“Free At Last” – January 16, 2005
Opening Words Psalm 15 (Stephen Mitchell trans.)
Lord, who can be trusted with power,
and who may act in your place?
Those with a passion for justice,
who speak truth from their hearts;
who have let go of selfish interests
and grown beyond their own lives;
who see the wretched as their family
and the poor as their flesh and blood.
They alone are impartial
and worthy of the people’s trust.
Their compassion lights up the whole earth,
and their kindness endures forever.
Reading – “Freedom is a Discipline” by Howard Thurman
There is a medley of confusion as to the meaning of personal freedom. For some it means to function without limitation at any point, to be able to do what one wants to do and without hindrance. This is the fantasy of many minds, particularly those that are young. For others, personal freedom is to be let alone, to be protected against any force that may move into the life with a swift and decisive imperative. For still others, it means to be limited in one’s power over others only by one’s own strength, energy, and perseverance.
The meaning of personal freedom is found in none of these. They lack the precious ingredient, the core of discipline and inner structure without which personal freedom is delusion. At the very center of personal freedom is a discipline of the mind and of the emotions. The mind must be centered upon a goal, a purpose, a plan. Of all possible goals, purposes, plans, a single one is lifted above the others and held as one’s chosen direction. Then the individual knows when he is lost, when he has missed the way. There emerges a principle of orderedness which becomes a guide for behavior and action. Under such circumstances, goals may be changed deliberately and the sense of random, pointless living is removed.
Such a principle of orderedness provides a channel for one’s emotions and drive. Energy is no longer dissipated but it is used to supply dynamic for the pursuit of the end. Here we come upon the most interesting aspect of personal freedom—the living of one’s life with confidence that transcends discouragement and despair. This means that one does not have to depend upon the favorable circumstance, the fortuitous “break,” the applause, approval, and felicitation of friends, important as these are. The secret is the quiet inner purpose and the release of vitality with which it inspires the act. Achieving the goal is not measured by some external standard, though such must not be completely ignored. Rather, it is measured in terms of loyalty to the purpose and the freedom which it inspires.
We hear a lot about freedom these days. It is featured in Government speeches and the press almost every day. Constantly we hear talk about freedom from terror, freedom for Iraq. But what is this freedom they are talking about? Is it something that one can impose on another? Who determines what freedom is? Today, I want to talk to you about this idea freedom and how we can make sense of it in our lives.
The dictionary defines freedom as the condition of being free of restraints and the capacity to exercise choice or free will. It is also the right or the power to engage in certain actions without control or interference. Freedom is both a state of being, and a privilege that is in response to an outside force. By creating a relationship based on privilege, freedom is linked to power. Those who have enough power can exert the right to be free.
This definition supports the oppressive power structures that plague our society. Freedom becomes a rung on the ladder of privilege. Freedom is something that we must attain through working “the system.” Yet this system, in order to be self-perpetuating, controls what you can say or do. So then you are not truly free. This definition, then, is based on maintaining the status quo. It is this definition of freedom that operated at the end of slavery; a freedom for slaves that left room for Jim Crow laws and Segregation.
We need a freedom that transcends systems of oppression. I would like to propose a different definition of freedom. One that is not bound by power structures. My definition is: Freedom is the opportunity and ability to discover our true potential. This potential goes beyond societal norms and power structures. This potential responds to our true self. That means we need to get to know our true self.
In the reading, Howard Thurman talks about a principle of orderedness that is the center of personal freedom. This is your true potential, which comes from your true self. Thurman writes that this principle of orderedness “becomes a guide for behavior and action. Under such circumstances, goals may be changed deliberately and the sense of random, pointless living is removed.”
Martin Luther King Jr. illustrates this principle. As a young man, King understood his potential to become a spiritual leader. He began in Ebenezer Baptist Church, leading a congregation. As the need arose, King became a leader in his city, then state, and finally on a national level. He never strayed from his true potential of being a spiritual leader, even though his constituencies changed. He understood his true self, and therefore was able to engage his freedom.
