Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Paradox of Freedom

What does it mean for you to be free? With July 4th coming up, my mind is on freedom. I realize that the way I understand freedom has changed through the years, particularly as I've spent time with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. At its heart, it is the ultimate story of freedom. Under the leadership of Moses, a motley group of fugitives who lacked virtue and courage is transformed into a free people. And through their story of bondage and redemption, we can learn a lot about what it means to be free for ourselves.

Moses didn’t merely break the chains of God’s people; he organized them into a nation and he gave them laws. Their freedom was not a freedom from rules. It was a freedom from being forced to follow the rules to entering into a covenant where they promised to serve God. This meant a complete upheaval of their world view, so, of course, it was a painfully difficult transition for them to make.

Moving from slavery to freedom is never easy. As appealing as a life of freedom may be, it means coming to terms with a paradox. The paradox of the Exodus, and of all struggles for freedom, is the way that people, at the same time, are both willing and unwilling to put Egypt behind them. They yearn to be free and then once they are, they yearn to escape their new freedom.

For as long as God’s people wandered in the wilderness, they whined and complained about their new life. An entire generation had to pass away because, in their hearts and minds, they were still living in Egypt. Rather than embrace the new way of life God had given them, they continued to react to the old life they knew in Egypt. In effect, they remained in bondage to their past.

The Hebrews thought that freedom meant being released from the rules of their oppressors, rules they had always resented, so they could now do whatever they darn well pleased. But the freedom God offered them didn’t mean that they were going to live without rules. For that’s not freedom at all, but another kind of bondage -- a life without discipline, without order, without love for God or others or themselves.

There’s something in the Exodus story to be said to us as God’s people about the freedom God offers us. We aren’t forced to follow the rules. God’s not going to zap us if we step out of line. But God gives us the law as a gift. And when we embrace that law, we can live in freedom.

It’s like this… Some people liken the law to a twenty foot high electric chain link fence with barbed wire on top. You have no choice but to live within the limits of the law. Not a whole lot of freedom in that. But that’s not how it is for us as God’s people. God’s gift of the law is like a simple railing that guides our way. We can step over that railing or slip underneath it if we choose. But if we want to live the good life God intends for us, we’ll stay inside the railing, because that’s where the good life is. That’s the kind of freedom God wants for us.

When the Israelites were living in Egypt they wanted to be free. For them, being free meant being relieved of the rules that oppressed them. It took escaping that slavery for them to realize that true freedom comes with rules. But not rules they were forced to follow. Rules they recognized as a gift. And in their freedom they were no longer slaves of the Egyptians; instead, they became servants of God.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Red Light!

I almost ran a red light last night. I was looking for a street that was a little hard to find and when I locked my eyes on it, that’s all I could see. I wasn’t thinking about something as irrelevant to my quest as a traffic light. What stopped me was the person in the passenger seat who yelled out, “Red light!” Whew! Another car was coming through the intersection and we surely would have collided.

Then, something bordering on the absurd occurred. My friend told me that he was sorry for his outburst. I assured him that I was thankful he had spoken up. But I understand why he felt it was necessary to apologize. No one likes a backseat driver, even if they’re sitting beside us in the front seat. And so, he held his tongue for as long as he could. But then the time came when he had to speak and speak he did.

It got me thinking about how hard I work at allowing people to live their own lives without imposing my little judgments on them. It’s not that I don’t have feedback to offer, but most of the time I will keep it to myself because I don’t want to be perceived as judgmental or, even worse, controlling. I know how much I hate receiving unsolicited advice from others. It makes me bristle and sometimes I’ll lash back. However, usually I just shut down and stop offering further information to that person because I don’t want to hear what they’ll have to say about it. It’s a relationship killer. But so is allowing someone you love to destruct before your eyes without speaking up.

The Bible talks about “speaking the truth in love”, which I think is one of the hardest things for me to do, especially if it’s a hard truth. There is always a risk involved. You could offend the other person and potentially ruin a relationship. Sometimes that happens. But what is the alternative?

The key for me is motivation. Is the truth I speak motivated by spite, or a need to control? Then I probably oughta put a sock in it. But if I have examined my motivation and it comes from a place of love for the other person, I have to speak up. One of the mottos I try to live by is, “I’d rather speak up and maybe be kicking myself for it later than remain silent and maybe be kicking myself for it later.” When you love, speaking the hard truth is a risk worth taking.

I can usually tell when someone is sharing a hard truth with me from a place of love. It may not always be graciously received, at least initially. But I know the difference between a person who wants to run my life and one who wants to love and support me while I’m finding my way. The former is resented and the latter is gratefully appreciated.

It seems to me that people in community ought to be able to yell “Red light!” to one another when necessary, whether that community is as small as two people sharing a car, or as large as billions of people sharing a planet. It’s the loving thing to do, isn’t it? We don’t silently sit by and let people we love run red lights.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's the Matter with Men?

Last night I was with a group of single women my age and we started buzzing about our favorite topic: men. I was noticing that we seldom have much good to say about them and have been wondering why. I’ve known any number of genuinely good men in my life, but these aren’t the guys I generally discuss with my girlfriends.

With this particular group of four women, we were comparing notes about internet dating. Two were relatively new to it and were dealing with the disappointment and deception that often accompanies meeting someone online. Because I spent years dating men on the internet, I could fill volumes with my stories. But I’m not pursuing this anymore. (In fact, I’m not particularly pursuing men, as I’ve learned to live a very full life without them and don’t feel the need I once did.) So, in our little group, I was the one who had been there and done that. Then, the fourth woman recently met her future husband through the internet. I suppose, if that is the goal of internet dating, as many believe it is, then hers is the story of success. However, I wouldn’t say that my time spent with internet dating was for nothing. I met some great people along the way, had some unforgettable adventures, and grew to understand myself in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s a part of my journey, and all is well. But back to the question at hand…

Why do single women enjoy bashing men? Here’s what I’m thinking. I know this is a generalization, but I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that we can’t imagine why we should have to be in the position of seeking a man to begin with, so we’re already a little angry about the whole thing. We take our manlessness quite personally. And rather than feel crappy about ourselves, we’d rather put the crap back on them. “So, what’s the matter with these men? Can’t they recognize what an amazing woman I am? There must be something seriously wrong with them!”

Once, when I was experiencing one failed relationship after another, I heard that our relationships are only as healthy as we are and unhealthy people will attract unhealthy people. I don’t know if this is true but it was enough for me to entertain the possibility that maybe the reason why I kept ending up with men who weren’t quite right was because I wasn’t quite right. I didn’t need a man; I needed a therapist. (Okay, so he happened to be a man.)

Relationships are so darn complicated; I don’t pretend to understand them. But one of the things I’ve concluded through the years is that the biggest obstacle any relationship must overcome is seldom found in the other person. Most often, it’s within us. And until we get our own act together, we’ll never be satisfied with any other person because we’re expecting them to do something for us that we need to do for ourselves. Jerry McGuire’s declaration that “You complete me” is just plain wrong! No one else can complete us.

On the other hand, I know that none of us is ever complete, or whole. It’s our life’s journey to grow toward wholeness. And it really is a gift to have someone who can walk beside us to support us and cheer us on along the way. That’s the gift that relationships bring, and if you’re fortunate enough to have people in your life who do that, you are truly blessed. If that includes someone whom you deeply love, you are doubly blessed.

Can such a person be found on the internet? Why not? But I have observed that such people are seldom planned in our lives and we can’t search them out. They surprise us like an unexpected gift that turns out to be just what we’ve always wanted even though it never occurred to us before that we wanted it.