I got to thinking in the middle of the sermon this Sunday:
There’s a polarized and polarizing discourse around “rules” or “commandments” and “obedience” in contemporary Christianity.
It’s as if, as soon as someone invokes “Biblical standards” or “obedience,” it signals a whole complex of other positions, as does any language about “cultural conditions” or “flexibility and being open to interpretation.”
So that the minute some people hear the words “commandments” or “obedience” they worry they’re dealing with a member of the tribe of Bible-thumping gay-bashing abortion-clinic-bombing Nazis who keep their submissive wives chained in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant and beat their home-schooled children with un-spared rods if they complain about taking another field trip to the Ark Encounter. While the minute someone has an issue with that language it signals to other people that they’ve run into one of those “post-modern cultural relativists” all of whom are godless divorced and remarried anarchists who let their drug-using transgender children have promiscuous pre-marital sex and who vote for Democrats who want to teach evolution in Texas schools.
Exaggerating. But only a little.
So I was appreciating our pastor, who was preaching on the lectionary texts (Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-21), for dodging that polarization and for putting the notion of “rules” into a frame that I’d never heard before, at least not exactly that way. And it made me notice that almost everyone has rules, and values those rules, and advocates having at least some rules – even though talking about rules has become a perilous undertaking.
In the children’s message – which is often edifying for the grown-ups as well – he talked about family rules. Do you have rules in your family, at your house? Of course we do: clean up the playroom; don’t slam doors; tell the truth. And almost always, those are rules that everyone in the family follows. Because following the family rules is one of the ways we belong to our family, and learn how to be a member of the family, and are known to others as members of that family. We are a kind of family at church, and we have things that we do as members of that “church family,” like coming here on a Sunday morning, or standing up and sitting down or saying particular words at particular times, things even very young people learn how to do. And God gives us rules, too, to make us into a people – like, people who don’t kill and don’t lie and don’t have lots of different gods, for instance. And those rules are a gift, because they help us be part of that family.
The sermon for adults expanded on this, adding in the notion of covenant – as something that gives us an identity, when we reflect on it, because it establishes a relationship, and what that relationship will include and exclude, and under what conditions we will do this and that. So a covenant says a lot about who we are, and who and what we will be and do. It identifies us. And the behavioral conditions are integral to a covenant.
And there is a way in which no longer following the covenant puts us outside it, the way not following the family’s rules makes us not a part of the family any more. Because one of the rules of family life is being together, taking part in the common life of the family, showing up when called. One example of that might be a family reunion, at least in families where coming to the family reunion is one of the rules of family life. Then, not coming to the gatherings sets someone outside the circle of the family.
On the other hand, maybe there are some family rules that are less definitive than that. At a family reunion there’s probably a giant picnic, and everyone has brought something to pitch in, and when people go to fill their plates, they don’t all take the same things. Not everyone in a family is identical, with identical tastes, and that’s OK.
That leaves open the question of which specific rules in any given family, like a church family, are identity-defining mandatory ones and which ones are like the macaroni salad, strictly optional.
That’s one of those questions people get into arguments over – and have gotten into arguments over, for centuries, if we’re talking Christians. [Historically, at least some doctrinal positions have been mandatory enough to start arguments like the Thirty Years War. If Christians had thought of all of those as being more like macaroni salad vs. potato salad, some people might not have lost their heads over them. Literally. On the other hand, someone – the organizers, if no one else – may need a criterion for who gets an invitation to the family reunion in the first place. “All the third cousins? Or just the ones who came last year?”]
Even with those arguments, though, and even in this day of polarizing discourse around “commandments” and “obedience” and what those terms do and do not signal, most of us can see the need for those family rules.
So, “here’s something everyone can agree on,” I was thinking.
Then I thought about Bob Gamble and This Child Here, a project for working with street kids in Ukraine, and something came back to me that he said many years ago, when he came to the Women’s Center to speak, back when the charity was just getting up and running:
That the kids he was working with preferred the misery of having “no rules.”
They lived lives with no one to make them get up or go to bed on time or do homework or wash their hair.
So it was a hard sell to get them to come to the shelter for homeless street kids that was warm and clean and had good food and clothes and beds and all, because it also had rules, and on the street they had “no rules.”
Misery, and exploitation, and violence, and addiction, and death. But “no rules.”
Not true, of course. A lie, really.
Because every way of life has some rules.
And some rules are more life-giving than others.
That might be something else at least most of us can agree on.