- 2004 1 Jul
Today is the Fourth of July. Independence Day. As hot as the Sahara, but much more humid. I’m planning to run through my traditional routine, which means that in a few hours I’ll be hovering around a grill — as if we’re not hot enough already! — and eating really-bad-for-me foods that I will dip in even-worse-for-me sauces, which I will then do again and again. I’ll stand around swatting at mosquitoes or my own tickling sweat that I have mistaken for mosquitoes. And I’ll stay just long enough to seal the riveting experience by watching fireworks and the neighborhood kids lighting tanks and bottle rockets. Cracks and whistles and windowrattling booms will follow me into the night.
This year, however, I’m trying to change my perspective a bit. I mean, I’m still planning to swat my way through the whole heathamburger-sparkler shebang, but I want to make this event more personal — more meaningful to me.
I went running this morning and pondered how I might do this. As I jogged past patriotic paraphernalia and moms and dads out watering their gardens on what is normally a workday, I thought about the price of freedom. The many lives that have been given in exchange for me to have the opportunity to even go to barbeques. It’s something we take for granted here in America. We just do. I’m not sure there’s anyway we can’t. We’re as used to freedom as we are to the weather or running water or breathing. But it comes at a price nonetheless. An incredibly steep price that most of us don’t begin to comprehend. So I decided I would spend the day not forgetting these things.
But as I considered the freedom I have as an American citizen, I couldn’t stop there. I began to follow that train of thought to my own heart. How free am I here? I mused. I thought of those areas in which I feel bound, those heavy cords that I can’t seem to unloose. I began wondering if, over the years, I had become any freer, mainly because it seems that I’m always battling the same demons: fear, selfishness, jealousy, insecurity, etc. I concluded that, yes, I have been freed of much, but I also recognize that some things will never stop constricting me at some level. I am a human being, after all.
Running … thinking … walking … running, running, running again to get away from the bite-size poodle that snaps at my heels every time I pass by the house she guards. When she finally turned back, I returned to my thoughts … I wish that on this Fourth of July I could have a private celebration of my own soul-freedom. I committed to viewing the day as a personal holiday for me as a struggling, but liberated person. I haven’t wiggled out of every cage or broken free from every fetter, but I am grateful for the progress that has been made and in awe of the price that has been paid.
Fighting for Freedom
Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia, “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” (Galatians 5:1). This enlightens me in a way I wouldn’t have expected: We have to stand firm in our freedom. Liberty isn’t something that just happens or is sustained without our continual attention. I think of our own country and the liberty we have achieved. Since we established our independence, we have never for one moment had the luxury of sitting back and just allowing things to take their course. We have protected ourselves, because freedom is not something that “just is.” It is not a one-time achievement on which we can casually rely. We have to tend to it and fight for it because bondage and slavery will never cease to be a threat. Our freedom must be worked for.
I imagine that Independence Day means more to my grandfather than to most people. A retired Navy admiral, he risked his life for days like today. He lost friends and left loved ones for months at a time to secure our nation’s liberty. When he watches the annual fireworks, I’m sure he sees more than flashing colors that decorate the night sky. I’m sure he stands at attention, remembering long nights at sea, close calls as a pilot, and faces of those who are no more. He knows firsthand that the cost of liberty is the laying down of lives. In order for us to live, some must die.
It is really no different in the spiritual realm. In order to save our lives, we must lose them. Whoever loses his life will find it. A seed must go into the ground and die before it can spring to new life. These are the eloquent, yet painfully difficult-to-hear truths that Jesus spoke into existence. Though I wish there were another way, the lose-your-life-so-you-can-find-it path is the only way I’ve found to freedom.
No matter how we dress up the Christian faith or how appealing we try to make Christianity sound, and no matter how many charming books are written or slick television sermons are preached, at the core of it all is this one huge, irrevocable principle: For us to be free, we must submit ourselves to God. We cannot do this while we are still trying to be our own masters. Soul-freedom requires obedience and servanthood and, ultimately, surrender, and every other requirement that drives me crazy, until I remember that these “religious” responses are not life squelching, but are routes to liberation.
