What Freedom Looks Like

My wife and I were on vacation at a resort in Hawaii. Picture a perfect day: hot and sunny, a bright blue sky, palm leaves stirred by a warm, sweet breeze off the ocean. We strolled across the immaculately manicured lawn of the resort; lush and clipped like a golf green. Happy people could be found here and there. Some were lounging by the pool, others played catch, chatted or, like us, sauntered about soaking it all in. Paradise.

Perhaps twenty-five meters ahead of us, a father was dressing his toddler after some fun in the pool. Yet another scene of bliss and tranquility.

Then it happened.

The little fella broke free. Buck naked, he squealed joyfully and set out at a sprint—or at least a toddler’s version of it: elbows flexed, fists up around his ears, round belly proudly leading the way. His little legs pumped vigorously, monkey-style, chubby feet flapping down one after the other on the soft green grass, scampering along with all the grace and finesse of a penguin.

I’m not sure how old he was. (How old are children when they first learn to run?) But toddler though he was, he knew a few things. First of all, he knew that this was temporary. His dad would chase after him (hence the squeals) and he would ultimately be caught (just as much fun as being chased). But even though capture was inevitable, he also knew he had to make a run for it; this because he remembered something that his father had likely long since forgotten: he was born naked! Clothes, to him, were a ridiculous nuisance. A symbol of bondage, even. This, frolicking au naturel under the warm summer sun, was sweet, sweet freedom.

As this amusing little pantomime played out in front of us, the Newsboys song “I am Free” immediately popped into my head. Ever since then, when I think of the kind of freedom that Jesus came to bring, this is the little 10 second video (complete with soundtrack) that plays in my mind. “I am free to run, I am free to dance, I am free to live for you. I am free!”

Seeing my dog run off-leash creates a similar picture for me. In last week’s post, I recounted a typical trip to the dog park. (If you missed it, just click here: http://wp.me/p863BT-2A) Last week I suggested that Casey on the loose was evocative of worship. Unrestrained, she does what she was born to do with joy and abandon, just like the wee little nudist. But it is important to note that freedom is the catalyst; given the chance, she becomes fully alive, unable to do anything but what she was made to do. This in turn brings glory to God.

The same is true for me. I worship most fully when I remember my freedom. It might be in a moment when I am feeling especially free, such as when I go for a walk on a beautiful day, or when I enjoy a drive alone through the countryside (at precisely the speed limit) listening to my favourite music. Or it may be when I recall some of the things that used to hold me captive, and those times in my life where God intervened, usually in the midst of pain, to emancipate me. I see who and what I was, and how I am now, by comparison, like that little boy dashing across the grass, a picture of joy.  

Of course, the tiny tot’s dad did eventually catch up with him. It was only a matter of seconds, really. 238 frantic steps for the little one, and two easy strides for his laughing father, who scooped him up and bundled him into his clothing. Life will do that to us, and so we seize these joyful moments when they present themselves, knowing all too well that this fallen world so frequently seeks to constrain us.

My prayer for that child, and for the child in each of us, is that he never forgets. That he remembers what freedom feels like and always seeks it, never losing hope, knowing that there is One who offers it without reservation. May he recognize and fully enjoy the reminders of it that are all around him, and may he faithfully endure those painful moments that will be needed to loosen the shackles that will inevitably be placed upon him. And finally, may he (and we) rejoice in the certain hope of a future where the sun shines warm, the grass grows soft and green, and (dare I suggest it?) clothing will be entirely optional.

 

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

— John 8:36

What My Dog Has Taught Me About Life and God (#1)

My dog inspires me (please do not tell her this, as she’s a little cocky as it is). She actually elicits a variety of reactions: amusement, irritation, frustration, laughter, anger and heart-melting affection. But inspiration is the one we’ll talk about today.

Casey is a Brittany, a medium-sized dog originally bred for bird hunting. As such, she possesses many of the characteristics one might expect in a bird dog: athleticism, high energy, strong sniffing instinct, alertness, enthusiasm, intelligence. She also exhibits a number of traits that seem to be in no way related to her calling, such as stubbornness, moments of mindless mania and excessive cuteness. And lots of shedding.

