I woke up the other day with one line from an old song on my mind: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose". Odd. And it played over and over again, all day long. Just that one line. You may recognize it - it's from a song called Me and Bobby McGee, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster back in the late 1960s. Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose. Is this profound social commentary or misguided cynicism?
So I've been thinking about it. As I write, the sister of a friend is very near the end of her life. She has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). She was diagnosed just over three years ago and doctors predicted that the disease would progress slowly but surely for about three years before it would take her life. According to the US National Library of Medicine, "Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement." It's a terrible disease. Cruel. Completely insensitive and inhumane. I wonder if she would agree that "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"?
Or, I think of the millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia who are literally starving to death. Do they feel free? Or just tired and hungry and hopeless and abandoned? I don't know.
But before we conclude that the songwriters were just blowing smoke, is there a sense in which what they're saying IS true? What is freedom? I think that there are times when losing something - health, wealth, ambition, dignity - having the proverbial rug pulled from under us - can be freeing. Sometimes we wake up in the morning and the world seems to be pretty much as we left it when we drifted off the night before, but a moment can change everything. Sure enough, the change can be devastating. But it can also be liberating.
Years ago I heard a preacher use an illustration. Sadly I don't remember the exact details, but the gist of it was that things that looked like they were "good" ended up having negative consequences and the things that looked like they were "bad" ended up having positive consequences. The lesson was that things aren't always as they appear. I think he was explaining Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.In ALL things, God can work good. No - more than that. In ALL things, God DOES work good... for those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.
But where's the "good" in ALS? Where's the "good" in famine and drought? Where's the "good" in the loss of health, wealth, ambition and dignity? Where's the "good" in broken relationships and family breakdown? What "good" is there in the ruination of lives? Are we fools to worship a God who makes such extravagant claims and yet still allows such misery and suffering?
It's an honest and sincere question. And just to close the loophole that you might be tempted to wiggle through - NO, it doesn't mean that bad things only happen to bad people and good things always happen to good people. Calamity is NOT a punishment for individual sin and health and wealth and happiness are NOT an indication of God's favour.
I don't have the answer. And to be honest, these questions just seem to drive me deeper into the "cloud of unknowing". But through the mist of uncertainty, I have a sense that freedom comes not from losing everything, but from simply letting go. Surrendering our expectations, our demands, our justifications and rationalizations. Laying down our agendas... even our lives, moment by moment. Trusting - despite our tainted ideas and experiences - a God whom we can neither see nor fathom.
When we lay down what we "have", it's quite true that we have nothing left to lose. Jesus laid down what he had and invited us to follow him into a freedom that defies human wisdom and understanding. And Jesus warns that in this world we WILL have trouble... but he then turns the tables with this simple statement: "But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
No matter how hard the path we're on, and no matter how deeply we may suffer as we make our way through every horrendous hardship, Jesus is present - "our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). And I believe that he IS now and forever on the other side of ALS and famine and drought and loss of every kind. Take heart indeed!
Just in case you are reading this as a prescription for inactivity - for simply letting God sweep us along this way or that - be assured that that's NOT what I mean. No - we are to live a life worthy, bearing one another's burdens and living as the incarnational presence of Christ in the world... people-shaped evidence of the coming kingdom!