Spirituality, Art, and Freedom
The privilege of running toward something or someone rather than away from something or someone is a mark of freedom. Running away from something or someone connotes fear and, perhaps, an absence of freedom.
I suppose it has been attributed to Confucius—that at first goofy-sounding little maxim: “Wherever you go, there you are.” OK, it’s not so goofy after all; it’s so simple we may not be compelled to take it seriously though. Whatever falls to us to face in life is ours regardless of how much we may hate it or find it unfair or how absolutely insurmountable it may seem.
When I was a kid--I really don't remember my age at the time of the event about which I want to tell you so I would guess nine or ten--I decided I was going to run away from home. I don't remember why I was so upset that I wanted to run away from home, but I did. As I packed my knapsack and took pains to have changes of clothing and food and reading material to last a whole morning or a whole afternoon I began running into a mental wall. I didn't know where I was going to run away to! All the friends I had, had parents who knew my parents and certainly would have called my parents the minute I showed up on their doorstep. My grandparents lived too far for me even to think about heading there though my grandmother would have kept my secret for at least a couple of hours, I thought.
Still, after I had invested all the energy in announcing to my family that I was going to run away from home and having packed so carefully, I wasn't in a very good place psychologically to back out. You know what I mean. I needed to be forbidden to run away. That was the only way that I could save face.
My parents were very clever, though, and having seen and stumbled several times over my knapsack that I left in the middle of the hallway near the front door, there still was no invitation to stay. Dad said, “We’ll miss you, son.” Mom said, “Let me pack you some of biscuits left over from breakfast.” I don’t remember how I got out of that one—not too gracefully, as I recall; I think I may have feigned a probable case of appendicitis. In any case, I never considered running away from home again!
Some of us who are relationship oriented or who at least imagine that we are find ourselves unsuccessful in relationships. But instead of pausing after a bad relational experience and trying to take stock to gain understanding of why the bad happened, especially if it has happened more than once, we may simply hurry on to the next relationship. New relationships often bring lots of excitement and minimal expectation. In new relationships we can delay sometimes for extended periods of time revealing who we really are including the warts. Sadly, some people live their whole lives running from one problematic relationship to the next whether it is a friendship or an intimate love relationship.
Forrest Gump was uncomplicated and too transparent to have been accused of having troubled relationships. When asked why he suddenly got up and ran across the country, he said he just felt like running; but we all knew he was too hurt from Jenny’s insistence that there could be no relationship between them to stay put.
Psychologist Noam Shpancer who practices what he calls “insight therapy” wrote an article a few years ago called something like “Why Feeling Bad Is Good for You.” The attempt for us to try to flee negative emotions—and what could seem more natural or healthy than that?—falls under the broad category of emotional avoidance. Part of health, maturity, and sanity is facing painful emotions—like grief, for example—head on. Some Scarlett O’Hara psychology—intentionally delaying dealing with complicated or painful emotions until a later time—may be helpful on occasion, but Dr. Shpancer writes, “Avoiding a negative emotion buys you short term gain at the price of long term pain.” Nonetheless, many of us know too well what it’s like to try to outrun painful emotions permanently.
Russian President Putin defended his recent decisions to bomb targets in Syria by explaining that, in his view, Syrians are “running away not from the regime of Bashar Assad, but from the Islamic State, which seized large areas in Syria and Iraq, and are committing atrocities there. That is what they are trying to escape from.” Many question Putin's motive nonetheless.
GOAL, headquartered in Ireland, is a worldwide humanitarian organization that devotes its time and financial resources to helping the most vulnerable people on the face of the earth. At its founding, the best I can tell, the acronym meant: Give Out A Lot. That was dropped but the name kept. As fascinating as trivia is, GOAL calls the Syrian refugees “the running people” and says there are some 8 million displaced Syrians who are a part of a world refugee population of 60 million, according to estimates by the United Nations Refugee Agency; this means more people including children and the elderly and the infirm are running from their unsafe homes to unknown but hoped for places of safety than at ant time since World War II.
The Hebrew mythological tale about Jonah is as memorable as it is for multiple reasons--one of which must be the irony at every turn. Another reason must be the fact that it has no happy ending, no happily ever after close. And I suppose a third reason would be that there is some sense in which almost everybody can identify with Jonah, at least mentally, since at some time in our lives we have run away from the best use of our talents.
So Jonah is on the front end of the story a typical successful prophet. He preaches God's message to the people. His messages are on point and compelling. His hearers respond to his message with more than just nods of the head. He is putting in the hard work to deserve success--whatever success means in the preaching business.
One day, though, God disrupted his extraordinarily comfortable routine by letting him know that he had been so successful in his present ministry placement that God Godself had decided of all the prophets in the world he was the one who would be charged with the responsibility, given the “opportunity,” to go and preach God's message in a country with citizens who seemed to have little regard or no regard for the kinds of things about which God was concerned. And it has long been a fact that when people collectively turn away from God's standards there will be penalties to pay. This is not because God is a tit for tat kind of God or because God is petty and moody and eager to punish. It is because God's standards are those standards that are good for us all, and when we live against those standards our walls are eventually going to start falling down.
Jonah politely refused the God’s invitation though it quickly became clear that a travel notice, which arrives with itinerary and travel tickets, isn't really just an invitation. It was a directive; but hardy punitive, it was a recognition of, a celebration of, Jonah’s considerable talents.
