Sharing Global Faith: Reflections on Freedom
Danish fairy-tail marvel Hans Christian Anderson once exclaimed: “Just living is not enough – one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.” Human experience confirms Anderson’s suspicion that the gift of freedom fertilizes the ground upon which life blossoms. Yet, let us not forget that as individual seeds destined for flowering adventure, our potential for growth is bound up with the environment into which we have been planted. Our freedom to sprout directly affects – and is conditioned by – surrounding vegetation, old roots of ages past and bustling new sprouts.
The following meditations explore the meaning of freedom in light of such interconnection. Drawing on music metaphors, Rev. Steve Dick sings of freedom’s unending revelation and passion for engaging difference. Rev. Roux Malan locates in human freedom the need for a ‘spacious spirituality’ that binds peoples together in sustainability. Reflecting on his recent trip to Africa, Rev. Bill Sinkford lifts up the great responsibility that accompanies humanity’s fate to freedom. Collectively, these prophetic voices breathe life into the multi-valent experience of individual freedom in community.
The Melody of Freedom
Singer Paul Robeson captures the essence of freedom as a defining bedrock of our liberal faith by hearing it as a melody – “a rhythmic sequence of single tones so related to one another as to make up a particular phrase or idea”.
Freedom is often perceived as a direction, such as escape (freedom from) or opportunity (freedom to or for) as if it is little more than an enabling handmaiden offering a means to an end.
This emphasis on liberation is a vital part of the human story and loses no honour in the simple power of an aspiration.
Yet its defining element as part of the music of the faith communities known as Unitarians and Universalists – crossing language and cultural boundaries – is in the rhythm that ties the single tones into an idea.
A linguistic understanding might be to sing a third and completing stanza of freedom in as notes just as necessary to the sequence as escape and opportunity.
We march proudly and purposely in the service of liberation with sisters and brothers compelled by their own faiths to take up Robeson’s peaceful weapons lifting our voices in song and action, hoping to prevail against fear and despair.
Where we sometimes find ourselves marching to the tune of Thoreau’s different drummer is when we complete the rhythm. We sing the tones integral to the melody that apply freedom not only to the boundaries but also to the very stuff of our faith and religion.
Freedom in faith is recognising the continuing nature of revelation and a commitment to living in the questions open to corrective new insights and dazzling discoveries.
Freedom in religion is appreciative challenge of our own experiences as stories to be rewritten as life is lived. This not lukewarm toleration of that which wakes us in the night but radical engagement in the connective tissues we know as our soul.
We are frail humans unequal to the tasks we face, but I believe our salvation is in our service to freedom from that which destroys life; in our commitment to freedom for radical opportunity and hospitality; and in our passion for freedom in the spiritual dialogue that binds us together.
I shall also take my voice wherever to share the melody of freedom (to, from and in)—to sing it, to hear it and to live it—for the Good of the Soul.
We Are All Here
“We are all here
In the midst of change –
Each rising and falling breath
merges with the ancient circle of humanity,
Rising and falling beyond all differences:
beyond creed and stories,
beyond the male and female split –
For in living and in dying we are all the same.”
[Excerpt from a closing prayer written by Rev. Malan for his welcoming ceremony as the minister of the Unitarian Church, Cape Town on Sunday, January 25th 2009]
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we have many key issues that confront us. Everyday we hear about global warming and the global financial crisis. We experience both directly and/or indirectly. Both threaten our current way of life on planet earth. The scale of the challenges in both instances seems overwhelming, hence the prefix “global.” They remind us of the fact that neither is going to be solved by one or two individuals or even one or two countries alone. They demand a concerted effort by us all. We, as ordinary people, have a major role to play and we cannot expect governments and politicians to sort out these challenges. We cannot leave it to a Barack Obama or a Nelson Mandela to save us from our folly. We need to take a deep breath and carefully reflect upon our times and its challenges; then, we need to take small, but deliberate, steps to help change things for the better.
Both global warming and the global financial crisis invite us to think about living a simpler and more sustainable life. We are called to slow down in order to see which way we are heading. It is a time to reconnect with the essence that we share as human beings. Shall we call it our spirit? If we do reconnect with this inner essence I would like to think that it would be a “spacious spirituality” that includes rather than excludes. In fact, I would suggest that global challenges require such a “spacious spirituality” in order to find a solution to these particular challenges. It will afford us the inner space to view these challenges from a larger perspective that doesn’t solely revolve around our own ego concerns and economic considerations. It will help us work towards that which is good for the world and not only that which is good for ourselves.
There is a simple way suggested by numerous spiritual traditions to develop this “spacious spirituality”: the simple practice of watching our breath and reflecting on the simplicity of this act. We must ask ourselves the question: What do I need to do now to ensure that the breath of life on planet earth will continue even when I have breathed my last and final breath?
During my November 2008 pilgrimage to Africa, I had the great fortune of fellowshipping with many of our Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters, including the members of Brotherhood Unitarian Church and First Unitarian Church in Lagos, Nigeria. I so fondly recall the joint worship service that was held on a glorious Sunday morning by these two congregations; a service suffused with traditional harmonies and pulsating rhythms.
The worship leader, Rev. Adeyenke Matimoju, was filled with the Spirit from the beginning to the end. Throughout the service, he guided the congregation in enraptured singing and dancing, as well as prophetic preaching. I felt my soul commune with these good people. Together, as Americans and Nigerians, as clergy and laity, we sang a shared ‘melody of freedom.’
The liberal theologian James Luther Adams observed that as humans, we are fated to be free. Our lives comprise a series of choices and we cannot escape our birthright of decision-making. This freedom, however, carries with it great responsibility. While in Africa, I glimpsed humankind’s capacity for cruelty and compassion. I bore witness to the small, dark cells of Goree Island, in which thousands of enslaved people were held during the slave trade. And yet, I also met with the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association of Eastern Ghana, whose HIV/AIDS campaign successfully cut in half the rate of new infections in their communities. Free choice and human (ir)responsibility wrote both of these legacies.
Our religious lives are no different. In freedom, we must choose our faith carefully. The Unitarian Universalist tradition calls us individually to self-examination and collectively to mutual responsibility. Although our spiritual paths may take many forms, it is in covenantal community that we celebrate the choices we have made in the ways of justice, equity and compassion.
Today, the stakes couldn’t be higher. With looming diplomatic, financial and ecological crises, our world thirsts for those words that might inspire hope and courage in the face of despair and fear. From Los Angeles to Lagos, this is our great calling. As a faith fated to freedom, we must sing that song of solidarity.
My devotional prayer is that we will continue to find ways to choose love, exercise responsibility and heal the world together.