Tag Archives: politics

Mythical Freedom and Real Freedom

What_does_freedom_really_mean.jpgYesterday we celebrated freedom here in America.

But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free?  The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies.  So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ.  They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.

He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

A freedom tied to obedience

These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute.  As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.”  Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”.  The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom.  There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.

What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong.  If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?

Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love.  We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny.  This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.

I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers.  They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.

A freedom tied to external revelation 

One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed.  “If you want to own a gun, own a gun.  If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion.  If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.”  What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone.  Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being.  What if you want my wife?  Or my children?  Or my stuff?

So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”

Ah, but there’s the problem.  One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone.  Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine  rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server.  But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.

The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage.  Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul.  “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you”  Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom.  Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.

Simple right? We’re all free.  Yes, free.  And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom.  How’s this working for us?  Not so well, I’d argue.

What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke.  Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing.  My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps.  Freedom?  Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway.  That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.

Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable.  Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.

In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more.  But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.

The Illusion of Freedom 

When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children.  We have never been anyone’s slaves…”  In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?”  I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome.  Before that it was Greece.  Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire.  Before that it was Babylon.  Before that it was Assyria.  Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.

We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.

But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need.  This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”.  And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough.  Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority.  That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.

“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”

 

If soil could talk… life lessons from the history of a lake

I glance at my watch.  15:50.  I shut my computer, toss on some shoes and a jacket, and am out the door because so far, all week, I’ve missed the sunsets over the lake.  It’s about a half mile down to the park on the waterfront and when I arrive, the suns maybe 15 minutes from dipping below the Alps as it moves west, just now greetings my friends in Seattle as first light of a new day.

IMG_2779 IMG_2774 IMG_2777The views are stunning.  Swans, ducks, geese, and a sky painted gloriously by the interplay of ever changing light and clouds make for spectacular, memorable artistry.  But I’m equally intrigued by the people all around me.  Over there a German couple holding hands, whose grandparents would have war stories to tell.  There’s a man walking, slowly, who looks to be over 70.  He would have been a child when this beautiful city was so heavily bombed in WWII.  Today, this little plot of soil is a place of peace and beauty, a photo op for sunsets and, on a clear day, a stunning view of the Alps.  A place for wind surfing.

But of course it wasn’t always so.  I wonder what thoughts must have unfolded in the minds of people on this beach 70 years ago as they looked across the water to the mountains of Switzerland?  Those dark days in Germany’s history were preceded by other dark days in the 1920’s and 30’s, days of want and deprivation.  It was into that vortex of economic crisis that a leader rose up promising brighter days, a leader whose power and darkness would enshroud all of Europe in a dark cloud for a season.

During the those days, I wonder how many stood here and looked across the Alps, longing to be free from the scourge of war, and loss, and genocide?  Getting there wasn’t possible, even though it was visible, just over there, just beyond reach.  The darkness of war, the scourge and brutality of evil rulers – all of it was on full display then.  But now there’s peace, and beauty, and couples holding hands.

What I find remarkable are the ways in which Germany has flowered these past 70 years after her defeat.  The first Chancellor of Germany after the war put structures in place to assure less blind nationalism, less violence, and significantly, more economic equity.  The “social market economy” was born at this time, and this article explains that it… “led to the eventual development of the Social Market Economy as a viable socio-political and economic alternative between the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and the collectivist planned economy not as a compromise, but as a combination of seemingly conflicting objectives namely greater state provision for social security and the preservation of individual freedom”  The country is by no means perfect, but make no mistake – this nation that was so humbled throughout the first half of the last century learned from their mistakes and, to this day, display a marvelous blend of discipline and charity that comes about through hard work, thrift, and a collective commitment to the well being of everyone, evidenced in social services and taxation that would rile the sensibilities of the American political right.  Even now, they, the most successful economy in all of Europe, continue to call their overspending European counterparts to both raise taxes and cut spending – a strategy that, while perfectly reasonable, offends both the American left and right.

I think about the transformation of Rwanda that’s occurred in the wake of the genocide.  The transformation of Iceland in the wake of their own economic meltdown.  The changed lives of friends who’ve been stricken with cancer and recovered with an entirely different set of priorities, or of those who finally stood up and said, “I’m an alcoholic” who  have been to depths and back, raised up to a fuller life than ever before.

As I look around this peaceful setting, I realize that the glory of the gospel, and the glory of God’s goodness in the world is that beauty can come right out the ash heap of our own arrogance and failure; that if we’re willing to learn from them, the mistakes of our past can make us wiser, more beautiful, more generous, and more fruitful than ever we’d have been had we remained prim, and proper – looking good outwardly, but in reality filled with our own foolish presumptions and self-aggrandized priorities.  This, of course, requires humility, and therein lies the problem.

