Friday, March 30, 2012

The Easter Bunny Conspiracy

Are you ready for the Easter Bunny? It won’t be long. Once again, he’ll be making his annual appearance, bringing us baskets of goodies. But does the Easter Bunny belong in a Christian celebration of the resurrection?

I know there are some religious types who are down on the Easter Bunny. They won’t allow the pagan symbol of spring into church nor home. Well, I’m not one of them. (Although whether or not I’m a “religious type” may be questionable.) Peter Cottontail is okay in my book. So is Santa Claus. And the Tooth Fairy, as well. I would never deny children the fun these colorful characters bring. But…

I also would never be a part of the adult conspiracy that passes these fictional characters off to children as real. It’s deceptive. It’s wrong. And it’s damaging to the faith of children.

What may seem like harmless play to adults is not so harmless from a child’s perspective. I remember well the angst I went through as a child when I started detecting holes in the Easter Bunny story. It just didn’t make sense that a rabbit could do all the stuff people were insisting he could do. And once the Easter Bunny toppled, Santa soon followed, and then the Tooth Fairy. I remember feeling deceived by adults. I had no idea what a conspiracy was, but that’s clearly what was going on. I felt betrayed by people I thought I could trust. And I wondered what else they had lied to me about.

Perhaps God, too, was something adults made up to get us kids to be good. After all, grown-ups seemed to go to similar lengths to convince children that their far-fetched stories were true. And then there were the threats that if I dared question the existence of someone like the Tooth Fairy, I wouldn’t get money under my pillow, so I’d better play along and keep my doubts to myself. Yes, the God stories seemed to follow the same pattern.

When my kids were born, I vowed that I would never lie to them, especially about matters of faith. (Yes, to a child, for the above reasons, the existence of the Easter Bunny is a matter of faith.) So, I was always up front with them about the Easter Bunny, Santa, and the Tooth Fairy. From the get-go I told Gretchen and Ben, “The Easter Bunny is pretend."

I don’t believe it ruined anything for them. Of course, in their earliest years they didn’t know exactly what pretend meant, nor did they care. All of these pretend characters still “visited” our house, and we’d all play along, because it was fun. As they grew, they came to understand the difference between what’s real and what’s pretend, and it just wasn’t a big deal. They never had to face the harsh truth about the Easter Bunny because it had never been hidden from them. Best of all, they never had to wonder why their mother had lied to them.

I wasn’t a perfect parent, by any means. I messed up a lot. But to this day, I feel especially good about the way I handled this, and I encourage new parents to consider taking a similar approach with their kids. You don’t have to banish the Easter Bunny from your home. Just be up front about it with your children. Let them know that the Easter Bunny is pretend. Then, when it comes to matters of faith, they’ll be able to trust you.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

When Saturday night dreams become Sunday morning reality

You know those dreams you have where you don’t quite have your shit together? You’re late for an exam, and you can’t find the classroom. Or you arrive at an important dinner party in your honor and everyone is dressed to the nines, except for you; you’re in your ratty old p.j.s. Well, preachers are notorious for having such dreams on Saturday nights.

I’ve preached a sermon in my underwear. I’ve overslept and driven to church way too late on a Sunday morning only to find that the building has been moved to an undisclosed location. I’ve gone to stand behind the altar and suddenly discovered that it looks like the counter at McDonald’s and, when I hand people the bread for communion, they tell me they want to supersize the wine.

There is no dream quite as disconcerting as the one where I seem to be leading a different service than the one everyone else is attending; what’s written in my bulletin doesn’t in any way match what’s in theirs and they look at me like I’m crazy. It’s like I’m the only one there who doesn’t know what’s going on, and I’m the one who's supposed to be doing the leading.

Well, this morning when I stood before the good people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, that most disconcerting dream became a reality.

