Via Creativa: What Now? Free Yourself!

Read the rest of the Via Creativa: What Now? series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany:

I will raise up for them a prophet. (Deuteronomy 18:15-22)
What is this? A new teaching. (Mark 1:21-28)

Our first song this morning is an old Cole Porter song. Written in 1934 for a musical Adios, Argentina. Porter wrote the music, but the lyrics were written by a man named Robert Fletcher, who was a Department of Highways in Montana. He sold the poem to Porter for $250. The song has been covered by many performers including Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers and Willie Nelson. The song is called, “Don’t Fence Me In.” Let’s try it.

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in

Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

It’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed ever since I joined Weight Watchers. Inevitably, someone in a meeting will complain that their friends or family members don’t support them in their weight loss journey. Instead, they seek to sabotage their new commitment with comments like, “You look just fine like you are. You don’t need to lose weight.”

I admit, I’ve been guilty of saying that to people in the past myself, and there is a reason why we say these things when those around us begin to make positive changes in their lives: It reminds us that we’re stuck in our old choices.

When others start to take control of things in their lives, whether it’s losing weight, giving up smoking, or taking up a healthy habit like walking or working out – we start to feel threatened by that. So, we minimize their new commitment with comments like: “Why do you want to do that? You’re fine the way you are now.”

People always want to box other people in – to be prophets of doom whenever those around us begin to itch to be free of those boxes. If we can see that the others around us a bumbling and stumbling around just like we are, then we can feel better about ourselves. When those around us are yearning to be beyond the fences of social conventions – to be by themselves in the evening breeze, listening to the murmur of the cottonwood trees, we freak. We start telling them why being outside the fence is a deadly alternative. They’ll be sorry if they wander! Being fenced in is where the security is at so when people start to yearn for wide open spaces we get scared – not just for them, but for ourselves. What if they are right and we’re wrong?

Empowerment is fun, though, when you’re doing it, but it can feel threatening when other people do it. These people making changes in their lives are the ones who have asked our Via Creativa question of “What now?” and have found the courage to shed those old ways of thinking and being. They have found the courage they need to accept things as they currently are and then step into the mystery that the future holds for them. In short, they have embraced the freedom of land lots of land, and the starry skies above far from the fences that have held them back.

This kind of positive change in other people’s lives can make us feel badly about our own journeys, so we seek to hobble those around us with our cutting and unsupportive remarks, because if they stay inside the fence, then we don’t feel so bad about staying here either.

It’s one thing, though when people begin to claim their freedom to change their physical or mental habits. Where we really get threatened though, is when people begin to look beyond the fences of conventional spirituality. When people start to explore their relationship with the Holy in new ways – we really begin to get nervous, because perhaps we may have gotten in wrong in some physical or mental ways – but we simply can’t bear the thought that perhaps we’ve gone wrong spiritually.

I imagine people used to a traditional form of worship encounter some form of panic when they join us here at Jubilee for the first time. When we burn sage or call the four directions, that traditional, fenced in part of them begins to scream, “That’s not how we do worship! Only pagans burn sage and call the four directions. Only Buddhists use singing bowls. If this is what it means to be outside that fence, then please fence me in!”

We tend to think there’s only one way to worship, only one way to celebrate our connection to the Holy and it involves boring hymns and even more boring sermons. So, when we start to break that mold and dare to assert that the Holy can be found in sage and direction calling and Buddhist singing bowls, people start to feel uncomfortable.

In their reaction, they often will do all they can to try to persuade you that however you are encountering the Holy is wrong – since that’s not the way they do it, or were taught to do it. They may even tell you that they can speak for God, that they are prophets of some sort – anointed to tell you the error of your ways. How do you know? How do you know that you’re doing it the right way? How do you even know there is a right and a wrong way?

