Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The joys and challenges of being a Protestant

"Freedom, O Freedom....Thank God' Amighty I am free at last..."  (taken from an African-American spiritual).

As Americans we have milestones in our history that we celebrate annually.  The Fourth of July or Independence Day is probably the biggest celebration where we think about what it means to be Americans and to have the freedoms we enjoy.  After that, most likely it is Thanksgiving that captures our attention as to how our collective history has shaped us into the people we are.  We remember those brave people who boarded that boat we call the Mayflower to come from England (by way of Ireland) to the shores of a continent that was still very unknown and considered dangerous.  Savages (that is what they called the Native Americans who lived on this continent) were there and they soon learned that was the least of their worries and those very ones they feared became the source of their salvation when they got to know them and learned from them so that they could survive in this harsh and forbidding land.  Being free from the religious and political oppression they believed they endured in England was a greater motivator for them than enduring the challenges they would endure in the new land they would claim as their own.

The Pilgrims (as we call those hardy folk who made that voyage across the Atlantic) set up their own little kingdom in Massachusetts and created a religious order or sorts in which they were now in charge rather than any other religious authorities.  No longer would the Church of England or the British government impose their rules upon them but they themselves would act as rule maker and enforcer.

Things began well with everyone pitching in just to survive but soon as they were established and had time to do other things than just build and plant and gather in order to live they had time to do other things and those in charge who were very religious determined that the only things that could be done in one's spare time was reading the Bible, praying, and conducting oneself in religious activities of piety and charity.  Those who chose to pursue other activities soon found that they faced punishment.  Those who questioned the authority of the leaders of the group also faced punishment or exile.  The Pilgrims had traded the perceived harshness of the British system for their own system that offered similar harshness only in a new setting.

Freedom from British rule may have seemed like prison to some who suffered at the hands of the religious leaders of the day and some did suffer and die, convicted of witchcraft or other severe offenses, and others who chose to set out on their own and establish their own rules (such as Roger Williams who made his way to what became Rhode Island) rather than be subject to what the Pilgrims may do to them.

Personal freedom as always been a precious commodity.  Some will go to great lengths simply to be free of the oppression of others who impose their rule and will upon them.  What do we do, though, when left to our own devices, when we are totally free and can make up our minds for ourselves?  Greatness or Disaster can emerge from lives with no order or structure.  Some can know how to handle the time and space given to them but some have no idea of what to do with their lives without a structure surrounding them.

The Reformation had set the world free from the rules imposed upon society by the Roman Catholic Church.  Persons had a choice as to how they would live and what they would believe because of Martin Luther's bold statement that faith rather than works brings salvation.  Henry VIII made the same kind of move, but for other purposes that were selfish on his part involving a certain woman he wanted to marry, and the Church of England was formed.  No longer did they need the Pope's approval to do anything.  Suddenly the word of the King or Queen of England carried more weight than someone who resided hundreds of miles away in Rome.

Freedom became the rule of the day.  No longer were people required to do anything much unless they wanted to.  Yes, they would still pay taxes to the church to support its ministers but church attendance was not really required and the ministers being paid by the church could drone on for hours and put everyone to sleep and rarely did anyone question the method or the mode of what happened in religious institutions.

Now....we are totally free in America.  Persons can do as they please in their lives unless they hurt another person, and even then that pain may or may not be considered justified, depending on the jury one gets.  When it comes to religious training or worship or involvement in anything to do with religion, it is totally optional.  Some religious institutions may try to coerce involvement through the use of guilt or shame or the threat of hell.  That does not work with Protestants, mainline ones usually, though.  We have freed people from the threat of hell (many of us no longer believe in it) or the imposition of guilt.  We had allowed people to make up their minds and decide what they would do and now all are free to decide for themselves if or when they may be involved in any way in religious life or if that is a relic of the past to be forgotten.

The loud singer of the 60s-70s, Janis Joplin, sang her most famous song that contained the line..."Freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose..."  Who knew that she would be remembered as a theologian beside a drug addict and rock singer?  When freedom sets us free from all the past and its teachings and traditions that once informed us of who we are, then what is left to lose?  Life once had meaning within the contexts of things that we felt were important but when people live without goals or directions given to them by something greater than themselves, where does the meaning of life come from?

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free..." words of Jesus that are quoted often.  But is the truth that Jesus talked about truth that frees us from responsibility or concern or care for others.  That is not what he said in so many other places when he challenged all who would follow him to care of others in society who could not care for themselves.  That became the defining attribute of what it means to truly be free through the truth that he offered humanity.  Freedom to be involved in a world that needed to receive the love that only God could give through the followers of those who would claim that mission as their own for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth.

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