a desert trail
Now that the weather is getting cooler I get to hike onto the desert floor more often. Some of the trails near our home are marked pretty well, but you don't have to travel far before the trail markings disappear. If you have a hiking book, you can look up GPS coordinates. Otherwise you must solely rely on a compass to find your way; and there are plenty of horror stories about people without a compass getting lost, wandering for days, and even dying in the vast desert expanses of unmarked terrain.
As I hiked yesterday, I was thinking about all the many laws and rules that had pretty much given me precise directions as to which paths I was expected to take as I walked my life journey. From the time I was a child growing up in the church, I was taught all the rules and laws from which I dare not deviate lest I incur the wrath of God and find myself on a path to damnation.
From my very earliest days, I was taught the ten God-given commandments which were accompanied by long lists of church rules governing everything I might ever possibly think, or say or do. (nothing was left to the imagination). Murder and stealing were wrong and so was disobeying parents, along with eating meat on Fridays or missing church on Sunday. If you didn't follow the prescribed paths, penalties were incurred. Mortal sins (big ones like "sins of the flesh") would get you into big trouble. Venial sins (like saying a bad word) would still make God mad, but the penalty would be less severe.
I still remember one of my grammar school "nuns" who designed a checklist for us to help ensure that we kept on the "straight and narrow" path. It was many pages long and pretty much summarized the laws of God and the church, and the many ways you could break those laws in "thought, word and deed." Before each law my teacher placed a little checkbox, so if you messed up, you could mark the box and then confess it. ( I don't remember what exactly happened to my checklist, but I do remember placing lots of marks in those little boxes).
As I grew into adulthood, the emphasis on following laws was not as blatant as it was when I was a child, but the laws of God and the church were still very much part of how I lived my life. And when I was ordained as a priest, I was not only expected to follow the laws but I was now expected to enforce them - laws of God, canons of the church, laws for running a parish.
When Jesus came upon the world stage some 2000 years ago, he entered into a religious culture governed by some 613 laws. The "Temple Laws" of Jesus' day (not unlike the laws of the church) governed everything a person might think, do or say (or eat, drink, wear or how far to walk on the sabbath). If you followed the clear path spelled out by the laws, you could expect God's favor; if you strayed off the path, you were unclean and cast away.
Jesus taught his disciples that they didn't need a book of laws. What they needed instead was a moral compass to make a path through the wilderness of life. He told his disciples to set their compass in the direction of love and compassion. He told them not to walk the path alone -hold hands with your neighbors and help each other along the way, paying special attention to those having a more difficult time with the journey.
He also told his followers that, if the laws helped to follow in the path of love, obey them; if not, break the rules. And indeed he broke a lot of rules - he kissed unclean lepers, ate with sinners, healed on a sabbath day, embraced hated Samaritans- all against the law, but all in the direction toward which his moral compass pointed.
I live out in the wilderness - at the fringes of the religious institution, and I am a "Christ-follower." I have put away the rule books, set aside the checklists, and have taken out my compass. In fact I keep a compass on my desk as a daily reminder of the path I follow. It points in the direction of love and compassion, and following in that direction, I will never get lost along the way.
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