Freedom & Responsibility

By Eric S. Love
podcast available: March 27, 2011

Excerpt from the “Plague Dogs” by Richard Adams, Fit 2, first paragraph.

Freedom is one of those things that we all want but sometimes forget the price that goes with it. Children and teens want the freedom of being an adult but seldom grasp the reality of the obligations that go along with it (you have to work to pay bills, that sort of thing).

About ten years ago I was a chaplain in the prison and went out every couple of months to do a Bible Study on Sunday mornings with the guys in Boot Camp. They totally ignored me the entire time. Literally. They would either put their heads on the table in front of them, obviously there to get out of where ever their other option was, or be reading the Bible or some other book all by themselves, or simply staring off into space. Whatever the case, they were not there to learn anything from me.

There was only one time I even interacted with anyone from the group. He sat sort of close to the front and gave me eye contact the entire time. After a little while he and I began to talk as if we were the only two people in the tent - which we might as well have been even though there were ten or so other bodies. He told me he was getting out the following Wednesday. I said he must be excited, but he responded by saying he was actually scared to death.

He had been in before, got out and did well for a while, then got careless and was rearrested and came back. This is what he said about it: “I don’t know what I will do with my freedom.”

And that’s the question: What will you do with your freedom?

See, in my line of work I’ve come to recognize the truth that if we do not take our freedom seriously and approach it soberly, it will by default kick us back into some form of anti-freedom.

As we talk about this, I am going to go over some basic principles that I believe we all know in one capacity or another, and then I am going to look at how we can deal not only with the responsibility of our freedom but also the difficulty of it.

First, we all know there is tremendous responsibility that goes along with our freedom. Like I’ve mentioned before, we all work to make money to pay for the things we have. Everything has a cost. Relationships and family have a cost. Good health has a cost. Having a good job has a cost. Everything worth while requires something of us. There are not truly effective “get rich quick” scemes no more than there are short cuts to relationship or relationship free from trial and error.

This we all know well enough because we walk these things out every day.

There is also responsibility to walk in a place of spiritual freedom. We have to be more selective in what we indulge in. We have to be more conscientious of the broader consequences of not just behavior but also attitudes. Here at River, we move in tremendous freedom in worship and everyone is expected and encouraged to carry their own weight with their own flavor and identity in the real world around them - not just in the theatre on Sunday afternoons - but we also know that with that freedom comes a tremendous responsibility. If we aren’t in true accountability with each other, we can easily get off. Because we are not limited by a spirit of religion we can allow our freedom to promote carelessness with our character. (I can remember early on relishing my freedom at River and the knowledge that I didn’t have to be nearly as up-tight as I’d always believed - like regarding the “sin” of “social drinking.” It’s not sin. That’s great to be able to enjoy that in a healthy, moderate way. But I saw that I could easily have gone too far with it because there was no religious structure prohibiting it. I could have easily become a binge drinker every weekend. I didn’t, but I could have. And that would have been careless.)

This we know. And for the most part we walk this out daily. We live and learn. And that’s healthy.

Something else we know is that life is tough. Sometimes it simply sucks. But it’s good, too. And it’s worth it. In college, my voice professor accused me of living from one tragedy to the next because I always thought the sky was falling. I was well aware of the reality that life can be really hard. But the truth is, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. Over the years I had to learn to back up and get a broader perspective: yes, things are tough right now, but that’s okay. Sometimes they’re just going to be tough.

Being aware of that simple reality, that life can be really, really hard - and quite often, not fair, can really help us deal with it. Having an awareness helps us choose an appropriate response rather than respond with whatever knee-jerk reaction is in the queue.

Here is something we else we need to accept: there is tragedy in life. Bad things do happen. Somethings can’t be fixed. People get sick. People get divorced. People die.

But we also need to accept the truth that “all things,” even tragedies, “work together for our good.” Somehow God uses everything for our good. And that’s good news. Another good news is that tragedy doesn’t come nearly as often as we expect it to.

