Limits and Freedom

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A funny thing happened to me during Lent this year. I learned that freedom comes from limits.

Giving things up for Lent was supposed to be about depriving myself. I was doing it not to impress God, but to remember that Christ fasted for forty days in the desert. He overcame temptation. He suffered, because he loves you and me. So I gave up two things that I knew I would miss. Deserts and non-work related use of the internet. Why? Not because these things are evil, but because I have a sweet tooth and I’m a hopeless information junkie. I knew I would feel it and I did.

It was rough for the first couple of days. I didn’t know how to sit still after dinner. My computer called out to ease my boredom, but was too competitive to give in.  Besides, my daughter was taunting me, “you’re not going to let Jesus down are you?”  The rest of my family insisted on going on a baking spree, for all forty days of Lent. Smells of cakes and chocolate chip cookies wafted through the house. It nearly drove me crazy.

So I counted down the days until Easter, which had become for me more than a celebration of the resurrection, it was about getting out of jail. But when the day came something funny happen. The internet and deserts just didn’t do it for me anymore. A changed occurred during those forty days that I hadn’t noticed until it was over. I was calmer. I had more time. I wasn’t stressed at the state of American politics. I was enjoying my kids more. I was enjoying a spurt of creativity. I still liked chocolate, but it didn’t own me like before. Out of my self-imposed limits had come a surprising freedom.

We used to think freedom was a life without limits. But I’m beginning to believe that freedom is impossible without limits. Remember the blizzard of ’78 (for those of you who are old enough)? Who of us doesn’t look fondly to the days we were without power? We got outside. We met our neighbors. We built snow forts with our families. We don’t lament the loss of the TV. Those were days of freedom made possible by the limits of going without power.

Then I think about my children. The prevailing wisdom for parents lately is driven primarily by fear. It goes something like this: “The world is a cutthroat place, if you don’t give your child every opportunity and experience, they will get left behind.” Or how about its cousin, “if you don’t fill their lives with activity, they’ll get into trouble.” This drives us all and what happens? We become slaves to our schedules. We eat fast-food meals in our cars as we race to after-school activities, sporting events and dance classes. Are these things evil? Absolutely not, but without limits, it stops feeling like freedom. It begins to feel like slavery.

What about technology?  Television, internet, game systems and social media are evil in themselves, but without limits, we become slaves to our machines and our creativity becomes dulled. Growing up I spent prodigious amounts of time playing outside. Sports leagues were limited to one baseball season with games on Saturday (some of us could have used the direction), but we became creative within the economic limits that we lived with. It gave us the freedom to invent games like stickball (until neighbors’ windows got broken), wall ball, skullsies (a game with bottle-caps played on blacktop), kill the carrier (it was as violent as it sounds) and running bases. Limits didn’t deprive us, they became a door to creative freedom.

It is harder today, because so much more is available: technology, sports and education. It is so hard to say no, so we tend to say yes to everything. But I’ve been learning as a father that when you say ‘yes’ to the good things, it becomes impossible to say ‘yes’ to the most important things. Without limits, the freedom to simply be a family and enjoy each other begins to erode. Eternal things like the gospel and the hope of heaven are crowded out. Suddenly, your children are ready to leave home and you wonder where the time went.

What limits are you willing to try in order to cultivate creative freedom in your children and to create the space for the most important eternal things? What have you tried? Share them with us and post a comment to this blog. I need ideas and I’d love to hear from you.

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Celebrating Lent with your Family

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Unlike most people in our church, I did not grow up Catholic so Lent was an unknown to me until I became an adult. For those of you who did, you might remember the traditions of eating fish on Fridays or giving up something for Lent like chocolate, or television (God forbid), or your smart-alec brother who declared that he was going to give up homework. Not many parents in an evangelical church like ours give serious thought to celebrating Lent, but that is exactly what I would like you to consider.

Contrary to some of our experiences, Lent is not a “works thing”, an attempt to win God’s favor by offering him a sacrifice. You know, if you give up chocolate then God will cause your kids to behave. If you make the supreme sacrifice and give up Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or gasp, the Red Sox, well you can expect God to provide with the funds to go on that cruise you always wanted to.  If that was what Lent was about, I wouldn’t want to celebrate it either.

Lent, at its heart, is about what Christ has done.  It is not about what we do. Immediately after Jesus was baptized, the gospels tell us that he as driven out into the desert where he fasted and was tempted by Satan for forty days. For this reason, Lent runs for forty days beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Good Friday and Easter. The season of Lent was created to remind us of what Jesus did for us during those forty days.

He entered the desert. He went without food. He was tempted by Satan. He overcame that temptation and he did it for us.  That is the essence of Lent. And it is a part of the gospel we often forget. We remember the fact that Jesus died for our sin.  He bore our punishment so that we might be forgiven. But that is only half of the gospel. A fuller understanding of the gospel is something like this:

  • Jesus died the death that I should have died so that I might live.
  • Jesus lived the life that I should have lived, but didn’t, so that I might receive the blessings of God he earned for me.

When we remember this, Lent takes on a whole new meaning. We give stuff up for Lent, not to impress God, but to remind ourselves of all that Jesus gave up for us. When I give up something I crave, I remember the hunger pains that Jesus experienced in the desert as he resisted Satan’s temptations for me.

So with this new understanding in mind, think about how you could incorporate these simple Lenten traditions in the life of your family.

Giving up and Taking on

Robert Webber in his book, Ancient-Future Time, makes the point that Lent was never solely about giving something up, it was giving something up in order to take on something important. It is about simplifying in order to create room for us to connect to God and to love our neighbor. That’s why for thousands of years, the church encouraged its members to fast (give something up), pray AND give to the poor (take on something good).

Fasting

Encourage each person in your family to give up something significant for the season of Lent. It could be something that costs you money (deserts, McDonald’s, Chuck-E-Cheese, coffee) or time (video games, Facebook, television, sports watching).  Remind your family that we don’t do this to get God’s love, rather it reminds us of the love that drove Jesus to give up food for forty days and the temptation he overcame for our sakes.

Prayer and giving to the poor

As was said before, Lent is not simply about giving up something, it is giving up in order to create space to take on something good. As your family gives up significant things during Lent, there will be time freed up and money that will be saved. Ask your children to find a local charity or a needy family that you could contribute time and money to.

There are a lot of great local option. Here are a few: A Woman’s Concern, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, the Tolupan Project, the Branch Community Supper (Soup Kitchen in Fall River – see the deacons).  If you have a great local charity share it with us by posting a comment.

Sharing your ideas

Do you have any ideas for families that you would like to share? Post a comment. We’d love to hear from you.