To fix social or personal ailments always demands beginning with the notion that we are, at the least, part of the problem.  Our choices, our history, our values – something’s broken.  When was the last time you heard the Tea Party admit that they’re part of the problem, or BP, or Monsanto, or the Democrats.  All I hear is blame, and the notion that the problem is wholly over there in “those greedy idiots” is, itself, the biggest problem of all.  We can all see the flaws in the other’s ideas and policies with 2020 clarity.  It’s the log in our own eye, we can’t seem to handle.  And logs in eyes aren’t very good things to have when you’re in the drivers seat.  That’s why I’m praying for humility… at any price… for me, and all the rest of us too in the developed world.

When Everything’s Collapsing? The Ancient Paths

IMG_0229It’s been a week.  In the normally limp and newsless lazy days of late August, our senses have been assaulted by horrific images, at home and abroad.  We’ve learned that the Syrian government is exterminating their own people, and that options of intervention run the risk of a full scale attack of Israel, an event which puts the middle east, and hence the world, in a heightened state of vulnerability – more ready to burst into flames than a California forest.

Meanwhile, our pop culture offers one of it’s stars at a music awards show and we’re struck with the realization that nobility, inspiration, edification, and real beauty are all lying on the ash heap of a previous era.  In their place, we’re offered objectified and sexualized bodies, bawdy lyrics, and the stark realization that our cultural “elite” have played their hand, declaring that this is, and will be, the new lower norm.  CNN’s elevation of the event to front and center news is newsworthy in its own right because the huge spike in readership for this “news” over any real news reveals the depths of depravity  (yes, it’s an Onion article, because truth is sometimes best told through satire) to which our collective culture is rapidly sinking.

It’s tempting to respond to all of it by turning off all media and withdrawing to a cave, or a fundamentalist church that’s working on personal purity and self-fulfillment while waiting for Jesus to come fix it all.  Nope: that’s a false hope leading to disengagement and private faith.   It’s tempting too, to mobilize, aligning ourselves with campaigns to reign in the crass media, and make sure our military, and Israel’s are both strong enough, not only to win the impending wars, which could be massive, but also the wars that will happen AFTER the wars are won, because God only knows who will fill the power vacuum in a new Syria.  It will become Egypt 2.0, only worse.  Nope: that’s false anger, leading to public rage, and more fear based responses.

How about this instead?

Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the anciengt paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ – Jeremiah 6:16

What are these ancient paths that will enabling us to know peace, beauty, hope, in the midst of the meltdown?

1. They are paths that take intimacy with God seriously.  Jeremiah lived in similar days, when people couldn’t look outside or inside without getting depressed or overwhelmed.  When all hell breaks loose, whether personally, culturally, or globally, it will be good to already have habits that take intimacy with God seriously.  This was Jeremiah’s point in my favorite Bible verse, found here.  He said that no other pursuit is worthy of “boasting”, which is a way of saying that nobody really cares about the car you drive, or the mountains you’ve climbed (corporate or literal), and neither, in the end, should you.  Your real joy, real meaning, ultimately should have intimacy with God at its foundation.  He’s the one who, as Jeremiah says, “practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth…”  Make knowing God a priority, and God’s priorities become yours.  You’re called, in the midst of all this insanity, to look like Jesus, and you will, as a by product of making intimacy with God your main priority.  We won’t always have economic prosperity, national greatness, physical strength – but we’ll always have our relationship with God – right up to our dying breath, and beyond.

Knowing God means looking for revelation from God everywhere, as I’ll write about later next week.  But to begin with, everyone needs a lens through which to look at everything differently.  Acquiring this lens comes by making a habit of listening for God’s voice in a daily encounter.  If you need help with that, let me suggest this resource, or this one, or this one.

I rise early, make my coffee, open my bible, sit in the forest, receive God’s revelation, pray a bit – and get on with my day.  Over time, I’m gaining a perspective on reality that’s different, more hopeful, less fearful.  I wish the same for you!

2. It’s a path that looks around and does something.  It’s easy, when the bottom drops out, to allow our concerns to shrink until our concerns become nothing more than our personal peace and safety.  Jeremiah, though, writing to people in the midst of a world (and culture) gone mad, writes:  “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 

This is Jeremiah’s way of saying that hand wringing, and moaning, whining and withdrawing into our Christian ghettos to talk about how the world’s all “gone to hell”, or spinning conspiracy theories about birth certificates or NSA wire tappings or whatever it is that Limbaugh’s saying today isn’t, in any way, the Christian life.  Rather, the Christian life means being the presence of Jesus, right where you are, which means:

Giving stuff away, throwing a party for the neighbors, visiting someone in the hospital, spending time with children, mentoring a young mom, or young teen, serving in a homeless shelter, planting a garden, making beautiful music or art or great coffee, visiting someone who’s lonely, spending quality time with your grown children, or o so much more.

