Called to Freedom

Samuel and Eli

Epiphany 2 ~ Called to Freedom

It was salutary to be laid up for a week last week, listening into to the radio as the terrorist outrages in Paris worked their tragic course. But now I am better – although not so easily healed are the wounds and scars across the Channel, nor the ramifications of those sad events, even a weekend later.

Interestingly, the hymn we have just sung, was the product of a priest laid up in bed. Much used in the Anglican Church, often at ordinations, ‘I, the Lord of Sea and Sky’ has its origins in the Roman Catholic Jesuit community. Thirty-five years ago, Dan Schutte was studying for the priesthood at a seminary in Berkley, California, when a friend asked him to write a hymn for an imminent diaconal ordination. With only three days before the big event, and a rotten dose of the ‘flu, Schutte set about composing both the words and music, which he did in two days. Having done so, and exhausted from the effort, he took it to his friend, who was more than satisfied. Schutte writes on his website:

“It was ok. It was more than ok. From the very beginning people loved the piece and clearly identified with the dialogue between God and us that is the core of the song. In the years following so many have spoken to me or written how they had their own experience of God ‘calling in the night’ and being given the courage to respond. For me, the story of ‘Here I am, Lord’ tells of the God who overshadows us, giving power to our stumbling words and the simple works of our hands, and making them into something that can be a grace for people. The power God gives is far beyond what we could have planned or created”.
( - n.b. link no longer available)

While the clear and distinctive impact Schutte’s song has had is evident, it is worth noticing its origins in the Old Testament. Two passages stand out: the passage in Isaiah in which he describes the presence of the Lord and his fear and trembling in response; and the call of Samuel - today’s Old Testament reading: “Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” (1 Samuel 3:4). The young Samuel, ministering with the old man Eli, repeatedly responds to the night-time call of God. Just as Samuel repeats his response, so do we when we sing the song: three times responding to the question: ‘whom shall I send?’.

‘Here I am Lord’.

It is the response we can and should all make. The popularity, success and quality of this fine modern Christian song are not in doubt. Although Schutte has written much else, this is the song for which he will remain rightly famous. There is no-one who cannot sing it, and no-one who should not sing it, for it is universal in both its message and appeal.

The key to the hymn, and indeed to today’s readings, is calling. God calls us, each one of us, and we are free to respond. While there is something imperative about that calling, we nevertheless remain ourselves in both receipt of and response to it. So whether or not we feel worthy of our calling – or whether indeed we are worthy of our calling – which we are surely not - in any event we are invited into relationship in which our calling, our service and our freedom, are bound up together.

Which is interesting given French events of the last week or so. Because the problem with freedom is that everyone seems to think that freedom is all about doing, or saying whatever you want. Freedom has in recent years been linked, not to calling or service, but to desire, preference and opinion – to choice. And the apparent ‘right’ to say, do and think whatever you want to, seems to have become sacrosanct in a fundamentally secular way. People think that freedom of speech is about being able to say whatever you like to whoever you like about whoever you like. Calling a spade a spade is all very well, but sometimes it is also downright rude.

But freedom isn’t about choice at all. Being free to have desires, or to express opinions is a good thing, but this is not the definition of freedom. If freedom involved being able to do whatever you want and freedom of speech involved being able to say exactly whatever you want, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion means being able to think and believe whatever you want, that that is only fine and dandy for as long as what you want to think, feel, say, do or believe does not conflict with or impinge upon or restrict upon others. We have many laws, institutions and public bodies as well as policemen to ensure that some balance in this respect is maintained. It means we have a European Convention of Human Rights, a Met Police, and even, sort of, a press regulatory body. But here we notice that freedom is linked to rights. Freedoms have to be enshrined or codified it seems, and so needs must be written down so we can all see when our freedoms are being denied us.

Otherwise we end up in the inevitable but undesirable position in which it becomes acceptable for folk to do, say, draw, think, act in whatever way they wish, all in the name of freedom, or Liberty as some call it. Yet, if one is a true libertarian - and few are actually - a true libertarian has to allow others to act in ways that might not only offend them, but which might hurt, deprive or even kill them. The principle behind allowing someone to act or speak in whatever manner they want to is the same, and should be a two way process of equal tolerance. It rarely is though - fortunately.

