Six months after I first arrived in the United States, my wife and I went to Washington DC. Ruth had been asked to preside at the funeral of a three star general, and the service took place at the Arlington National Cemetery chapel. As we sat inside the air-conditioned chapel, outside in the 90° heat stood a line of soldiers in full military uniform. The soldiers were there to escort the body to the grave, and give the 21 gun salute.
When the chapel service was over, the mourners made their way to the graveside, some 200 yards away. I marveled at the soldiers’ ability to withstand the heat and how, in my mind, it increased the honor they paid the general (although it could also be said that were obeying orders.)
This was my first visit to Washington. The next day Ruth and I did some sightseeing, and walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Inside I saw the huge statue of Lincoln, which before I had only seen in documentaries on television. The size of the statue takes you aback when you first see it in the flesh, so to speak. On the inner walls are carved the words of the president’s second inaugural address. In them I recognized the distinctive voice of the nineteenth century American, serious and in style showing the influence of the King James Bible. It reminded me of a different voice who arrived on the scene at the same time: the poet Walt Whitman. Both men – Lincoln and Whitman – in different ways, speak for their country with a humane certainty about justice and freedom.
The Lincoln Memorial resembles a temple, which is deliberate. It enshrines an idea of freedom, of government by the people and for the people, a now sacred principle which, along with freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, continues to guide this country’s life and, hopefully, its future course.
Freedom is embedded in the American psyche, but there is paradox inherent in freedom, which is that for freedom to be protected you need laws and boundaries. Freedom needs an organizing principle.
There is a similar principle at work in the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. To serve God is perfect freedom, but a freedom grounded in a sense of knowing who you are in relation to God and to others. This is the guiding principle behind the Lord’s Prayer.
I remember this prayer from a long time ago. My mother taught it to me when I was five or six years old. She saw it as her Christian duty to teach me, and I in turn have taught my own children the same prayer. I learned it at the time I was beginning to develop a conscious memory of my life. There is an important link between memory and prayer. Memory is the store from which we gather the details and narrative of our own life. Prayer is the action of God in our lives. So this prayer became part of my story, and the seed of God’s word was planted in my heart from an early age.
This prayer places demands upon us: principally, a conversion of heart and mind, discipline, obedience and love. Indeed, all the characteristics we see present in Jesus Christ himself. It is a prayer which Jesus teaches his disciples so that they may enjoy that same close relationship with the Father as he does. What words does it contain? “Us”, “we”, “you”. How does it begin? “Abba. Father. Papa.” Where and when do we need to say this prayer? Everywhere and always. You can say the prayer in every corner of the world and at all times. In fact the whole world is being drawn closer to God through this prayer, and through the continual conversion of heart and mind which is this prayer’s aim.
This is God’s message of freedom for us. It is a message that inspired the leaders of this nation in years’ past to legislate for our political and religious freedoms. Freedom is a precious gift that enables us to flourish as a people under God. It is, in one sense, the fruit of a seed which Jesus planted in the hearts of his followers and continues to do so. And we are extremely fortunate to live and enjoy these freedoms, especially since they are withheld from the majority of people on our planet earth.
However, our ultimate goal is not freedom itself but life in the kingdom of heaven. We can only reach that goal if we ourselves take to heart the prayer of Jesus. “Father, may your kingdom come.”
With joy and blessings