July 19, 2009
Verbs and Other Freedoms
Dear First Christian Church Arlington,
I have been with you for some time now, visiting with you, trying to get you to talk to me. You seem like a friendly bunch of people, but you are a little confusing to me. So much of your life seems to be lived peering into windows of artificial light and pictures. I see how you carry with you small devices into which you speak or type in small messages—to whom are you speaking when you speak into these talismans? Are you speaking to your ancestors long since past? Or are your gods small enough to fit in the palm of your hands? Are these prayers you pray as you withdraw from the people right before you and stand far away from them to offer your acts of devotion? Others of you have larger altars of lighted pictures. I see how you give them central places in your living spaces. What a strange power they have over you that they draw your attention away from even your own family. Are these your household idols? In the altar’s windows people emerge and talk, they seem to want to tell you what to think, what to want, what to say, what to buy. It seems that you follow these teachers religiously for I see you buy what they tell you to buy, and repeat to one another the things you’ve heard them say, and I assume you think as they teach you to think. You seem surrounded by the altars of so many gods and you seem to run yourselves into the ground trying to please them all. I have seen some of you with your hands bound to your altars. Something has trapped your hands so that you are driven to form words on the screens of your altars. What happens to all these words? Who receives these prayers?
My background is one that condemns all idols. They have no hearts nor do they grant freedom. I was raised to see objects as created things and not the creator. It seems to me that idols and objects of devotion keep you enslaved to rituals that do not renew your spirits. They seem to bring you fatigue and separate you from each other.
I went around the corner from your place of worship and there I encountered the thinkers of your university. I met some who seem to believe that human life exists because of a natural chance. They remind me of the Epicureans I’ve encountered in other places. They seem to believe that human happiness can be achieved through the escape from fear and the superstitions of religion. They discipline themselves so that they can live the ideal life of tranquility without being terrorized by pain or poverty, loss or attack. They see the “unfailing spring of happiness in friendship” (F. W. Beare, Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, E-J p. 123). They gather together in groups of friends and they join together in gardens and laugh with each other, eat with one another, support and encourage each other. They find within the lives they share with each other the fullest expression of happiness. Their gods seem to be faint pictures of happiness and tranquility, far off like fantasy tales. But, they do not believe in the possibility of a personal relationship with a god who talks with them. I have tried to speak to them about the one I have come to know in a personal way. But I don’t think they understand what I’m saying. Though they have asked me to talk more about it some other time.
There are some older members of the university community who are a bit more private. They invest almost all their time in the examination of facts. They seem guided by “hard rational principles and analytical observations and careful reasoning” (Wall, NIB, X, p. 244). They seem to see everything as containing the divine presence. They emphasize the importance of duty and measure duty by the fulfilling the assignments given to them and the assignments they give to others. They place a premium on virtue—on self-discipline and perseverance in creating intentional thinking and behavior. They seem to invest themselves in understanding, predicting and controlling the rules which govern the world and have divided this task up into areas of specialization—the physical world to the engineers, the social world to the government, economists and police; the bodies of people to medicine; and the aesthetic world to the arts. They seem to want a god who can also be completely understood, explained and controlled. I have tried to speak to them, also, about the one I have come to know in a personal way. But I don’t think they understand me either.
As I watch you, you also seem to be like them in many ways. Some of you invest a great deal of time and energy in being together, caring for each other and encouraging one another. You are to be commended for the community you share. Yet, even here God seems to some of you to be the portrait of ideal friendship and not actually your living, active friend. Others of you respond in more stoic fashion. You look for the clearest, most rational explanation. Your god seems to have a great mind but an absent heart. Here again, I commend you for your commitment to thought and to using the reason God has entrusted to you. But God is more than a theory. God invites us into relationship.