But the path to freedom can be arduous. In fact, writing this chapter has taken me to task. I found myself in a really bad mood yesterday the minute I sat down to write on this subject, and it didn’t lift until I shut down my laptop for the night. I came toe to toe with the fact that soul-freedom is not easy to achieve and that bondage tends to be my default mode. We all have things we allow to hold us captive for a litany of reasons. And it never fails … just when I think I’m getting a handle on these things, I lose my grip altogether.
For example, I just found out that I’m about to head out on a radio promotional tour that will take the greater part of the next two months to finish. Immediately after that, I leave for a twentycity tour that will be interspersed with an additional ten or so solo dates. All of this will take me right up to Thanksgiving, and today is only the Fourth of July! Within an instant, my summer and fall seem to have disappeared.
I’m keeping a cool, confident front with my manager and record company, but deep down this terrifies me. I don’t want to leave home. I’m not looking forward to being away from the closeknit community I have developed here in town. I don’t want to miss out on walks in the park or going out for Italian with my friends. And I don’t want to skip an entire season of Sundayafternoon football or get back after the leaves have already changed and fallen. My friends have become my extended family, and it’s unsettling for me to leave them again. The great big mother-fear is that I will be lonely. It is the overarching fear under which every other fear of mine falls.
Thinking about these things prompted me to leaf through my journals and read about the last thirty-five-city tour I took in the fall of 2001. Every night I would record my thoughts lying down, since the bunks on the bus were too shallow for anyone to sit up in (think coffin). The name of a different city headed each entry: White Oak, Texas; Lexington, Kentucky; Hastings, Nebraska; and on my birthday, some city in South Dakota that I forgot to note, probably because I was so sad about spending it there that I blanked it out altogether.
The prospect of traveling again feels so depressing to me. In fact, I feel a bit panicked. I’m not sure I want to go out and pound the pavement again, and then again, and then some more. I’m not looking forward to afternoons spent in bad hotels, or delayed flights when I’m desperate to get home, or cell phone calls that break up one-sentence exchanges into a thousand digital pieces. I want familiar faces and conversations with no interruptions — not, “Can you hear me now?” I want the comfort of my community. I want my own bed.
Perhaps my reactions are a little exaggerated, or perhaps this would be stressful for anyone. I’ve been living this vagabond, entrepreneurial lifestyle for too long to have an objective perspective on how “normal” my feelings are. But either way, they are still rooted in fear, and when it comes to fearing loneliness, I find it to be my Achilles heel. It has dogged me since childhood.
As a kid I was afraid to go to school. Afraid for my mom to leave me. Afraid she wouldn’t pick me up. Afraid that I wouldn’t know what to do or that I would have no one to sit with. I tried hard to cover up these fears, but I quickly discovered that I was not Broadway bound for my acting abilities. My hands trembled in kindergarten; tears from being left would uncontrollably slip out until I could pull myself together and tuck them in again. And that was before having to ride the bus to elementary school. Getting on that thing for the first time felt like a death wish. What kind of guarantee did I have that this perfect stranger would actually take me to school and back home again? For all I knew, she might drive me to the hills of West Virginia and push me out onto the side of the road, separating me from my family forever. I thought long and hard about these threatening possibilities.
Of course, as I’ve matured and grown in confidence over the years, I’m a little less phobic. But the fears haven’t gone away. I wear them with a little more class, and they’re slightly more masked, but if it were fully acceptable — and I knew in advance that no one would judge me — I would cry out in the most obnoxious, whimpering, childish voice, “Don’t make me go! Don’t make me go! Pleeeeeeease don’t make me go!”
I haven’t resorted to this yet, but it’s everything I’m thinking and feeling. I hold back the “I’m-falling-apart” drama, not so much because I’m afraid of what people might think, but because I know I have to go. Not just because I have to make a living and this is the only way I know how to do it, and not just because I have to hold up my end of the bargain with my record company and booking agency; but because I know that this is what God has put in my heart to do. I’m confident of this, and even though I’m afraid at times, I can’t curl up like a pill bug because I don’t want to leave home.
But choosing the high road doesn’t keep all my anxiety at bay. It just means that I lay down my own agenda and fears for the sake of doing what I believe God is asking of me. I have stretched in these areas a great deal, but I’m not sure that it will ever be easy for me to step on a bus or board a plane at the expense of being away from so much I hold dear. But this is where the fight for freedom comes in. In obedience and trust there is liberty. It doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly better for me, but that my fears don’t dictate my decisions. It’s not that I don’t fear, it’s just that my fears aren’t the controlling factor.
