Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Follow the Rules

While watching old home movies of my wife's family I witnessed an early religious lesson. When asked what we should do because Jesus loves us, this five year old answered, "obey him." In thinking about it, obeying was the first religious lesson I can recall as well. It might not be universal, but it's certainly common that our earliest lesson for our kids about God is "follow the rules."

Something about that seems off to me.

Of course obedience is a great lesson for kids - we want them to obey us and other appropriate authority figures, so obeying God fits right in. But is that the kind of relationship we want our kids to have with God? Is that how we want to introduce them?

It might make no difference in the long run. I'm no expert on how adolescent development works (I took sociology in college to get out of those classes). There might be no lasting effect. However, as an adult, the admonition to obey implies something unnatural about the obedience. You may want to do other things, but you need to do something different because God says so.

While technically correct, I think it misses out on the beauty and depth of God's relationship to creation. I'm sure I'm over-thinking this, but isn't "obey God" the first step down the road of a vengeful God, just waiting on you to slip up so he can hit you with the lightning bolt?

We might even have to back up a bit, there. How do we know God loves us? Well, Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and was raised again. Great! Why? So you can obey God. Really? God went through all that so I can follow a set of rules? Doesn't sound too much like love to me - certainly not something to be thankful for.

I was reading this book someone gave me the other day. It's on Celtic prayer and spirituality. I was excited about it; I love that sort of thing. The introduction went something like this: "I've spent 20 years studying Celtic prayer and I've broken them all down into seven types - through the course of this book I'll examine each type, explain its scriptural and theological significance and teach you how to implement these valuable resources into your life."

I put it down quickly.

I love Celtic spirituality because it's rooted in a Christianity before institutionalism, before Constantine, before Christendom. Celtic spirituality is rooted in creation itself, in the beauty and mystery of life. In the Celtic tradition, faith in Christ is something you put on like a robe, not something you input like lines of code.

This is the essence of spiritual formation, right? That is really how things work. God so loved us that Jesus came to live, die, and be raised again. So? So we'd know how to live in this crazy universe - something we're all pretty excited to discover. But it's not a list to check off or a plan to follow or even a program to download.

You can't order the Christian life to go.

Ok, ok, so obedience is a part of it. We have to listen to the leading of God's Holy Spirit in our lives, following the example of Christ, to develop those practices that work to change us, transform us into the kind of people God created us to be. But it's still not a list (at least I haven't found the list yet). A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about this. The word I came up with was abiding.

We need to abide in Christ, not obey. What's the difference? I explained it this way:

I've been taking care of our daughter for a couple of months now - all by myself, while the wife is teaching. I knew enough not to schedule things too strictly; babies don't really worry about the agenda too much. I did, however, make the mistake of listing each morning the things I wanted to accomplish during the day. My nights kept getting shorter and there seemed to be more to do after she went to bed each night. I couldn't keep up, no matter how much I cut from the list from one day to the next.

I figured it out pretty quick. I have to abide with her. I have to learn the rhythms and practices that make her life run. I have to figure out the signs and the signals she's sending and I have to be ready to move at a moment's notice. I have to be more focused on the mission (keeping this infant alive) than on the specific steps to achieve it, because they're changing all the time.

Who knows, when she's two years old and screaming her head off if she doesn't get her way, maybe I'll revert back to the old "obey" line; it seems to work, especially for oldest children who want to please everyone. I'd like to think I'll choose "abide," although I'll need to come up with a simpler explanation by then; this one is way over the head of a two year old.

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