Thursday, October 20, 2011

Too Much Freedom?

Hey everyone. I know it's been a while since I've written anything, and that is why I decided to begin this post with the question: "Is there such a thing as too much freedom?" This is obviously a rhetorical query and I will address the reasons that this has come to mind.
First, I have to ask myself this very question since this blog is voluntary and I have not written in over four months! I'm free to write as often as I'd like to and offer my thoughts on whatever, whenever I am so moved. The truth is, for me anyway, I often get lazy when I don't work under strict guidelines and constraints. I've got the freedom to write...or to not write. Someone once said that if you want something done right away, give the assignment to a busy person. There is some truth to that, isn't there?
This past Spring I had the opportunity to visit some dear folks with very little freedom. Most of you know that I have served on "the inside" as a prison chaplain, so my heart is with the incarcerated. During my time in the Florida Department of Corrections I met some interesting characters. Some of them were inmates too! ;-) For me, it's difficult to invest myself into some one's life and not follow up on that investment. My chapel orderly Carlos (not his real name) is one of those people that I spent a good amount of time and energy helping him to grow in his faith-walk. I also had a family member in the same corrections system and spent some time visiting him on my trip last June.
So, here is my point. Each man that I spent significant time with during my visit has chosen to use whatever freedom they have in their own way. Carlos, a committed (bad pun) Christian, is using his thirty years in prison to teach other male inmates about his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. During my visit I discovered that he is still living a life-behind-bars that is consistent with his faith. I was encouraged. He has taken the minuscule amount of freedom that he still has and uses it wisely. I commend him for that.
On the other hand, my relative has chosen to use his limited freedom to survive in any way that he possibly can, even if that means breaking the rules. He has paid the price dearly for his choices.
Both have freedoms (as do I) when it comes to making decisions, and though mine is substantially more, I believe that Carlos is using his more wisely than I am.
So, do I believe that I have too much freedom? Not at all. But I do have a greater responsibility to use mine more fruitfully and be careful not to take it for granted.
How about you? Are you using your freedoms responsibly? Do you take them for granted? Just checking. I know my recent visit behind bars has made me much more aware of how I use mine.
Until next time. God bless you,

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Freedom Over Fear

It seems to me that so much of our lives can be consumed with fear. The obvious problem with this is that it is impossible to be both afraid and free at the same time! Fears freeze us. As a matter of fact I have heard (and seen) that extreme fears can actually freeze us to the point of clinical depression. I tend to believe that as I have seen lives frozen to the point of depression with those who have been very close to me. We can allow any emotion to control us, and fear is no exception. The problem with attempting to overcome our fears is that they are based on reality, both real and perceived.
After the attacks on September 11th, as a nation our fear level was heightened. As a matter of fact there were then certain colors assigned to our national security, which either calmed or intensified our fears, depending on each person's perspective. Even with the death of Usama Bin Laden, our security fears are not alleviated. So, what's my point here?
My point is this: fears do not have to rule us, nor should they usurp our freedom. One of my favorite movies is  Ghost Rider. I know, I know, it's strange. Near the end of this movie when Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) confronts the devil, he says this: "You can't live in fear!" Johnny Blaze spoke the truth! You see, fears are natural, but we cannot let them become our life, our very existence. Hence, we cannot live in fear. Jesus said in John 10:10 "I have come that they may have life, and have it with abundance." The original word here in Greek is zoe and it means a real, full life. So, between Johnny Blaze and Jesus' Word (which of course has real authority) I think we can see that we can make choices that will help us to live real life. We have to make a conscious choice that we will not allow anything in our circumstances rule us. Fear is circumstantial. Freedom comes from living above our circumstances. For me that means trusting God when He says: Fear Not!! And when He tells me that His perfect love for me will drive any fear away. So, as I adjust my thoughts and change my mind, I realize that I do not have to be controlled by my fears.
This is just a start and I know often it is much more complicated than this. But, take a bite, chew on it for a while and see how tasty this freedom from fear can be.
Until next time. God bless you,

Friday, March 25, 2011

Freedom To Be Yourself!

