Enjoy Your Freedom

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 07/12/2015

Last year I was in southern Maine for the Fourth of July, a time when it seems that the ubiquitous American flags already on display there all summer are enhanced by extra flags, bunting, and patriotic sloganing. It’s a touristy area, where we were staying, so many of the places stayed open for the July 4th holiday, and those that were closed often had signage that told their hours and said when they would be back in business. And one gas station that was closed for the holiday had one of those signs with the black lettering that you switch out, and what that sign said for a whole week was: Enjoy Your Freedom.

Enjoy Your Freedom. It caught my eye, and every time we drove by that sign I wondered at those particular words. Enjoy your freedom.

To me, it was a wise message. I thought it was wise because on one level it’s obvious, a simple reminder that you have the day off and you should have a good time. And I thought it was wise because it was deeper than that. It taps into something true about us – us Americans, we human beings.

That truth is, many of us don’t enjoy our freedom. Not at all. In fact, many of us are unaware that we are free.

I’m not really talking about the sort of freedom that we often talk about on the Fourth of July. I’m talking about the sort of freedom you may not even know how to enjoy, because it is so foreign to your way of thinking, and when you see it, you don’t recognize it as freedom at all.

This sort of freedom is more spiritual in nature than the other kinds of freedom that we more often talk about.

Let me quote Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan priest, the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, and a bestselling author and speaker. Rohr writes this about freedom, which will help lay a good groundwork for understanding what exactly it is that we are supposed to be enjoying. He writes:

“We have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences.

That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even a tertiary freedom.

The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in truth despite all circumstances.

That’s what great religion offers us. That’s what real prayer offers us. That’s why the saints could be imprisoned and not lose their souls. They could be put down and persecuted like Jesus and still not lose their joy, their heart, or their perspective.” ( Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.” New York: A Crossroads Book, 2003. P. 108.)

Let's go over this in broad strokes first, and then in the specifics.

Okay, first, as an American you have been completely and thoroughly trained to believe that what freedom means is that you get to choose between lots of options and preferences, right? If there’s lots of kind of cereal in the store, and you have five or ten bucks, you have freedom to choose what kind of cereal you want. There are a lot of options, you may have preferences, and you can take advantage of both of those. If you have the money.

This options and preferences type of freedom is expanding and expanding in the US. There’s a whole other sermon that could be written about whether or not all this choice actually leads to happiness – I’ll sum that other sermon up by saying that studies show that it does not – but whether choice makes you happy or not, most of us in this room have access to a lot of choice in America. For the dominant culture – that means those who are some combination of white, male, English speaking, and economically comfortable – for those of us in the dominant culture we can choose what to buy, how to live, what to do, and the freedom of that kind of choice is held up as an ideal for everyone in the United States.

Because this choice-freedom is held up as the American ideal, we all find ourselves busily jockeying into position to choose more and more of our preferences from the available options. We even make more and more options so we can choose from them even more.

If freedom means freedom to choose between options and preferences, as Americans believe that it is, then it becomes hard to enjoy that freedom. We’re seeking a goal only some of us can achieve, the goal of ultimate indulgence of preferences. And the goal itself doesn’t lead to happiness, as that other sermon says, even when reasonably met.

I don’t think that freedom to choose between options and preferences is the way to enjoy your freedom.

But that’s okay, because Richard Rohr tells us that the freedom to choose between options and preferences, this is not at all the primary freedom of life. It is not the primary freedom we should be seeking or enjoying, even though we are constantly told it is.

The primal freedom, Rohr tells us, is the freedom that we talk about in good religion, the freedom that authentic prayer uncovers.

Rohr says the primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in truth despite all circumstances. I think he’s right.

Freedom to be the self is the ultimate freedom. Really. Be. Yourself. Sounds good, right? In theory, yes. But, let me tell you, I have noted that it is a freedom that we human beings run from like it is going to get us. People seem to be afraid of the freedom to really be themselves. I can’t say that I’ve been different, through much of my life.

Why is that?

I've noted that human beings want and they seek two things, down deep. Two primal things.

They want to belong.

And they want to be safe. They want to be personally safe, and they want those they love to be safe. What safe means to them is not injured and not dead.

This is human nature. We desire, at our roots, belonging and safety. We want, more than anything, safety and belonging.

I’ve spoken several times about how I think human nature and God’s nature are at odds in this way. We humans don’t see the world the same way that God does. God – and feel free to substitute “the natural order of things”, because you should know by now that I feel those are equivalents – God or the natural order of things does not really care about your safety. In fact, God, or the natural order of things, is planning to kill you.

As a living creature, you are palpably unsafe, at least according to your standards. Your death is already assured. Furthermore, basic observation will reveal to you that your life is going to be painful, either some of the time or all of the time.

If you can only enjoy life if it is safe, then you are going to either actively deny reality, or you are not going to enjoy yourself. Seeking safety has to frustrate you because it is impossible. It is not God’s plan for you, to keep you safe in that way. Your safety is not in the natural order of things.

How about belonging? Here, too, human desires and the natural order of things are at odds.

People are born feeling anxious about being left alone, which makes sense since we can only survive in packs of other loving humans and remember, we love surviving.

So we also learn to love belonging, and seek ways to belong to the groups we live in, even when those ways in which we change and adjust to try to fit in cause us to forget who we really are, who our selves really are. We quite regularly give up our God given freedom to be who we really are in pursuit of the human goal of belonging, of fitting in, with the ultimate goal of survival in ways big and small.

