A Prayer for Independence Day 2016

God of all grace and goodness, as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are beaming with gratitude. From the beginning you have revealed yourself to be a freedom loving God. Throughout history you have taught your people to pursue and cherish freedom.

This week as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are thankful for our spiritual and national heritage, yet we are also concerned for our future.

We are thankful for the privilege of living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We are grateful for unequaled liberties that allow us to freely make choices about our work, our worship, our ideology, and lifestyle. We are indebted to past and present veterans who risked life and limb in the pursuit and protection of these liberties.

From the “mountains to the prairies” we are inspired by some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes on our planet. From “sea to shining sea” we are privileged to draw from a treasure trove of the world’s natural resources. We have access to comfortable housing, the best in healthcare, a more than adequate wardrobe, and an abundance of favorite foods. We are blessed far beyond our deserving.

During this season of celebration, we must also confess to you our concerns and appeal to you for guidance. Regardless of our personal ideology or perspective, we are concerned about things like the abuse of political power, the threat of terrorism, the divisiveness of harsh and misleading rhetoric, the lack of civil discourse, a growing sense of moral anarchy, and the possibility of another natural disaster. These concerns lead to an elevated sense of anxiety about the integrity of our government, the stability of our economy, and the future of our world.

And we confess that these anxieties all too frequently divert us from our mission to “minister to the least of these,” and to “love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly” with you.

These concerns and anxieties also remind us of our need to confess our sins, personally and corporately. We confess that we have too often taken our freedom for granted and we have too frequently been negligent in living up to the responsibilities of our citizenship. We confess that at times we are too quick to judge and quicker to criticize. We confess that we are slow to intercede and slower to trust in your providential care.

We confess that our self-interests have too often taken priority over the best interest you have in mind for our nation and for our world. We confess that we have been irresponsible in our stewardship of “our space and our stuff,” often consuming and storing compulsively without conscious regard for sharing. We confess that we have too often trusted in our own initiatives and ingenuity more than we have trusted in you.

You tell us in time-tested scripture that, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)

As we celebrate this Independence Day, we ask you to forgive our sin and to heal our land.

On this day, we pray for the leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will lead with wisdom and courage.

We pray that in the upcoming election we will vote with discernment and conviction, and that we will support and pray for all who are elected.

We pray for the men and women who serve in our military that they will fulfill their humanitarian mission and return home safely and soon.

We pray for our enemies that their swords will also be “turned into plowshares,” even as we long for that day when the “lion will lie down alongside the lamb.”

We pray for the churches, cathedrals, and temples of our community and our world that they will be lighthouses of grace and peace, ever pressing toward the mark of our high calling.

Because you are the freedom-loving God, lead us to exercise our freedom responsibly and to pursue “liberty and justice for all” people around the globe.

We pray in the strong name of the One who came to deliver us from evil and to make us free indeed. Amen.

(Barry Howard serves as Lead Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Celebrate Religious Liberty: Exercise Your Freedom to Worship

by Barry Howard

Fire up the grill. Crank up the ice cream churn. Prepare for the fireworks show.  Hum along to a little John Phillips Sousa. It’s Fourth of July weekend.

July 4th is a time to give thanks for our unrivaled freedom, and a great time to highlight and celebrate our religious liberty. Religious liberty refers to the right to worship freely without fear of persecution. Yet religious liberty also protects citizens from compulsory religious participation. In other words, our government is to neither compel nor dissuade our participation in worship.

Noting the catastrophes that had occurred historically when the government becomes the guardian of the church, our nation’s founders strategically planned their new government with a wall of separation between church and state.  When tempted to tear down that wall we should not forget the words of Isaac Bachus, a noted Baptist minister who served during the era of the American revolution: “When Church and State are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other; but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.”

While many of us plan to celebrate our nation’s independence with picnics, barbeques, and ballgames, I hope we will also seize the opportunity to celebrate religious freedom by exercising our freedom to worship. Since religious liberty is a core distinctive among Baptists and a core motive in our country’s founding, gathering with a faith community to participate in worship is a particularly appropriate way to celebrate.

Our Baptists ancestors were among the many who contended for religious liberty for all faiths. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States confirms that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As citizens of these United States, we enjoy more comprehensive freedom than any other nation on earth, but let us never forget that with great freedom comes great responsibility.

In light of our religious liberty, let us pray fervently for those who live in regions of the world that are subject to harsh religious persecution. As we freely choose where and when to worship, let us remember our brothers and sisters who will gather anxiously but faithfully in underground churches, taking risks unfamiliar to most of us, in order to worship God and gather with their fellow believers.

In my years of experience as a pastor, I have noted that joining regularly with other believers to worship nurtures spiritual growth, fosters moral character and encourages humanitarian service. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer” (CEV).

To neglect the opportunity to gather for worship and Bible study is to trivialize the tremendous price paid for our freedom to assemble without fear of reprisal or repercussion. Perhaps the most detrimental symptom of historical amnesia is the tendency to take freedom for granted.

You and I can best celebrate and preserve our liberty by exercising the privileges that accompany our extraordinary freedom. This month is a prime opportunity to celebrate. Whether you spend the time at home or on the road, make plans for a fun and festive day with family and friends celebrating our nation’s independence. Take time to give thanks for our great heritage and to pray for our nation’s leaders.

Most importantly, celebrate religious liberty by exercising your freedom to worship. And respect the freedom of others to choose when, how or if they worship. For if one group among us loses their religious freedom, religious liberty will be in jeopardy for us all.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida)