Meet Mike, Steward of the Small
When Here Was Here and There Was There

Back to the Playpen

Crib "To be modern is to be torn in two. We celebrate freedom as if we can do anything we want, if we put our minds to it. At the same time, we bemoan the way our genes, our childhood, and social forces determine everything we do. When we grow bald, lose our temper, or get laid off, experts tell us that we really have no choice in the matter. Life is preordained by factors that outflank our feeble will. Yet at the same time we celebrate will power as if everything is contingent and subject to our control. The decline of providence has left us intellectually schizophrenic. We define freedom as the opposite of submission and obedience but end up feeling hardly free at all." (Stephen Webb)

By some inexplicable paradox, we are most free when we are not at liberty to do as we please. Take my son, for example. When he was a baby, his most free place was his most bounded --- first crib, then playpen, then bed, then room. By limiting his physical environment, we found his imagination grew, as blocks in the playpen became all sorts of creations, or his bed became a submarine, train, airplane --- anything he could dream. Give him free run of the house, though, and he bounced from item to item, never really focusing well enough to actually settle, captive to each new distraction. It's not unlike the experience my mother had as ac child by necessity. Having grown up in the Great Depression, she and her siblings used to play with an old tire all day. That's it! Listening to her I had the sense that they were more free and thus happier because their physical environment --- their access to toys --- had been limited, albeit by necessity and not choice.

These days, of course, kids and adults have access to most everything. We are constantly distracted by yet another web page, a new text message, a game, or a constantly changing TV screen. Unless you visit a third-world country or join a monastic order, it is difficult to limit your environment in such a way as to feel what my mother felt, to live a bounded life such that you find out who you are and what you can dream and do. Limits seem necessary in order for us to be free, as what passes as free in the world is really a bondage to our passions, an enslavement to the present. Consider if Twitter or Facebook really help make you freer, help you act more in accordance with who you really are and not who you want to appear to be. They can enslave us to expectations, whether our own or others.

The most free people I have met are generally the ones who have submitted themselves most completely to God. They may appear to us to be locked into a life of mundane hardship --- perhaps caring for an aged parent, running a health clinic in a third-world country, pastoring a small congregation --- and yet they best understand who they are and where they are headed. They may be physically bounded, by choice or necessity, but in submitting to God's purposes in it, they end up most free.

Consider author Flannery O'Connor. At a young age she found her life physically bounded due to the debilitating limitations of an illness called lupus. She was forced to abandon the literary world of New York and live with her mother on a farm in Georgia, and yet she wrote stories that wonderfully captured the nuances of human behavior, thoughtful essays exploring the connections between faith an literature, and rich correspondence that revealed an unbounded imagination and deep sense of who she was. In it all she kept her humor, describing herself in childhood as a "pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex." She was not free to do as she pleased, but she was free to be who God intended her to be.

Nor would anyone say that any of the Apostles were free in the sense moderns or post-moderns define the word. They were shipwrecked, ill, beaten, imprisoned, chased out of town, hungry and thirsty, without possessions, and ultimately martyred, and yet their Godly imaginations were free to envision God's purposes for them and the world and to live more free of earthly passions. They knew who they were and where they were going.

It's difficult, of course, to figure out how to give yourself boundaries that would permit greater freedom, and yet I know where to begin.  An open Bible.  An open heart.  Obedience.  Submission.  Limiting distractions.  And as a writer, a blank page.  Consider the possibilities of a blank page informed by an open Bible and open heart.

Maybe the road to freedom is bondage. . . to a God who knows no bounds.  Maybe we need to stop running amok in the house and get back in the playpen.