I took Casey to the off-leash dog park the other day. This is her favourite place on the planet. Let me describe for you what it looks like every single time we go there. First comes the whining in the car. Once we get about halfway to the dog park, she knows exactly where we’re going, and begins to articulate her feelings through a series of mournful wails and barks. Roughly translated into English, she says, “Hey! We’re going to the dog park! Right? I love the dog park! That’s where we’re going, right? To the dog park? Can we please go to the dog park? I love it there! Are we there yet? You’re not going somewhere else, are you? Cuz I love the dog park! Are we there yet? We’re not there yet! It’s coming up—do you remember the way? Straight ahead, and it’s on the right; I can smell it! Don’t turn left! I LOVE the dog park! There are dogs there! And a park! Dog park dog park dog park!” (etc.)

Upon arrival we wrestle. Imagine a kite in a windstorm. Imagine that the kite is a dog and the string is a leash and that the windstorm begins in the back of my parked car and continues until such time as I manage to land her inside the park’s gate.

Our dog park has a cleverly engineered dual gate system that allows one to unleash one’s animal inside the first gate, which is itself fully enclosed by a fence. This is brilliant, and effectively protects the dog park’s innocent patrons from Casey’s inevitable insanity upon arrival. I unclip her lead and she bolts for the next gate, nose pressed to the ground, and throws herself at it paws-first. The gate miraculously holds, and I take a moment to recompose myself before initiating the next phase: the launch.

I take a few moments to scan the area; ideally it is deserted. This ensures that my dog will not bowl over any children, jump up on any old people, or blindly run over any smaller dogs. (Yes, these things have all happened. I beg that you do not judge me. I am a good dog owner. But 5 years in with this particular dog—who has calmed down, mind you—and I remain helpless in the face of her we’re-finally-here-I-get-to-run-now insanity.) Once a safe perimeter has been established, I unhook the gate. (It is not necessary that I actually open it; her head does that.)

She shoots out of that chain link enclosure like a torpedo from  submarine. Her initial trajectory takes her about 100 metres straight into the park, before slowing slightly, looping around, and accelerating back towards her original launchpoint. Once there she sprints from exciting object (another dog, a human, a bush to sniff, etc.) to exciting object, rarely making any significant contact—strictly sniff and run. And then she’s off, racing away again at maximum speed in whatever direction compels her. In spite of my best efforts, there is usually someone around to witness all of this, and they inevitably react, depending on their temperament, with some version of “Wow!” By way of response, I typically shrug, smile and quote Bruce Springsteen. “She was born to run.”

The Boss is right (of course), and she demonstrates this fact for the rest of our time at the park. She runs and runs (and sniffs) and runs and runs (and sniffs; she was also born to sniff, but I doubt that Springsteen will write a song about that) and runs. She runs through the long grass especially, because that’s where she finds birds to flush in the summer. It’s winter now, and there are very few birds, but just the possibility is enough.

This is where Casey inspires me. I walk, and she runs, and watching her I see pure joy. She’s a pretty happy dog most of the time, but here, in her element, she reaches a whole other level of bliss. I am reminded of the words attributed to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”*

Can a dog worship God? In Isaiah 55, the mountains and hills burst into song, and the trees of the field clap their hands. As He enters Jerusalem, Jesus tells the Pharisees that even if He silenced His disciples, “the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:40) There is clearly some metaphor in play with these examples, but I think also something more than that; scripture taken as a whole (including Romans 1 and Psalms 19 & 148) suggests that all of creation attests to the glory of God. A mountain, a sunset, a starry night sky—all of these, just by virtue of their magnificence, honour their creator. A dog, then, doing what it was meant to do with joyful abandon, does likewise.

Humans, made in His image, are unique amongst creation in their ability to take it to the next level. Neither a mountain nor a dog chooses to glorify God, I don’t think. They just do what they  were made to do. We alone have the capacity to look up, and say, “Hey, maybe there’s more here than meets the eye. Look at that majestic mountain, and that crazy-fast dog. Someone made that. Wow. God!” And then, to choose to worship Him; or not. Given this singular capacity—the ability to (somewhat) comprehend, and then to chose—human worship is both a precious gift (to ourselves, and remarkably, to God Himself) and a privilege. And greater is the tragedy when we neglect, or worse, eschew it.

