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True Freedom

I'm writing this blog on Juneteenth, a day I'm delighted to see our nation celebrate with greater acknowledgment. Among other things, Juneteenth represents freedom from the blight and sin of slavery, and while this holiday is by and for Black Americans, all can celebrate deliverance from slavery--the descendants of the enslaved along with the descendants of slave owners who were trapped in their sin. Those of us who came late to the game but enjoy our freedom in a country that, like most modern countries, has a complicated history on this front, can also celebrate freedom.

What does it mean to walk into freedom, and to live freely? Unfortunately, emancipated slaves in the United States had little opportunity to realize this fully. The double whammies of errors and machinations during Reconstruction plus the blight of Jim Crow laws made it clear that equality wasn't exactly what others had in mind once freedom was announced. Even today, I've watched individuals from oppressed groups try to navigate ways to walk with heads held high...while avoiding getting them bashed in. Literally.

This lived experience illustrates as a physical reality what is so true for us spiritually.

Christianity teaches that all people are enslaved to something. Either one worships God or demonic forces. All of reality is already claimed.

Even if one tries to bypass this by serving oneself, or power, money, accolades, or approval, one is still enslaved. Secular perspectives, such as positive psychology, would say that these goals are misguided traps that will prevent true happiness, which can primarily be found in connecting with others, giving back, and seeking intrinsic good--that is, appreciating things and people for themselves and not as a means to an end. Religious perspectives call it like it is, seeing underneath the reality we see. This stuff is demonic, plain and simple, and if you hang around others who worship, say, money long enough, you'll see this in horrifying clarity.

So many liberated individuals on Juneteenth connected their physical freedom with spiritual freedom, utilizing Biblical language to describe what they'd been through. The deep faith exhibited by Black Americans amidst horrific circumstances is a model to all, and reflects Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which mixes physical and spiritual realities in deeming what is blessed.

Like a people group that is liberated but still must reside in hostile territory, how do those of us who are liberated spiritually walk about when we live in a spiritual Babylon or Egypt? Everything in the culture pressures one to either assimilate and thereby lose that which is your true identity...or else. The "or else" is often unspoken but contains subtle pressures that the subfield of Social Psychology powerfully illustrates via experiments how very easy it is to make people bend what they believe to the power of group influence.

Recently, I celebrated my birthday with my traditional triumvirate: eat at the Cheesecake Factory, purchase overpriced tea at a tea shop, and then splurge on discount books at Half-Priced Books. This year was particularly fun since it included the Korean student who was living with us and who was feeling nostalgic for all things American before he graduated high school. This was his first Cheesecake Factor visit, and we were more than happy to order multiple large desserts to make it memorable. Such sacrifice on our part!

One of the books that I purchased during my birthday splurge was a compilation of quotes that Eberhard Arnold collected from early Christians. The other night, I read this one, from Clement of Alexandria:

True nobility, however, is found in the beauty and substance of the soul. It does not recognize the slave by the price he fetches at a sale but by his unfree spirit. For us, what corresponds to freedom is not a mere semblance, but a being free because God, who even accepted us to be his children, is our educator. Therefore we must attain the highest degree of freedom in the way we bear ourselves at rest or in motion, in the way we walk and dress: in a word, in every part of life.

This spoke to me because I've been wondering how to live freely. How to live freely with one's critics, how to live freely with one's self-doubts, and how to live freely within oppressive regimes, a designation that to me includes the spiritual oppressiveness of our time. By this, I do not refer to freedoms being taken away but rather pressure exerted by thought police and shibboleths on every side. One is forced to choose with whom to align yourself, and I refuse.

I've finally reached the age at which I am tired. I'm tired of even the subtle pressures to adapt one's speech and demeanor to fit in with the vibe around you. I'm tired of my own responses which veer toward a general gut reaction of self-doubt. And I'm really tired of the apocalyptic vitriol of our time, while simultaneously believing that it's all so much bluster masking the steady progress toward actual apocalypses lurking around the corner.

How to live freely, when this is one's context and, truth be told, has always been the context everywhere and for all time? I found a copy of Clement's actual words, and Arnold left out one sentence that I particularly like:

And it is incumbent on us not to seem, but to be free, trained by God, adopted by God.

I don't just want to seem to be free, but to be free! One of my favorite Bible passages is Galatians 5:1:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

We forget that many of the early Christians had been formerly slaves, and some had formerly been slave owners. We should not allow ourselves to be burdened by the sin of slavery as a physical reality or a spiritual reality--we should not accept it for ourselves or inflict it on others.

Many around us are trying to call us back into slavery. This modern era shows a shocking infatuation with slavery. Many wise women I know are fighting against human trafficking--a very great evil in our world, perpetuated by the powerful, worldwide. And our hedonistic society is full of enslavement to money, things, power, and comfort. I think my Pentecostal friends were onto something when they talked about the "spirit of" this and that. I'm starting to believe that this is literally true. These things are too powerful as enslavements.

But my focus here is on freedom. This is at the heart of the Christian message. God continuously warned the Israelites to never go back to Egypt, and we should not, either. God's way is the path to true freedom--which includes the freedom to be our true selves.

I like Richard Rhor's stages of spiritual development. It seems to me that so many in our culture are stuck in the first one: My body and self-image are who I am.

This is a sad lie, and we diminish ourselves when we make this our full reality of who we are. Additional stages include the traps of being defined by our external behavior, by our thoughts and feelings, by our deeper intuitions, and by our shadow self. Spiritually, we turn the corner a bit when we progress to realizing that we are, first, empty and powerless, and then, much more than we thought we were.

What we thought made us powerful only diminished us.

In Rhor's stages, the upper levels involve recognizing the truth of John 10:30, that Jesus and the Father are One, and therefore there is nothing that we need to prove to anyone. If we really believe that God is Who He is, there is no need for posturing, neither with ourselves or others.

And, finally, we recognize that we are who we are. We are who God made us to be, nothing more and nothing less. Psalm 8 says that we were made a "little lower than the heavenly beings" (v. 5), and this is more than enough.

Striving to build a Tower of Babel will never result in the transcendence that we long for, only destruction and discord. History has shown this time and time again.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

The Apostle Paul tells us to stand firm. Clement tells us to bear ourselves as free people in every single action we take and even in our repose.

We support and strive for the physical freedom of all, even as we stand in the hope of true spiritual freedom.

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A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in buckets of silver. 😊

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