It was a busy morning and a bazillion things were coming at me at once. There was a guest preacher I needed to greet and get situated. A man was there from the press who had a few questions he wanted to ask me. A few visitors were on hand who needed some special guidance. We had an acolyte about to embark on her maiden voyage. A young girl we hadn't seen in over a year wanted to talk with me about doing a service project for school credit. We were having microphone issues. The prelude was starting and I was ready to head for worship when I realized I didn’t have a bulletin. Oh, yes, I left it on my desk! So I rushed into my office, grabbed the bulletin, dashed down the hall, and opened the door to the chancel.

Now, I’ve been having this problem all during the Lenten season where I begin the service by asking people to stand for the confession as I usually do, but during Lent, because we end up kneeling, they should remain seated. This was the last Sunday in Lent when we would be beginning that way, so I was going to get it right this time, doggone it. And I remembered. I didn’t ask them to stand. I was so proud of myself.

Then, I read the words in the bulletin that introduce the confession, to which the congregation is supposed to respond, “Amen.” And they all just looked at me like I was speaking in Urdu. Nobody said a word. How odd? Perhaps they need a little prompting, I thought.

“Can I hear an 'Amen'?” I said. And I received a tepid “Amen” from the congregation.

A few people informed me that they had no idea what I was saying because those weren’t the words printed in their bulletins. Whut?!

This was it. This was my nightmare. But, I could have sworn I was awake. When I looked at my bulletin, I saw that it was for February 5, one of the Sundays during the season of Epiphany!

Yikes! A choir member quickly handed me a bulletin for the day. This couldn't be happening. I had to ask a person in the pew to pinch me to make sure I was actually awake.

So, we all had a good laugh and I took it from the top. “Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, The Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2012… take two!”

I read the proper introduction to the confession, and this time, the congregation responded with a resounding “AMEN!” that shook the rafters.

Yes, sometimes my worst nightmare can become a reality. It's highly possible. But when it does, I’m oh so grateful that God has sent me to pastor the congregation of my dreams!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

This is not a time for silence

A number of clergy in the area have been preaching against Amendment One. I’m among them. And since we have been called to task regarding our tax-exempt status, I feel a need to respond. Never in my 33 years of ordained ministry have I publicly discussed how people will cast their ballot in the voting booth. Until now.

I never suggest which candidate people should vote for, nor do I endorse a particular party from the pulpit. Most of the people who know me are aware of where I stand, but it’s not fair to use the pulpit to impose my political agenda on others. My feelings about this have nothing to do with Holy Trinity retaining its tax-exempt status. It’s just the wrong thing to do as a religious leader. It’s a misuse of the authority I’ve been given, and it would undermine the trust that my congregation has placed in me.

But Amendment One is different. It’s a not a partisan issue, it’s a justice issue. It’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue. Furthermore, Amendment One was initiated by a small group of people with strong religious convictions, and it continues to be fueled by people of faith. To allow that group to speak without responding is, in essence, to agree with them. As a person of faith, it would be irresponsible for me to remain silent. I think of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said: “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I once heard the writer Reynolds Price speak before a group of pastors. When it came time for questions from the audience, one person asked him why he wasn’t connected with any church because he was obviously a deeply spiritual person. He told us that his opinion of the church changed back during the Civil Rights era. In all the churches he attended, including Duke University Chapel, never once did he hear a preacher mention the injustice that was going on all around them. Their silence spoke volumes.

As I heard Price tell us this, I remember feeling righteous indignation toward those preachers who had been silent about the injustice of racism when it was their time to speak. And yet, I can’t judge them too harshly, because it wasn't until many years later that I first stepped into a pulpit, so I don’t know how I might have responded if I had been in their shoes. It wasn't my time. But I do stand in a pulpit now, on a weekly basis. This is my time. And I have no doubt about how I will respond. I will not be counted among those who keep silent. I must speak.

I realize that I'm living in the Holy Trinity bubble, and things are different for me than they are for many of my colleagues. If I remained silent about Amendment One, my congregation would be very disappointed in me.

