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  • Courtney Ellis

For Freedom

Nearly a decade ago, my husband, Daryl, and I attended a Ben Folds concert at the Ryman in Nashville. I love Ben Folds. He showed me piano could be cool, though in all my years of lessons I never arrived anywhere near such a status. He performed with the Nashville Symphony, a treat of musicality and richness of sound. Then, midway through the show, he surprised everyone in that auditorium by taking a flyer.

“I have an idea,” he said. He turned to the orchestra and told them to start in the key of G. “We’re going to play around a little bit,” he said. “Let’s be free.”

The first violinist turned pale. A percussionist’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline with a clear, Oh no.

Many of the musicians in the orchestra were likely great improvisers, but without some clear direction of where they were headed, chaos ensued. Dissonance. Disaster.

Finally, after about a minute, Ben Folds folded.

“Well, that was too much freedom,” he said. He chuckled and moved on.


Next Sunday is the Fourth of July, a prospect causing many a pastor to bite their lip over how to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, honoring the country in which we live without any nods to the idol of nationalism. (My husband will be preaching at our church. Pray for him.)

The gospel is all about freedom, but not the flag-waving variety. Jesus invites us into something deeper, richer, more profound: a horizon so alluring, beautiful, true, and real that all our other allegiances and loves should pale in comparison.

The gospel is all about freedom, but not the flag-waving variety.

In Luke 4, we find Jesus unrolling the scroll in the temple to read from the book of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord . . . has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.”

The American colonists wanted freedom to chart their own course, found their own government, be their own people, make their own decisions. They wanted freedom from the bondage of tyranny to an overseas government trying to call all the shots.

Scripture describes a different sort of bondage, one that is true of every human, American or otherwise. It is the bondage of idolatry, of elevating anything above God in our hierarchy of love.

We are all idolaters, trading our birthrights for lukewarm stew. God isn’t enough for us. We want God and . . . safety, comfort, security, power, wealth, control. God and a bestseller. God and slimmer hips. God and to be admired by our neighbors and family and colleagues, even if it means staying silent in the face of injustice, or speaking over others when we ought to listen. Idolatry means never ever having to say you’re sorry.

Each of us wants to be the exception to the clarion gospel call of leaving all to follow the savior. I hear myself wheedle and plead: Surely I can bring a few things. A couple of books, maybe? An emotional support animal?

And then I grow weary of the dissonance created when I ignore the conductor and play my own tune. I long for a better song.

But as Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley says, “God’s still in the business of calling dead things to life. Your story is not over. There’s glory left in it.”


Jesus has come to proclaim freedom for prisoners, but not the freedom to do whatever we want. The book of Judges ends with the haunting words, “Everyone did as they saw fit.” This is evil and chaos, not freedom.

Jesus stands in the temple and reads the ancient words of Isaiah, telling everyone in the room: This is why I’m here. Not so you can hoard God’s blessing by continuing in your idolatry of self. The freedom I’m offering is for all.

Jesus has come to proclaim freedom for prisoners, but not the freedom to do whatever we want.

At the conclusion of Luke 4, Jesus has so disturbed the idols of his listeners’ that they try to throw him off a cliff. Fred Craddock notes, “Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced. Learning what we already know is often painfully difficult.”

As I snuggle my kids in the light of the rockets’ red glare this coming Sunday, I want to remember that we belong to each other.

As an apostolic firebrand once put it, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Do not let yourself again be burdened by a yoke of slavery.”

Happy Fourth, friends.


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