It is said that the pen is sharper than the sword. We love this idea because it hints that intellect is greater than brute force - and indeed it is more noble, even though history is riddled with examples of massacres of intellectuals, philosophers, preachers and journalists. From Socrates to South East Asia - 1970s Cambodia or ISIS today, the pen is often bullied into silence by the most terrible means. What happened in Paris takes a small but not insignificant place in a long and terrible tradition of the suppression of free speech.

But this does not make what has subsequently happened in France this weekend ‘right’. Far from it - indeed what has been published in the French Magazine this week is actually an insult to anyone who cares about free speech at all. In this week of Christian Unity I’m pleased to be in agreement with the Pope on this.

For when the very principle of free speech underlying the tragic business of the last fortnight consists in the unfettered ability to insult who you like without either recourse or reason - and be aware that they attack the Pope in the same issue, in sexually explicit and fundamentally undignified ways - that is not a definition of free speech nor a foundational principle of society that everyone wants to be part of, let alone die for. Freedom is not to be confused with unfettered nastiness. That is why not everyone leapt onto the ‘Je suis Charlie’ bandwagon.

But we are stuck in a rut here. With freedom being a fundamentally individual, personal, almost private concern built upon desires - that is in what individuals want to say or do - it will never work. And it won't work because freedom, if it is about nothing else, has to be about truth. And truth is not a personal matter, any more than freedom is a personal matter.

Jesus said - ‘the truth will set you free’. Freedom must be about God, not about you and me. Take nature, for starters. The Big Bang set in motion all kinds of phenomena, which began with and retain their freedom. The universe is free, not controlled. The Universe is not controlled by laws, but is rather described by them. Stars come and go - we can make predictions, but we are limited in our ability to change things. We are not free to live on Mars, nor do any of us have the freedom to not get cancer. Freedom - in nature, and therefore in the things in life that really matter - is not about desire or opinion or choice. Indeed we have no say in the freedom of the universe. Or even, the freedom of the universe restricts ours.

Then there is the moral dimension. We have free will - although this is always under some question - but given that we do, what does that mean? We can choose how to act, for good or bad, intentionally or unintentionally. We can say what we want and do as we please. But this doesn't make it right to do so. Killing people who insult you is not somehow righting a wrong. Very few people think that, which is why the world condemns the Paris terrorists. Killing someone for disagreeing with, or insulting you is wrong, whatever anyone says: it is disproportionate as well as unchristian.

People who exercise a freedom to attack others - with pen or gun - are not thereby automatically doing something right by doing so. Simply having the right to do something, doesn’t make it right. So, with the next stage of the French situation, even if it might be said that the publishers of Charlie Hebdo have a right to respond to the merciless and barbaric actions of the terrorists by mass producing the next edition - this does not mean that they should have responded by further insulting Muslims and Christians, just because they have a right to, and just because they can. That is, in fact a gratuitous abuse of free speech. Which is why they should not be thoughtlessly applauded for doing so. The waters have been muddied further, and many thinkers and philosophers and leaders and people of faith are very concerned about this further provocation which is not just an attack on those who attacked them, but actually, an attack on the very values they hold dear: free speech, respect and liberty. Because none of these are grounded in the ability to insult and attack at will. Indeed they are built on respect, equality and tolerance.

Others were killed too, and they had no particular agenda on free speech, or even involvement with an approach to freedom of speech that is self-promoting, discriminatory, hypocritical and unkind. Rather a publication whose main purpose is to pour scorn on others’ beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and prejudices continues the fight in a blaze of self-righteous, self-serving publicity. What is called for here is humility, not profiteering.

It is all playground stuff, but with lethal toys. And it has nothing to do with freedom. The so-called freedom that the world lives by gets us into all this kind of hot water, because it is a freedom that is only measured by man, and because it is bonded by human limitation and pride, so is flawed and inconsistent. True freedom is founded on truth – and is connected to the creator and sustainer of all things who calls us into freedom both within the limitations of this world, and beyond. The freedom offered in Christ is perfect freedom: a freedom in which we can remain both ourselves and his. In God’s freedom our personalities, our desires, our wants, even our opinions, are bound up in acknowledgement of his power and authority, and in service to God and each other. In God’s freedom we see the bigger picture, submit to his will and call, and find ourselves released in service, love, worship and fellowship.

The Book of Common Prayer articulated this wonderfully half a millennium ago, and offers a prayer as pertinent today in the face of terror, as it is was in the face of religious reformation, plague and riot, when it was written.

So I leave you with the Collect for Peace, said or sung at matins ever since.

Let us pray.

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 18/01/15