I am starting to believe that human beings are, by nature, law-keepers. Even law-breakers are law-keepers in their own rite. Created in the image of the Creator, we seem to enjoy creating laws and systems that define and confine our existence on this planet. Everywhere you go there is no way to escape a law that is being pressed upon you. I am not talking about the laws of a nation, a town, or a State. Those laws are there too, created by people and upheld by people. I am talking about the laws we live by in our hearts, our families and our belief systems.
Sometimes our belief systems become so stiff and so stringent that we lean into them like we are literally following ancient laws passed down for generations that uphold the balance of all the created world. We abide these laws so intently that often, we don't stop and wonder when and where this law came into being. Who put it into place? Why is it even there? What is the context of this law? How does this law, perhaps, limit our experience of God? Or worse, what if we keep this law so that we don't ever have to discern what is right or wrong for ourselves?
I have taught many times over that laws are created to protect people. I believe this to be true. I believe that the laws of our nation are created to establish order and a standard so that everyone is treated fairly and so that we are protected from pain. I believe that the laws we read about in scripture laid down by Moses (The Ten Commandments) were created to do the exact same thing- establish order and protect people from pain. There are fundamental laws of human existence that we innately know to be true, so much so, that no matter what culture you are from, there is a collective understanding that something has gone wrong when those laws are broken. These are not the laws that I want to call into question. What I want to think about today, are the laws that we keep in our hearts, minds and religious organizations.
In our city we have a large population of people who are homeless and often ask for money or food when you pass them on the street or in your car. I have heard people say many times things like, "I don't ever give anyone money because they are just going to go buy booze with it." I know why people keep this "law" in their hearts. It is a difficult thing to judge the character of a stranger who has asked you for something. It is hard to know where your gift of money will go. Will it support a bad habit or will it put food in their bellies? The problem with making this a strict law that you keep is that you are actually taking the mindfulness out of the situation. You are limiting yourself, the person in front of you and God. You are taking away the opportunity to discern, to pray, to make a decision one way or another about whether you will aid this person in this moment or not. Keeping this law isn't actually doing the other person a favor or society a favor, it is only do you a favor because it makes your life easier. If you just don't give anyone money then you never have to feel the ache of trying to decide when it is the right thing to do.
I believe this is one of the reasons we create laws in our hearts. We create them to protect ourselves from pain. I don't like pain anymore than the next person, and maybe even less, but I am experienced enough to know that the most important, life changing moments I have had came from an experience of pain. Some of our more transformational growth for the better comes from pain. Avoiding moments of discomfort is limiting to our personal growth and our growth as a society. These "personal laws" taken too seriously will seriously limit your life experience and the good fruit your contributions could be part of creating.
Think about some of the personal laws you hear from day to day:
- I will never date someone younger than me.
- I only buy named brand clothing.
- I only eat organic food.
- I only want to be friends with one race of people.
- I only want to be friends with people of a certain sexual orientation.
- I would only live in this one place.
- I will never put my loved one in a nursing home.
- I will always be a Democrat or a Republican.
- Worship is only worship in a Presbyterian Church.
- My pastor is the only good pastor.
- This is the way we do things.
- This is how it has always been.
- Our family always does ____________.
- We only marry this type of person.
And many, many more. We have an intricate system of "laws" that we keep that really only keep us comfortable so that we don't ever have to wonder "what is the right thing to do?" If you just make it a "law" then you never have to make a decision, which also means that you never have to experience the transformational grief of being wrong. We keep so many of our personal laws because we are afraid of pain and failure.
But there are other laws that we keep in our religious organizations that are just as limiting as the ones we keep in our personal lives.
Have you ever wondered why only ordained ministers or priests can offer the sacrament of communion (Eucharist) in worship? There is nothing in scripture that says it is supposed to be this way. So why do we do we uphold it when we say we are followers of Christ and readers of scripture? Everything that is available in scripture reveals that believers in Christ can offer communion and even baptize others into the church. We are actually called to do this and the Bible actually uses the word "ordained" because we are all ordained as believers. Where in the world did we get this rule that only "ordained" pastors are capable of bringing someone into the family of God? Why do we keep this law when scripture says clearly that all believers are living into the priesthood of Christ? It is great that we have pastors who lead us in communion during worship, but what if we are with a gathering of friends and the Spirit moves that we should share in Christ's supper? Do we not do it because there is no "official" to make it "legal" for us to take communion? If we decide to go for it, is it wrong? I think not.
This is where I get hung up with our "laws". The laws of our faith seem less and less like systems established to protect people from pain. More often, I have experienced them as confining and limiting of our experience of God, growth, community, even of our own potential.
