Let me invite you to think back over the years, of all the experiences you’ve had watching fireworks. If you’re like me, you’ll have some very fond memories. As a kid, we used to sit on our front porch in Riverside and watch them go off from the top of Mount Rubidoux. When our daughter Sarah was three, she saw her first fireworks at the Heath Fair in Massachusetts. The noise scared her so much I had to huddle with her in the car until it was over. In Geneseo, we lay on the grass at Richmond Hill Park and watched them go off directly overhead. In Maine, we saw several displays out over Camden Harbor. One year we also went to the display in Thomaston. There was a low cloud cover, so every time a rocket went off, it would shoot up into the clouds, and then there would be a brief bright spot above us. People were really mad, but I thought it was hysterical.
I remember reading a New York Times article one year, which talked about how sophisticated and expensive firework displays have become. Modern displays are all controlled with computers. They can be coordinated with theme music broadcast on local radio stations. I’m sure they are a lot more expensive now, but at the time, they said the costs began around $5000 and could easily climb to $100,000 or more for programs that include some 20,000 individual shells, each one made by hand. It takes months to prepare for a show that lasts a few minutes. Part of me has always marveled at the extravagance of 4thof July fireworks, but I oooh and aaah right along with everyone else. I can hardly imagine celebrating Independence Day without fireworks. They have come to be such a powerful symbol of our love for freedom.
And we do love our freedom. There are few things in life that inspire us so much. When Martin Luther King said he had a dream in which all people would be free, he moved the entire nation. Not just because he was a powerful speaker. We were moved because his words tapped into a wellspring of desire that we all feel. If we were to somehow remove the whole idea of freedom from what we experienced in the sixties, there would be no way to even understand the upheaval our country went through. In one way or another it was all about freedom. I think of all the music we used to listen to. “Come and sing a simple song of freedom…” And then there was, “Freedom, keep walkin’, keep on your toes and don’t stop talkin’ ‘bout freedom…” And the ever popular, “Oh freedom. Oh freedom. Oh freedom over me. And before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home and live with God and be free.” All you have to do is say the word freedom and people start getting all nostalgic.
But much as we might want to think otherwise, baby boomers actually did not invent the idea. Freedom resonates in all of us. I’ve had many conversations with people who fought in the World Wars. They all seem to be pretty clear that they were fighting to protect our freedom, which in fact they were. All our wars since then have been fought largely by people who believed they are doing their part to protect our freedom, which in fact they were. Even our youngest schoolchildren know that America is “the land of the free,” and I think they understand what that means more than we sometimes realize. One time I was waiting to pick my children up from grade school in Illinois. The bell rang and two little boys, they couldn’t have been more than six, came bursting out of the front door. They charged across the playground shouting, “FREE!!! FREE!!!” And I thought to myself, well isn’t that nice. They’ve been learning about American history. (Laughter) Clearly, they were too young to know much about American history. But they sure as heck knew what freedom felt like.
Of course, freedom, like a lot of things, has a paradoxical side. In this life, absolute freedom is an illusion. All freedom is conditional. All freedom has strings attached. A man named Martin Buxbaum once said. “Freedom is being free to do whatever you please without considering anyone – except your wife, your boss, the police, your life insurance company, your doctor, your airline, federal and state authorities, and your neighbors.” If I’d been the one writing up that list I would have also included my dog as well.
There’s a lot of truth there. For years I wanted to be free to play the guitar, but I never really cared much for practice. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t possible to be both free to play and free from practicing. The two don’t fit together terribly well. If we value the freedom of strong healthy bodies we are bound to exercise and eat well. If we chase after the freedom of wealth and the things that money can buy, we easily become bound up in possessions. If we want the freedom to live in a country that is safe, we must agree to be bound to laws and systems that restrict our privacy and independence. For every freedom we can name, there is a corresponding bondage. Is that a bad thing? No, it’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way it is. Limitations are built into the nature of human life. The paradox of freedom is that we can only be truly free when we come to terms with the fact that we have certain limitations.
One of my favorite illustrations about freedom comes from a time when my family was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard Island. We were flying kites in a park in Oak Bluffs. Corinne was holding on to the string of a kite that was dancing in a stiff wind about a hundred yards up in the air. Then the ball of string slipped out of her hand. I started to jog off after it, and then I began to run, and then to sprint. But I quickly realized that even at my top speed I wasn’t going to catch up to that kite string. I watched as the ball raced across the park, then zipped up and over a telephone wire and out into the Atlantic Ocean. The kite, meanwhile, enjoyed what must have been the greatest freedom of its life, right before it sank beneath the waves. As much as we may long to be free of all limitations, sometimes we are only free when we are anchored to the ground.
