Benediction Online

Sunday, August 30, 2015

On (not) keeping the rules

A mother was teaching her 12 year old daughter to cook roast lamb. She carefully showed her how she cut off the end of the joint and put it in the pan next to the rest. “Mom, why do you do that?” the daughter asked and the mother had to admit that she really didn’t know, it was how her own mother had always done it. A little later her brother phoned so she asked him, “When Mom taught you to roast lamb, did she tell you to cut off the end? Do you know why?” He didn’t know either, so that evening the 12 year old called her grandmother. “When you taught my Mom to roast lamb, why do you teach her to cut off the end?” “Oh,” said her grandmother, “that was just because my pan was too small.”

The religious establishment of Jesus’ time had expanded the already complex laws from the Scriptures with a ton of rules about how and when and where things were to be done. As I mentioned when we were talking about the feeding of the 5000 a few weeks ago, there were so many rules about eating that it was almost impossible to eat away from home with strangers without severe danger of becoming ritually unclean. So in this morning’s gospel the issue is not simply the hygiene one that our mothers taught us – wash your hands before a meal – especially if you’re going to be eating with your fingers – but that Jesus’ disciples were not even trying to keep all the rules.

And so Jesus uses this as a teaching moment. And what he teaches is quite revolutionary. We aren’t reconciled to God and we don’t live a holy life by keeping to a whole series of rules, because they’re just on the outside. We are called to live a holy life that comes from our hearts. We are called to be transformed from within. Then it is from that inner change that our behavior comes.

I read an interesting article about Pope Francis this week. It was in the Atlantic.[1] The title was “Where Pope Francis Learned Humility” and the subheading said “For the pontiff, being humble is less a character trait than a calculated choice.” Apparently Pope Francis did not grow up as a humble person but in fact was known for his arrogance until he was stripped of all his titles and responsibilities and spent two years in exile and spiritual retreat. After this, his leadership style changed. The journalist, Paul Vallely said, for him “humility was more like an intellectual stance than a personal temperament – a tool he developed in his struggles against what he had learned were the weaknesses in his own personality, with its rigid, authoritarian and egotistical streaks.”

So the journalist suggests that since the Pope is not naturally humble, his humility is a calculated choice. I would see it as being a transformation of his heart. Very few of us grow up naturally humble. None of us grow up without selfishness, pride, envy… these are natural parts of being humans caught in the sin matrix. But these are the very things we are called to change. Not by keeping a lot of external rules but by allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives and our hearts and transform us into the people that God made us to be; people made in God’s image. But this is not a passive process. It is a very active process. In order for the Holy Spirit to be able to work this way we have to have both intention and commitment. Our intention must be to become Christ-like because the Holy Spirit isn’t going to impose anything on us. Without the intention at a deep level of our being nothing much is going to happen. And we have to have the commitment to review our own internal conversation and to change it.

This is what James is talking about in the second reading when he says, “be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We can see the fruits of our inner transformation in the way we act differently. But we can also change our inner selves by acting differently. You can fake it till you make it… and to some extent we’re all doing that and we have to.  If you wait until you’re completely peaceful, loving, non-judgmental and joyful before you feed the poor they’re going to get very hungry!

The shadow side of spiritual growth and development is that we can focus on it to the exclusion of those in need. That is subtly self-centered. Some people are called to lives of cloistered prayer where their self-giving is to give themselves up to silence and prayer on our behalf. But that’s just a very few people. The rest of us are called to live our lives in the regular world and find ways to be loving and be Christ-like and have a spiritual practice while we’re making a living, dealing with health issues, looking after our homes and all the zillion other things there are to do.

Rules can be helpful in doing that. Rules can help us to care for others. Rules can help us to care for ourselves. For example, we have a rule that dogs don’t come into the church sanctuary. There are several reasons for that. Many of us are dog lovers and if we all brought our dogs it would be mayhem; not everyone loves dogs like we do and in fact some people are scared of them or allergic to them. In order for us to be truly welcoming we choose to limit dog attendance to the outdoors. Similarly, many of us enjoy alcohol, but there are those among us who cannot drink and for whom the presence of alcohol can be disturbing. In order to be truly welcoming, we need to make sure that when we offer wine at a meal or gathering we always offer enjoyable alternatives.

The Rule of St. Benedict was written to provide a framework for monks living together and worshipping and serving God together. It provides guidelines for living which take into account that we are all different and what is easy for one person may not be for another. Most religious orders have some kind of agreed rule of life that they share together which helps them all to stay on the same page. These can be very simple or quite complex. From time to time it has been suggested that we, here at St Ben’s, might develop a rule of life which individuals could decide to adopt if they wanted to move deeper into spiritual community together.

When I went to a clergy wellness conference earlier this year we were challenged to write a personal rule of life. First we considered our core values and what was deeply important to us. We were encouraged to thing not just about our spiritual practice but about health, money and vocation.  It was fascinating to see how different each person’s rule was. None of them were all encompassing, each one hit on areas which were important issues in their life at the time. Some of them included things like “see my children more often,” or “go to the gym regularly” others were more “spiritual”. It was clear that these were probably not life-long rules but ones which would change as our lives changed.
Here is mine:
Eat plants, not too much
Drink water, plenty
Read, slowly
Center in prayer, daily
Be grateful, beloved

I certainly can’t claim to be living up to it but it is a gentle reminder, a standard against which to compare my actual life and to reflect on how to move from here to there.

The spiritual life is not about keeping complex rules but about surrendering ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit transforming us from within even as we do everything we can to cooperate and to transform ourselves into the people who love. Always remembering that love is not what makes a Subaru, love is blessing all those around us, humans, plants and the environment. 

Always blessing, every day.



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