Freedom, well lived
Summer is a wild ride when you’re a kid.
You’re used to waking up early, getting dressed right away, packing up your homework from the night before and heading off to eight completely structured hours, with clear expectations, a system of grades and accountability, a sense of progress and strict guidelines. Evenings are shaped by homework, hockey practice, piano lessons and regimented ritual.
Then one day in June you wake up and all bets are off.
The sun rises to 14 glorious wide open and unaccounted-for hours. What will you do? What wont you do? Please!
And at first it is spectacular.
You don’t feel like getting dressed? Then don’t!
You forgot to brush your teeth? So what!
Inside, outside, games, tv, bikes, neighbors, sprinklers and sidewalk chalk and bare feet and sudden bouts of boredom (who even remembers what that feels like??) It’s an absolute dream come true.
What if you could do whatever you wanted – begs the tantalizing question of summer, all day, every day, for 96 days? (My kids counted it out.)
Well, easy, it would be AWESOME, my children quickly answered.
But eat that whole box of popsicles, my friends, one right after another, and after a few days it’s not so awesome. Something shifts, and you begin craving your veggies and your daily morning announcements.
What does 5 hours of screen time in a row feel like? Gross, that’s what.
What happens to your room if you don’t clean it? Your teeth if you don’t brush them? Your psyche if you start staying up late but continue waking up early? It’s not pretty, people. Pretty soon it’s meltdown city. And not only the parents. Pretty soon, you start to find that you need something more than absolute freedom.
But this year we stumbled onto something surprising in our household.
A few days in, we scraped ourselves off the floor and hung a list on the fridge entitled, “Summer Weekdays.”
Now every day Owen and Maisy have certain things they need to accomplish, such as: read, play, 1 hour of time alone, 1 chore, tidy their room, take a shower – you get the gist.
And at the end of the list each day are four questions:
Did you remember to:
brush your teeth?
limit screen time?
take responsibility for your own actions?
And as soon as that list hit the fridge things changed. We didn’t tell them when they had to do what, just that by bedtime, they need to have completed the list. But a spark was lit inside them and they rallied to its light. Stopping in throughout the day, their lists gave them purpose, enough structure to feel human again, but enough freedom to feel unrestricted. They started paying attention to how they were existing in their body and mind, in their space and relationships, and this compass helped their self-guided days to be much more fun than the 14 straight hours of rudderless freedom had been.
That list is like the law had been for the Israelites.
Released from soul-crushing slavery in Egypt that dictated every move and prescribed their very being, they are suddenly faced with complete freedom. And God gave them the law – here is what freedom looks like well spent. Here is how to be in relationship with one another, yourselves, and me as free people. Given who you really are, here is how you are now free to live.
In this freedom from slavery, where you belong to me, Yahweh says, not to Pharaoh, your worth is not determined by what work I can get out of you or how much you produce, or even how well you obey.
It is determined by my love, my having made you, my knowing who you were meant to be all along and asking you to live now freely into that identity.
So, as free people, you won’t steal from each other, because you will all have enough and you will share what you have with each other. You wont harm or kill each other, because you will value one another deeply and work out your differences even when it’s hard, and you will forgive each other and restore right relationship between you. You wont live in consuming jealousy of each other’s lives, you will live in gratitude for your own life, joyfully contributing your voice and your experiences to the whole, to the benefit of others. You get the picture. The law was an incredible gift. It helped them to be truly free.
And then, gradually, sin - that ravenous instinct toward self-preservation and self-determination, over-against each other and ultimately God as well - crept in, and people began to use the law as some kind of template to personal security with God, a way to get ahead, to manage their own fate and earn a relationship with God that was already theirs. And for some, the law morphed into a straight up to-do list that got bigger and longer, (because after all, if everyone gets Pokemon cards at the end of the week for doing these things, then shouldn’t I get MORE cards if I do even MORE things? After all, if we keep the standards too low, ANYBODY could get in, and then how will we know who’s the best)?
And when this sort of thing happens, inevitably competition and jealousy breed, and judgment and self-righteousness grow, and then on the flip side, those who can’t compete give up, and sacrifice their humanity to their desires, which goes something like, Well, I blew it and lost the reward anyway, so what does it matter what I do? I’m going to get in trouble anyway, so what’s even the point? I’ll do what I want when I want. Forget your stupid list. Nobody can tell me what to do.
And if my behavior hurts you, or myself, if it disconnects me from those around me, or stifles and silences my creativity, contribution and capacity to share, that is of no concern to me, or feels too obscure to even consider. You said I’m free. So I’ll do what I want. Which really means, this all feels impossible and I give up.
And then that nasty drive for self-preservation also breeds gaping division. We tear each other down to prove our points, we label and dismiss one another, summing up others with snap judgments and easy assumptions. We make others less than human in an effort to have our own humanity upheld.
STOP!!! Paul screams into this chaos. Stop it right now!
