November 18th, 2018
The late world famous psychiatrist, Dr. Victor Frankl, in his book, Man’s Search
for Meaning, has a chapter about his own tortured experience in a death camp during
World War II. He writes as follows: We who lived in concentration camps can remember
the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of
bread ... they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one
thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any set of
circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Did you hear? He says that the last of the
human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose
one’s own way. Under the most unusual stresses and devastating circumstances,
individuals have been sustained because they felt that there was something still left that
belonged to them alone.
In the Book of Acts, we read that Paul and Silas were summarily imprisoned for
their ministry of compassion to an unfortunate girl. After a severe beating by the crowd,
they were thrown into prison with their feet in stocks. Here they found themselves
denied a fair trial, hurt and bleeding, with nothing except their own discomfort. And yet,
they had something that could not be destroyed or beaten out of them. They still had the
freedom to choose their attitude in that prison cell, which is exactly what they proceeded
to do. We read that about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to
God ... That was the attitude they elected to take in their extremity, and the choice they
made affected the way they endured their suffering and testified to their fellow inmates.
This was the same spirit that frightened the powerful Roman Empire. It was
demonstrated by a little group of Christian men and women, harried by persecutions,
yet utterly unbreakable. No torture was severe enough and no persecution sadistic
enough to sever that one ultimate freedom ... to choose one’s attitude no matter what.
Thus, the story of the first few centuries of Christian history is the drama of men and
women who found in Christ one worth living for and dying for, and there was no cruelty
that could break them.
Now, let’s look at the spirit in which our own country was founded. Those
refugees from the Old World, facing religious persecution, found their rights,
possessions and liberty taken away from them because of the views they held. So, you
see, they, too, had nothing left but the last of human freedoms. Thus, they determined
to do that which meant turning their backs on all they loved and held dear in order to
push toward an unknown venture which cost them undreamed of privation. Yet, they
elected to do what their hearts told them to do with courage beyond measure, and they
established a land in which all would be given the freedom of choice.
This freedom was solidified onboard ship which anchored off the bleak New
England coast when they drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact before
disembarking. It began, In the name of God, Amen ... and set the stage for a new
country. When the Mayflower returned to England, nearly half of those courageous folk
lay buried under Plymouth Hill and the rest had been ravaged by cold, hunger, and
sickness. Yet, not one elected to return. America was now home, for better or worse, for
richer or poorer.
Later, the fledgling colonies, misused by the mother country and weighed down
by oppression, revolted against tyranny. Once again individuals exercised the last of the
human freedoms. They chose in the spirit of Patrick Henry’s words: Give me liberty or
give me death. So the revolution was born out of the last freedom that can be
maintained under the worst of conditions. A people united in common cause chose to
risk all. To endorse the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, those
who signed made their oath of loyalty: We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our
fortunes, and our sacred honor. They deliberately chose their attitude, and had their
cause failed, their fortunes would have been forfeited, their lives would have been
taken, and their honor would have been besmirched for all posterity.
The signers of the Declaration did not act for only themselves or for the three
million inhabitants of the 13 colonies. They had a burning desire to secure what they
perceived to be the God-given freedoms for generations yet to come. Consequently,
many willingly endured terrible trials and incredible hardships. One of those was John
Morton from Pennsylvania who died 8 months after signing the Declaration. He was
ostracized by relatives and friends loyal to the crown. His dying words were: Tell them
that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most
glorious service that I have ever rendered to my country.
So, you see, it has been demonstrated in the most wretched of times and out of
the most inglorious circumstances, individuals choosing to exercise the last of the
human freedoms can rise to unbelievable heights. Whether it be a death march,
concentration camp, held as hostages or struggling in some cause, an individual can
never be deprived of that remaining freedom. It is a privilege, endowment, a gift of
God to each and all of us.
However, it is not only the last of the human freedoms when things appear at
their worst, it is the first of all freedoms as well. An illustration of this may be found in the
book of Joshua. He was about to lead the children of Israel into the promised land. The
forty years of wandering in the wilderness were at an end. A new era was about to
emerge, a new community was to be established. God had led them in the past and
would lead them in the future. But, what about the people, what did they want? Joshua
posed the ultimate question which each would have to answer out of a sense of
personal freedom: choose this day whom you will serve ... but for me and my house, we
will serve the Lord. This was the moment when everything was about to be given to
these people, their promise and their hoped for heritage.
Joshua posed for them the first of the human freedoms ... to choose one’s
attitude in any set of circumstances. He knew what his choice would be. Out of the
liberty of his own conscience he would serve God. He urged this upon his people as the
most significant condition of a new life in a new land. He asked them to make a decision
which would guide their conduct as they moved into the promised land.
Eventually, the first and final freedom, is the personal privilege we have to adopt
a wholesome attitude. Such a choice in a concentration camp made the difference
between life and death. Such a choice in a revolution such as our own, meant the
difference between integrity and hypocrisy. That’s all well and good, but we’re not in a
concentration camp or a revolution. So, you see, it’s the choices we make every day,
not surrounded by crises but rather replete with manifold blessings that are really the
important ones. Cushioned by our abundance, we find it easy to follow comfortable
paths and settle for less demanding goals. And some of us find it expedient to make no
choice at all, but to let ourselves be carried by the prevailing winds of flowing currents.
Then, there are others of us who simply find no sense of wonder or privilege in the
precious gift of free decisions. So, though we will probably not be in a concentration
camp or a revolution, I hope and pray that all of us will accept anew the priority that
goes along with the first freedom. But, in reality, both freedoms are the same ... one
freedom for every day of your life, a gift of God but useless unless exercised by your
own decisions. What are you doing with what God has placed in your care? What kind
of trust are you exercising? In the final analysis you, and you alone, have the choice.
I like the way Joshua handled his choice, on a particular day, on a particular
occasion. I feel assured that this was the way he was. He told his people that they had a
choice to make, it was theirs to decide. Do you remember the Iranian hostage crisis in
the late 1970s? And then, one day, January 20, 1980, a humbled, hurt, and humiliated
nation joined in corporate thanksgiving at the release of the hostages. You see, those
53 Americans throughout their captivity had exercised their choice of attitude. And then
the inauguration takes place simultaneously, representing a solemn right of passage as
one leaves the highest office of the land, and another takes on the burdens of that
office. And, as the procession of leaders comes and goes, as part of the process of
democracy each participates in a uniquely spiritual ceremony with one hand raised and
the other on the Bible, repeats ... So help me God at the very end of the oath of office. A
nation under God cannot be such because it says it about itself, but because of the
freedom of choice to be such is daily made.
The writer of the book of Chronicles was neither a warrior nor a politician. He was
a deeply religious man, summoning his nation to return to the life which it had once
known. Is his summons so antiquated that we can no longer hear it? Listen ... If my
people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my
face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their
sins and will heal their land.
I remember being touched and moved, as I’m sure you were, as in multiple ways
we were called upon to remember the hostages in our prayers. We shared that ordeal
with them, as we exercised that final freedom of choosing a prayerful attitude, because,
in reality, it was the only fruitful option we had open to us. The gift of prayer is for crises,
and God has given us resources for our most desperate moments. Yet, this ought to be
ongoing, not just for crises ... a way of life, if you will, deliberately chosen without
coercion. Yes, Joshua, we hear you ... Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for
me and my house, we shall serve the Lord. Our prayer life can become a way of living
for good times and bad; that is the priceless gift given to us all. Thank God!
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