The way we think about church is even a law for many of us. Church is a building with a steeple where people gather for an hour (or less) on a Sunday morning to sing together and hear a sermon. But is that church? No! We are the church; people are the church. Scripture tells us that we are a living, breathing body of Christ's own heart pulsating in the world and everywhere we go we are living as the church. You can't "go to church" because you ARE the church. But yet, we have made it a cultural law (in the Bible-belted South) that good Christians "go to church on Sunday". Some people can't even "count" something as going to church if it is not on Sunday.
We have made it a law that worshiping God happens in a Sanctuary or in a Fellowship Hall of a church building and there will be an order of worship with songs sung, scripture read, a sermon produced, and some prayers prayed. That is worship. But what if worship is other things too? What if it happens in other places? What if God isn't just present in a worship service in a church building? The Ignatian Priests believe their lives are lived in continual worship. We are created to worship God in all that we do all of the time. Where did this "law" around what worship is and what "counts" as worship get created? I feel certain we can tack that answer down, but does that make it a legitimate law for us to abide?
Some people even take the Bible make it into a law itself. Every word is treated like a fundamental law laid down by God when the Bible even makes it clear where the "laws" are listed and where they are not. Even believing that the Bible is the living Word of God, doesn't not make it a law. It is a narrative of God's relationship with mankind that will always be transformational and relevant to anyone who reads it, but every word taken down is not a law itself to be followed to the nth degree. The mystery and majesty of this incredible, ancient story is nothing but a document of to-dos and not-to-dos if that is how it is to be considered. And how could this be only a document of law when the story itself, speaks of a God that can reveal himself to the world in and through anything that he pleases? A God whose power is not limited to laws and orders and human systems. A God who sent his Son into the world to show us how to break the laws that the law-keepers (priests and pharisees) insisted were coming straight from God himself. God himself showed us that even the laws of Moses could be more than what people believed. Jesus revealed how we use the religious laws to confine and filter God from our daily experience.
What about prayer? So many people believe that prayer is bowing your head and silently talking to the Lord in your mind. Some people believe this so strictly that they don't even feel like they have prayed unless it happens this one way. How can this belief be limiting? How can prayer be so much more than that and should it be? I believe prayer is actually a relationship with the Great Spirit. As humans created in the image of the Creator, we must consider that our human relationships don't workout when we close our eyes and only talk or make requests of someone, so why would they with God? This cannot be the only way that prayer can happen and it certainly cannot be standard for prayer as a people who claim to live in a relationship with God when we know in our own experience that this sort of communication only inhibits a relationship instead of allowing it to blossom.
I realize many of the examples I have used today were set into place to establish a standard so that success can be measured. I understand that creating order is an important function of a law. However, I want to challenge that by saying that I think we are in a time where it is vital that we begin to question the "laws of man".We need to distinguish as the church, as the Body of Christ, if we are keeping laws out of fear or to create a human standard of some kind to measure something. Have we made our own laws around race, gender, what is good or bad, Marriage, relationships, charity, what is allowed by the church or not, what is a real education and what isn't, and so on, in order to protect people from pain or to simply maintain a system of order? Are we living by these laws because they make our lives more comfortable so that we don't ever have to make a responsible decision about something? Do we keep our laws so that we don't ever have to account for our own mistakes? Do we keep them because we are afraid to fail? We have set into a place a system of intricate laws that when we choose to live by them with this veracity, we actually begin to do exactly what laws were created not to do- we cause pain. We limit life. We limit growth and we limit God.
Our laws have become boxes, legal systems that separate and diminish what COULD BE in our world. There could be MORE. There could be FREEDOM. God could be bigger than the sanctuary we have trapped Him in. I could be more than a receiver of communion- I could share it and experience for a moment what Christ did! An educator might actually be a plane ticket, rather than a desk and a chair. Today might be the day that the person in front of you asking for money, actually needs a real meal and will buy it. Love might be available to everyone!
We create the laws that we keep in our daily lives. We create and maintain the systems that we are living in. And this is good news because it means that WE can change them. If we do not pause and look at the fruit of these systems and these laws, we might not ever realize the pain that this order is creating in our own lives or the lives of others. We might not ever shake the feeling that there has to be more to life than this, more to church than this, more to worship than this, more to the story of God than this. I believe there is more. I believe that we need to reevaluate what laws we keep in our lives so that we can see clearly where we are limiting ourselves from the freedom that we have been promised, the freedom that has been made available to us by our Creator and Redeemer.
How are your laws limiting who you can become?