Who do you think you are? You are freed for freedom in Christ. Freed! Freed to live as real humans, as image-bearer of the Divine! Freed to live for each other, to live in the love you were created for to begin with!
This is our fourth installment in Paul’s mad letter to the church in Galatia, where a group of original Christians, that is, Jewish Christians, had arrived among the new baby gentile Christians and brought their refrigerator list with them, the extended version, no less. And while this list had clearly been meaningful for them, it was nothing less than a barrier to God for the Galatians, who had come to Jesus with completely different versions of slavery, and different abuses of freedom, and a different experience of salvation altogether. The paradigm didn’t translate, and the list they brought became lifeless shackles. The Galatians’ fridge needed some different reminders hung up.
Here’s the thing: The temptation to either avoid or to abuse our freedom, to live as slaves to our own quest for self-preservation, is so deeply ingrained, in our very dna, that we feel the pull all the time. It’s a battle, Paul says. Like a war within ourselves. Literally his words are, Don’t make self-indulgence your “base of operations.” Don’t let your identity rest in the quest to satisfy yourself. Instead live from the freedom you have been given.
We’ve seen what happens when the law is distorted by sin’s self-preservation, separating us from God and each other in a kind of burdensome slavery, now Paul shows us what happens when freedom itself is distorted by sin’s self-preservation, separating us from God and each other in a kind of trapped slavery.
And here it might be helpful to turn to a different translation – a modern paraphrase.
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a rotten accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; the worship of possessions and power; cults of personality; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
And then Paul describes true freedom, living as we were meant to live, in a list we’ve written in sharpie and hung up in grapes, apples and oranges in Sunday school rooms throughout the decades, aka, the fruit of the Spirit, which could sound something like this:
But what happens when we live God’s way? The Spirit brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (The Message)
Here’s the thing: lists of rules on our fridge, if they were simply imposed on our kids arbitrarily with absolute obedience demanded, would produce nothing but fighting, bribing and shaming our kids, trapping them in meaningless drudgery.
And, wow, if our kids were told their acceptance in our love was dependent on their ability to perfectly follow all the rules we’d hung up there, it would change how they saw us, and themselves, and their life in our home and connection with each other. The list would become a crushing weight, and they would become slaves to their own ongoing attempts to earn our love. Or they would throw in the towel and live wild, feral lives.
So how would we live if we believed God loves us? How would we live if the list we were given was an invitation to remember who we are and how freedom looks when it’s lived out with each other fully and joyfully?
This life is holy. This life is a gift.
These people around you? They are amazing.
Each one different, each one knowing something you don’t, bringing something into the world that you can’t. You need these people. And they need you. When you let yourself live by the Spirit that calls you to your true self, in true relationship with God in the bond opened up by Christ, you will find a different kind of living pouring forth.
From time to time You will find Love.
Your heart will well up and overflow onto others, the desire to reach out and know them, to be known, will guide you. Instead of drawing back and buttoning down the hatches of your soul, you will find yourself extending toward others.
And honey, there will be joy! Delight in life, and gratitude and awe at the sleeping child whose lashes rest on her warm cheek, and the bursting of the sweet ripe berry in your mouth, and the shock of deep color in the single petal of the spectacular flower in your quiet garden, and body shaking laughter, deep and hard.
And you may taste Peace, sensing now and then beyond the fear and the chaos, underneath the manic frenzy, that deep cool place where you and your God dwell in simple silence. That brief pause, when everything else doesn’t matter because you know you are going to be ok. And between us as well, despite conflict and tension, underneath it all, it’s going to be ok.
Patience will grace you, and occasionally you’ll find yourself seeing through the furious temper tantrum and the maddening whining to the tired little soul splayed out at your feet, or past the traffic jam to the precious stranger in the car beside you, somewhere important to be, a life of her own she is living, or under the volatile conflict into the longing to be heard and to hear, to be seen and to see, that is pulsing within each of you.
You can live Kindness, not niceness presumed by affection, or politeness earned by status. Simply My humanity sees your humanity and I choose to meet you. I can help with that, let me get the door, I brought you this, I thought of you, how have you been, my friend?
And risk Generosity –you don’t need to horde and hide, to scavenge and scrimp. You are valuable to me, your needs are my needs. We can share what we have and care for one another.
Faithfulness is now a possibility, I will keep my commitments, you will keep yours. We can be taken at our word; we can be consistent and trustworthy.
And Gentleness opens up between us, life is hard and we can tread lightly in each other’s fragile places and handle one another with tenderness.
And you can breathe the clean, fresh air of Self-control, that you can choose to participate in a way that upholds your being and respects the being of others, and this can characterize our life together.
This is the freedom for which Christ has freed us.
And since we live by the Spirit, and this is what that looks like, let’s not keep this picture of freedom as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, Paul implores, let’s work it out in the details of our unique and varied lives, as we are bound together in Christ.
Let’s practice it, and check in with ourselves throughout the day, and let it be our compass, to guide us in this glorious, holy, gift of a life.