For many other preachers, speaking out against Amendment One takes a great deal of courage. People have such strong feelings about sexual orientation that the issue has torn congregations apart. A lot of clergy have decided just to ignore it rather than get everybody all riled up. Okay. I can understand that. Sort of.

But here’s the thing. This Amendment isn’t really about whether or not it’s okay to be gay. Nor are we voting on whether or not we think gay people should be allowed to marry. (That’s already been decided by the state of North Carolina, and the answer is “no.”) It’s important that people know the truth about what we will be voting on. What we will be voting on is whether the only people in domestic partnerships who will be granted legal rights in our state are people who are married.

We’re talking about legal rights like: child custody and visitation rights that seek to protect the best interests of children, protections against domestic violence, end-of-life issues, and health benefits for adults who live together but aren’t married. Why should committed couples who are unmarried, for whatever reason, be denied the rights others take for granted? If that’s not discrimination, I don’t know what is.

When some are being treated unjustly, how can we stand in our pulpits and pretend like it doesn’t matter? How can we remain silent when our listeners will be voting on whether or not it is acceptable to discriminate against a group of people? Frankly, I would be very disturbed if I were part of a faith community right now that isn’t openly confronting Amendment One. This is not a time for silence.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What the hell was I thinking?

I’ve noticed that pert near every important decision I’ve made in my life has followed a pattern. I stew and stew and stew until I can’t stand it anymore. Then, I make up my mind and that’s it. I don’t turn back. Once I’ve decided, I stop worrying about making the right decision. From then on, I do everything I can to make the decision right.

My latest big decision came when I sold my house. I was living in a perfectly fine house. In fact, I loved it. The only thing I had against my house was the distance between it and the church where I work. The drive, which I frequently made more than once a day, was making me crazy. I started working from home more and more, and felt myself become disconnected from the community I was serving. As an introvert, it’s pretty easy for me to crawl into my cave and hide, and this situation wasn’t helping. So, I stewed about moving for a couple of years until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

When I put my house on the market last fall, it sold in a couple of days. The first person who looked at it made me an offer, which was my asking price, so I was elated. I had a closing date and went out and found a place to rent. Everything in my life had been stuffed into cardboard boxes. Then, at the last minute, the appraiser came in and determined that my house wasn’t worth what the buyer was willing to pay me. Ugh! I had a choice to make. Either take my house off the market and hunker down where I was for the long haul, or bite the bullet and pay someone to “buy” my house. I was sick. But I knew I had to move ahead, so on a very cold day in mid-November, I left my home in the burbs and moved into the city.

It was painful. In addition to the above-described financial beating, the heat wasn’t working in my rental home and I about froze for three weeks while we waited for a new furnace part to come in. The day after I moved, my dear Beetle blew its head gasket and I had to have it towed to the AAA garage, which left me without a car for several days until I finally bought a new one. And so the story goes. It’s been one thing after another and on more than one occasion, I've asked myself, “What the hell was I thinking?” But it's too late to change my mind now. Whether or not I made the right decision has become irrelevant. What matters now is making the decision right.

Does everybody go through this kind of angst when making a big decision? It sure would be a lot easier to stay settled where I am and leave well enough alone.

Leaving a place of comfort to venture into the unknown scares the bejeebers out of me. It involves letting go. It means opening myself up to… God only knows what! That seems to be the real problem. There are no guarantees; anything can happen. Of course, if I stay where I am, I pretty much know what will happen. It might not be great, but it’s not going to catch me off-guard. Is it worth the risk? Maybe that’s why I stew about decisions so much. I stew until I can’t stand it anymore, and then it’s time to move.

Through a lifetime of tough decisions, I’ve learned that things do have a way of turning out to be for the best, although they seldom turn out the way I would have anticipated. I’ve come to expect the unexpected. My life has been a wild adventure with one surprise after another along the way. I often shake my head in disbelief and mutter, “who’da thunk it?!”

