The Gift of Freedom and Cost of Control
Updated: Mar 24
What makes freedom valuable to you?
God has given us freedom...freedom to choose...freedom to overcome...freedom to flourish. Find joy and peace in true freedom.
The July sun was hot as we sat in the bus waiting for clearance from border patrol. A few hours earlier we were in West Berlin taking in the historic sites and beauty of the city. But as the bus drove down Friedrichstrasse and passed through Checkpoint Charlie into communist East Berlin, the light and relaxed mood changed to quiet tension. Signs marking the entrance into East Berlin read, “You are now leaving the American [free] sector.” On either side of the road were fences eight feet high with curled barbed wire at the top. Even higher guard towers were posted on either side of the entrance. We were being watched by soldiers holding rifles as vehicles crossed into East Berlin.
Jen Stone-Sexton in West Berlin at the Allied border crossing check point to East Berlin - July 25, 1988
Colorful landscape, beautiful architecture, and pristine streets that were a hallmark of the “free sector” were starkly different in the communist sector. Everything looked grey and drab – the landscape, the buildings, the clothing that people wore. It felt like we were in a time warp of prior decades. The sameness of uniformity and conformity was dull and lifeless. We traveled on to Poland, also under communist government rule in 1988. Just 21-days earlier we were in Missouri celebrating the freedom of Independence Day at a fairground where we performed our concert, Run to Win and watched fireworks light up the 4th of July sky.
Border crossing from West Berlin into East Berlin - July 25, 1988
As I recall this particular story, I wonder, how often have I left the free sector of God’s love and grace to enter a sector (country) of my own choosing, ignoring the warning signs? The reaching for control like grasping at the wind and somehow thinking that will bring me what I want. In Romans Paul writes,
So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! …. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country. - Romans 6:1-3, 5
Could it be any clearer? Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God. – Romans 6:6; 6:14
Jen and tour member - June 1988
In my early twenties, I was one of the vocalists on tour with the Continental Singers, a global Christian music ministry. We were one of 14 United States based tour groups, each tour consisting of 35 individuals ranging in ages 16-28 and we came from all over the U.S.A. and Canada. Each day we performed a full 2-hour concert and usually stayed in host homes. Some days we traveled all day to the next destination, and other times, when locations were closer, we had later call times and some free time during the day to shop or take in historic sites.
Our particular group was in Europe for 3 weeks of our 12-week tour. We flew into Amsterdam, Netherlands from New York, then traveled throughout Holland for a week before entering Germany. We spent a week in Germany, performing in smaller towns, then made our way to West Berlin where we spent two days.
The infamous 10-foot cinder-block wall between East and West Berlin was still standing at that time. One of the most striking things to me was the graffiti all over the wall on the free side. While not necessarily artful, it was colorful. I thought of it as a symbol of freedom of expression. Freedom of speech. Freedom to choose.
On the other side, the houses were a drab grey or beige. While there may have been some somewhere, I didn’t see flowers or beautiful landscaping either. Any houses that were near the wall had iron bars on the windows. Guards in towers were strategically placed along the wall and watched us carefully from From my photo album - West Berlin July 25, 1988 the other side through binoculars.
Jen Stone-Sexton in West Berlin in front of The Brandenburg Tor - July 25, 1988
Forty-three years later, West Berlin bore witness to the scars of World War II, from the Reichstag to the bombed bell tower of Wilhelm Memorial Chapel. Crosses dotted the landscape along the Spree River where people lost their lives trying to escape the confines, control and oppression of communism to freedom. The river was patrolled by guards in East Germany, and it was littered with landmines from WWII. *
Memorial of individuals killed while attempting to escape from East Germany into the freedom of West Germany
July 25, 1988 - The Wall from West Germany
Arriving in Poland we had to stop at the border crossing. The Dutch bus driver expected the crossing to take 30 to 60 minutes. Instead, we sat on the bus, in the sweltering July heat for 4 hours…waiting. Eventually, border patrol soldiers, carrying AK rifles, stepped onto our bus. The soldiers walked up and down the aisle asking for our passports, taking what felt like minutes to look at each of our passports and studying our faces. The soldiers randomly searched our carryon luggage then opened the outside doors of the bus to view the luggage and equipment underneath. We were all quiet, holding our breath and praying.
Finally, our bus was waved through. We collectively breathed a sigh of relief that was as tangible as a cool wind in the thick, humid air. Our bus carried sales merchandise, such as recordings of our music, apparel and more. We all had Bibles in our carryon bags as well. None of it was seen or confiscated by the soldiers.
Once traveling again, our director looked for someplace nearby we could eat lunch. We didn’t have food with us since we had stayed in a hotel in West Germany the night before. We were hot, thirsty and tired. The only thing we had to drink as we traveled was warm, glass bottled seltzer water or warm glass bottled Pepsi. Funny, how you don’t think about ice cubes or how refreshing they are until none are available to quench your thirst.