If God – or the natural order of things – is the sort of being that finds things bemusing, God or the natural order of things is more than bemused by this behavior. This quest for belonging that causes us to reject our Selves, that’s crazy talk to the natural order of things.

Because the truth is, you can’t not belong to this world. You are a child of the universe. Your very bones are made from the same stuff that was here before Here even began. You were knitted together from a mix of stardust and love. You cannot not belong, no matter what you do. You were literally made to be yourself, and it is you that is needed.

Would it not be ridiculous for your pinkie finger to start acting like a thumb, thinking that otherwise the rest of the fingers might want to throw it off the hand?

You are already here. You already won the prize. The question of belonging, that is not a real question. Whether or not you belong should not be causing you fear. You belong to the world. Period.

Your parents might have told you differently, the society you live in may have given you a different impression, but they aren’t in charge. You belong to the world no matter what, and certainly when you are being utterly yourself. When we talk about the freedom to live in truth despite all circumstances, this is the truth that we’re talking about.

So if the twin human pursuits of safety and belonging are not worthwhile pursuits, because one already is and the other can never be, then why do we pursue safety and belonging at the expense of seeking freedom to be our true selves?

How come, instead of enjoying our freedom, we give it up so we can chase after safety and belonging, two things we either already have or never will have?

Why is it so hard to enjoy our freedom? We were born unique. If we act on our uniqueness, we’ll be something and someone who never was before and never will be again. We embody a creative force beyond our reckoning. Why don’t we just enjoy our freedom like the sign told us to?

President Obama was recently interviewed by the comic Marc Maron on his podcast, and they got to talking about how experience on the job can lead to being better at your job, being more creative, more flexible, inspired. I can’t remember which one of them was the one to say this, but they said that in early days of doing something scary, like running for President or doing stand-up comedy, you pretend to be fearless to get the job done. And then once you get better and better at it, you switch, away from pretending to be fearless – which every single one of us does to some extent every day – to actually being fearless. That state of fearlessness, they agreed, that is when the genius for the work begins. That’s when you get brilliant at it. Because you aren’t afraid, you’re just yourself. And at the end of this comment Marc Maron uttered the word: “Freedom.” He described this state of acting ultimately yourself as freedom.(Marc Maron, WTF podcast, http://potus.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_613_-_president_barack_... )

Freedom comes from fearlessness. When you start to see that fear is standing in the way of your enjoyment of freedom, it necessarily causes you to wonder what you’re really afraid of.

You start to struggle against the fear, and wonder how you can get out from under it. This wondering about fear, this struggle against fear, this is a good starting point. But how does one really shed fear?

I’ve seen two paths to fearlessness in living.

One path is to wise up quick, by realizing that we’re already doomed and we already belong so we actually have very little to fear. This is the path for those who are particularly evolved, which can honestly happen with a rigorous prayer or meditation life.

The other, far more dramatic path to fearlessness is the one I took, where you keep losing the things you’re afraid of losing until you learn not to be afraid of losing things anymore. You stare your lack of safety right in the face and figure out how to live with it.

I have lost many things I was afraid of losing, including my husband and my father in one disastrous year over a decade ago. I have experienced the sort of loss that makes those who don’t know that sort of loss themselves lose their breath. People who don’t know this kind of loss have told me I’m a hero, that they could never go through what I have gone through, they can’t imagine getting out of bed, and so on and so on. None of that is true, but they don’t know any different, so what can one say?

Those who have experienced loss like mine never say things like that to me. Why not? Because we know something that others don’t know.

We know what it’s like to be free.

No one wants to be free of people they love. But it is a life changer to be free of fear.

I am not afraid of losing people any more. Would I like it if it were to happen again? No, I would not. I would be miserable. But I would not be afraid.

This lack of fear is the thing that has enabled me to enjoy my spiritual freedom. Fearlessness is the thing that has illuminated the real goal of living, which is not the pursuit of choices or safety or belonging. The real goal is to live as truly myself as I can, and teach others to do the same.

Now, getting to that goal, that’s a whole other story, not such an easy mountain to climb. But seeing the goal makes it much easier than having your view be clouded by your fear. When you’re afraid, you’re just wandering around blindfolded, thinking if you have more choices then you’ll be free.

I’d rather enjoy my freedom, like the sign says.

So I learned about fearlessness and freedom through pain. But you don’t have to do that. Don’t forget, there’s also the wising up option, remember? You don’t have to learn about fearlessness and freedom through pain. You can choose to learn, deep down, that the safety and belonging you think you seek are illusory goals, and what you should seek instead is freedom to be your own true self and to live and love in ultimate truth. You can do this personally, and Sugarloaf can do it as a group. Turn from the pursuit of safety and learn to enjoy your freedom to be you.

Loss can free you from fear, if you let it. And wising up to the natural order of things can free you from fear, if you let it. And what we’ve learned from Richard Rohr and by the way every substantial religion on this earth and also from that sign on Route One in Maine is that your freedom is always there and it looks like you at your most you and it’s something to be enjoyed because it brings joy and creativity and passion and goodness and peace which is kind of a fancy way of saying belonging and safety, but this time for real.

Richard Rohr’s quote ends with this sentence: “Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.”

Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.

What do we human beings have to do?

We have to be ourselves, at least enough to be noticeable, or we’re running and running all our days.

We have to suffer and die. That’s the human condition.

We have to belong to each other and to the world. That’s already a done deal.

How do we enjoy our freedom to want what we have to do? That is the ultimate religious question. May answers come to you from places of wisdom and not from pain.