Primary Questions: What Do You Mean by Freedom?
Every day this week and last, when I put on the funny looking bicycle helmet and tentatively climb aboard my bright red cruiser to head to the beach, I find that my mind is flooded with a single question: why, my friend, do you drive all this way and go to all this trouble just to do this one thing?
Yes, I am on vacation. And I am on vacation in one of my favorite places. I come here over and over again, whenever I can. I don’t golf, I don’t play tennis, and really, I don’t swim. I come here for another reason. I come here to do one simple thing. I come here to ride a bicycle on the white sandy beaches. Yes, of course, I could bike many places, but I don’t. Here, however, I structure my days around the call of low tide and ride for miles in all kinds of weather. And that activity, over and over again, reminds me of something that I often forget — that I am, as the old Unity Church‘s hymn puts it, free and unlimited, right now, right now.
I’ve felt this feeling for years (this is year 10 of this particular journey) but I haven’t really asked my other favorite question about it until now — why? Why make that terrible drive down I-95? Why here? Why now? And why ONLY here? Why is this the only place on earth where I rush to hop on a two-wheeled device, put an ugly pointy helmet on my head, and venture out to sweat and sway along the sand in the often too-hot sun?
The answer to my simple “why” question brings me to another more important question that I have been asking without words. And that question is one of our primary questions on the spiritual path — what makes you feel free, as you were created to be? That’s right, each of us was created in in the imago Dei, the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that means, to me at least, that we are created to stand free in the light and love of that God. But answer me truthfully: how often during your day do you actually feel free? And what does that word free really mean to you?
Free, freedom — these are difficult words. They have so many meanings. They have political meanings, economic meanings, and psychological meanings. These definitions are not enough for me. I am, as always, seeking a definition that lives in wholeness, in shalom. For me, that points to the meaning of an idea as it relates to my faith life, a spiritual meaning. And so, just what is the spiritual meaning of these words?
Honestly, I don’t find much specific help answering this question in Scripture itself. Galatians 5:13-14 has beautiful, inspiring words about freedom, but if read in context, these words relate specifically to the fight over whether or not circumcision is required to be called a Christian in the early church.
The stories themselves give us more guidance — they show us much about our struggle to live into our covenant relationship with God, a life that requires us to embrace the gift of freedom. The history of the Hebrew people, which, from the flight from Egypt onward, is a battle with the idea of being free and learning to live in freedom. In other texts, there is much talk of freedom, and being set free, and much to inspire us along the quest for a state that we would call freedom — but little to tell us what that life looks like or feels like when we get there. Is freedom a destination? Is it a feeling at all? Is it a state of being? What does it look like, taste like, sound like?
What I understand now, after asking myself these questions over and over again these past two weeks, riding up and down the wide flat beach, taking in the smell of the salt air while peddling and watching the dolphins and the pelicans play and feed, is this — freedom is not a state of being, freedom is an event. It is an event that requires all that I have — the physical, spiritual and intellectual parts of me. We must live the moment of freedom, because it will not stay.
This is not my idea alone. The great thinker and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel defines freedom in this way: “Freedom is an act of self-engagement of the spirit, a spiritual event (God in Search of Man, 411).” For Heschel, our lives are made up of both processes and events, and freedom represents the latter. And so, while the Exodus story represents our becoming, our moving towards a state of freedom, how many of the Hebrew people in the wilderness (and how many of us, really) ever experience the event of freedom?
Well, I believe that I do here, on my little bicycle, on my beloved beach. Here, I have over and over again what Heschel describes as the experience of freedom: “Freedom is the state of going out of the self , an act of spiritual ecstasy , in the original sense of the term (God in Search of Man, 410).” I experience a world larger than myself, I put down my cares for just one hour and experience all that God has offered me in the gift of this life. Experiencing and recognizing this kind of freedom is an important step towards making meaning in my life. Experiencing freedom is, for me, a subversive practice of my faith.
So, for one last time I put on my helmet (and a lot of sun screen) and head off to the beach. Today, along with my pelicans and my sand I will think about the ways in which this event of freedom changes me and the many ways that I can carry the memory of it into the rest of my life. Who knows, maybe I’ll make some more freedom as I go. Because now I know that understanding what a freedom event looks like and tastes like and feels like will let me recognize more of them as they come my way.
And so I ask you, friends, how do you recognize the freedom events in your life? They are there, you know. You just have to look for them.