“Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived in a hovel by the sea.” So begins a story by the Brothers Grimm, a story not as well known as “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel,” or many of their other tales, but just as lasting in its own right. The fisherman, living in wretched poverty, sees his luck change when he nets a large, exquisite fish early one morning. This fish speaks to him.
“Let me live,” he cries out, “for I am no ordinary flounder. I am a magician who can grant you anything you ask. Set me free and I will give you whatever you wish.” The fisherman thinks about this proposition for a moment, and decides to ask the fish for a proper house to replace his shack. After releasing his catch, the fisherman returns home to find a perfect little cottage standing in place of the former hovel.
He and his wife are elated at their good fortune and enjoy the cottage immensely – for a while. “Go back and ask the fish for land and a farm,” the fisherman’s wife insists as she rises one morning. The fisherman complies, returns to the sea, and after conjuring the magic fish from the depths, makes his request. Miraculously, it is granted again.
Thus begins a cycle of demands: A castle, later an estate, then to be queen over the land, and empress over the continent. Eventually, the fisherman’s wife even asks to be the Pope. Each time the fisherman registers his objection, but then slinks off to the sea to ask for the next fish induced miracle.
At the end, the fisherman’s wife makes the most audacious request of all: “I want command over the sun and the moon.” With quaking knees the fisherman returns to the sea, which is foaming, boiling angry with the colors of green and gray. The fish rises to the surface and says to the fisherman, “I know what your wife requests. Go home. She has what she needs.” The fisherman returns home to find his wife sitting in their original hovel once again.
The lesson is obvious, and it’s not a moralizing sermon about simple greed. Rather, it’s about fulfillment – the lack of it, actually – and the proclivity of human beings to trade obvious satisfaction for discontent. Most of us have what we need to be happy and satisfied. Yes, a little more money at the end of the month would be helpful, but happiness is rarely achievable by a mere reordering of one’s circumstances or boosting one’s earning potential.
The disease of wanting “more” can’t be cured by getting more of anything – more power, money, holdings, or bank accounts. If one remains on such a quest, he or she will never scratch that seemingly unreachable itch of the soul. Rather, happiness is internal work, an inside job, and only when one learns to be at peace within, can he or she find satisfaction in the world without.
Photo by Barbara Hoffens
In the months following the Civil War a group met in Nashville, Tennessee to create a school for former slaves and the children of former slaves. Clinton Fisk, a Reconstruction-era bureaucrat, endowed the new enterprise with much needed funds and a collection of abandoned army barracks. What would become Fisk University was born, one of the oldest historically black colleges in the U.S., producing alumni like W.E.B. Du Bois, Hazel O’Leary, and John Lewis.
It wasn’t easy for Fisk, an African American school in the Deep South of the late 1800s. Within a few years the fledgling institution hung on the precipice of bankruptcy. The music director – who was also Fisk’s treasurer and understood the grave financial crisis – organized a few of the students into a touring choir.
They called themselves the “Jubilee Singers,” an appropriate name. “Jubilee,” described in the Hebrew Scriptures, came around once every fifty years. It was a season of forgiving debts, returning repossessed property, terminating the obligation of indentured servants, and setting slaves free. These slaves-turned-singers hit the road, traveling church house to theater and stage to parlor, selling performance tickets with proceeds going to keep the Fisk school open.
Eventually, the Jubilee Singers made it all the way to Europe, singing for sold out audiences that included continental royalty. It’s alleged that Queen Victoria of England was so struck by the Jubilee songs that she quipped, “With such beautiful voices, these people must be from the Music City of the United States,” a name that Nashville has worn proudly ever since.
Yet, these liberated voices contributed much more than the money to save Fisk from default. More than any other group in history, they catalogued and preserved a unique genre of music: The African American spiritual. Singing about what they knew, they belted out tunes like, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”
These musical masterpieces – slave songs – were composed orally in the tyrannous fields of the American South, and would become the backbone of roots, folk, gospel, jazz, and Americana music up to the present day. But the Jubilee Singers weren’t interested in artistic creativity. They sang to stay alive. They sang to persevere. They sang to resist the injustice and “conformity of this world.” They sang in pursuit of freedom.
Dr. King recognized this spiritual heritage a century later, and its enduring power. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, concluding his most famous speech, he returned to the African American spiritual. His words, joining the music of his ancestors and predecessors, remain a challenge to all who hear:
“When we allow freedom to ring we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands and sing, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” May this song never leave our lips or hearts until it is true; until all of God’s children are free.
I will be returning to the Holy Land, leading a group pilgrimage, November 25 – December 5, 2019. This is an 8-night trip, with accommodations in Tel Aviv, Galilee, and Jerusalem. We will visit and learn at sites such as: Jaffa, Caesarea, Mount Carmel, Megiddo, the Sea of Galilee, Migdal, and the major holy sites of Jerusalem and beyond.
If you are interested in joining this trip, contact Garry Hedges, who is coordinating the sign-up process. As usual, space is limited. A preliminary brochure can be downloaded below, with detailed itinerary and initial costs.
Please join me on this journey. It will be one of the greatest experiences of your life.