Engaging our freedom is also about transcending what is expected. Sometimes pursuing our true potential asks us to do things that no one, not even ourselves, would think possible. We may need help in achieving this goal, but that is part of the process. This is why I chose the story, the Eagle and the Wren, to tell the kids today. The Wren knew her true potential. She had the potential to fly higher then she could ever dream possible. The Wren understood her true self, and knew that although she lacked great strength, she had intellect. This helped her to develop a plan to achieve her goal. It required assistance from the Eagle, for the Wren recognized his potential to win the race. And so, with the Eagle’s help, she flew higher than any bird had ever flown. She exercised her freedom by using her intellect to achieve her potential.
I cannot help but think about the Special Olympics as I talk about freedom. This organization helps millions of people with special needs achieve their athletic potential. These children and adults are able to engage their freedom and discover their true selves. They gain confidence in themselves and a drive to be more than what others expect them to be.
With freedom comes responsibility. This is a responsibility to others. It is so easy to get caught up in our personal expression of freedom that we impinge on the freedom of people around us. In the story, the Wren got in the way of the Eagles journey to fly the highest of any bird. The Wren’s single mindedness could have cost the Eagle his dream. When engaging in our freedom, we must be aware of others.
I remember hearing stories from my Mother about substitute teaching in Special Ed classrooms. Many of these children did not belong there, but were removed from regular classrooms because they were disruptive. My mother said that these children either processed the information really quickly or processed in a different way. They were disruptive because they were not being taught in a way that worked for them, so they were bored. Their teachers were so focused on being teachers, that they forgot about supporting children’s learning. It was not about how much information the teacher can give out, but making sure that all of the children in the class are learning.
We may also misunderstand what our true self is asking of us, and engage in harmful activities. Augusto Pinochet is a good example of this. Pinochet exercised his freedom through dictatorship. He took his call to leadership and used it condone torture and murder in order to maintain his status. This is the risk of freedom, to be misguided in engaging our potential and harm others.
A few months ago, Mark talked about developing a moral compass. This is important because it helps guide us when we are exploring our freedom. This is where a faith community comes in. A faith community can help us determine our values and encourage us to remain in right relationship with one another. As Unitarian Universalists, we can look towards the seven principles for assistance with our moral compass.
In a faith community, you can gain the tools to do the necessary work with your true self. Through sermons, classes and workshops, we can learn how to communicate with our true self and understand what our true potential is. Your faith community is a place where you can feel comfortable with revealing your true self and no that you will be supported. Also, when a faith community, you can talk about your quest for understanding your true self and your true potential and receive the clarification, affirmation and/or acknowledgement you need. And a faith community can hold you accountable for your relationships with others.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. This is an important holiday for me, not because of who we are celebrating but because of what it has come to mean to me. A few years after Martin Luther King Day became a National Holiday, I started attending Cranbrook Kingswood, a private High School in Michigan. Despite pleadings from the African American Student Association, the school refused to add the holiday to their calendar. As a group, we discussed what to do and decided that since Martin Luther King fought so that we would be able to attend a private high school, we should use this time for our own enrichment. So we proposed to the school that we organize a trip to the Black History Museum. They agreed. The next two years we decided to educate the entire school, and so we organized an all school assembly on Black History. This began for me a commitment to doing something personally enriching on Martin Luther King Day. I have gone to a museum, spent the day at the library, watched a performance, and worked on an art project. I realize that I have not been as intentional about this the last couple of years, and so I plan on revitalizing this part of my life again. It is a perfect time for me to engage my true self.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, think about how you exercise your own personal freedom. Where is your true self guiding you? What is your true potential? How will you engage that potential in the world?
We have freedom, every one of us. But it takes a lot of work to use that freedom. It has nothing to do with power or privilege. Freedom has everything to do with understanding our selves. Our freedom lies within. And to make things more complicated, it is not just all about us. It is also about how we relate to others. And so when we hear people talking about freedom in the world, know that we understand a freedom that is deeper than tyranny and oppression. One that can support our sixth principle of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. I return to our opening words which asks “who can be trusted with power?” Those who understand the meaning of freedom.
Engage your freedom
Learn about your true self and discover your true potential
Remember your moral compass
You do know how it feels to be free
So say it loud,
Say it clear
For the whole world to hear
We are free