Another thing we need to understand is that life is NOT harder for those of us who take responsibility seriously. It may look like it, but it’s not.  Our freedom may seem to begin feeling a little bit constricted because of all the responsibility, but that’s not the case at all. We protect our freedom by walking out the responsibility it requires. People who live like they don’t have to have jobs to make money to pay for a place to live or having something to eat will eventually either lose those things or have to depend on someone else to take care of them. That’s not freedom. So why do bad things happen to good people? Because bad things happen to all people. It’s the way thing is.

In difficult times, and not just times of actual tragedy, we need to practice TRUST. We’ll come back to this in a bit. But first, let’s look at responses.

We will respond in some way to every thing in life that happens to us and those we love. So how will we respond? What will motivate us? I’ve already mentioned we need to practice trust, but often times our automatic, knee jerk responses are not trust. Automatic responses, like fear and anger, are often the most passionate. Think of passion like fuel. The more passionate an emotional response is, the more heavy we kick on the gas pedal. Before we know it, we’ve gone farther into the thing than we intended - and done more damage, too.

It’s because once we give fear or anger control it just goes with no heed to moderation. (Apathy is another auto response, but it works the opposite way. It becomes a perpetual break where we do nothing. And nothing changes. But we’ll focus more on anger and fear.)

Why are we told “don’t let the sun go down on your anger?” Or “be angry but don’t sin?” Because anger is not our friend and it will ALWAYS take us too far too quick. Anger can also work slowly. We feel it deep down. It raises our blood pressure. It’s get’s us going inside. But we suppress it. We act like its not there. And it builds up over time until - BAM! It comes out like a geyser.

And what about fear? We are told we “have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” So what does that mean when we react in fear? We undermine the power in us, the love we have and give, and we compromise the integrity of our minds. We go a little crazy. And what about “perfect love casts out all fear?” Well, if fear lingers then love isn’t there to cast it out. We know God loves us always, so it must fall to our choices. We choose fear over love.

Now I am not talking about pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna-ism. I’m talking about the gritty, hard core reality that sometimes we will get angry or become afraid because life sucks and we need to find a healthy way to respond and work it out.

I got the most stressed I’ve ever been in my life last October and November. I was becoming paralyzed because of a genetic disease that is non-corrective. My two scum bag roommates stiffed me for $700 without a word and I was going to have to have surgery on my spine and my deductible was $10,000. I couldn’t even make my mortgage payment. That combined with work and normal life stuff was too much. I had learned over the last nine years to manage stress in a more healthy way. Working at the youth home forces you to do that. But I crossed a line last fall. I crosses that threshold and once I did, I couldn’t get back across it. I thought once my Christmas Play was over and the surgery was done I could relax. But then I had a cracked molar which required a root canal and a cap - and I had no dental insurance, $2000 more - and being in the dentist’s chair for four hours - and not exercising for three months because of my neck and paralysis issues - my lower back snapped and I ended up literally passing out from the pain of it in the middle of the night trying to get to the bathroom. Now while all this was going on, the government told me I worked too hard to deserve help with my mortgage payment - since I had a full time job and two, sometimes three, part time jobs. Oh, and my debt wasn’t significant enough to warrant help. If my credit card debt was around $20,000 instead of only $8 they might just forgive the debt outright. And I made too much money, even though with all those jobs it wasn’t not enough to cover all my expenses - which, by the way, did not include home phone, internet or cable because I didn’t have them - to deserve indigent care. If only I had a house full of kids I would. No matter that I had to have TWO roommates to just make ends meet. I build a house and don’t even get to live in it by myself because it’s the onset of a recession that I didn’t know about until it was too late and my bank - who promised me they would help me finish building the house if I needed more money - gave me less because they were in trouble - they went bankrupt this year. So I’m too healthy and too hard a worker for any real assistance, even though I am poor and have a non-corrective disease that will ultimately lead to a lifetime of surgery - even though I’ve lost a healthy forty pounds over the last year and now exercise a minimum of four days a week - including two half-mile swims per week.

Here’s the point: I got stressed out and I had to learn to deal with it in a positive way. How did I? I’ve alluded to some of it.

