For half an hour, Pastor Darrell leads us through Acts 16, showing us how Jesus is setting every person in the passage free. He invites us to write on a slip of paper our answer to the questions, “From what do you want to be free today? Of what do you need to be free today?”
I’m hungry, hungry for freedom. I write and write and when Lilac prays, acknowledging that some of us are thinking we’re okay and others are wishing for a thousand slips of paper, I know where I fit.
We file forward for communion, placing our slips of paper in a basket then receiving a piece of bread to dip in the cup, trading chains for freedom, letting ourselves be emptied of death to be filled up instead by the One who is Life. I dip the bread into the juice and look up into eyes that hold mine as though to press the truth deep into my heart, as though to burn through the chains with his eyes and his simple, astounding words: “Jesus shed his blood to set you free.” I return to my seat and sit, tears filling my eyes, watching Jesus hold out his body, his freedom, Himself to every person that comes near, offering each one the chance to be set free into His love.
And then, when we’ve eaten and drunk and been filled with Jesus and His love, Pastor Darrell tips the slips of paper into a metal bucket and lights a fire inside. Flames lick at the papers and smoke curls upward, our thanks rising with the smoke as all that has bound us crumbles to ash. “Long my imprisoned spirit lay,” we sing, “fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray: I woke—the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
I trace the word “free” through Scripture and see once more that the whole history of God’s people is a story of freedom, of God setting us free from one bondage or another:
“Therefore say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them. . .” (Ex 6:6)
“I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” (Ps 119:32)
“Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” (Luke 13:12)
Sometimes Jesus sends an earthquake to shake chains free. Sometimes he burns through them with his fiery eyes, or slices through them with the always-sharp sword of the Word. He has been known to sever chains with a few simple letters scratched in the sand with his finger, with a bit of spit on someone’s eyes, or with a touch. But always, always, Jesus responds to chains the same basic way: by removing them.
If we will let him.
God offers freedom. He doesn’t force it.
Sometimes I think I want freedom with my whole heart, and other times, when I look at the practicalities of it, it seems just a little too scary and though I feel like my answer should be “of course!” a more honest answer is closer to “ummm. . . maybe?” or perhaps even “no, not really, not right now.” Or, when I’m really honest, “Sure. But on my terms.” Which, when you’re talking to God, is the same as “no thanks.” There’s a security, of a pitiful sort admittedly, but a security nonetheless, in my small, familiar prison.
A fellow Regent student nails the issue in a class paper:
“No matter how long I have been paralyzed, the awful question remains valid: ‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6) Do I want to be really well, imbued with true-new life, or is what I am really seeking somehow to have my cake and eat it, too, to be in the world and of it?”
A few lines later he adds words that I can’t get out of my head,
“Here is the awful question behind the awful question: can God be trusted?” (James Holmlund)
That’s where I was lingering in the days leading up to the encounter with fiery freedom. Can God be trusted? I refused to settle for “yes, of course.” Our hearts are made to need details—that’s why God tells us so often to remember. So I started a list: God making a path for his people to walk through the sea on dry ground; Jesus lifting himself for one more breath to cry out, “It is finished!”; God answering prayer after desperate prayer through years overseas and providing for me caring friends and a beautiful place to live and His own close and gentle presence through these years of illness and loss and beauty and gain and being led into a new way of living.
I’ve been looking, every day, into the eyes of Jesus, because I know that, like Peter, when I’m gazing into the eyes of Jesus I remember that He can be trusted—enough to step out of the boat and begin walking toward Him. I need to keep looking at Him, keep seeing Him looking at me, because a lifetime of freedom is a lifetime of moment-by-moment choices to trust.
“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.” (Gal 5:1)