And so as I wander about among you who live there in Arlington it seems to me that you are indeed devoted to so many things. But if I may ask what receives your ultimate devotion? Superstitions and religiosity keep us captive through mindless rituals and paranoid fear. Technology seems to promise freedom but it has more certainly enslaved the bodies, hearts and minds of your generation. I fear that you do not realize just how captive you are to the altars of light, sound, and virtual emotions that you have created for yourselves. The world is bigger than your three inch cell-phone screen, or 14 inch computer screen or 50 inch television screen. Relationships with other people, though good and blessed, can be dangerous if they receive your ultimate devotion. The young people at the University may not have discovered this quite yet but surely many of you have—people will fail you at some point. Because we are human we will hurt each other in some of the most profound ways. The same is true for our ideas and our ideologies. Human minds are amazing creations but—like all things human—they are fallible, vulnerable to deception and error. Any intellectual system has its limits. Those limits enslave us if they receive our ultimate devotion.
But I see that there in the center of your worship space you have a table set in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Perhaps you know of whom I speak, or perhaps he is one who comes to you as “Unknown.” But I wish to make known to you what I know of the One present at this table. You see, I was once a prisoner to a system of hatred and antagonism. I believed that my way was absolutely right and that I possessed the truth. I had done everything right, I believed. I lived up to the exact standards of my philosophy. I was such a strong believer in my system that I participated in hurting those who disagreed with me. I sought them out and tormented them. Then one day I had an encounter with the Crucified and Risen One. I was confronted with the prison I had chosen to live inside. I saw the chains of self-righteousness that shackled my heart. I imagined that God could be controlled, God could fit in the palm of my hand. But all my attempts to control God, manipulate God, were confronted one day. The Crucified and Risen one blinded me physically in order to help me see how I had distorted what God was all about. The religiosity that I thought I controlled really controlled me.
The Crucified and Risen One, the One whose table is in your worship space, revealed to me the freedom he came to bring. Indeed, there is one of your own writers who has written about freedom in a remarkable way—William Paul Young, I believe. In his book The Shack he writes about a man named Mackenzie who encounters the Trinity in much the same way I encountered the Crucified and Risen one on a Road to Damascus. He has written, “The truth shall set you free and the Truth has a name . . . Everything is about him. And freedom is a process that happens inside a relationship with him. Then all the stuff you feel churnin’ around inside will start to work its way out.” And elsewhere he has written, “Life and living is in him and in no other. Religion is about having the right answers, and some of their answers are right. But God is about the process that takes you to the living answer and once you get to him, he will change you from the inside.” Throughout this remarkable story God time and again reminds Mackenzie that faith in the Crucified and Risen One is not about religion its about a relationship. In that relationship we have freedom. That living answer is the Crucified and Risen one who came to me and set me free. And even though I’ve been in physical jails, prisons, and chains since that time, I know that I am free because I can freely choose to love God, worship God, trust God and obey God. My life emerges from the freedom to choose God and my free choice to follow God gives me my freedom from everything else that might enslave me.
We have the freedom to accept the relationship and the freedom to reject the relationship. Only, what I have discovered the hard way is this—when we reject the relationship that’s offered to us we reject the freedom as well. For there’s a longing within us for God that we will try to fill with other things—relationships, technology, entertainment, and even religion itself. But all these other things—though good when in proper perspective—make lousy gods. Idolatry binds us to hopeless cycles. Idols are the things we create and then give our ultimate devotion. They are limited because we are limited and they come from us. Those limitations will enslave us if we let them.
The Crucified and Risen One points us away from giving created things our Ultimate Devotion and bids us make the Creator the end of our ultimate devotion. I once spoke at the Areopagean Philosophical Society in Athens and there I said it this way, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands—nor computers, televisions or cell phones. And he is not served by human hands as though he needed anything. God gives to everyone life and breath and everything else. God did this so that we would seek God and perhaps reach out for God and find God, though he is not far from each one of us. In God we live, and move, and have our being. In God we are set free from slavery and made heirs and children.” The Crucified and Risen One, the Living Answer, the One to whom your table belongs is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the truth and following his truth means finding your freedom.
Well, as you might imagine, my speech the Areopagean Philosophical Society didn’t go very well. I’m afraid that Jesus cannot be explained; He must be experienced. But the experience is more than worth it—it is the path and way to freedom. I hope you may experience it my friends at First Christian Church, Arlington, for you are freely loved and given freedom that you might love God freely. Greet one another in love for me.