We Have Not Come Here to Take Prisoners

“We Have Not Come Here to Take Prisoners” by Hafiz
We have not come here to take prisoners
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
to hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear,
From anything
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings,
Run like hell, my dear,
From anyone likely to put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience of our house
And shout to our reason
“Oh please, oh please
come out and play.”
For we have not come here to take prisoners,
Or to confine our wondrous spirits
But to experience ever and ever more deeply
our divine courage, freedom, and Light!

Sermon – “We Have Not Come Here to Take Prisoners” 
I was 22, nursing a broken heart, and I knew for sure, I had to get out of town.

I had just bought my first car, a little blue Honda civic,hoping to break free from the constraints of the Boulder bus system, robust as I now realize it is.

Any of you who have stood in the snow waiting for a bus that is behind schedule, and watched person after person pass from the warmth and safety of their cars – you know just what I mean.   Owning a car after not having one – now there is a story of liberation.

In any case, the source of my broken heart was multiple – my grandfather – who I had grown up close to – had just died, and my father was wandering around calling himself an orphan with a kind of bitterness profoundly uncharacteristic for the eternal optimist we had known him as, none of us knew how to respond.  Meanwhile, an intimate relationship I had come to Boulder pursuing was reaching an end, as I watched her falling in love with someone new.  And then a dear friend back in the northwest was struggling with depression and I saw him descending into despair, and I felt so helpless, and stuck.

Most of all, I was lonely, and trying to grow up, trying to find my place in this world.

Up until that point in my life, I had set foot in precisely four other states outside of my home state of Washington – Oregon, California,Hawaii and my new state of Colorado- as well as the bit of Canada that was 17 miles from my hometown. We weren’t the kind of family that went on road trips,or vacations at all for that matter.   And so when I started to map out where I would go- to get out of town – regardless of the direction I took, it was a given that it would put me into unknown, unexplored territory.

I decided I would go visit my best friend who was at the time studying acting at the Old Globe in San Diego, with a route that would take me across western Colorado, into southern Utah, and then Nevada, through the desert of Southern California.  I know, it’s no backpacking trip around Europe, or yoga intensive in India – but for me, the path I set felt radical, terrifying, and liberating.

Liberation hit me most fully in fact, about 6 hours into the journey, in southern Utah, just a bit northwest of Moab.  Outside my car windows, in every direction, was terrain I had never even imagined existed – topography so distant from the rain forests and inland beaches of my growing up, even so different than the flatirons of the Rockies I had more recently discovered.  Layers of red rocks, arches, dry desert air, trees and plants sparse if at all, mostly this grass that swayed in the breeze, these winding rivers cutting a path through the rock, the sky so big and luxurious.

The beauty so overwhelmed me, I had to pull over.

It was before smart phones – there was no posting to say”look at this with me!”, no connecting immediately with people I knew to say “I am here.”

I felt alone and small. And yet at the same time, powerful and capable and profoundly connected to everything and everyone past, present, future.  The wind hit my hair, everything felt possible.  The sun was about to set, and its colors went everywhere, and I stood between its light and its shadow, and I could feel my heart starting to re-group. I felt grateful, and free.

What are your moments in your life of such liberation?

What stories do you have where you have felt released?

When have you surrendered yourself deeply and fully to joy?

What did the experience feel like in your body?

And what do those moments tell you about what it means to be free?

Free. Liberated.  We use these words so much in our culture and in our religious tradition – but what do we really mean when we describe someone – ourselves as free? What are we saying we value when we talk about liberation?

And just as importantly, what is it that we are being made free from? What are those things that keep us metaphorically or sometimes literally imprisoned?

Over the past week, I asked friends on Facebook to tell me about their moments of liberation and I got a list of responses.  They shared stories of being made free from debt, being released from self-limiting beliefs, freed from fear, or from the “shoulds” of life, freed from pleasing other people; they told me about being liberated from past religious beliefs,from the limbo of experiencing physical symptoms by finally receiving an official diagnoses, from eating disorders, from societal pressures to look or dress a certain way, and for that matter, and there was a chorus of voices rejoicing at being liberated at the end of each day from restrictive clothing many of us wear…

Here in this room, I bet we have a whole list of other things we have been liberated from, or wish we could be liberated from:

Addiction, depression, rage, unemployment, unhealthy or broken relationships, shame, domestic violence, prejudice both personal and systemic;fear, past trauma, ignorance, pride- or, self-doubt, selfishness – or selflessness, poverty, perfectionism….the list could go on and on.

For many of us, discovering Unitarian Universalism at all could be described as a moment of liberation. Made free from ill-fitting dogmatic and creedal requirements, we arrive in this covenantal faith and savor every moment of that free and responsible search for truth and meaning affirmed by our 4th principle.

In my story, standing there on the edge of a red rock canyon and beneath the limitless sky, I felt myself becoming free from bitterness,released from disappointment, liberated from grief.

These are the prisons of our spirits, the prisons of our lives,and the spiritual path invites us to a lifelong journey of liberation, to be made free from all things which would separate us from our truest selves, from one another, from the great spirit of life which connects us all.

I say lifelong journey for two main reasons – first, because many things are not easily overcome. Sometimes they take whole lifetimes, and even that is not always long enough. Some prisons we’llgo to our grave attempting to escape, and then still leave them behind for others to take on on our behalf. We inherit dreams from our ancestors, and we inherit their burdens too,their shackles they could not find a way out of.

And this path is lifelong secondly, because new things arrive to block the way to freedom as we walk this path of life.  Get one prison behind you, and it never fails – a new one appears.

Our job then, as a religious community, is to help each other discover these oppressive things, to help each other name them as forces keeping us from experiencing freedom, and then to help each other create and then actually follow a path of liberation. We are – in so many ways – each other’s saviors.

But let’s step back for a moment.  I just said that this is the work of a lifetime.  I said that sometimes we don’t even know that we are enslaved, that we need help to see oppressive forces around us, that sometimes you can try all your life and still not be free.  Given all this – we have to wonder why anyone would take on such a task. What makes liberation a worthy pursuit? What makes freedom matter?

Or to say it another way – regardless of what we are being made free from, what are we made free for?

Although we could come up with a long list of things we imagine we could be freed from – in our culture we often boil down our answer about what we are freed for to something pretty singular: individual self-determination.  We are free for personal, individualized choice.

As religious scholar Lou Ann Trost says in her article,”Re-Thinking Freedom,” these unified notions of freedom have been shaped by the Enlightenment, which reduced freedom to mean the capacity for self-direction.  She says, “the culturally popular notion of freedom is the idea of an autonomous self having the space to make decisions or choices” (253).

The freer you are relates directly to how much you are able to act according to your own will, your own desires. That’s the kind of freedom all those sonic booms and blinding blasts were about a few days ago –  celebrating the moment nearly 250 years ago when we were made free, which is to say – independent.

Many of our stories of liberation are told this way.  Individuals who have been restricted from being themselves, from acting according to their own will – are liberated into self-determination.  The civil rights movement is often told as a story of self-determination.  Queer liberation too.  Individuals are freed from being told how to be and think and feel and then individuals are freed for acting,thinking and feeling for themselves.

And yet, if liberation is only a matter of allowing each of us to act according to our own individualized will, only to enable greater personal choice – then taken to ultimate expression – imagine it.  How isolated we must imagine ourselves to be to be so “free.” How lonely such a world would be. How unsustainable.

When I go back into my own story – the one I shared earlier – I know that a component of the freedom I experienced related with a sense of personal choice.  But that was a small part of what I was really made free for.  More than that, I was made free for new relationships, for new love.  I was released from my past and liberated into a new future. And that future was not “free” because I was independent, but because I could openly – freely – receive it as it unfolded before me.

Returning to our scholar for a moment – Trost goes on in her article to argue that we’d be better served to add to our Enlightenment-based understanding of freedom by considering freedom also as related to our capacity to continue, to flourish – to freely engage our future.  Liberation then becomes not just about individual choice, but about creative capacity, about resilience, and about depth of resources.  Which is to say – liberation is less about any one of us individually, and more about who we are together.

Let’s bring this back to real life.  To our own stories of liberation.  Those moments when we have felt free, or those things in our lives lives where right now we would like to be freed from.

Perhaps, let’s just take 30 seconds or so and think about these things – past or present, these experiences or desires for liberation.  And as you let them come into your mind, consider, what is it that you are being made free for?

(SILENCE)

Would any brave souls like to share a word or phrase that describes what they are being made free for?

I would guess that all of us have some element of individual autonomy mixed in with our answer.

But I also would guess that all of us have some notion of relationship or commitment in our response as well.

Returning to the stories I collected on Facebook, friends shared that they were made free for living according to their commitments and to their values, liberated into a greater intimacy with friends in a shared vulnerability, released into a deeper love for this world in all its challenge and possibility.

It is perhaps a great irony that we are liberated simply so that we can tie ourselves down more fully in our most deeply held commitments.

While we may release ourselves from one kind of prison, if we wish to surrender more fully into freedom and joy, we must bind ourselves in other ways.  Bind ourselves in relationship, bind ourselves to our values, bind ourselves to a people, to a hope, to a vision of the world and its future we give ourselves in partnership to create.

This paradox of liberation as both personal autonomy and deepened commitments rests behind the words inscribed on my ordination stole -those offered by Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s oft-quoted assessment of human beings – that we are “promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creatures.” Human life is given its fullest expression in the tension between our need to satisfy our individual self-expression, and the acknowledgment that we are meant to be free for something more than ourselves.

We often describe Unitarian Universalism as a free faith, which we usually take as an indicator of our personal autonomy.  Understanding liberation as both personal autonomy and future flourishing allows us to better integrate that we are not simply a free faith, but also a covenantal faith.

The word covenant means “coming together,” or”bind.”  In its most sacred meaning, its intent is to bind people in relationship across lifetimes,regardless of what may come.  We all experience covenantal relationships – regardless of whether we are Unitarian Universalists or not. We are in covenant with our children, with our spouses, with our closest friends; some might even say they are in covenant with all of creation.  And lest we idealize or romanticize such relationships, let’s be clear that often they feel the exact opposite of freedom.  The phrase “ball and chain” to describe one’s spouse was invented to signify just how un-freeing covenants might feel in real life.

And yet in our faith, as in our personal relationships of covenant, we choose to restrict our individual autonomy because we affirm a different sort of freedom, a freedom that allows us all to flourish, a freedom that fosters our mutual future, a freedom that means fulfilling our mostly deeply held commitments, our sacred promises, in partnership with others.  A freedom that is about all of us surrendering to joy, together.

This is the hope of liberation.  In our faith, and in our lives, as in the world, let us faithfully pursue the promise of freedom, together.

Blessed be, and amen.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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