I’d like to believe that God thunk it, and somehow, by putting one foot in front of the other, God is leading me where I need to go. I may misstep from time to time, but God doesn’t let me wander too far from the path I need to travel.

This spring I had a beautiful reminder of that in my new yard. When I first saw the house I’m renting, the leaves had fallen from the trees and winter had all but begun. After I moved, I wasn’t feeling really good about my decision and often wondered, “What the hell was I thinking?” But now it’s spring, and I’ve discovered that I’m living in a place of unexpected treasures: daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, wisteria, flowering dogwoods, and azaleas. Who’da thunk it?

That’s the way it always seems to work. Just when I start to wonder, “what the hell was I thinking?” I find an unexpected treasure that I could never have imagined from the place where I once was. And I know why I had to move.

Just sing the damn hymn!

Okay, here’s another reason why I love Holy Trinity Lutheran Church so much. Last night at our Bible study we got into a discussion about people who read all kinds of secret messages into the Scriptures that were never intended to be read that way. Like people who go goo-goo over Revelation, thinking they have cracked the code that not even St. John himself could have considered.

So a member of the group told us about a conversation from her pew this past Sunday. The sermon hymn that day was “What Wondrous Love Is This”, which happens to be number 666 in the hymnal. We’ll call this person in our Bible study group, Woman A. She was sitting next to Woman B and the conversation went like this…
Woman B: “Oh, I can’t sing this. It’s 666.”
Woman A: “And why not?”
Woman B: “It’s 666. You know what that means, don’t you?”
Woman A: “It doesn’t mean anything. Just sing the damn hymn!”

Yes! That’s how a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran with just plain sense deals with Biblical nonsense.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Searching for the image of God

What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Hmmmm. It seems to me that whatever it is, it must be what sets us humans apart from the rest of creation. For a long time I thought that difference was in the fact that humans are capable of love and animals aren’t. Then I started living with a dog and that theory was shot to pieces. I have no doubt that she can love.

Now I’m thinking that what sets us humans apart is our capacity to search for meaning. I don’t think animals spend a whole lot of time reflecting on the deeper meaning of their lives. Of course, when I watch reality T.V., I’m not always convinced that some people do either. But it seems that most of the people I spend time with are in the midst of a struggle to make sense of things. I’m not talking about people who get excited about seeing the figure of Jesus in a tortilla, or Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. I’m talking about people who are looking for God in the deeper places of their lives.

That’s not to say that we can ever see things as God does, or that we can ever really know the meaning of our lives. But we want to, and we struggle to. And that makes us unique in all creation. We think about such things. We even think about thinking. And think about thinking about thinking. And… well, you get my point.

As I struggle to find meaning in my own life, I see it as a story with a beginning, and a middle, and an end. But my story makes no sense to me unless I can see how it’s part of a larger story. That’s why my faith is so important to me. It provides me with a larger story to identify with. I share this larger story with other people of faith, as well. And that’s why I need to be part of a community of faith. I need to be with other people who share a common story and a common meaning to their lives.

My larger faith story is the Jesus story. It’s certainly not the only faith story in the world. But it’s the one that rings true for me. It’s the story of finding my true self by losing my false self. It’s the story of trusting in the freeing love of God above all that would enslave me: fear, shame, pride, self-protectiveness. It’s the story of finding healing and wholeness in the midst of my brokenness. It’s the story of death and resurrection. That’s my story. It’s what makes sense to me. Without it, I don’t know if I could continue slogging along through the world. What would be the point of it all?

It seems to me that there are a whole lot of people in the world today who find life meaningless. Nothing makes sense to them because their lives have no context. They have attached themselves to a story that’s so small it can’t possibly contain all the depth of their human experience. They only have their individual stories to examine; there is no larger story to make sense of their lives.

Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I suspect that he was right insofar as if we examine our lives and find no meaning in them, they’re not worth living. That’s why I believe what I do as a pastor is so important. I’m someone who helps people examine their lives. And, because of the larger story that I’m a part of, I can offer a way for them to make sense of their lives. How cool is that?

I know that the Jesus story isn’t the only way to make sense of our lives. All people of faith can help folks examine their lives, no matter what their larger story might be. And that’s why I feel a special bond with rabbis, priests, monks, shamans, imams, and other such people God has chosen to guide others in their search for meaning.

If you’re struggling to find meaning in your life, don’t give up the quest. It’s what makes you most human and most God-like at the same time. And know that you’re not alone. We’re all in this together. No matter what the larger story is that we find to make sense of our lives, there is an even larger story than that, a meta-story, that contains all our larger stories. We may not be able to grasp it with our limited human perspective, but it’s the story that ultimately unites all of us meaning-makers. And maybe that’s what it means to be created in the image of God. We’re not, each of us, little images of God, but collectively, we are the Image of God. Together.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Delighting in a blood-splattered wall

This morning I saw bright red blood splattered on white. At a theatrical performance of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart”, when it came time for the deranged narrator to dismember his victim before he hid his body parts beneath the floorboards, streaks of fake blood squirted on a white backdrop. I can tell you that I wasn’t one of the audience members who closed my eyes and winced. In fact, I delighted in the squirting red liquid. Not because I’m a blood-thirsty person; I’ve never been into slasher movies. But I was delighted because of a memory that this scene evoked. There was another time when I saw fake blood splattered on a white wall.

When my son Ben was a teenager, he was the Steven Spielberg of Lake High School. With video-camera in hand, he was always in production mode. We had a huge stash of costumes in our basement, where his friends gathered regularly to make movies. On one occasion, they shot a scene in the laundry room using fake blood. I discovered this when I came to take my clothes out of the dryer and saw blood splattered all over the white walls. The horizontal pole that was full of clothes I had hung on hangers didn’t escape the blood either. Just about everything was permanently ruined. Needless to say, Momma wasn’t happy. And film production was shut down for a while.

But, in no time, things were rolling again because these movies were for school. Extra credit, actually. Somehow, Ben managed to do movies for extra credit in every class from algebra to Spanish. He wasn’t exactly a stellar student, so he needed the extra credit to get by. Sort of. His grades were poor because he wouldn’t do his homework. I remember saying to him on more than one occasion, “You know, Ben, if you did your homework you wouldn’t have to do all this extra credit.” He responded to this parental logic with a logic all his own. “But I don’t want to do my homework. I want to make movies.”

Back when he was little they called this kind of kid a strong-willed child. I think that’s an oversimplification. It’s not just that Ben wouldn't be be controlled by his parents or teachers. It’s that he refused to do anything just because it was expected of him. Still does. Expectations just aren’t important to him. He has to want to do something, he has to feel that there is a good reason to do it, he has to believe it’s worth doing. Or, he’ll pass.

I find it interesting to hear people lament the lack of critical thinking skills among students in our schools today. I suspect that if there were more critical thinkers, we'd end up with a lot more students like Ben. Then what would we do? Students who aren’t bound by the expectations of others are a threat to our education system. What if every student refused to do what they found unmeaningful in school? Can you imagine? It may be that we’re better off with students who can’t think for themselves.

I know that not every critical thinker is like Ben. His sister Gretchen is a critical thinker, as well. She can appreciate irony. She’s comfortable with ambiguity. She can spot hypocrisy a mile off. And, like Ben, she has a high-functioning crap-o-meter. But she always did her homework. As I see it now, the big difference between Gretchen and Ben as students was that Gretchen had a strong need to please other people. She wanted to be liked. Ben couldn’t have cared a rat’s ass. Of course, as you might imagine, one of my kids was easy to parent and the other wasn't.

None of that has changed, really. Ben continues to live his life the way he wants to. He refuses to meet other people’s expectations if he doesn’t share those same expectations for himself. He is true to himself above all else.