Despite Jonah’s prophetic profession, which might well have given him more knowledge of the in’s and out’s with God than the average person grasped, Jonah had no clue that God was unattached to and unencumbered by geography. He actually believed it would be possible for him to travel to a place in the world at which God would have no knowledge of him and no means of contacting him or communicating with him. Jonah was so wrong about that it wasn’t funny.
Jonah made a conscious decision to run from God. Remember my earlier comment on how running from someone or something signals fear and or the absence of freedom? I hold to that, but we recognize that sometimes we run from a person or a situation; and the problems lie in our perceptions. We misunderstand so we run when there is no need to run, but we are running nonetheless for reasons that are not wholesome. Regardless of what we are running from, unless we are running toward some new challenge or opportunity or back to one of those we shouldn’t have left behind, freedom is simply not a part of the picture.
As long as he ran from his destiny, disaster hit him at every turn. It was only when one disaster brought him face to face with death, in a dual death should have won, that he with resentment not even partially hidden that he agreed to do what was his and his alone to do. He never stopped resenting God for pulling him out of his comfort zone, however; and he died in that pitiful state.
In stark contrast to Jonah was one of the psalmists who wrote the one that is now numbered Psalm 31. Eugene Peterson in his stab at paraphrasing the Psalms for the contemporary world has this as a part of his take on some of the verses in Psalm 31:
I’m leaping and singing in the circle of your love, God;
you saw my pain,
you disarmed my tormentors,
You didn’t leave me in their clutches
but gave me room to breathe.
Be kind to me, God—
I’m in deep, deep trouble again.
I’ve cried my eyes out;
I feel hollow inside.
My life leaks away, groan by groan;
my years fade out in sighs.
My troubles have worn me out,
turned my bones to powder.
To my enemies I’m a monster;
I’m ridiculed by the neighbors.
My friends are horrified;
they cross the street to avoid me.
They want to blot me from memory,
forget me like a corpse in a grave,
discard me like a broken dish in the trash.
Before rehearsing his woes so eloquently as we have just heard, this particular psalmist had already found his remedy: “I run to you, God; I run for dear life.”
Dave Clarke’s photograph, “Freedom,” is a mysterious piece of art to my eye. Beautiful and inviting and vast and mysterious. The picture hung in the office for a few weeks before I knew its name. I picked out the runner and the dog. Only recently did I realize that Dave intentionally blurred the image ever so slightly to give the sense of movement. That was an amazing touch.
The dog is lagging behind her or his master, and knowing dogs as I do I first thought the dog was pondering freedom—as in making a run from the master. A dog does not want to run away from home because she or he feels underappreciated as I did when planning my great escape from home; if a dog runs away it is to remind the owners of how canine ancestors roamed and ran free of crates, fences, and flea dips.
Freedom in the eye of our gifted photographer, Dave, was expressed, however, in the figure of the human runner, not the dog. Even so, I can’t help remembering the film, “Born Free,” that I was too young to absorb when it premiered, but that I caught with understanding in my early teens. The couple trying to acclimate the lion they had raised as a pet to the wild where her future needed to unfold was sensible, sensitive, and poignant. The theme song that Andy Williams would make famous, I finally realized, was not just a tribute to the beauty of letting the beloved animal move out of restriction to full freedom, but a song with a message for humans too.
Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star
Stay free, where no walls divide you
You're free as the roaring tide
So there's no need to hide
Born free, and life is worth living
But only worth living
'cause you're born free
My favorite Enlightenment liberal is Voltaire who said along with countless other brilliant insights: “It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.”
After Moses had risked his life to help get the enslaved Hebrews free from the horrible oppression of Egypt’s Pharaoh, there were those with him out in the wilderness—displaced people, but on their way to freedom in a mere 40 years or so—looking back to the “advantages” of not being free. It was especially tough for those would-be freedom seekers at meal times. Some of them were overheard saying, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Manna was a superfood dropped out of heaven down onto the wandering Hebrews; it was extremely healthy, but had no real taste to speak of--kind of like communion bread. It was bland to say the least, and not a few of those Hebrews would have traded in their one and only chance to be free for some Egyptian fish, provided plentifully by the masters who wanted to keep their slaves healthy.
It is a shocking reality to those of us who love full freedom so much, to have to pause now and then and be reminded that there are those people in the world, in every imaginable context, who don’t want to be free from whatever enslaves them—whether political tyranny or self-constructed psychological prison. Voltaire’s most hated kind of oppression, I think, was religion-based fear and fanaticism. Sad to say—tragic to say, actually—religions have enslaved much more often than they have freed, and Christianity is right there with most of the others.
In our community, we repudiate and reject that aspect of Christianity and of any religious entity. Instead, we embrace the vision of the writer of book of Hebrews in Christian scripture who said, “…let us also lay aside every weight and the self-centeredness that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
Dave Clarke’s runner isn’t running away from anyone or anything. He is running in freedom, surrounded by nature’s beauty, toward greater freedom. This remarkable photograph, to my eye, is a reminder or an invitation for all of us to experience the exhilaration of running toward freedom in all aspects of our lives—in relationship to ourselves, to others, to institutions, and to God. Amen.