Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Moral Compass

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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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article. I am a recovering Southern Baptist, from West Texas, which made the recovery a lot worse than normal. I also was raised under many such laws and rules that constrained - and majorly pained - me. I graduated from a small rural West Texas high school, started my first year and a half of college, and found that my strict background left me totally incompetent to manage my own feelings and emotions. I blew with every wind because so many of those rules failed to teach me the way the world really works. I also found I was helpless to protect myself from people who were malfeasant, misfeasant, and non-feasant, because I had been taught obedience, but not discernment or self-protection. I had not been taught to recognize relational misguidance and dangers, and had to learn a lot of things the hard way. Fortunately I came out without the major problems of addictions in alcohol, drugs and sex, but in the sexual and relationship arenas I found I could not comprehend women, much less relate to them in a normal, useful fashion.

    God picked me up and got me in the Air Force, where I learned disciplines different than from my teacher/superintendent/Baptist/deacon father and mother. AF disciplines opened better doors for me with men, but still not much with women. Chapel helped enlarge my religious boundaries. Women have always been a major source of pain to me, until a friend helped me out recently. AF assigned me to learn flight simulators, which taught me the discipline of thinking in extremely practical terms of large, complicated, interacting systems. AF also assigned me to the Netherlands for 3 years in 1963, before Vietnam took over many males in my generation. I learned learning Dutch language, culture, and social norms thoroughly; and had my spirituality expanded in major ways just because of that influence. Afterwards I returned to my native West Texas beginnings and discovered there was absolutely no way I could ever fit back into either the culture or religion of my youth.

    Many years of life later, including university, marriage, career, parenting, and multiple mass high-tech layoffs, I discovered the reality of the spirit that moves in all things, particularly in the ways we were taken care of in all the layoffs, a bankruptcy, 2 instances of homelessness with our 3 kids; and all in ways that were totally surprising and unexpected. I came to realize the power of God/spirit/universe/the Force/whatever, and then I really came to realize fully the failure of my conservative Christian background to even teach me the basic fundamentals of the Bible; much less how to apply it in the real world. They also failed to comprehend this spiritual presence guiding our creation and - when we pay attention (or not) - our very lives.

    I now tell people that I am no longer a Christian, and that I would rather follow the Bible because it works better. I understand very well your path away from a religion that refuses to teach the practical applications of the law. This was a religion which also failed to point out that the modern rules we have for Quality Managed factories and companies that the Japanese have taken so many markets away from us with are very similar to the teachings of Jesus which lead us to the concept of servant leadership. Many of those companies are winning international markets because they treat their employees, customers, and suppliers with the respect and fairness that Jesus taught. That is another lesson to me, from my years in corporate life, that the Bible really is true in many respects; it’s the religion that is false because they won’t even teach the law of their own God or the servant leadership taught and exemplified by Jesus.

    Thanks for the article and blog; I find your thoughts very interesting.

    Bob Terrell