Following the Freedom Star: Prayer for a New Decade
Dear readers: I’m taking a little break from writing about the spirituality of animals to reflect on Epiphany, the day when the wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The following is excerpted from a sermon I gave many years ago. The last year — to say nothing of the last decade — has been challenging for many of us and I (for one) would like to start the new year with more faith than fear. So I share this message in hopes that it will feed you with courage on the remarkable journey we call life.
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waitin’
For to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd.
Do you see it? There, up in the sky? Okay, you see the constellation that some folks call the Big Dipper, and is also called the Drinking Gourd? Yes, the one that looks like a great big water ladle. Well, look at the two sides of the cup that are opposite the handle. Figure out the distance between the two stars and multiply it by seven. Move your eyes that far distant, and you will see the North Star. It’s also called Polaris. But I call it the Freedom Star, because if you follow that star long enough – months or years, not weeks – then you’ll find your way north, and you’ll be free.
During the darkest days in the history of our country, when whites bought and sold blacks whom they could then treat worst than the vilest of farm animals, there were a few courageous souls who developed an elaborate system of secret hiding places and coded messages to help runaway slaves find their way north to freedom. The system including such things as markers in trees, special lights hung out at certain hours, and quilts of particular colors hung out to dry. People walked hundreds, even thousands of miles, hiding in swamps, caves, and barns by day, and following the North Star – the freedom star of the Drinking Gourd – by night. Called the Underground Railroad, this secret network helped somewhere between 60,000 – 100,000 slaves find their way to freedom. The verses of the drinking gourd song were elaborate codes devised by an itinerant white carpenter – this is the “old man” referred to in the song – who went from plantation to plantation, teaching the song to slaves from Alabama and Mississippi. It led them up along the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the northern states and Canada. Hounded by dogs and slave owners, the runaways and their accomplices faced torture and certain death if they were caught. But, as the prophet Isaiah wrote 2500 years earlier, “The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light.” Think stars, think freedom. Follow the drinking gourd.
The black slaves and their white supporters were not the first to follow a star to freedom. January 6 is the celebration of Epiphany, when the wise men from the Orient followed a star to Bethlehem. It comes to us as a nice, romantic little story, but it was much, much more than that. First, it was a time of terrible oppression. The period of Roman occupation in Palestine was different – but fully as gruesome – as the days of slavery before the Civil War. Taxes were upwards of 60-70%, and people lost their land to pay tribute to the Roman empire and the Jewish authorities who supported Caesar. Some people sold themselves and their children into slavery, because it was that or starvation. Five percent of the people owned 95% of the wealth, and the rest suffered, cruelly and unmercifully.
Second, “kings” is a misnomer. The three men who came to Bethlehem were probably astrologers from Persia or further east. Astrologers were the first astronomers, who were, in turn, the scholars and scientists of the ancient world. The term “magi” meant someone of exceptional wisdom and knowledge, someone who could envision a world of goodness, kindness, justice, and freedom. In presenting Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were acknowledging Jesus’ kingship, his priesthood, and his humanity, that is, honoring the fact that the powerful king and priest is also human and vulnerable – just like us. In recognizing the love of God embodied in this tiny child, these wisest of all wise men could see a way out of the oppression and injustice of the Roman empire. Think stars, think freedom.
Epiphany is a Greek word that means to “shine upon” or to “give light.” It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term that Isaiah uses when he writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Epiphany means a dramatic uncovering or sudden awareness that changes one’s sense of reality. Suddenly you see what is happening and what is possible in a whole new light. It’s an “ah ha” moment, in which you blurt out, “Eureka – now I see it. Now I understand.” St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was an epiphany. The slaves’ vision of freedom was an epiphany. The Magi’s recognition that a tiny infant could change the world was an epiphany.
I had a dramatic epiphany about fifteen years ago. My life had fallen apart – or so it seemed at the time – and I felt emotionally, financially, and spiritually destitute. One autumn weekend, I was camping with friends and we went walking late at night to watch shooting starts. Suddenly, some of the stars gently feathered their way to earth, making everything twinkle. The shrubs and trees and my friends and I had all been gently dabbed with fairy dust. I experienced a unity that I had never known before, in which there were no boundaries of time or place. Past, present, and future were one; here and there were one. The stars were friends and relatives who cared for me. The sparkles said, “You’re okay. You can do it. We’re here with you.” I felt hugged by God.
I told few people about it in fear that I would be labeled a religious nut case. Yet that autumn evening was the beginning of a transformation that eventually led me to seminary and ministry. The stars that came to earth and surrounded my friends and me were the most powerful gift I have ever received. I thought my vision was fairly rare me until I read a wonderful new book – Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Haggerty, the NPR religion correspondent – and discovered that fully 50% of Americans have had a life-changing religious experience similar to mine. Think stars, think freedom. The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. Follow the drinking gourd.
So what about you? What is your sudden new revelation on this Epiphany? Take a moment to consider those attachments that keep you from being fully free. Consider those fears that keep you bound in fetters. Is it anger? Is it jealousy? Is it loneliness? Is it an addiction that you would like to liberate yourself from? Is it a feeling of inadequacy – physical, psychological, financial, or other? – We are so attached to our emotions and material supports that they cloud our vision. We live in darkness, blind to the stars and to the Christ in our midst.
In your mind’s eye, feel the magi’s gifts coming to you. There is myrrh to recognize your humanity, incense to affirm you as an agent of God’s love, and gold to acknowledge your power. Feel also the stars that come and dance around you, kissing you with God’s comfort and affection. The gifts of courage, clarity, and vision are God’s gift to you. They are gifts of liberation from false attachments and false fears. Think stars, think freedom, follow the Drinking Gourd. On Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, this is God’s most incredible gift to us.
Consider also the drinking gourds in your life. Certainly the communion cup is a reenactment of God’s greatest gift: to see ourselves, others, and the world in a new way – the way of liberation and of love. So also is a glass of water if we acknowledge it as the primary life force and also a means of baptism into a world ruled by hope instead of fear. Like the stars that point the way, these drinking gourds represent freedom from bondage, freedom from false attachments, freedom from fear. This is what the followers and supporters of the Underground Railroad saw. This is the Epiphany that the Magi saw – in the baby Jesus, we can find our freedom. Follow the freedom star. Follow the drinking gourd.
Follow the drinking gourd
For the BABY is a-waitin’
For to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd.