Saturday, May 22, 2010

Freedom

I have a GPS in my car. It speaks with a feminine voice, and I have (oh so creatively) christened her Sacagawea, my guide. I am quickly finding myself reliant on her directions, even in my home town. Sometimes, though, I find her telling me to make a turn to get somewhere when I can clearly see a more direct way straight ahead.

When do we follow the roadmap, the rules, the voice that the store sold us... and when do we ignore the guide and set out on a different road because of what we know in our gut is right?

I am a rules follower. Some of that comes from being a lawyer - I like procedures to be in place, and I like everyone to follow them. If they don't, I object (literally).

Still, inherent in the nature of rules is a limitation on our freedom.

So, what is "freedom?" We say we want it. We fight wars over it.

I find certain things in my life - things I believe are gifts from God or ways to follow God's will for me - often are outside of the rules. Stay with me. I mean to say they may well not fit the rules that society has set up. God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Please understand … I do not mean that they will be outside of God's rules. Paul writes very clearly that while we are called in Christ to be free, we are not to use that freedom to indulge our sinful nature. If some spirit is telling you to rob a bank or commit adultery or walk upon the downtrodden so that you can gain something you would not otherwise have or deserve, then you are listening to the wrong spirit.

So what do I mean about freedom and the rules of this world? I mean that our faithful God will have a new mercy for you tomorrow morning, and it may well surprise you, because you never expected it. Perhaps your peers do not expect you to have or do or be anything like that. Maybe society says that that cannot be a part of your way of life. Conceivably, some religious figure may tell you that good Christians do not go there or do that. I suggest you evaluate the source of those rules.

Many of our rules were not made with the realities of God in mind. The rules say that you cannot walk on water and that you cannot be raised from the dead and that Jesus will not want to stop to spend time with little children. The rules say that certain people do not associate with other certain people – whether it is because of their race or their class or their marital status or their income; fortunately, the Good Samaritan did not follow that rule. The rules say that you should not take chances so that you will not get hurt.

The rules say, "Follow the rules, and you can stay in a world that is predictable and explainable and safe."

Many of our rules are well-intentioned guidelines to keep us from stepping too far, and it is always safest and easiest to stay trouble-free if we steer well clear of the boundaries. But for those willing to search for God and the freedom that He offers, it is at the boundaries of what the world understands that God does His most exciting work. Do not be surprised that society does not want you there.

I know that what I am saying is dangerous. Testing the boundaries is only for those who are firmly planted. I run the risk of someone’s hearing me say that it is OK to go break all the rules.

Charlie Johnson says that our faith has Christ in the center but has no circumference. There is no border keeping anyone out of the faith. Just so, there is no predetermined outline limiting what we can be.

In C.S. Lewis' masterpiece The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the hero is a lion named Aslan, an allegorical Christ figure. When one of the children asks one of Aslan's faithful followers about the safety in being around such an animal, the classic reply tells us so much about the nature of Christ: "Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you." You see, what I am saying is dangerous because our freedom can be dangerous. You know that I am not saying that you should go break all the rules – do not go cheat on your taxes or kick the dog – but there are such blessings that await us new, each morning, if we trust totally in the good giver of freedom.

Freedom is a gift. Like any gift, it must be used carefully. Jesus did not come to erase one bit of the law but instead to fulfill the spirit of the law. He said that if we continue in His word as His disciples, then "you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.... And if the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed." Freedom, then, does not come from an anarchical throwing off of all authority or an idealistic search for the glimmer in each individual. Freedom comes from the truth that can be ours. Freedom comes in trusting God and not leaning on what we understand.

Then, and only then, the rules do not matter so much. If we are walking the right road, we don't need so many maps. We can leave the GPS at home.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Going Back to Bethel

Jacob is a biblical character whom you would not characterize as "good." He is not faithful like his grandfather Abraham. He is not a model citizen like his son Joseph. He is, instead, aptly named, for Jacob means "grasper" or "deceiver." He wants what is not his. He schemes. He hurts his brother. He lies, even to his own father. In short, he is like you and me.

Bethel, part one - Stopping for the night to rest, Jacob has a dream. He sees a ladder going to heaven, with angels moving up and down —the literal “stairway to heaven.” He hears, for the first time in his life, God’s recital of his promise to Abram, now repeated to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father and his father. I will give you this land, and the number of your descendants will be as the dust. Wherever you go, I will bless you.” Awakening, Jacob does a curious—and instructive—thing. He recognizes the presence of God. “Surely the Lord is in this place … . This is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven." Out of the mouth of the deceiver—the liar—comes this truth that faces each of us: God is here, and we need to take notice of it. This place that hours before seemed no more than a place to stretch out and lay our head on a rock is in fact the place where angels tread, where God moves. It is a sanctuary.

So Jacob builds an altar and names the place Bethel, “the house of God.” He promises allegiance to God and offers a tithe. God has chosen him, and Jacob recognizes God is present.

Peniel - Fast forward now to a new place, another stop on a journey seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Jacob wrestles with God. The metaphor here for our own lives is strong. We start out as "Jacob," a deceiver. We become "Israel," one who struggles with God. We humans, who have a deceitful and manipulative nature, will inevitably struggle with God. God blesses us despite our failings, but God does not want us to remain as we were. God meets us on our road and touches us.

Struggling with God is not taboo. Like Jacob, we find ourselves alone with God, and we fight. Like Jacob, we come out of this fight with two marked changes:

• First, we find that our name has been changed. God no longer sees us as the deceiver; God knows we are a struggler. We do not “win” the struggle or change God, but our very nature is changed. God speaks to us differently. We are Israel.
• Second, we find that our walk is changed. Jacob, now Israel, walks with a limp. In struggling with God, Israel has had his body touched. When we struggle with God, we will find that our way of doing things has changed. The more manipulative we have been—the more we embodied the grasping, deceiving “Jacob” within us—the more that change will hurt, at least initially. Changing the ingrained can be painful.

Again, Jacob recognizes the significance of the place and of the presence of God, and he names the place Peniel, for there he has seen the face of God.

Bethel, part two - Israel is in trouble. His sons (the apple does not far fall from this tree) have created havoc, and Israel fears the worst. Life is not going as planned. Suddenly, the word from God comes: it is time to go back to Bethel.

Bethel is the place of Jacob’s ladder, where he had first heard the covenant of God. Bethel reminds Israel not only that God is with him but that God has blessed and protected him. When Jacob arrives again at Bethel, God reminds him of both his name change and the covenant. Jacob’s nature is changed—he is no longer the grasper; he is the struggler. He is Israel. God’s covenant still is sure, and God’s plans are not changed.

In “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean steals silver candlesticks from the bishop, but the bishop forgives the transgression and sets Valjean free, giving him the candlesticks to take with him as a sign the bishop has “bought your soul for God.” In the stage production, the director always makes sure the candlesticks remain prominent for Valjean, and the audience, to see: the reminder of the sacrifice made and the time when Valjean first understood the presence of God is never far away.

We Christians all have markers in our walks, places and times in our journeys that have signified the very presence of God to us. When we are in trouble, we need to find that marker, to look at our candlesticks. We often need to go back to Bethel.

I have gone back to Bethel over the last few weeks. I have not literally traveled there - my travels have taken me far and wide, but not back to a place of importance for my faith. I have been shown no candlesticks. But I have re-discovered that which I already knew - God is planning with me and for me, God is protecting me, God is blessing me, God is using me. I have spent time in what are basics for me - the Roman Road, "the truth shall make you free," what it is to have "been with Jesus" - and I have come away renewed.

I have been back to Bethel.