I began exercising and changed my diet in a way that I could sustain both - a fad diet wouldn’t work. And I had to be able to afford whatever food I ate. I did research and found something that worked for me. I eat and am satisfied. I joined the Wellness Center - because if I am paying $40 a month I HAVE to go. It’s accountability. I also kept persisting in trying to find financial help. Eventually, I did get help. Now I only need my full-time job and one roommate to pay everything I need to pay. And that includes my new medical bills. So that’s good news.

I took responsibility rather than justifying an inappropriate response. Now I’ve developed hyper-tension and an erratic heartbeat, most likely because of stress, so I am taking responsibility for that too instead of just throwing up my hands and saying, “I can’t win, so screw it!”

A response like that is not justified under any circumstance because it doesn’t help me move forward. And that’s what it’s about. Life is movement.

I also relied on people I’m in relationship with to help me - and help me many of you did. Financially, I was given more money to help out with my surgery than I would have ever hoped to imagine. I’ve been given support. Teri’s Bodyflow class is a great stress relief and it’s good for me to see her twice a week, knowing that she cares about my health and if I’m not there she’ll know it. We swim at the same time, too. And going to Flow, it’s good to see Gwen and Cathy and Francis, and sometimes Brenda. Because these people are part of my family and reminds me how good my life is - look at the people in it! It’s the same way at lunch with my parents, Brian, Brenda and the boys on Sundays. Or worship team meetings on Thursdays. Or youth meetings on Wednesdays. Or cooking supper for Erin and Canaan or Micah and Candace. Or getting to work with Anna sometimes now because we are “colleagues.” Worship on Wednesday mornings at the youth home with Denis. See, my life is rich.

And I look for ways to stop running around in my day to day stuff and take a break. Exercise does that. I planted a garden because  I have to stop and tend to it. This is good stress relief.

So how do we counter automatic responses that hurt us?

Start by looking for triggers. We can recognize triggers if we are honest with ourselves. Often times people we love the most are triggers for us. If something happens to them, we automatically respond in fear or anger. Again, that is not a justifiable response - or at least, not a response we can let loose and be justified with. We may get angry and feel fear. It’s becoming driven by those things that isn’t justifiable.

We also need to check to see if we are self-medicating. And this happens in all sorts of ways. It can be drugs and alcohol. It can be smoking. I know a kid who was addicted to video games. It was how he coped.

Now there is a difference between dangerous self-medicating - which covers up the issues and keeps us from effectively dealign with them - and finding healthy ways to deal with the stress of life. I read to relax BECAUSE I can’t think of my own problems and concentrate on a book. Movies can do the same thing: give me a break from trying to sort everything out. Hanging out. Cooking is good. Gardening. None of these things are unhealthy unless they become ways I try to permanently escape from my problems. Taking a siesta from them is okay. Checking out is not. For some people, ministry becomes self-medication.

And again, another thing that will help us check our responses is awareness. Look at ourselves and others with honesty rather than assuming things are always exactly the way we perceive them. Thinking something is a certain way doesn’t mean it is that way. I know people who are totally sincere in their faith, and they are sincerely wrong. There has to be some sort of higher standard than our own opinion or belief to check ourselves against. Be honest.

So if we try to be honestly aware, check for triggers and ways we self-medicate, we’ll be on the right track. Then we have to take responsibility for our lives and change what we can change and accept what we can’t. And practicing TRUST is key here.

We are told to “cast all our cares on Him for He cares for us.” This is not just good Christian language with no significant bearing on how we live. We literally can take everything to God and trust Him to help us sort it out. He will do that. We have to believe it.

Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and laden, for I will give you rest.” Doesn’t that sound good? He also said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He will help us bear the things we must bear. His yoke is easy and His burden is light, but they are still yokes and burdens. Still, we can know His rest - a supernatural rest that transcends the capacity of our mortal brains.

In Galatians, Paul tells us to “bear one another’s burdens - even our moral faults.” In doing this we actually find help for ourselves with our own stuff. We have to trust.

Eric Love, 3/27/2011