Walt Lichtenberger

Rev. Walt Lichtenberger

Rev. Walt Lichtenberger

On July 4 this year, I was traveling to a campground in Butte Montana (on the way to Yellowstone National Park). I drove through many small towns that were heavily decorated with the stars and stripes.

Since the highway was also the main street for these communities, my RV passed along the route of at least a half-dozen parades. Thankfully, my timing was uncharacteristically good. Though I like to watch bands, fire trucks and floats, I was glad to miss the parades as they would have delayed my travel. I had to go almost 300 miles to get to my campground reservation in Butte and didn’t want to be any longer on the road than I needed.

However, once I arrived at my day’s destination, the patriotic banners along the way got me into a celebratory mood. I was ready to see some fireworks. When I asked the guy at the camp store where I could view the local community’s fireworks, I was surprised at his response. There was no official display in town. Perhaps he sensed my disappointment. “But don’t worry,” he continued, “around 9:30 p.m., just look up, you are bound to see plenty of fireworks from the campground. Folks around here like celebrating the Fourth of July.”

He was not mistaken. As soon as it got dark, the night sky lit up. Large bursts of color appeared over Butte. One after the other. Each one seemed larger than the next, coming from every part of town. The historic mine shafts and the copper-rich hillside were silhouetted by the illuminated heavens.

I joined the crowd of people who gathered at the campground’s edge. We “oohed” and “aahed” at the spectacle above us. It was remarkable. And to think that it was not coordinated, orchestrated or sponsored by any club, fire department, company or civic entity. It was just a collection of individuals, who generously shared what they had for the enjoyment of the whole community. The fireworks went on for at least two hours non-stop and rivaled displays that I’ve seen in New York, Boston, Disneyland and Washington D.C.

I tend to reflect upon adventures in my life through a faith lens, always looking for spiritual insights. I do this because I am convinced that our lives are filled with learning opportunities that allow us to grow in our faith. When we listen for God’s voice in our travels near and far, we are rarely disappointed. Our discernment can be an incredible source for spiritual development.

What stands out for me from my pyrotechnic experience in Butte is the whole unscripted and uncoordinated nature of it all. Beauty happened serendipitously in the sky as folks contributed fireworks to the communal effort. They didn’t follow a plan, organizational flowchart, or schedule.

How much of our life is unscripted? Do we ever let go from prearranged storylines to dwell in the moment? How much free play do we allow for ourselves and children? Does everything always need to be organized? Must we be unceasing in our production for life to have meaning and purpose?

These are particularly interesting questions when it comes to our spiritual lives? Do we let ourselves go in our relationship with God and with others? Must we always have an agenda, try to manipulate according to our desires, and involve ourselves in endless doing? What would it look like to be free in our interactions? To just be?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we let go of God and others in favor of pursuing self-centered hedonistic pleasure. Turning away from worship, prayer and the study of sacred texts in favor of doing whatever it is that we want is not helpful to our spiritual health. Such unbridled immersion in the self isolates us from others and our Creator.

Equally unhealthy is a rigid insistence that God can only be found in the parameters and boundaries of our religious experience. Stubborn refusal to acknowledge God’s existence beyond designated sacred boxes, beloved traditions and private revelations is somewhat presumptuous and borders on blasphemy. Who are we to think that we alone (or our religion or our culture) can speak definitively for the Creator of the Universe?

A healthier approach to spiritual living recognizes that even the holiest of practices and people know only in part of the fullness of God. Since we are not divine beings, we lack complete knowledge of the spirit and the reality that transcends what we can measure and observe. Humility is needed as we contemplate what exists beyond our grasp and the teachings of our faith traditions of origin.

Lacking the authoritative and last word on all matters related to God, we are left with at best a portion of the picture. Only through interacting with others do we get a clearer sense of a bigger sense of the sacred. We are in need of the contributions and insights of others, especially those from a diversity of backgrounds, convictions and experiences.

Back to Butte. The beauty of their Fourth of July celebration was the varied expressions of unscripted revelry throughout the various neighborhoods about town. Each offered something unique and special to the overall fireworks display. Because of the contributions all over town, the celebration continued long into the night.

We have an opportunity in the Savage community to create something spectacular. There is a diversity of perspectives, faith traditions and spiritualities in our growing city.

What would it look like if we engaged in faith-filled conversations with folks beyond our default faith tradition? What insights and beauty might we uncover as we honor the spiritual path that others take and seek to learn from them about God? What would it look like if we embraced freedom as a part of our prayer, worship and faith practices? Rather than insisting on following the scripts and traditions of the past without variation, how might we open ourselves to the God that is bigger than our preconceived ideas, expressions and past experiences?

When we refrain from judging the deficiencies of others and open our hearts and minds to the possibility that God is bigger than what we’ve worked out, something wonderful happens. We start to see the work of the Spirit that forms and shapes all life on the planet in a different way. Beyond scripts, mandates, doctrines, denominations, and constrictive religious expression, there is a sacred beauty to be experienced.

As the spirit moves among and blesses our open-minded efforts, there is potential for wonderful and unanticipated oohs and aahs.

The Rev. Dr. Walt Lichtenberger is the lead pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in Burnsville. He is one of several area pastors who write for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in this newspaper. He also writes devotions on his website, lightfromthishill.com.