Growing up in the tightknit Boynton community near the Georgia-Tennessee border, it seemed that everyone gathered at the local baseball field on the Fourth of July.

All day, there was one baseball or softball game after another. Some were serious competitions — at least to our young minds — and others featured fathers against sons or mothers against daughters.

Each of those fun-filled summer holidays began with Margaret Bowman, the soprano soloist from my home church, singing the National Anthem. It was pure Americana — and we were proud Americans.

Years later, I was a college student when our nation celebrated its bicentennial. It sticks in my memory because on that Sunday morning of July 4, 1976, I preached my first sermon.

It was in a small Baptist church in Michigan. That evening, our team of 12 college and seminary students gathered at a golf course to watch fireworks and celebrate the 200th birthday of our nation.

Good memories of Independence Day traditions have continued through the years — many of which involved an early morning run down Atlanta’s famed Peachtree Street with thousands of other sweaty people.

A favorite patriotic moment, however, occurred not on Independence Day but during a story-gathering trip to Boston on which I took my daughter Meredith.

On the day of our return flight, we drove over to Concord, Massachusetts, for her to visit the homes and burial sites of famous authors like Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Arriving early, we went first to the see the Old North Bridge — site of the first victory in the battle for American Independence. The visitors’ center was not yet open, so we walked across a field, past the Minute Man statue and onto the historic bridge.

It was a quiet and clear morning. Yet, as we were leaving the bridge, a shadow was cast upon us. We looked up to see an American bald eagle — the very symbol of our nation —circling overhead. It was breathtaking.

Whatever memories come to mind during this time of national celebration, they tend to accompany a sense of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy in this imperfect, yet remarkable nation.

However, this is a good time to recall the first Bible verse many have memorized that begins: “For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16).

We can be both patriotic Americans and global Christians, prioritizing those accordingly. We should have a heart for the whole world — because God has a heart for the whole world.

Our highest loyalty is first and foremost to Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are to be “American Christians” — not “Christian Americans.”

Out of innocence, or perhaps ignorance, some good people confuse their nationalistic allegiances with their faith commitments. In doing so, they create a “civil religion” that mixes in elements of nationalism that dilutes Christianity.

While we enjoy great freedom as Americans, we should never interpret such privilege as somehow making us God’s favorite children. The Gospel of John is clear: “God so loved the world …”

I recall preachers and Sunday School teachers asking us to replace the word “world” in John 3:16 with our individual names. So, we would say: “For God so loved Johnny (or Betty or Bob or whomever) that he gave his only son …”

This was done to show that God loves us in a personal way. And I’m all for that — as long as we also remember that the verse purposefully and inclusively states that God loves the whole world.

For God so loved Rosita, Yoko, Azubuike, Pierre and Mohammad, too, that God’s only son came to live among us.

The late, great preacher John Claypool, used to quote St. Augustine who said: “God loves each one of us as if we were the only person he had to love — and God loves all of us like he loves each of us.”

God’s great love for us does not come with exclusive rights. As much as God loves our own children and grandchildren — who were born in sanitary, high-tech medical centers in this nation — God loves those children born in places of destitute around the world.

We can be proud Americans as well as global Christians who strive — despite nationalistic tendencies — to love the world as God loves the world. The proclamation found in John 3:16 is an amazingly inclusive affirmation of God’s love.

The late minister/scholar Bill Hull, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, wrote: “For God to lavish his love on the entire world, which obviously did not love him, rather than to limit it to his chosen people, meant that the everlasting mercy bestowed in Christ had now gone far beyond the boundaries of the ancient covenant with Israel.”

Indeed, God’s love goes beyond all boundaries. And because God has a heart for the world, so should we.

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