our country. The story seems familiar. The holiday has a set routine. Every year, I grill out. I watch the fireworks. I buy sparklers and of course I wear red, white and blue.

I understand July Fourth so very well…or do I? Or am I like Elise, with an understanding of the facts but no ability yet to grasp the greater implications? What if the gift of freedom is a gift so profound that the world is still discovering what was accomplished so long ago?

I wonder, too, if on that night when the rockets really did glare red, and bombs did burst in air, if those patriots understood the transaction that was made. By their blood, we live in freedom. That’s the oldest story ever told, isn’t it, that by another’s blood we are set free? And yet, although it’s a story I first heard in a nursery, I still do not fully comprehend the gift.

On those many years ago when the skies exploded with smoke and fire, and the ground trembled as mothers clutched their hearts for fear of ill news, the world changed forever. I want to pause this weekend and reflect on the change, because soon my son will take his place to hold secure what was won. Like the others beside him, he won’t be there for fame or wealth.

You see to some people, our heritage is defined by what we’ve achieved. But Americans are patriots, and patriots are defined by our sacrifices. What we sacrifice determines who we become, as individuals and as a country.

So on this July Fourth, I will put my hand over my heart for the mothers whose hearts were broken. I will lift my face to the skies as fire once more lights up the dark night. And I will say to those patriots of long ago and to the patriots of today:

God bless America. Let freedom ring!