I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

The song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” was written by Billy Taylor in 1954 and became one of the most popular songs of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s. Nina Simone covered the song on her 1967 album ‘Silk and Soul’ and is probably the best known version though this tune has been covered and recorded by over twenty major artists. The tune is also well known as the theme music for BBC1’s Film programe (something I used to wait up to listen to every week JUST to hear that song extract) and, I understand, also used over the opening and closing credits for the film Ghosts of Mississippi (which I have not seen). As a schoolboy, playing this piece was one of my favourite party tricks…

Here are the words:

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
say ’em loud, say ’em clear
for the whole round world to hear.

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
remove all the bars that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
that every man should be free.

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
though I’m way overdue I’d be starting anew.

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
how sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
and I’d sing cos I’d know that
and I’d sing cos I’d know that
and I’d sing cos I’d know that
I’d know how it feels to be free
I’d know how it feels to be free
I’d know how it feels to be free

So, this is definitely a gospel-influenced song – and one of my party tricks as a schoolboy was to play this song for my non-Christian friends. If one did not know the words, one might be tempted to think that this WAS a gospel song!
There is a similar situation to the song,”We Shall Overcome.”
There is a huge amount of room for a typically lengthy post that we seem to do here at the theomusically blog that takes us back into the history of Negro spirituals (now better referred to as ‘African-American spirituals, in case you did not know!!) and their origins in the antebellum South. We can also discuss the theological ramifications that emerge through some of the twentieth-century theories that have emerged concerning the true spiritual significance of these spirituals. We could talk about the fact that black gospel music’s founding father lived hand in glove with secular music throughout his career, and so the fact that a secular song about freedom has strong gospel music stylings is absolutely inevitable, and what that says about the appropriation of spiritual elements for secular artistic purposes in general.
But this morning I have been seriously wondering why more Christians who say that they are ‘free’ live such limited and desultory lives. Some think that their lives are rich and positive, but they have learnt their Christian life practice from their brethren, who may themselves never have actually experienced true spiritual freedom, but because the way their limited Christian understanding has worked for them, and because in so many cases the external fabric of a Christian lifestyle is more positive than what they had before, they think that what they have is freedom…
And for many conservative, Bible-believing Christian, there is such a huge emphasis to avoid certain elements of Christian life practice that are associated with ‘charismatic’ Christianity (etc), the benchmark for spiritual freedom becomes a set of (often unwritten) rules by which one’s standing in the community will be maintained. So the benchmark for spiritual freedom is not the personhood of God working in human life (the natural) through the Holy Spirit – even if this is claimed. It is whatever man-made criteria they use what whatever church you find yourself at where that’s how things roll.
Praise God, not all churches are in this quagmire. But too many are. Too many.
After a week of observing some deeply saddening church politics at very close quarters, I am more convinced than ever that the pursuit of true holiness is more lonely than most Christians will ever understand. Our first priority for true freedom is not the approval of others – it is the approval of God, who does not work like human beings – something which we know, but then abuse. How can we pray to God while abusing the very grace that allows us to still be alive and breathing?!
This morning/afternoon, as I see what ‘freedom’ has cost some people, I am renewed in my conviction that the only freedom that matters is that which the Holy Spirit gives.

2 Corinthians 3:17

New International Version (NIV)
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
How badly do you want to be free today? And are you ready to give up everything for a freedom that no human being can ever take away? How do you think Paul was able to be denied his physical and legal freedom and still write ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice?” (Philippians 4:4) If you have accepted Jesus, are you looking to Him as the Author and Finisher of your faith, or have you been distracted by trying to keep up with your friends in church?
And if you have so far rejected Christianity because of what you don’t admire in the Christians you have encountered so far in your life – what are you rejecting? The external flaws of persons whom for all you know may never have met Jesus for themselves? Or the only truth that can set a person free forever – which you would never know if you did not choose to investigate it for yourself?

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