Our family spent last week at Pensacola Beach, part of the so-called Emerald Coast. The name comes from the gorgeous water that kisses this 100 mile stretch of sand – a glimmering, translucent shade of green. Pensacola Beach claims to have the whitest beaches in the world. Technically speaking, the sugar sand of Pensacola Beach is very fine Appalachian quartz, eroded from the mountains and deposited at the Gulf Coast over the ages. It’s a stunningly beautiful place. For me, it’s a also a spiritual place, an annual respite from hectic summers of ministry.
Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. Founded in 1946 and piloted by Navy and Marine aviators, the six F/A-18 Hornets of the Blue Angels perform for approximately 11 million spectators a year. On most Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the Blue Angels can be seen practicing in the skies over Pensacola. If you’ve never seen them perform, they are awe-inspiring. Their sheer force, matched with the incomparable precision, is truly something to behold. It is not uncommon for beachgoers to witness a flyover.
On Tuesday morning my eight-year-old daughter and I were sitting on the beach together when we heard that familiar, distant roar. We looked up to see the Angels flying east, about 500 yards off shore. It gets me every time. Chills ran down my spine and I got a lump in my throat at the display of American power.
There had been a good deal of nuclear saber rattling during the previous week, as the American president and the North Korean leader traded jabs and threats. There was something very reassuring about sitting on a sunny, beautiful beach with my daughter as the massive force of the U.S. military roared overhead. God Bless ‘Merica.
On Thursday morning I was reading by the pool when the familiar roar returned. But this time it was different. Judging by the relative height of the buildings, the six Blue Angels jets were no more than 75 feet off the beach. They flew right at the water’s edge, no more than 100 yards out from where I was sitting. The F/A-18’s were close enough for me to see the individual helmets of the pilots. Being that close to a fighter jet is not just something you see – it’s something you feel. It never gets old. I messaged several friends with the simple caption, “God Bless America!” That was Thursday.
On Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists from across America gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally.
They were protesting that city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, standing incongruously in the recently renamed Emancipation Park. For the past 100 years, the park had been named for the Confederate general around whose statue they gathered. They chanted anti-Semitic and white nationalist ideology. On Friday night the protestors carried tiki torches. On Saturday they carried Confederate and Nazi flags.
Having gulfed hard all week, I was driving our family back home on Saturday. We followed a well-worn path that thousands of Arkansans travel each summer when returning from the Emerald Coast: west on I-10 through Florida, north on Highway 98 through Mississippi, then West on I-20 through Louisiana. Around 2 p.m. the news broke: someone drove a car into a crowd of people who were protesting the white nationalists. Dozens were injured. Heather Heyer, 32, from Charlottesville, was killed. It was hard to explain it all to my daughters.
Blood and news flowed in Charlottesville. The president struggled to respond. My reaction to Charlottesville was similar to my reaction to the Blue Angels just two days before. The words may have been the same, but the feeling was different. God Bless America.
On Thursday, I had tasted the acrid residue of American fighter jet exhaust while sitting in a beautiful courtyard overlooking one of the most picturesque beaches in America. The beauty, the might, the freedom, a lump in my throat. God Bless America!
On Saturday, Charlottesville (and America) tasted the acrid residue of centuries of sinful oppression. Heather Heyer is the latest causality in the age-old battle between human beings… all one race, all created in the image of God, yet divided by hate. The ugliness, the division, a lump in my throat. Where do we go from here?
God, bless America… please.