I checked my last entry and discovered that it has been a month since I wrote anything!! How could that happen. When I was a kid and everyone else was older than me (even the thirteen-year-olds), the really old people would sometimes talk about how time had just flown by. Guess what? I'm much older, but not yet ready to declare myself one of the really old people, and time really does fly by!!
Last night I was at a fund-raising banquet for one of the ministries that are dear to my heart: Prison Prevention Ministries, which is right here in the Chattanooga area. To those of you that know me, the reason ought to be obvious. But for the rest, I am an active volunteer in a few prison ministries and cannot seem to stay out of confinement. Well, at as a volunteer anyway. PPM offers two vital areas of prevention. One is on the youth side where they take at-risk young people on prison tours. The event usually is reported to be "life-changing" by the youth involved. We heard many testimonies to that effect last night. The ministry then follows up with visits and mentoring. That's the key, I believe. The other prevention tool is where I come in. Several volunteers get inside the area prisons and teach the inmates Bible seminars in hopes of having a positive impact on their lives and thereby preventing them from returning upon their release. Got it? Okay.
So, last night at my table, sat a young man and his younger sister. I told them my name and his first question was: "Do you have a relationship with Jesus?" Thankfully I was able to answer in the positive and the three of us began talking. Apprarently this young man and his sister had been on separate prison tours with PPM and were positively impacted by their experience. It was delightful to listen to their life changes and I soon discovered that this eighteen-year-old youth was so impressed with his prison tour that his life goal was to become a prison chaplain! Imagine my excitement as I shared my experience in that ministry.
So, my point? At an early age this youth discovered that he was going to do something that would change his life and the lives of so many others, without any concern about what others thought. With his faith in God at such an early age, he was realizing that he was free to be himself. Wow, would that I was so confident and bold as a senior in high school! I told him about this blog and after asking me about Facebook, I told him to look me up so I could be there to give him some encouragement.
Encounters like this cause me to look at my life and ask some tough questions. The most prominent being: Am I free to be myself? For me, it has taken many years to come close to sensing that freedom. It reminds me of a line in that great Gospel hymn Amazing Grace, that goes like this: "Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come..." The struggles and trials that I have endured as a man of faith have taught me to be free to be the man God wants me to be. I often tell the guys in prison that it's like walking in faith and watching the pieces of the "old man" fall off as God wants to create a "new man" in you. Sometimes it's painful, but we must resist the temptation to turn back around and retrieve those old-man pieces.
So, am I free to be myself? I'm getting there, slowly, but surely. How about you? Are you free? Are you moving in that direction? I really hope so.
Until next time.
God bless you,

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Freedom, Freedom, Freedom!!

Okay, with a blog called Finding Real Freedom how can I not address the cries for such freedom that are so evident today. In Egypt, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen and even Wisconsin, people are crying out for the right to have a say in their own destinies. While I'll admit the situation in Wisconsin is not life or death, the others are. Everyone, regardless of their heritage or station in life wants to be able to choose. The oppressed in the Middle East are choosing to put their lives on the line for real freedom. I could not imagine living under those conditions and I don't know why God chose to plant me here in the freest nation on earth. When I hit my teen years this country was in the throes of a revolution: Kent State, Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, the Chicago Democratic Convention Riots and of course the Civil Rights Movement. While I was experiencing my own personal growing pains the United States of America was too! I guess you could say that "our corporate hormones" were expressing themselves! But seriously...There is an incredible need for folks to have the freedom to make choices. We have those freedoms guaranteed by our U.S. Constitution. Norman Rockwell chose to express himself through the arts. His work titled The Four Freedoms are American classics. While I don't claim to be a Rockwell, I chose to express myself through the written word. There are scores of nations in our world that do not have that same right. Most of the aforementioned represent them well. So, my question for this day is: Why does humanity desire freedom? At the risk of sounding trite, I believe the answer is simply that we were designed to live free. What other explanation makes any sense when you watch men and women willing to die for it? There is even a willingness to sacrifice one's own life for the freedom of future generations. Right now people are protesting the oppressive regime in Syria and dying by the hundreds. That depth of commitment, no, sacrifice is a more accurate term, can only be explained by an internal drive or calling.
The biblical account of the creation and subsequent fall in Genesis 1-3 is chock full of evidence that we were created with the ability and desire to choose for ourselves. It turns out that it is a blessing and a curse. As we all know that our (my) choices are not always the healthiest. Early in my Christian walk I struggled with why God would create us with the ability to choose knowing that we would make wrong choices. One of my first pastors explained to me that God loved us so much that He chose to create us with the ability to chose even though He knew we would ultimately reject His ways. His choice was motivated by love. I like that.
So, why do we desire freedom so much? Well, because it's in our design placed there intentionally by the great Designer: God. It's in our hands what we decide to do with this great freedom.
Until next time. God bless you,

Friday, January 28, 2011

Finding Freedom in Loss?

