Freedom to serve, liberty to love

Liberty. Independence. Freedom. We heard those words mentioned this past weekend. But often, something vital was left out of the conversation.

While freedom matters greatly – it’s a divine gift and individual right – how we use our freedom is the measure of our faith and our lives. Our independence must be grounded within our interdependence.

Our culture promotes the myth of the self-made person, though nobody ever is. We’re lectured to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be responsible for ourselves alone. We’re told that God helps those who help themselves – words preached not by Jesus but by Benjamin Franklin.

We worship zealous individualism: Don’t tread on me or limit my rights for any reason. I’m free to do anything I want regardless how it affects anyone or anything else. The person bleeding by the side of the road isn’t my concern.

Our faith presents an opposite way of living. It centers the “me” within the “we”, places the “I” within the “us”, locates our individuality within our mutuality.

When we lose that focus, we end up in very dark places. Look at us now! In a society with so much, we have so little joy and peace. Instead, we overflow with anger, hate, disillusionment, lying, divisiveness and unhappiness.

Mother Teresa reminds us that if we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

And we often forget. It’s a tale as old as time.

Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminding them that their ongoing problems — hostilities, bickering, jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, and envy – are the result of forgetting their interconnectedness. It was true then, and now.

You end up in mutual destruction

“Remember that you have been called to live in freedom – but not a freedom that gives free rein” to selfish living, Paul says. “Out of love, place yourselves at one another’s service. The whole law has found its fulfillment in this one saying: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

“If you go on biting and tearing one another to pieces, take care! You will end up in mutual destruction.”

It’s important to work for justice so all God’s children may have the freedom they deserve. But it’s equally important to remind ourselves that freedom isn’t meant to be used only for ourselves.

When we use our liberty selfishly, we put ourselves in a prison. Our egos, our fears, our self-absorption become the bars to our individual cells. Our lives become very small, narrow, and unfulfilling.

By contrast, love liberates us – love and love alone.

We’re liberated when we recognize that yes, I am a child of God, but I’m not the only child; I’m part of God’s family where everyone is loved equally and must be treated with dignity and respect and compassion. And yes, we‘re part of an incredible creation, but we’re not the only part of creation that matters.

Love liberates us

Jesus invites us into this way of living – help the person bleeding by the side of the road, care for the needy, heal the hurting, love everyone the same way you love yourself, be compassionate and connected.

We can experience life in abundance when we ground ourselves within God’s inescapable web of creation. We’re fulfilled by joy, peace and love when we live within this Spirit of mutuality.

We experience God and our true selves when we use our freedom to serve and our liberty to love.

(Image courtesy of CrittentonSoCal @ creativecommons.org)

The liberty to love

Circle of hands

We’re going to hear a lot about our independence this weekend, which is good. It’s also good to take some time to appreciate our interdependence as well. Those two things are closely intertwined, just like all of us. Neither one can exist apart from the other.

Everything that we do, everything that we have, all that we are bears the fingerprints of countless others from around the world who have brought us to this moment and sustain us in it.

We tend to overlook that fact. I know I do. I prefer to think of myself as independent. It’s certainly “safer” to go that way than to make myself vulnerable and acknowledge my dependence upon so many others for so much. I prefer to feel like I’m in control of my life when, in fact, that’s only half of the truth.

I think we all dread those times when we feel dependent, when we’re sick or struggling and need some sort of assistance. We’d rather do it ourselves. We prefer to feel like we’re living independently, even though that is never the case.

If we think about our day for even a few seconds, we’re reminded of just how much we depend upon others for pretty much everything.

We woke up this morning in a bed that someone else made. We showered in water that someone else delivered to our homes, which someone else also built. We dressed in clothes that are the work of others’ hands. We ate a meal that someone else grew, harvested, shipped, inspected and prepared. We got into our car or boarded a bus that others engineered, built, and tested for safety. We rode along roads that others designed and maintained … And on and on.

In every moment of every day, we are affected by the lives of so many others from around the planet. Others who live in different countries and follow different religions and different social norms.

We’re also intertwined with our planet. That breath we are taking right now is possible because of all the plants making oxygen. Our food and our water are provided by the earth. And on and on.

Everyone and everything is interconnected. The creator made it so.

Recognizing our connectedness is at the heart of our religious traditions. The creation stories locate us within a diverse web of life. They put us in relationship with each other and with everything that’s in the world – it’s never good to think of ourselves as being alone.

One touchstone prayer refers to God as our parent, not just my parent. And it asks our creator to give us our daily bread. To forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us. There’s not a single mention of “me” or “my” or “I” in the prayer.

And it concludes with a collective amen, an affirmation that we’re all in this together.

It can’t be any other way. Actual religion has love at its heart, and love by definition always requires connection. It’s lived and expressed within the context of relationship to someone and something other than ourselves. It’s always plural.

Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness, creativity, healing — all of the divine qualities within us draw us deeper into our interdependence. By embracing it, we embrace the one who wants us to be as one.

The more we try to imagine ourselves as independent of others — other people, other countries, other religions — the less we are able to love and to live together peacefully. We know from experience how self-interest subverts any society, any government, any religion. We stop thinking about the common good — about the we — and we ignore our deep, divine need for each other.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us beautifully how “all life is interrelated.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As we celebrate our independence together, it’s fitting that we also remember the blessing of our interdependence. We can be thankful that we have the freedom to care for each other, the liberty to love one other.