Freedom in Christ is similar, at least in my experience. Again, I think we as a Christian community do ourselves (and others) a great disservice when we promote the idea that freedom from our struggles is an instantaneous event, a one-time moment of deliverance. Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:1 — “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” — refers to the instantaneous part: Jesus Christ hung on a cross to bear the sins of the world in order to secure our eternal freedom. But the second part of Paul’s statement cautions us that day-to-day freedom in our mortal bodies is something we must vigorously protect. We must hold our ground so we do not slip back under the heavy burdens that hold us captive.
Maintaining our soul-freedom is up to us. Based on my own experience as well as the experiences of those who are farther down the road than I am, it’s a lifelong battle. It is supposed to be hard. Acknowledging that challenge relieves me because it is far more stressful to think that being a Christian guarantees automatic victory or immediate deliverance from something that we will never have to work at again — especially considering the fact that I have never been able to accomplish this struggle-free way of life. Yet this incorrect way of thinking continues to be propagated and has led to the destruction of many Christians who are sincere followers of Christ but have had to work desperately hard for their freedom.
Walking freely is not about walking without struggle; it is about walking without our struggles controlling us. As we are transformed into the image of Christ and continue to be obedient, I think that certain things become — dare I say — easier. Our gnawing fears and addictions and our wayward tendencies aren’t so overpowering. I think we develop a greater capacity to trust God each time we step out in faith and overcome our urges to act otherwise. We may walk with a limp, but we walk nonetheless.
Does this not reflect the story of the thorn in Paul’s side that God refused to take away? Or of Mephibosheth, who was lame but sat at the king’s table? Or of Moses, who stuttered but did not allow his impediment to keep him from obeying God and confronting Pharaoh? These people were not free of weighty problems, but they did not succumb to them in the end. That is the victory I am seeking in my own life.
I had just arrived at a remote camp in New Jersey where I was going to perform that night. I discovered that my cell phone had no signal, so I realized I was probably farther away from civilization than I wanted to admit. My first tip-off was when — on the way from the airport — we passed a packed-out rodeo in a place called “Cowtown.” I was hoping this alarming sight was not a precursor of things to come.
After arriving, I found my thoughts drifting back to family vacations when I was a kid. Set on a lake, the camp reminded me of all I loved about our summer getaways together. I suddenly felt no loyalties to my guitar or luggage and abandoned them to a stranger so I could go for an exploratory walk. First stop: a tantalizing row of kayaks. More like an eager kid, and less like the hired entertainment for the evening, I asked the promoter if I could take one out for a spin before sound check. He handed me a paddle.
I had never kayaked before, so the oar became a potentially dangerous tool in my hands. I remained undeterred, however, and coasted out onto the open water, allowing the fresh breeze to rejuvenate me after breathing the regurgitated air on the plane. I propped my legs up on the outside of my new vessel and smugly thought (at least on calm waters), I am a natural.
I cut through the water like a nautical veteran. I also sailed past several buoys that signified a no-trespassing zone. For some reason I missed that whole subliminal message, and without a care in the world, I curved around the bend, reassuring myself that being on the road is not so bad after all — even when you’re playing venues where there is no cellular service and the next city over is Cowtown.
Blissfully ignorant and floating into forbidden waters, I was suddenly mesmerized by something I hadn’t seen in years: a bald eagle. Gliding through the air, the eagle made my sleek kayak maneuverings seem stunted. Motionless, I watched her fly to a nearby tree and perch there for several seconds. Either finding what she was looking for or getting bored, the eagle then flew off into the invisible distance. This sight was the cherry on top of an already spectacular view.
After soaking in the experience, I decided to race back to shore before it was too late to rehearse. I had barely slipped out of the kayak when a woman came running up to me, asking if I had seen the eagle. (With one question, she single-handedly deflated my excitement; I thought I had been the first to see it.) Turns out, the string of buoys on the lake was specifically intended to deter people from disturbing the eagle’s nest. Apparently the eagle I saw was, with her mate, one of only thirty-five pairs of eagles in New Jersey, all of them on the endangered list.
As I walked back to my “dressing room” (okay, it was a lodge), I couldn’t help but view my experience against the backdrop of all I’ve been writing about. The eagle — the very symbol of freedom — needed to have her freedom protected. Protected from overzealous kayakers who pay no heed to buoys. An entire infrastructure had been put into place to safeguard the eagle, keep her and her mate reproducing, and enable her to fly without limits.
I can only imagine what would become of the eagles without that special protection. I am very aware of what happens to me when I let down my own defenses, when I decide that protecting my freedom in Christ is simply not worth the effort. I quickly sink into a spiritual lethargy, and all my “natural” responses take over. I forget that I am in desperate need of Christ, and I become selfreliant and self-absorbed. I take offense at things more easily and tend to miss the bigger picture of what God is up to in my life and in the world.
Mostly, I am rendered useless for anything of eternal value. Life begins to be all about me, which is a heavy weight to bear. When I am consumed with my own desires and agendas and am seeking wholeheartedly to fulfill them, then it’s entirely up to me to satisfy their demands. I have no other choice; I am responsible for them. This means I end up answering to no one but myself, manipulating others to give me what I need, and overriding what God might have me do simply because I have these “other things” that I am now responsible for. It is a burdensome cycle that is anything but free.
Again, Paul reminds me not to slip back underneath this heavy burden — the yoke of slavery. But this requires a firm stance, a plan of action, and effort on my part. Sometimes I tire of it, but I have to remind myself that I will always be a slave to something, whether to Jesus or to someone or something else. Only slavery to Christ yields freedom; everything else brings bondage.
The servants at the wedding in Cana demonstrate this truth. First, they were obedient when it didn’t make sense (filling water pots when they needed jugs of wine). Had they been operating out of their finite understanding, they would never have carried water to the wedding master, knowing he was expecting wine. Second, their obedience was complete — they filled the jugs “to the brim.” They carried out their task responsibly and with honor; they did nothing halfway. And, in the end, their reward was full, as they shared in the glorious secret of the wine. But isn’t it interesting that the glory of the servants’ being part of a miracle and the intimacy of their being in on a secret didn’t come by any other means than their being servants of Jesus. Technically, the servers looked like slaves, but in reality they were free. Free to know secrets, free to be part of the mysterious, free to follow, free of themselves. They represent the ultimate dichotomy: They were free servants. Which is what I believe we are all called to be.
This freedom requires that we make a concerted effort to protect our “eagle’s nest,” though our individual methods will probably look unique to each of us. For me, protection is comprised of many elements: a community I can be honest with, a pastoral couple who looks after me, the prayer and support of family and friends, honest and regular dialogue with Jesus, a surrendering posture before him, along with less overtly “spiritual” things such as exercise and walks in the park, laughter, spending time with children and pets, music, play … and I would like to justify including good pasta somewhere on the list.
I am committed to these things because I am committed to my freedom. I need all of these hedges of protection so that I will not be overly hampered by my self, because there is no doubt that I am my biggest obstacle to freedom. Each one of these protections encourages me to remain focused on Christ. For me, this doesn’t mean spending all day every day reading Scripture and meditating. It means that when I get inordinately worried about finances, I call my pastor and let him know I’m discouraged. It means that when I’m overtaken by self-pity, I grab dinner with a friend who will remind me of the wonderful ways God has shown himself faithful to me thus far. It means that when I’m at my wit’s end with my own weaknesses and struggles, I quietly (or loudly) pray, pleading for supernatural change. And it also means that when I’m burned out and tired, I go for a run and then gorge myself on rigatoni with pesto and sun-dried tomato cream sauce with pine nuts — which always makes me feel better.
My “liberty list” is ultimately about surrender. It is about holding out my open hands to the Lord, ready to move or stay or lay something down or pick up something new as he leads. It is about being docile in his hands with a childlike trust that, wherever God is leading me, it will ultimately be good. Because it is for freedom that Christ has set me free. Because I want to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint. Mostly, it is because I want to fly with wings like eagles.
For this, I will stand firm.
Kelly Minter is a singer-songwriter who has toured extensively in the contemporary Christian music market. She has released two nationally distributed records, "Good Day" and "Wrestling Angels." Kelly is also a spokesperson for World Vision. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.