All this criticism can make you feel boxed up, bottled up and fenced in to traditions, just because people say “this is how we’ve always done it.” We get fearful. We don’t want to do it wrong. We don’t want to offend God in some way. Even though we’re honestly trying to make a connection with the Holy and with others, these prophets of doom make us think twice. They don’t mind being fenced in by their tradition, apparently, and they desperately don’t want you even think about riding out beyond those fences.

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies
On my cayuse, let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

Prophets are prominent within the Hebrew scriptures, but it’s tempting to think that there were only a few of those oddball soothsayers out there – but really this was quite a booming cottage industry. Prophets really were a dime a dozen back in those days. Not all prophets were equal, however. Some excelled in their work, others, not so much. So, how did people know which prophets to follow? Their words came true!

Prophets arose in Hebrew times because the people asked for them. They complained that they simply couldn’t bear direct communication from God and they asked Moses to ask God to appoint people to speak for God, so God obliged. But, that doesn’t mean just anyone can speak for God. Those who abuse the privilege will find themselves on the wrong side of God’s wrath. Sometimes that wrath comes a bit too slowly for our taste, however.

But, when we say that we can tell a true prophet from a false one because their words come to pass, some real concerns can come up for us. Those we may consider the prophets of doom seem to have a corner on the market of their words coming true. Those prophets that say some people are less than others, those prophets that say the rich are the truly blessed and the poor are cursed. Those prophets that speak words of division seem to be the ones whose words are coming true – while prophets of peace, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of equality seem to be simply shouting in the wind.

So, if we go by what the Hebrew Scriptures seem to be saying here, are those prophets of war and chaos the true prophets of God? A little education on the Hebrew words being used here may shed some light on our dilemma. The passage tells us that false prophets presume to speak for God. The Hebrew word used here is “za-don” – which means to speak in a haughty, insolent or arrogant way. This means those who truly speak for God are the ones speaking in a peaceful and humble manner.

The scriptures also tell us that those prophets speaking in that haughty manner can safely be ignored – that we don’t have to fear them – even if they seem to be speaking with authority. The Hebrew word used here for “afraid” means to be in fear of, but it also means “to stir up strife or trouble.”

Clearly, then, we can see that true prophets, those who speak words from the Holy, are those who speak peace, who speak mercy, who do not seek to stir up trouble, strife and division. Do prophets who speak peace stir up trouble? Yes, definitely. Whenever we go against the socially accepted mores of rich against poor, privileged against outcast, in-crowd against out-crowd, there will always be strife and trouble. But, the difference is this – true prophets call us back to our unity. True prophets call us back to our true home – at one with our creator and at one with our brothers and sisters of every race, religion, creed, or any other label or separating concept we want to concoct. True prophets are those that work to strip away our selfishness, our greed, our self-centeredness of “I, me, mine.” True prophets are those who call us to support one another, to have hearts that overflow with mercy and peace and justice.

If these are the true prophets, you might ask, why aren’t their words coming true? And it’s a fair question. I’d like to answer it with this question: Which prophets are we heeding? Are the words of the prophets of division and strife coming to pass because we heed their words instead of the words of the prophets that speak of unity? Isn’t it easier to give in to the prophets of doom and division instead of heeding the hard words of the prophets who call us to peace and unity? How often, Jubilants, do we choose those safe fences of doom over the peace and harmony of land, lots of land? How often do we choose to remain in bondage instead of embracing true freedom?

Breathe deeply.

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies
On my cayuse, let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
And gaze at the moon until I lose my senses
And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in (3x)

Once upon a time, there was a colorless tiger. All his shades were grays, blacks and whites. So much so, that he seemed like something out of an old black and white movie. His lack of color had made him so famous that the world’s greatest painters had come to his zoo to try to put some color on him. None of them succeeded, as the colors would always just drip down off his skin.

Then along came Van Cough the crazy painter. He was a strange guy who travelled all about, happily painting with his brush. Well, it would be more accurate to say that he moved his brush about, as if to paint; because he never put any paint on his brush, and neither did he use canvas or paper. He painted the air, and that’s why they called him Van Cough. So, when he said he wanted to paint the colorless tiger, everyone had a good laugh.