On the other hand, there is a wonderful story about Harry Houdini, the famed magician and escape artist. He used to issue a challenge wherever he went. He could be locked in any jail cell in the country, he claimed, and set himself free in short order. Usually he kept his promise, but one time something went wrong. Houdini entered the jail cell in his street clothes. The heavy, metal doors clanged shut behind him. He took from his belt a concealed piece of metal, strong and flexible, and set to work. But something was unusual about this lock. For thirty minutes he worked and got nowhere. An hour passed, and still he had not opened the door. He was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but he couldn’t pick the lock. Finally, after laboring for two hours, Houdini collapsed in frustration and failure against the door … and it swung open! It had never been locked in the first place! But in his mind, it was locked, and that was all it took to keep him from opening the door and walking out of jail.
Ever had that experience? I think it’s more common than we realize. There are a lot of things in our lives that keep us bound up; the false assumptions we make about what is and is not true, the false expectations we have about what should and should not be. We can easily spend our lives failing to open the doors of our own jail cells simply because we believe they are locked, and so never bother to check. Kahlil Gibran once said, “You shall be free, not when your days are without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.” Are we bound or are we free? The answer is –– Yes! We are, both bound and free. Our greatest freedom is not the ability to live without limits. Our greatest freedom is the ability to choose that to which we will be bound.
Now there’s a curious paradox. We do not have a right, we do not have the ability, to be unconditionally free. But we do have the right and the ability to freely choose that to which we will be in bondage. And in making that choice, we have what seem to be a tremendous number of options. We can be servants of art, science, philosophy, lottery tickets, television or horse racing. We can serve the interests of generosity and peace, or road rage and hate crimes. We can bind ourselves to laughter and wonder or embrace our own misery and victimhood. We can be boy scouts, feminists, libertarians, and pet owners, or we can be Nazi’s, fascists and terrorists. The list is endless, and the choice is free. But make no mistake. Whatever we may choose to identify ourselves with, each and every choice carries its own set of limitations. Each is, in a sense, a form of bondage. And we can’t get out of all this by not choosing either. As the old saying goes, “Not to decide is to decide.”
The truth is though, some forms of bondage affirm the value of who we are, and some do not. Some embrace the goodness of life, and some do not. Some expand our horizons, and some do not. If we use our freedom of choice to bind ourselves to programs, behaviors, and beliefs that are unhealthy and diminishing of human life, then not only will we be bound, we will also ultimately be destroyed. We cannot bind ourselves to hatred, anger, intolerance and chaos without our very souls becoming saturated by the darkness they bring. However, if we become servants of things that affirm goodness and wholeness –– love and grace, peace and self-sacrifice –– then our bondage will ultimately become our liberation.
This is what the apostle Paul was talking about. “Am I not free?” he asks. “Yes!” he answers. “I am. Free of the law. Free of my former ideas about what it means to be faithful. Free to be supported in my ministry, financially, by the contributions of those whom I have brought to Christ. And do I make use of that freedom? No, I do not. And why not? Because I am not free. Because I am bound in Christ to preach the gospel. I am bound in Christ to make the words of life and salvation freely available to all, so that they might also have the option to freely choose to become bound to Christ. An obligation has been laid upon me by my freely choosing to give my freedom into God’s hands. I offer the gospel to all, free of charge, because this is the bondage which embodies my greatest freedom. That is a beautiful expression of the paradox of freedom.
This is, also, the freedom in which Jesus lived; the freedom of bondage to the Spirit of God. We are invited to embrace that same bondage. We may not like the idea of being a servant, even to God, but the simple fact is that if we are not bound to God, then we are most assuredly bound to something less than God: something less than love, less than mercy, less than grace, something less than the fullness of the humanity we have been given. “You shall be free, not when your days are without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.” My friends, there is no such thing as absolute freedom in human life. There is only the freedom to choose that to which we will be in bondage.
I’d like to close with one last story. It comes from Mark Reed of Camarillo, CA. “Eating lunch at a small café, I saw a sparrow hop through the open door and peck at the crumbs near my table. When the crumbs were gone, the sparrow hopped to the window ledge, spread its wings, and took flight. Brief flight. It crashed against the window pane and fell to the floor. The bird quickly recovered and tried again. Crash. And again. Crash. I got up and attempted to shoo the sparrow out the door, but the closer I got the harder it threw itself against the pane. I nudged it with my hand. That sent the sparrow fluttering along the ledge, hammering its beak at the glass. Finally, I reached out and gently caught the bird, folding my fingers around its wings and body. It weighed almost nothing. I thought of how powerless and vulnerable the sparrow must have felt. At the door I released it, and the sparrow sailed away. And as it did, I thought to myself, just as I have done with the sparrow, God takes us captive only to set us free.