The Fourth of July is almost here!

This midsummer holiday offers an opportunity for families and friends to gather and celebrate the freedoms of our nation. Food, fireworks and patriotic music draw us together for a day and night of fun.

The Fourth of July is also an opportunity to remember. We must remember and give thanks for the sacrifices made to gain freedom and independence.

We must remember the self-evident truths that declare the equality of all men (and women), endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights; among them being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We must remember because it is so easy to forget. In 2016, it seems that many have forgotten.

The presidential election is five months away, the candidates are still “presumptive,” and the rhetoric and vitriol continue to escalate.

Many are frustrated because they find themselves considering a vote “against” rather than a vote “for.” The nation is polarized, angry and fearful.

So, what have we forgotten? We have forgotten how to live.

We are a people surrounded by racial, religious, economic, environmental and political powder kegs.

No place or people are immune from the explosions. Sparks are flying. We are afraid and despairing of the death and destruction. This fear is robbing us of life.

In contrast, Proverbs 19:23 tells us, “The fear of the Lord leads to life.” This fear is defined by reverence, respect and awe. The reverence of God, our Creator, manifests itself in life.

We have lost our respect of God and replaced it with a fear that leads to death and destruction. Awe before the Lord casts out evil and hatred, replacing it with life and love. The fear of the Lord is the key to life.

We have also forgotten the meaning of liberty. For many, liberty has become license to do whatever we want. License breeds selfishness and creates factions. Liberty, however, builds a nation.

Galatians 5:13 warns us not to turn liberty into an opportunity for the flesh, but rather to serve one another in love.

The greatest expression of liberty is freely choosing to serve others. Those choosing this path discover profound meaning and satisfaction in life.

President John F. Kennedy understood this and challenged Americans to ask what they could do for their nation, not what their nation could do for them. Liberty is a gift that we receive from God and nurture in each other.

Finally, we have forgotten the joy of pursuing happiness. Again, we have replaced real happiness with pleasure.

Pleasure has become a god, pursued selfishly with no regard to its cost or destructive consequences in others. Our culture is bankrupt with pleasure. Addiction to pleasure is destroying lives, families and careers.

Instead, Jesus offers a different picture of happiness in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. Happy are the humble and compassionate. Happy are the gentle and merciful. Happy are the pure in heart and the peacemakers. Happy are those who seek what is right.

Yes, we are to pursue and find happiness. But we must remember that happiness is found in healthy relationships with one another, not the selfish pursuit of pleasure.

I look forward to the celebrations of the next week. One of my favorite patriotic songs is “America the Beautiful,” which encourages us to give thanks to our Creator for the grace He has shed upon this nation.

Let us use this time of celebration to pray that God continues to mend our every flaw and to refine the gold of our land and people. And together, let us embrace life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Indeed, we are a blessed people!

Wade Smith is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Norman, Oklahoma. A version of this article first appeared on FBC’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @PastorWadeSmith.

Editor’s note: A series of articles appeared on in 2013 offering resources for churches seeking to recognize the national holiday while maintaining a focus in worship on praising God and responding to God’s call on our lives.

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