The Search for the Sacred: Freedom to Choose

June 25th, 2017

The Search for the Sacred:

The Freedom to Choose

Matthew 7:24-27

June 25, 2017

Here is this morning’s truth: We are free; God made us that way. We are free to take the gift of life that we have been given and find time for joy and take time to hone our skills and add something to this world. We are also free to squander this freedom, to make short-sighted, self-centered choices that hurt the people and the institutions that we love. We can be a part of cleaning up the mess or we can be a part of making the messes worse. The choice is ours.

God will not pull that freedom off the table—our freedom or anyone else’s. Maybe more than any other human beings who have lived, this truth for us is vivid and real. We flip on the news and see people doing despicable things and God does not stop them (although, sometimes, God-inspired people do.) We open our history books and learn about the Holocaust and 9/11 and Rwanda. We look at Chicago and hear about another weekend and another 30 or 40 people shot. We get exasperated and cry out, “When will God stop this?” God whispers back to us, “When will you?”

Of course, the “storms” of this life don’t just come at an international or national or metropolitan level. The storms come when things happen directly to us or to someone we love. There is a bad diagnosis. Someone loses a job. Our child is bullied at school or, God forbid (but God doesn’t), our child is the bully. In an instant, we become acutely aware that we are only a phone call away from standing in the middle of a straight line, 60 mile-per-hour wind. And standing in the middle of that storm, it is hard to think at all, much less think clearly enough to make a faithful choice.

The analogy that comes to mind for me is core strength. Years ago, I looked around at our congregation and asked myself, “Who is older but happy?” When I looked at those people, a couple things seemed true. First, they were connected to younger people in a meaningful way and engaged with the current world. The best people they’ve known and the issues worth caring about were not all from 40 years ago. Second, they were physically active. They might be doing all sorts of physical things but the net result was core strength. They had a sense of balance and the muscle development to not fall down. If you don’t fall, you don’t end up in the hospital and start that downward slide.

Core strength takes real work. It’s not about having “abs” like some power lifter. It is about challenging your body at a micro level to make the little adjustments. So, you see people who are working on this stepping onto balls or stepping up onto progressively higher blocks or standing on one foot. You think, “What good does that do?” until you realize that what they are doing is simulating the very movements that, when we are unprepared, lead us to fall. When that moment comes, their body is prepared—reflexively—to respond because they have practiced that adjustment so many times. The slip that might wrench someone else’s back is hardly noticed at all. Or, the “wrench” turns out to be a “tweak” instead.

You can believe that God will never allow you to fall. You can have the dawning realization in the moment when time slows down that you are about to fall and you can cry out for help. Probably the key to that moment, though, is whether your body has been trained, reflexively, to respond.

What I want you to think about for a moment is core spiritual strength. There are things we can do on a daily basis to prepare ourselves for the moment when we might otherwise fall, when we might fail to exercise the freedom that we have been given responsibly, when we need to feel the solid ground beneath our feet and stabilize ourselves. Just as core physical strength has to do with repeatedly making the small moves that build that strength, the same thing is true of core spiritual strength. We have to practice intentionally making the choices that are ours to make over an over again so that when the winds blow and the thunder roars and we can hardly think straight at all, our natural response will be to continue making such choices.

Let’s build a framework for those choices. For me, the foundational truth of the Gospel is that God loves us. The fact that we can fall, that storms can blow, that things that seem unfair and wrong can happen in this life has nothing to do with God’s love. The closest to God’s unconditional love that many of us will come in this life (if we are lucky) is the love that our parents showed us. No matter how much they loved us, they couldn’t stop the hard things from coming our way, right? We skinned our knees and they comforted us. We had a bad day at school and they listened. We completely misread what someone else did or we were dishonest with ourselves about our bad choices and they told us the truth that we did not want to hear. None of this meant they loved us less. In fact, they embodied the great truth that loving someone doesn’t mean that we can perfectly protect them from life. Loving them means that we go through life together—no matter what.

In fact, if we are honest, we realize that we would be truly awful people had our parents been able to shield us from life. It’s not that they set us up to suffer so that we would learn things. However, they did understand that there were things to learn from what is unavoidable. When other’s actions caused me pain, I had the chance to decide to never be that other. When something hard just happened to me and people cared, I learned that I wanted to be a caring person. The biggest thing we learned is that we are never, ever alone or unloved.

To see the power of never, ever being alone or unloved, though, we have to practice acceptance. So, we could be the kid who’s parent takes them out to try riding a two wheel bike for the first time. We crash. Do we rise yelling at our parent, “How could you let that happen?” Or, is our rising question, “What did I do wrong?” We could be the kid who is given two choices: a green popsicle or a red popsicle who screams because, “I want blue!” Or, most frighteningly, we can be the adult who never learned acceptance and how to deal with limited choices who rages our way through our lives because we never get exactly what we want. It might be the job we want or the spouse we want or, in one way or another, the love we want but in the end, we want the blue popsicle when the world is offering green or red.

Back to core spiritual strength… On a daily basis, when the little setbacks come—the world’s longest freight train is rolling across 176; some bill shows up that you didn’t expect; someone is late for a meeting—those are the moments when we have to practice spiritual discipline. Neither the world nor God are out to get me and raging as if they are will do no one any good. Sulking won’t help. Pretending that we are not actually participants in that moment but are in fact the virtual umpires, calling balls and strikes, ruling things fair or foul—deciding whether a moment is worth living or whether we’re going to just check out— is not an option. Learning that God didn’t decide to put a train in my path may be an essential step in making peace with the notion that God didn’t cause my cancer. I won’t really begin to learn how to fully live until I find a way to stay awake and alive and all in for the three minutes that it takes for the train to pass. I won’t be strong until I do the things that build the awareness into me at a cellular, reflexive level that hard times don’t last, that I can hold on, that all I need to do is practice what it means to stay in balance.

What do we do? We choose to just focus on breathing because we learn that deep breaths are the key not just to meditation and perspective but to keeping our bodies from going into a flight/fight response over the smallest triggers. Then, when the storms come, amazingly, we are the one who can still stand there and breathe. We distract ourselves from the present minor crisis. We sing. We remember something positive. We pray for perspective. Some of my best singing has happened while battling big waves in a suddenly tiny feeling canoe. And having bought ourselves some time, we do the most amazing thing of all: we intentionally choose not to think the worst things, not to go to the darkest places. Instead of thinking how awful and unfair and unjust it is that there is a train crossing my path, I choose instead, intentionally, to enjoy a small break in my day.

That’s the thing… Should running into a train have the power to make me lose myself to anger and frustration? Should a driver who made a mistake in front of me have the power to make me crazy? Should a small setback have the power to make me feel like a complete and total failure? They won’t if I learn how to use the power that God has given me.

That power is the freedom to choose. I can abuse that freedom and make my life all about pleasing myself. I can abuse that freedom and make my life all about pleasing someone else and winning their approval. I can abuse that freedom and do real damage. (Most of us, despite our best efforts, have done this already and will do it again. We are only human, after all!) Or, I can learn what a powerful thing it is to live in context and choose between real options. I can learn that I get to choose what kind of a person I want to be, no matter what anyone else may do. I can learn how to stay in balance and practice that balance enough that I can stay in balance even when the winds of this life really blow.

Ultimately, I can do these things not just because I’ve been given this freedom but because the God who gave me that freedom is right here with me as the foundation on which I stand. I don’t depend on liking every moment. I don’t depend on other people always doing pleasing things, even the people who love me most because I know that, like me, they are only human, too. What I depend on is the God who loves me and goes through this life with me, every step of the way.

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