I recently had to surrender my five-month-old German Shepherd puppy.You see he had turned on our other, smaller puppy and attacked him viciously. Needless to say it was a difficult decision to come to, and a painful process involving several days.  Those of you who are animal lovers will understand. Others, please bear with us. In my pet owning history I have had three pure-bred GSDs (German Shepherd Dogs). Each one was a beautiful animal that I had to say good-bye to. It is its own particular grief. The first, was an abused and abandoned puppy that was left in our neighborhood in Marietta, GA. I met him, we became attached, and I took him into our home. I was unaware that he had a fatal disease called "parvo." In just three weeks time that sickness overtook him and I had to make the terrible decision to have him put down. What amazed me was how quickly I became attached to this little guy. I handled my loss. A couple of years later I was ready to purchase another pure-bred GSD. I did my research and found the most amazing female and named her Reagan. She was my dog and I was the big dog! Going through my divorce five years later I realized that I had to give her up. Once again, a difficult decision, but necessary. Fortunately there was a friend of the family with a lot of property that loved GSDs. I said my good-byes and handled my loss.
After this last experience I have decided that I have reached my limit of owning, training, loving and saying my good-byes to GSDs. But, just like every other loss that I have faced, this has become a time of learning and reflection for me. One of my discoveries about loss and grief is that the newest loss acts like a kind of sonar and sends a signal to my prior losses. That "ping" resounds off the past losses and returns with renewed strength. In my case my grief over losing my puppy called back all of the relational losses I experienced through my divorce of nearly ten years ago. It kind of reminds me of a phrase in the Bible in Psalm 42:7
     "Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls;
     All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me."
If I (we are) am not careful this can be overwhelming. Grief calls up past grief, does it not? Every one of us has experienced some kind of loss. And the more significant the loss, the more depth to the grief.
Okay, you say, this is all well and good Vinny, but how can you say that there is freedom in loss? The answer is that I simply posed the question. But I do believe that there is freedom when we handle the loss in a healthy manner...since grief is a fact of life. Early on in my education I learned from a wise woman named Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She identified five stages of grief that hold up pretty well many
decades later. They are:
1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression and
5. Acceptance.

Now, their order is interchangible and it is not written in stone that everyone will experience each one all the time. But they are an effective guideline for recognizing the need to move through your grief in a healthy manner. The trouble with human beings is that we do not always follow the proper order of things! That  ping of the sonar can recall, not only the memory, but the emotion as well. It did with me with my recent loss. The grief over my damaged relationships with my adult children came echoing back amplifying the lesser loss of my puppy. I recognized it, verbalized it (to my wife), and I am thereby able to keep it in perspective.
What also helps is the reality that all personal loss is not all bad! My first GSD was relieved from his misery. The second gained a huge piece of property to run on and after stressing over the placement of my puppy last week, my veterinarian found an older disabled gentleman who had been looking for a GSD for companionship and assistance.
In the greater losses I am still awaiting reconciliation and personally trusting God that He will make it happen.
So, we are still begging the question: Can there be freedom in loss? I believe the answer is yes. Freedom can come when we face the loss squarely, admitting its effect on us, express its depth to a trusted person, recognize the positive aspects of that particular loss and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our life is still worth living.
My challenge to you is to find the "freedom" in your losses.
Until next time, God bless you.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Freedom in Simplicity

Richard Foster wrote two incredible books that included the topic of simplicity. The first was "Celebration of Discipline" written over 25 years ago, and the second was an expansion of one of
the chapters in that book called "Freedom of Simplicity." While in seminary I had the privilege of hearing him speak on each topic and I was moved. Well, as a graduate student I was living pretty simply anyway, so it wasn't hard to find all kinds of agreement with Mr. Foster.
Over 25 years have passed for me and although I still agree with many of the principles in his book, I have found it difficult to embrace. Why? Simply because I like things! There, I said it! After
all, how can anyone live in this advanced culture that offers such wealth and not be materialistic? Yes, there are some who choose to live very simply, with the most recognizable being the Amish. Sorry, that's not my upbringing. I've known some that think that living in such a way is in and of itself a form of spirituality. It might be. I have even heard that there are some (a few) who voluntarily give up their means and choose life on the streets. And, what about monks and nuns? They have taken vows along those lines. I certainly admire Mother Teresa and have defended her incredible work and sacrifices publicly.
But, all that being said, how can the average American in the twenty-first century live a simpler life without giving everything away pitching a tent in the woods? Which, by the way, may not even be legal in some states.
Well, here is my point: There is freedom in simplicity. Even in the wealthiest nation on earth a person can choose to live a simpler lifestyle. We have it all available to us, but that does not mean that we should strive to own it all! Our pastor is currently taking us through a study along these lines on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. I've heard much of the teaching before, but like so many other subjects, was not ready to really embrace it. But now, especially in these trying and uncertain times it's a wise person who at least entertains some new ideas on simpler living. Tips like:
     >Limiting indebtedness as much as possible,
     >Don't buy impulsively,
     >Save something for a rainy day and
     >Give some away.
I guess the reason why I believe this is becoming a more critical issue in the state of our economy. When there is uncertainty, it's wise to be prudent. Right? My wife and I are committed to the above principles, including the giving away part. We give to our church, other ministries and non-profits as we are led by God.
There IS freedom in living more simply. For us, it frees us from worry about tomorrow. Many marriages stress to the point of breaking apart as a result of financial problems. I am currently on unemployment and my wife is working. We have had to trim some things and it's all right. We're committed to limiting debt, not buying impulsively, saving some and giving some away.
There is great freedom in committing to a simpler lifestyle. It can be done...and it will
free your mind.
Find Real Freedom!