What’s changed through the years is me. What once brought me such aggravation as a mother now brings me no small amount of joy. Ben is Ben. And I wouldn’t want him to be anyone else. I realized that today when I saw red blood splattered against a white canvass. A sight that once aggravated me to no end, has become, for me, a source of endless delight.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Marking your place in community -- so much more than planting one's butt in a pew

My second call was a two point parish with a town church and a little country church. The first time I went to that little rural congregation I noticed that there was a cushion in one of the pews, but nobody sat in it. When I asked about it, I learned that the cushion belonged to a man named John, who was homebound. I met John and saw him regularly when I took Holy Communion to his home, but I never saw him in church. And yet, his place was still there; the cushion waited for him on the pew.

After John died, I wondered what would become of his cushion, if it would be removed, since now we knew beyond a doubt that he wouldn’t be coming back. But nobody touched it. For as long as I remained at that church, John’s cushion remained in the pew.

I often think of John’s place in that community, and the way it was marked, even after he would no longer occupy it. And I wonder about my place. Not so much the place I fill today; I think I can see what it is. But I wonder about how my place in the community will be marked when I’m no longer occupying it.

There’s an old African parable that tells about the process an ant goes through when it comes to a small stream and want to get across it. The ant comes to the stream and steps out into the water only to be swept away downstream. And the next ant comes to the water’s edge and the same thing happens. One by one the ants come, and they are swept away by the water. Eventually, there are bodies of dead ants accumulating on the water’s edge until, finally, there are enough dead ants that they span all the way across the water. Now, the ants that follow are able to cross the stream of water by walking on the backs of those who have gone before them. As the story goes, this is a metaphor for the whole human race.

It’s a story that has stayed with me over the years as I think about those whose backs I have walked upon in my life.

As a woman pastor, I think about women who came before me who didn’t make it to the other side of the stream, but provided a way for women like me. The women missionaries who came before me. The women who started the first women’s groups in congregations. The women who first served on their Congregation Councils. Way back when, this was a bone of contention in many congregations and those women took a lot of grief because they wanted to make their own unique contribution to the life of the church. I would not be a pastor in the church today, were it not for the courageous ministry of those women.

I look at the congregation I serve now, and the community of people I have grown to love and I know that every time we gather to worship on a Sunday morning, we are walking on the backs of those who came before us. The people of St. Mark’s Lutheran church who started our congregation as a mission church. Pastor William Lutz, the first pastor of this church back in 1916 and all the pastors who followed him. The people who decided to move Holy Trinity to its current location. All who contributed financially so that future generations would have a place to worship and do ministry. Those who struggled through times of crisis and wouldn’t give up. They weren’t just the ones who were here before us. They were the ones who made it possible for us to be here at all. No doubt, many of them could not have imagined what Holy Trinity Lutheran Church might be like today. But they provided the way for us to get here.

God willing, there will be others who will come after us. Others will be walking on our backs to get to the next place God is calling them. Just as others have left a legacy for us, someday we’ll be doing that for those who come after us.

I love how George Bernard Shaw put it:
This is the true joy in life - being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me, it is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Digging through the trash for a chocolate fix?

In the TV show Sex and the City, Miranda decides to give up on men and she turns to a worthy alternative. Chocolate. She begins with a half dozen chocolate ├ęclairs from the bakery. After she finishes them off, she realizes they’re not enough. She needs more. So she picks up a box of Duncan Hines and bakes herself a beautiful chocolate cake. When it’s done, she cuts herself a tiny little sliver, eats it, and walks away. But then, she comes back. She cuts herself another sliver. Then she walks away again. In no time, she’s back once more, and she cuts herself a third piece. This time she goes for it and serves herself a huge slice of cake. She devours it. Then, in an effort to restrain herself, she covers the cake with aluminum foil. Well, her resolve doesn’t last long. Before you know it, she’s back. She removes the foil and helps herself to another piece.

