Free to Pray

Today, the United States will celebrate our “Independence Day.” Two hundred forty-six years ago, fifty-six men pledged their lives and fortunes by signing a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and the rule of its king, George III.

We talk a lot about freedom and independence on this day. For many, it is a bittersweet reminder that not all Americans were “free” during the first decades of our existence as a nation. For others, it serves as a rallying point to urge for further movement toward freedom from tradition and restraint. We talk of freedom and independence as though the terms are interchangeable…as if the only way to understand freedom is in the context of independence from someone or something else. We want to be free from the constraints of tyrants, oppressive bosses, or prudish parents. But freedom from something implies freedom to do or become something else.

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In the case of our fledgling nation, freedom from the British Empire meant the freedom to create a new nation– not just to modify an old national identity, but to create a new identity; to have a new “birth” of freedom. Freedom from oppressive rule does not eliminate the need for restraint and responsibility. Indeed, it creates a great need to define limits and practice self-discipline. Total freedom– without boundaries, rules, or responsibilities– leads to its own destruction.

A few years after the Declaration of Independence, once “freedom” had been won by long years of war and the sacrifice of many soldiers and their families, some of the same men were joined by others to draft a national Constitution. Almost immediately, the Constitution was amended to include a Bill of Rights, outlining certain Freedoms which had been implicit, but were now spelled out for all to uphold. The very first of these rights covered the freedom of expression– both in speech, and in worship.

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Americans have the freedom to speak. We can speak publicly about our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs– without the fear of imprisonment or government retaliation. We can write or post blogs, regardless of whether others agree with us, or like what we have to say. This is an incredible freedom– I can create novels or poetry; I can recite speeches or create persuasive advertising; I can talk for hours about nothing at all! But it also comes with responsibility– I could write falsehoods about my competitors, or speak out disparagingly about a neighbor. I could do great damage with my words. My neighbor or competitor might take me to court and sue me for libel or defamation, but the damage would already be done.

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Americans also have the right to religious expression. Our Supreme Court recently upheld the right of a high school football coach to say a prayer on the football field after a game. Americans can assemble for worship, whether in a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or an open field. We can pray– aloud, in a group, over a loudspeaker, even–and the Government cannot legislate that only “approved” prayers are allowed. This might make a few people squirm– Wiccans, Baptists, Scientologists, Hassidic Jews, Shi’ites, Druids, and Satanists ALL have this right. But each of us has the responsibility to respect the rights of all to pray.

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But that brings me to this point– we have the freedom to pray under the Constitution, but that freedom means nothing to the Christian without the greater Freedom to Pray granted by God Himself. Anyone can offer a prayer to empty air, to a created idol, to a metaphysical “being”–but governments cannot give us the freedom to be HEARD, to be WELCOMED into the presence of the Almighty. Only God gives that freedom– and He gives it to ALL who seek His face! I don’t have to be an American to pray. I don’t have to be given the legal right to pour out my heart to my Heavenly Father– HE invites me to pray. All I need is the belief that God hears and responds to my prayer– even a silent one delivered in peril of Government retaliation. God’s invitation is more powerful than any oppression that seeks to stop me from calling on His Name!

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God took great pains to illustrate this in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. God took a “nation” of slaves out of Egypt, and led them through the wilderness and into their own inheritance in the Promised Land. They had the freedom to pray, and to worship this Great God. But over the years, they lost that freedom, and ended up going into exile, slaves to the pagan nations around them. Yet God remained faithful, hearing their prayers even from the nations where they enslaved. God’s promises and His invitations remain, regardless of the rise and fall of Empires or religious movements.

So today, especially in light of my right as an American to pray freely and publicly, I want to challenge myself, and anyone reading this to spend time today in earnest prayer and thanksgiving. What a privilege to be “Free” to pray!

We Hold These Truths…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (July 4, 1776)

Full text of the Declaration of Independence

We’re getting ready to celebrate our Independence Day in America.  There will be parades, cookouts, parties, fireworks, and a host of other celebrations.  There will be a lot of flag-waving and patriotic displays.  At some gatherings, there may be readings of our Declaration of Independence.  This document was drafted to outline, not just a list of reasons why they should rebel, but what they hoped to build as a result of their struggle for freedom.

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Over 240 years later, this document, and what it stands for, is still relevant and calls us to a high standard– one our nation has not fully achieved.  In spite of the great strides we have made and the example we have been to the rest of the world, in recent decades, we have left behind many of the very truths we aspired to hold.

First, there is a dangerous belief that “truth” is no longer self-evident, nor is it timeless.  We don’t hold beliefs and truths anymore.  We shift with the tide of public opinion and the shadowy promise of “being on the right side of history”– which just means being on the winning side of the current debate within our lifetime and hopefully into the next set of history books.

Second, we have spent countless hours, shedding blood, sweat, and tears over the phrase “ALL MEN”– struggling to reach the promise of equality for all humankind.  We have fallen short of this vision, and twisted it into a grotesque parody of itself.   Instead of working together in unity and inclusiveness, we have devolved into factions each fighting to be “more equal” than others.  Instead of looking at the equal value and humanity of all our people, we point fingers at all the people who are “less worthy”, “more privileged”, “entitled”, “marginalized”, “intolerant”, “judgmental”, who “need to be silenced”, or “need to be kept in their place”…how can neighbors and fellow citizens be so vicious?  One answer may be found in the very next phrase…

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ARE CREATED equal, and are endowed BY THEIR CREATOR…Usually, this phrase is emphasized in the exact opposite places– the emphasis is on EQUAL and ENDOWED.  We have lost the “truth” of being “UNDER GOD”.  We have lost the truth of being created.  We have lost the truth that our worth, our rights, our values, are not a product of our own opinions and observations.

It is easy to point to others and say, “They are ruining our country– They are not living out these truths.”

The harder lesson is to look at my own assumptions, actions, and beliefs.  Do I TRULY believe that all the people around me– of every creed, gender, race, political party, nationality, educational achievement, or economic level are created equal and endowed BY THEIR CREATOR with value, and inalienable rights?  If, at any point, I make assumptions about the worthiness of “those people”, assuming that God loves me more, or will have more mercy or grace toward me because of who I am or how I behave; because of the color of my skin, or where I live, or who I voted for; because of the things I know or the good deeds I have done–I am part of the problem.  Christians, if we bear the name of Christ who created all mankind, and we hate those whom Christ created, the love of Christ IS NOT in us.

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That doesn’t mean that we ignore sin and compromise our character, and pervert justice in the name of a comfortable facsimile of equality.  But it also means that we must stop whitewashing hatred and injustice in the name of morality.  Morality without love cannot heal our nation.  Nor can rewriting our history.  Nor can declaring our Independence.

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The Declaration of Independence is not a stand-alone document.  It had no authority on its own.  If our founders had lost the Revolutionary War; if they had abandoned their vision of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”; if their descendants had failed to bring a divided nation back into unity; if our parents and grandparents had not struggled and fought to make our nation live up to its principles; and if our generations fail to come together and work toward that same vision– Independence will not be something to celebrate, but something to detest.

While it is called the Declaration of Independence, it is a spirit of dependence– on God, on His truth, and on the goodwill of our fellow Americans, that keeps this document alive and full of promise.

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We need to pray for our nation– and for our own revival– if we are to truly celebrate this Fourth of July.

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