My colleague and friend, Fred Wooden, who preached for us last Sunday with great enthusiasm, said that the heart of religion requires three things of us: to free the mind, to grow the soul, and to change the world.
When things are working as they should, the preacher and the listener engage in a process that helps each to free the mind, to grow the soul and to change the world – all change begins with the self, of course. Deep listening changes the listener; deep preaching changes the preacher.
Sermons that stress our sinful nature and paint a picture of an angry, vengeful god, cause the mind to close, the soul to shrink and great task of the preacher is to change other people’s minds.
At his inauguration, our new President used the occasion to inspire us, and by so doing he helped to empower us to change the world for the better, providing us with a renewing sense of hope. Hope, by itself, doesn’t change things, but hope changes people and people change things..
Some of that sense of hope at the inauguration was expressed in words, of course, but much of it came through in the way the words were formed and delivered with believability. You could hear it in the voice of the 87 year old civil rights worker, Rev. Joseph Lowery, as he preached the benediction, paraphrasing from the Negro National Anthem:
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places…where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand — true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.”
Who could not be moved by the depths out of which those words emerged! Rev. Lowery was recognized by the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame as a ‘soldier of justice who sacrificed and struggled to make equality a reality for all.’
He’s been working at freeing his mind, growing his soul and changing the world for his four score and seven years: “God of our weary years…God of our silent tears.”
Certainly we felt that sense of spirituality in the music and poetry, and we saw it on the countenance of the musicians – who can forget Yo Yo Ma’s face that day!
We saw hope written again and again on the faces caught by the roaming cameras in that enormous congregation – people of all races, all religions, all ages, from every corner of the country and, indeed, from around the globe.
We are a young nation; we’re still in our formative years.
What we worship, what we value, what we care most about, is written on our faces. I loved looking at the faces of the people, a reminder that we are one nation, of the people, by the people and for the people.
A sense of freedom was etched on those faces; a sense of hope filled the air.
Freedom is one of those words about which we need to be more specific – like our words for snow. We distinguish things like new-fallen snow, powder, dusting, flurry, blizzard, avalanche, ice storm, freezing rain, frost, glacier, slush, snowdrift; or the yellow snow Charlie Brown warned about.
Skiers, of course, have more precise words for snow. We who care about human freedom should have a more precise language to express the ‘fifty faces of freedom.’ I thought of fifty aspects or ways we use the term free:
Tax free, toll free, duty free, sugar free, alcohol free, calorie free, MSG free, drug free, smoke free, nuclear free…freedom’s fifty faces.
Carl Sandburg penned a poem he titled
Freedom is a habit
and a coat worn
some born to wear it
some never to know it.
Freedom is cheap
or again as a garment
is so costly
men pay their lives
rather than not have it.
Freedom is baffling:
men having it often
know not they have it
till it is gone and
they no longer have it.
What does this mean?
Is it a riddle?
Yes, it is first of all
in the primers of riddles.
To be free is so-so:
you can and you can’t:
walkers can have freedom
only by never walking
away their freedom:
runners too have freedom
unless they overrun:
eaters have often outeaten
their freedom to eat
and drinkers overdrank
their fine drinking freedom.
William Ellery Channing wrote about ‘the free mind,’ saying: “I call that mind free which masters the senses…which jealously guards its intellectual rights…and does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith…which does not cower to human opinion…which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing… which possesses itself though all else be lost.”
Channing’s student, Ralph Waldo Emerson, expressed his idea of personal, inner freedom in a poem he titled Self-Reliance (as contrasted with his essay by the same name.)
Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Light-hearted as a bird, and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his voice therein.
* * *
The little needle always knows the North,
The little bird remembereth his note,
And this wise Seer within me never errs.
I never taught it what it teaches me;
I only follow, when I act aright.
The word yoke in Emerson’s 19th century New England, had a strong, common meaning, since oxen and horses were harnessed every day for hard labor. The word ‘yoke’ in Emerson’s poem was carefully chosen, suggesting servitude or subjugation, the lack of freedom, the opposite of freedom.
The yoke of men’s opinions can weigh heavily, so he says that in contrast to that heavy yoke he will be ‘light-hearted as a bird.’ The flight of the bird is often used as a symbol of freedom.
Note, too, his opening line: “Henceforth, please God, forever I forego the yoke of men’s opinions…”
We’re reminded of the Arabic term, Insha’Allah, a phrase that translates into English as ‘God willing,’ or ‘If it is God’s will.’ The speaker is indicating hope for something just mentioned to occur in the future, or it is a way of asking God’s blessing on something you’re about to do, especially if it’s something difficult for you.
Emerson was acknowledging his wish to be free of being injured by the opinions of other people; of being cut by the criticism of others. He was also acknowledging that this kind of freedom is not an easy thing to achieve, but it is at the essence of one’s spiritual well being.
It’s not that Emerson didn’t care what people thought of him; he just wanted to be sure he wasn’t yoked to it, that he was free to express himself honestly and openly…that he was authentic.
Emerson once advised Walt Whitman to edit out of his collection, Leaves of Grass, the Children of Adam poems that were so sexually charged so that his poetry would be more acceptable to the general public. Whitman had great respect for Emerson, so he was shocked that Emerson would make such a totally unacceptable suggestion.
Emerson was wise enough to know that he would never get to the point of not caring about other people’s opinions. That’s not what he was saying in his little poem.
He was looking for a balance. He knew that to be yoked to others’ opinions is to be in their bondage or servitude.
To free the mind, then, means having a balance between being yoked, on the one extreme, and not caring at all, on the other.
This is just one of freedom’s fifty faces – the freedom Channing referenced: “I call that mind free that does not cower to human opinion.”
Another aspect of freedom’ fifty faces was famously expressed by the existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, who said ‘Man is condemned to be free.’
In a religious or spiritual sense we are always in the process of freeing the mind; we’re always in the process of growing or nurturing a soul – that’s our purpose, and the extent to which we’re successful at that task, we can participate in changing the world, which is the ultimate religious mission.
The fifty faces of freedom include the basic freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, including religious freedom.
“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.”
Our American Constitution was framed in 1787, ratified in 1789 and has been variously amended ever since.
It’s like our own makeup – a person’s constitution – which began at birth or before, and has been ‘variously amended ever since.’
Darwin helped us to understand and appreciate the evolution of all Life on our little planet. The poets, musicians, theologians and philosophers help us to understand and appreciate the evolution of our own personal life in the place on the planet that we’ve occupied so far.
If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves prisoners of ignorance and error…excessive desire for wealth and covetousness. We’ll find ourselves yoked to anger or the fear that underlies our anger; we’ll find ourselves yoked to old unresolved resentments.
I call that mind not free that doesn’t feel the yoke it wears!
The ancient story says that the Hebrew people were in bondage in Egypt, and with God’s help they were liberated; they left the place of bondage – the Red Sea miraculously parted for them, and then they wandered, aimlessly in the desert for forty years, without a sense of direction or purpose. It wasn’t until Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments that they were finally able to make their way toward the Promised Land.
This is the great paradox of freedom, and it applies to each person as well as nations or to congregations: to have freedom you have to have order – to have freedom you have to have discipline – freedom is not license; to have freedom you have to have a sense of responsibility and know that ‘the power’s in you.’
We don’t need to have ten or twenty commandments handed to us, but we would do well to understand the deeper meanings of those famous or infamous Ten Commandments – we do well to appreciate the human depth out of which they came, the wisdom carved letter by letter in the living of a life, and the freedom that follows order.
We’ll close with some of the lines from the inauguration-day poem:
Praise Song for the Day, Elizabeth Alexander
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here
Praise song for walking forward in that light