A few hours later, we arrived at the Roman Catholic Church in Poznan that was hosting our concert. We arrived two hours late. Amazingly enough, the people had waited! They had not drifted off when we had not arrived at the expected time. Instead, they had stayed. And prayed. And sang worship songs with their hands raised.
We were all humbled by the sight of so many gathered, praying, singing and waiting for us in a church haloed in early evening sun casting streams of golden light into the sanctuary. We flew into action to unload the stage and sound equipment. There was no time for a sound check. We did the concert in our street clothes. For two hours we sang and after the last song, they clapped for an encore. Then another. And another, until we’d nearly done half the program again!
After the concert, a woman made her way to me. With eyes brimming moist and a warm smile, she hugged me. And I smiled in response. She didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak any of the languages of the countries we were traveling in. She pointed to her face and smiled, then pointed to me, to my face and smile, then placed her hands over her heart. From what I gathered; she was trying to communicate that my smile touched her heart. She then took a necklace – a leather strand looped into a leather cross with Polish words engraved on the cross - from around her neck and placed it over my head. My eyes filled with tears. She wanted me to have her leather cross necklace! The Polish words on the front, wiara and nadzieja translate to Faith and Hope. The word on the back, miłość translates to Love. Faith, Hope and Love. 1 Corinthians 13, the defining chapter on God’s love, ends with these words in verse 13:
But now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Over three decades later, I still have that leather necklace. Every time I see it, I am reminded of how a smile can make a difference for someone. I am also humbled by all the times I have been in other countries where they have far less than we do in America. Yet, having been given a gift by someone who, from her little, gave generously because she wanted to express gratitude somehow, I have learned that hospitality and generosity are a state of heart, not circumstance. And generosity is an expression of love.
In the Continental Singers 21-year history, our tour was the first group to ever stay in host homes in a communist ruled country. So many people from the church offered to host us that nearly all of us went to a family alone, instead of paired. Honestly, I was a bit panicked walking with my hosts to their car. Would they get me back on time in the morning? Would soldiers come to their home in the middle of the night? Scenes from the Holocaust and WWII movies like The Hiding Place running through my mind only heightened my anxiety.
My fears evaporated when I entered the lovely home of my host family and was treated with such gracious and warm hospitality! It was well after 10:00 pm and we had not eaten dinner. They prepared a meal and we all circled around their table and attempted a conversation. Their daughter spoke some English and also French. Her mother spoke only French and her father Polish and French. In communist countries, the food for citizens was usually rationed. They often had to wait in line, and they didn’t get to choose what they wanted to eat. I knew this, and yet my hosts were generous and shared what they had. As we were gathered around their thick, mahogany colored table in a dining room of dark wooden walls tastefully decorated by simple art and muted paintings, I realized that love and acceptance, hospitality and kindness felt the same in any language.
I slept well through the night and my hosts did get me back on time the next morning. Their daughter, Lucina, and I wrote letters to one another for several years.
We spent a week in Poland. Everywhere we went, we were received warmly by the people and treated with generosity and kindness. One of the days we went to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps near Krakow, now a museum and memorial. The tour was sobering, nauseating, and otherwise, indescribable. The stench of burnt flesh from millions burned in the crematoriums still permeated the area 43 years after WWII ended.
Jen Stone-Sexton in front of the entrance gate of Auschwitz Concentration Camp - July 30, 1988
The experience of walking on the same ground, up the same worn stone steps, into the gas chambers built to look like open showers, through the brick crematoriums and wooden barracks lined with roughly hewn wooden bunks and a wooden latrine in the center of the barracks the length of the building, walking by the blood soaked ground of the firing wall, seeing pictures of piles of hair, piles of shoes, piles of suitcases, piles of children’s stuffed animals…is one I will never, ever forget. Physically being in and walking on the ground of the camps of horror and suffering where millions were murdered - and where Holocaust movies have been filmed – left an indelible imprint in my mind and on my soul.
Jen Stone-Sexton at Auschwitz Concentration Camp - July 30, 1988
Freedom is costly. But so is control. When the lens is narrowed for an up-close shot, we only see what is in the picture. We only see our own life. Yet, think of the millions of lives lost, unalterably changed, and the lives of generations to come affected by one man’s insatiable appetite for control, and the lens widens to a panoramic view of a global picture.
The tyranny of a dictatorship, the tyranny of selfishness, the tyranny of greed, the tyranny of pride, the tyranny of attempting to control our lives … or trying to control someone else. The tyranny of addiction. What about the tyranny of fear? How has fear robbed you of being present? Of having peace? Of stepping out in faith? Of experiencing joy? Of opening your heart to love?
Tyranny is destructive. It does not bring life and it does not foster love. Love is never rooted in tyranny. Love is only rooted in freedom. What is true freedom? Referring to Romans 6 again, Paul writes,
So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits.
All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do.
But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master,
one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!
I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your l