When entering the tiger’s cage he began whispering in the animal’s ear, and moving his dry brush up and down the tiger’s body. And to everyone’s surprise, the tiger’s skin started to take on color, and these were the most vivid colors any tiger had ever had. Van Cough spent a long time whispering to the animal, and making slight adjustments to his painting. The result was truly beautiful.

Everyone wanted to know what the painter’s secret was. He explained to them that his brush was only good for painting real life, and that to do that he needed no colors. He had managed to paint the tiger using a phrase he kept whispering in its ear: “In just a few days you will be free again, you shall see.”

And seeing how sad the tiger had been in his captivity, and how joyful the tiger now seemed at the prospect of freedom, the zoo authorities transported him to the forest and set him free, where never again would he lose his color.

When we are fenced in – hedged in by prophets of doom – our lives are colorless and drab. It is that prospect of freedom – that prospect of gazing at the moon ’til we lose our senses that gives our lives color, meaning and depth. Otherwise, we may as well just be black and white lions.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song come from singer/songwriter Paul Simon. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” hit number one on the Billboard charts back in 1976. Simon wrote the song after he divorced his first wife. Let’s try it.

The problem is all inside your head
She said to me, The answer is easy if you
Take it logically, I’d like to help you in your
struggle to be free, There must be fifty ways
To leave your lover

She said it’s really not my habit To intrude
Furthermore, I hope my meaning
Won’t be lost or misconstrued
But I’ll repeat myself, At the risk of being crude
There must be fifty ways, To leave your lover
Fifty ways to leave your lover

[CHORUS:] You Just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee, And get yourself free

In our Jesus story, we find our guy living into his role as a prophet. This scene comes early in his ministry as he was passing through Capernaum. When the Sabbath came he headed over the synagogue, like any good Jew – only this time, he took over – teaching from the Torah with authority.

But, there was also someone else there – someone who interrupted Jesus’ interruption.

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.'”

Just like that colorless tiger, this man was in captivity – trapped by an “unclean spirit” that kept him behind the fence, unable to live in those wide open spaces of the Holy. What this man saw in Jesus both terrified and delighted him.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” And isn’t that what we fear true freedom will do to us in the end – completely destroy us? Take us away from everything we’ve ever known inside this fence? Plunge us into the depths of the mystery where we can find no edges – no fences – to offer us security?

We are a lot like this guy – gripped by our own fears that are like lovers we can’t seem to leave. We are bound by our fear of change – by our fear of asking “What now?” and being led on a new adventure that demands we give up some of those things, some of those concepts, some of those beliefs, that hold us back. We’re afraid.

We ask, “If I leave this lover, will anyone ever love me again?” If we leave behind the things that give us comfort in this moment – will we ever find comfort again? If we break through this fence, these habits, these beliefs, that bring us security in this moment – will we ever feel secure again out there beyond the fences?

But, even gripped by his fears, this man saw the amazing freedom that Jesus offered.

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

And Jesus told this man, “There must be 50 ways to leave your lover… to break free of the relationships with people, things, ideas, and concepts that plague you.”

That’s my paraphrase – but Jesus is recorded as saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

These are the words of prophesy Jesus still speaks to our fears today, “Be silent, and come out of him! Be silent, and come out of her!”

To be truly free, we must leave these lovers that hold us back – the demons that bind us in old ways of thinking, seeing and being. When we’re feeling that those lovers will destroy us and prevent us from fleeing to our true call to freedom beyond the fences – this is our response, “Be silent – and come out of me!”

Breathe deeply.