You can tell she’s growing more and more disgusted with herself. So, this time she covers the cake with foil and puts it in the fridge. She leaves the kitchen, but shortly returns for yet another piece of cake. By now she’s so totally disgusted with herself that she takes the cake that’s left and she throws it in the trash can. That oughta do it! But then, we see her pondering the unthinkable. And she does it. She actually digs into the trash can for more cake. She’s hit bottom.

Finally, Miranda takes action. She goes to the sink and grabs the dish soap. Then she takes it to the trash can and pours soap all over the cake. That’s what it takes for her to be absolutely sure she won’t be having any more of that sinful chocolate cake.

Isn’t that a lot like the relationship many of us have with God’s law? We find it’s pert near impossible to stop doing what’s obviously harmful to us, and more than anything, we want to do what we know we shouldn’t. Like Paul described it to the Romans -- All the good stuff we want to do we don’t do and we end up doing what we don’t want to do. So, what’s our problem?

When we talk about the Ten Commandments, it’s hard not to think of how heavy they are. We can feel like we’re being crushed by weight of the stone tablets that Moses carried down from the mountain. But are the Commandments nothing more than a burden and an ongoing source of guilt in our lives?

I know that we sometimes joke about the fact that they’re called the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions. But, did you know that the words, Ten Commandments never actually appear in the Hebrew Bible? That expression wasn’t used until sometime in the 1500s when it was a mistranslation from the original Hebrew which called it the ten words. Or the ten words of the covenant. Commandments or Covenant? Is there a difference? Well... yes!

These Ten words are another of the covenants that God makes with his people in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first one was God’s covenant with Noah. Next came God’s covenant with Sarah and Abraham. Then, God’s covenant with Moses. All of these Old Testament covenants remind us of the fact that our God is a God of relationship. And as God relates to us, he does so through promises based upon trust. That is, covenants.

Isn’t it interesting how the covenant that God made with Moses have been misused through the centuries as an instrument of guilt and fear? Some people even think that just by posting these words in public places, they will produce good, moral people. But actually, that’s never what they were intended to do.

God asked Moses to share his covenant with his people at a critical time. They were being formed into a new nation and they were setting out on their journey to the Promised Land. This wasn’t going to be easy; they needed some guidance. So, we get God’s covenant with the children of Israel. God will be their God and they will be his people. As a gift to his people, God offers them, not simply some rigid rules that they must adhere to or else, but some guidelines to make their lives better.

That’s always the purpose of God’s law in our lives. Jesus understood that. Most of the people around him didn’t. They were concerned about following the letter of the law for the law’s sake. Jesus understood the purpose of the law, that it was given in love, not to stifle us, but so that we might flourish. Of course, if someone needs to be healed and it’s the Sabbath, you heal them. The law of love always trumps all other laws. Because God’s law is always given in love.

In other words, God doesn’t put a 20-foot, electrified, chain-link fence with barbed-wire around us and warn us that if we dare come near it we’re gonna fry. Instead, God offers us a guide rail. We can choose to step over it or not, with the understanding that if we stay inside the railing and honor it, we will have life, in all its fullness. And that’s what God wants for us, life in all its fullness.

God doesn’t call us to strive for perfection, or to come as close to it as we can by following all the rules. God calls us to strive for wholeness, to live fully as the people he created us to be, people created in God’s image.

It’s the reason why God makes a covenant with Noah. It’s the reason God makes a covenant with Sarah and Abraham. It’s the reason God makes a covenant with Moses. And it’s the same reason why God makes a covenant with us at baptism. Because our God is a loving God, and what he wants for us, the people he loves, is life. Not just careful little, rigidly-righteous lives motivated by fear. But big, crazy adventurous lives filled with unexpected surprises. Life, in all its fullness.

That sure beats digging through the trash for a chocolate fix, doesn't it?