July 5, 2012 (Breakpoint.org) - Every Fourth of July, Coney Island hosts a hot dog-eating contest. Contestants gather from around the country to prove that they can stuff themselves with more hot dogs in 12 minutes than anyone else.

Well, not everyone pursues their hot dog eating so competitively. But it does seem that downing hot dogs and lemonade is the quintessential American way of expressing patriotism on the Fourth of July: Family picnics and fireworks celebrate the founding of our country.

Now, I realize that when you gathered with your friends and relatives, you probably weren’t thinking about doing anything particularly patriotic. You were just having a good time, right?

But Augustine would tell you that was exactly the right way to express patriotism.

I don’t mean to say Augustine wrote about the finer points of American hot dog eating. What he wrote is that the best way to develop patriotism is by loving your own family.

You see, Christians are commanded to love the whole world. But as everyone knows, that’s utterly impractical. No finite human being could possibly love every other person in the world.

So God has placed us in concrete relationships where we can learn to love. As Augustine puts it, it’s as though God had cast lots and assigned each one of us to a particular family, a particular church, and a particular country.

We cannot love the whole world, but we can love the particular people in the relationships where God has placed us-moving outward from family to church, community, and nation, in an ever-widening circle.

That’s how Christian patriotism is built.

You see, it’s easy to love people in the abstract. It’s much harder to love the real flesh-and-blood people we interact with in our families, churches, and communities.

As C. S. Lewis explained, we are constantly tempted to love only what is lovable — to love our wives only when they’re kind and beautiful, to love our husbands only when they’re successful, to love our children only when they’re pleasant.

But that’s not the way God loves. God loves us even when we’re unlovable-just because He has chosen us to be His people. And He commands us to do the same.

We’re to love our families even when they’re unlovable — just because they’re ours. We’re to love the church-just because we belong to one another as the family of God. And we’re to love our country just because it’s our own. Not because it’s the best and most democratic country in the world-which it may not be at times-but because it’s the place God has put us.

That’s “tough love” of country: being utterly honest about our nation’s flaws and shortcomings, and yet still continuing to love it.

So as we pack up the leftover hot dog buns and put away the ketchup, let’s keep alive this reminder of what the Fourth of July is all about.

When we gather together with our families and relatives — and renew our bonds of love with them — we are practicing, at its most basic level, true patriotism.

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This commentary originally aired on July 04, 1995. Reprinted with permission from Breakpoint.org