The days ahead don’t look very bright from my chair.  Years ago, though, I read this about that:

Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.   

Good idea… I think I will.

Lessons from Daniel and Esther: Know Your King or Miss Your Point

ImageThe convergence of my daily Bible readings and a memorial service for my dear friend have me thinking about how much richer are lives can be if we all align around the one true thing that matters, which is Jesus Christ and his glorious reign.

Daniel and Esther are two personalities in Israel’s history who understood that they will gladly serve the king, and work for the good of kingdom in which they find themselves, but not at the cost of obedience to their one true King, Jehovah.  This is why Daniel openly defies the king’s edict by praying to Jehovah, not in secret, but in full view of his open window, as a means of declaring that there’s only One to which we’re called to offer unrestrained allegiance.  Esther risks her life by standing before the king, unbidden, fully realizing that by doing so she’ll either be invited in or executed.  Her reason for this bold move?  Mordecai, a Jew, refused to bow down to the powers of state because he believed that his allegiance was ultimately to God.  Neither nation, nor any political party (Republican, Democrat, Green, Other) or ideology (socialist, libertarian, monarchists, tea people, coffee people, “free” market capitalists, Other) will ever embody the reign of Christ.  Because of this, we have one true king, one true kingdom, one true citizenship, and it’s not related to our flag or borders – it’s related to Jesus.

Meanwhile, as I read Esther this morning and write this piece, I’m mindful of my global Torchbearer family gathering to grieve the loss of our dear friend and remarkable teacher/leader, Hans Peter Royer.  My daughter eulogized his life eloquently here recently.  Today, missing my friends, I’m pondering the privilege of being in a community bound together, truly, by fellowship in Christ alone.  Our common purpose is Christ; declaring him as the only source of life, inviting people to live out from his resurrection power, and seeking to disciple people into a life of making his good reign visible through relationships and service in our broken world.  These things matter more than anything – and as long as they do, we enjoy rich fellowship and unity of purpose in spite of our vast differences.

Differences?  Yes!  Under the surface of our united grief today there are many cultures and hence, ways of living together as nations.  For example, many devout Christ followers in Europe favor universal health coverage and shudder at thought that there’s a nation where people are walking the streets carrying weapons.  Devout Christ followers in America often hold exactly the opposite views in the name of freedom of responsibility.  Meanwhile, these arguments, on both sides, seem elitist and esoteric to those who are busy preaching Christ in places where the threat of terror hangs over their locations daily.   When we’re together we speak of Christ and his reign, speak of how we’re working together to make that reign visible, call each other to deeper Christ commitments.

But never, unless we happen to be skiing together in Austria on the very day of an elementary school shooting spree in Connecticut, do we talk about gun control.  Even then, when we do, and Austrians shake their heads at our addiction to “freedom” even as some Americans shake theirs at the Europeans readiness to give up such rights – we don’t baptize our views in the gospel of Christ.

Does this mean there’s never a time to be political?  Far from it.  Christ followers have an absolute obligation to do justice and love mercy.  This requires addressing systemic issues that contribute to poverty, violence, and oppression.   But here’s the critical thing to see: We’re called to do this in the name of Jesus, not in the name of a party, or nation.  To the extent that we do, we’re able to dialogue about these things, think critically, prayerfully sharpen each other, and then go back into our cultures and truly “seek the welfare of the city in which we live” – all the while freed from the illusion that the ways of Babylon, or Gun Rights, or Universal Health Care are, inherently, Jesus’ ways.   We’ll be as suspicious of Huffington Post as Fox News

Jesus’ way will be most visible in this broken world when the people of God embody visible alternatives that are trans-national, trans-political, trans-racial – places where the poor and marginalized are valued, and earthly weapons are never the preferred solution to solving any problems, and people are given the opportunity to be freed from everything, ranging from human trafficking to the many addictions that enslave the prosperous.   This is hardly a call to some disembodied apolitical spiritism.  Rather, it’s a call to make God’s reign visible, at cost of our lives if necessary.  But no nation or kingdom or ideology in this world gets it right – democratics are no more the party of Jesus than the tea party.  We need to get over it.

Beer & Brats in Germany.  Chai and Dal-Bot in Nepal.  Croissants and Chardonnay in France:  Christ is there – loving, serving, blessing, and standing against the powers, in favor of THE POWER that is the source of life.  May we stand with Him, and in Him, and through Him – because nothing else matters.

If I could wish one thing for our churches these days, it would be that we’d return with due haste to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, and devote ourselves utterly to making Christ’s reign visible.  Everything else is chaff.