And, so back to my ridiculous dog. I see her do what she was born to do with such unfettered joy and I am inspired to do likewise. Some of the things I was born to do are the same as the things you were born to do; those things that we have in common as human beings made in the image of God. And some of them are part of the distinct set of passions and abilities that God wove together into the unique creation that is me (I’m doing one of those things right now, writing this).

I want to be more like Casey, launching myself into everything that I am meant to be with unbridled enthusiasm, and revelling in the joy of it. And then, because I can, taking it to that next level, and choosing to acknowledge and honour the One who makes it possible. Worship.

 

 

*“Surprisingly, this line was actually written by Colin Welland as part of his script for the film Chariots of Fire, but is widely misrepresented as having been said by Eric Liddell in real life.” http://www.ericliddell.org/ericliddell/quotations

The Secret Life of Trees

I grew up in the 70s (Explains a lot, some are thinking). They were exciting times; new ideas challenged long-held norms, beliefs and values. For instance, I recall when people started saying that it would help your plants grow if you talked to them. My mom was an immediate convert to this ideology, and it became commonplace around our home to hear my mother having heartfelt conversations with our household foliage. I would like to say that I never jumped on that bandwagon, but in the interests of full disclosure, I may have on more than one occasion bared my soul to our philodendron (philodendrons were big in the 70s)—but only when no one was looking.

Of course, many people were certain that this was all utter nonsense; hippie hooey. Others maintained that there was some scientific basis for the practice. Plants respond to sound waves, some reasoned. No, others claimed, it’s the moisture in our breath. Then of course, there were those who insisted that this was evidence that plants were fully formed sentient beings. As a kid, I didn’t know who to believe.

Well, now I’m a grown man living in the information age, and I feel like it’s time to clear all of this up. Of course plants are intelligent beings with thoughts, feelings and opinions.

Trees in particular.

How do I know this? Hey, when you’re a Robin, you get to know trees.

Let me help you understand how they think. For this purpose, I have included the following sampling of a tree’s inner monologue:

Mmmm…nice day. Sun’s shining. Hardly any clouds—but there are a few. I wonder if it‘ll rain? Or thunderstorm! (shudders) I need to find some cover! Wait, I am cover . . .  I suppose a little rain couldn’t hurt. It’ll perk up the leaves. (looks at his leaves) Yowza, I look good! I wonder if that pretty little birch over there has noticed? Pht! Yeah she has! How could she not? Look at these guns (tree slang for ‘big muscular boughs’)! And my bark? No blemishes. Smooth as a sapling’s trunk! In my case, my bark is better than my bite! (Note: silly thing to say; most trees don’t even have teeth) And is anytree more poplar than I? Clearly, I have the most birds twittering in my branches! (Yes, trees are also obsessed with social media.)

It goes on, but you get the sense of it. Trees can be very self-centered. Their focus tends to be on themselves first of all, and then after that, on their observable surroundings. Things like the weather, the flora, the fauna. Silly trees!

I suppose one shouldn’t blame them. When your head is in the sky it’s difficult to see what is happening at ground level, much less below the surface.

I was in church on Sunday, feeling pretty good about myself, being such a saintly type of person and all. And as I stood there, having some difficulty focusing on whatever it was I was supposed to be there for, distracted by my surroundings, I vaguely noticed some people with their hands raised in worship. They looked like trees.

And it hit me. I’m a tree. A tree planted by a stream who is frequently so absorbed by his life and his surroundings (the visible) that he forgets his roots (invisible). And this is all too often my way when life is good, as it is right now. In times of trouble, I call out to God like a baby wailing in the night. But when things are good, I forget. And it’s dangerous. The sun and the sky and the leaves and the birds are all great, and meant for us to enjoy. But not at the expense of the deeper things—those that go far beneath the surface and are consequently often neglected. No tree will thrive for long once disconnected from its roots.

I was thankful for church that day. It helped me remember one of the main reasons God asks us to come together and worship: it reminds us who we are.

 

 

By the way, I was interested to discover that there has been some scientific research on the whole talking to plants thing. There seems to be some evidence that plants respond to sound. But most scientists still don’t believe that they actually listen and think. Silly scientists!