[CHORUS:] You Just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just listen to me
Hop on the bus, Gus You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee, And get yourself free

She said it grieves me so,
To see you in such pain
I wish there was something I could do
To make you smile again
I said I appreciate that
And would you please explain
About the fifty ways

She said why don’t we both
Just sleep on it tonight
And I believe in the morning
You’ll begin to see the light
And then she kissed me
And I realized she probably was right
There must be fifty ways
To leave your lover
Fifty ways to leave your lover

The movie Chicken Run, a claymation film released in 2000, tells the story of a band of chickens seeking their freedom from the coop before their owners make chicken pot pies out of them. Ginger, the hen, has longed for freedom and hopes to realize her dream when an American rooster named Rocky shows up in the coop. In one scene Ginger says: “You know what the problem is? The fences aren’t just around the farm. They’re up here, in your heads. There’s a better place out there, somewhere beyond that hill, and it has wide open places, and lots of trees… and grass. Can you imagine that? Cool, green grass.”

What keeps us from that cool, green grass of spiritual freedom are not the fences out here, but the fences in our head. The fences put up by past religious authorities, past family traditions, past social expectations – ideas passed from generation to generation that are in serious need of some airing out and updating.

When Jesus frees the man in the synagogue from his unclean spirit – Jesus becomes famous. In modern terms – this healing event went viral. Jesus became known as a famous prophet, which is where the conundrum begins for me, because if we take the Hebrew scriptures at their word – it is only the false prophets that die – not the real ones. But, as we all know, Jesus dies in the end – so by the Hebrew guidelines, that would make Jesus a false prophet, would it not?

What makes Jesus different, however, is not his message – but the reaction to it. Jesus taught as a true prophets – with authority, with words about a world of mercy, justice and grace. Jesus didn’t die because his message was false. What God Jesus killed were the fences in the heads of those who heard him.

Jesus told the cooped up chickens of his day about the wide open spaces beyond the hills of the worldly lovers they had bound themselves to. He told them about the green grasses of grace and unity out beyond the fences of false security they had constructed around themselves.

Those people who heard Jesus then – and many who hear Jesus’ message of true freedom now – replied in just the same way as one of the chickens in Chicken Run who said: “In all my life I’ve never heard such a fantastic… load of tripe!”

And they killed him rather than believe some fantastic story about wide open spaces and green grass just over the hill.

In reality, we prefer the bondage of our unclean spirits. We prefer the battles of division over the peacefulness and unity of wide open spaces and green, green grass. We prefer the fences to the land, lots of land that Jesus came to offer us. We prefer our bondage because freedom is scarier than security – because the devil we know, even though he’s still a devil, feels safer than the devil – or the angels – we don’t know.

The only way to break through these fences in our heads – and get the courage we need to ask “What now?” and find those 50 ways to leave the lovers that keep us in bondage is to do what that man did when he saw Jesus in the synagogue. We must recognize the Holy all around us. This is the only way to freedom – to look at everyone and everything around us and say, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Until we realize that the Holy is all around us – that the wide open spaces and green grass is all around us and that the fences are just in our heads – then we’ll stay cooped up like frightened chickens.

We are called, Jubilants, to be prophets. Not just to get outside the fences of our own minds and lives – but to call others to that same freedom. We do not speak presumptively – we do not speak words of strife, or preach condemnation against those who can’t seem to get past the fences in their own minds – or in their own hearts. Instead, we must be prophets of peace – prophets of unity – prophets that see the Holy in, through and around it all.

There will be opposition, though – because the fences inside the minds of many in this world are thick and sturdy. Even when we are opposed, however, we must train ourselves to see the Holy even in our opponents. We must cultivate the spirit that says to even those trapped by their fences of tradition, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Because we are all Holy – all originally blessed. We just forget that and forsake the real blessings of the Holy for the false security of the world’s fences of tradition.

I invite you, Jubilants, to allow the Holy to destroy you – to destroy those ideas, those concepts, those old lovers – those fences, that continue to hold you back from being who God has called you to be. “I know who you are, Jubilants, the Holy One of God.”

Breathe deeply.

[CHORUS:] You Just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee, And get yourself free

Oh, Yeah!