Give me words
I'll misuse them
I'll misplace them
`Cause all religion ever made of me
Was just a sinner with a stone tied to my feet
It never set me free
My family and I had the privilege of seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Minnesota Science Museum recently. We walked through rooms that featured facts and relics from the region of Qumran, where the Scrolls were discovered in the 1940's. Anticipation built as we learned of the remarkable significance of these documents and the equally remarkable circumstances surrounding their discovery, recognition, and now restoration.
The exhibit led us through the history of the part of the world that gave birth to all three of the world's three major religions, deepening our understanding of the ancient culture that produced the sacred texts.
Finally, we were led into a room that featured 6 tiny pieces of the scrolls in a light and climate controlled room. Under glass were the holy texts, seemingly preserved by God himself, a gift to the 20th century. Each piece was smaller than the palm of my hand, the writing so small as to be barely readable. Like Robinson Caruso gathering up common tools that in their scarcity become like precious treasures washed up on the beach, these little bits of paper washed up on the 20th century shores of the little blue rock that we are stranded on. Or maybe it's more accurate to think of them like messages in a bottle that have found their way to us over centuries to silence the critics who delight in attacking the scholarly authenticity of scripture.
I don't think I'm being sentimental when I say that it was a moment pregnant with holiness. Each piece of the scroll was from a different biblical book: Jeremiah, Psalms, Deuteronomy. There were non-sacred texts among the scrolls, too, that give clues about the life of the people of the time, including a piece of a document called "The Community Rule". The bit of text on display said something to this effect (I'm quoting from memory here):
If a member of the community sinned by oversight, that is by accident, they would be excluded from certain communal meals and activities for two years time, at which time they would be able to rejoin the community. However, if they sinned by impertinence, that is willfully, they were to be excommunicated entirely.
During our drive home we talked about our experience of the exhibit, the community rule in particular, and the religious order that produced it.
It seemed to us to be the very kind of religious ideology that Jesus came to address - here were words and ideas added to the Word of God that potentially distort our understanding of God and what he desires.
My wife Taya put it in a great way when she said, "now don't think I'm being irreverent, but it kind of reminds me of the Little Rascals - remember their club? The He-Man Woman Hater's Club? And they'd have to be initiated in and solemnly make earnest promises to not talk to girls in order to be in the club? Which of course made it even harder to not talk to girls, but you make these oaths because you so desperately want to be in the club! So you've got these guys in the desert who desperately need to be in the club - and in their time the club is everything, because if you're not in it, you're vulnerable to death and poverty. Your survival depended on being part of a community back then! So, okay, you need the protection of community, and you make the vows to not sin, and then that leaves you with only two options - to either lie or hide, because the truth is you are a sinner. But you can't afford to get kicked out of the club. So either you lie, or you hide."
Thank you, Taya, I couldn't have said it any better.
The sickness of religious idolatry can be measured by the extent to which it forces you to comply to standards of holiness in order to belong. There isn't anything wrong with the standards of holiness - we need those! But it gets dicey when we rely solely on external motivation to get the job done. The most significant holiness comes from the inside out, born of the Spirit. I'm talking about the difference between compelled obedience and inspired obedience. Legislating holiness can only deal with the symptoms of sin, but rarely gets to the heart of the matter.
Here's what I mean: let's say I'm struggling with something, maybe it's unconfessed sin, maybe it's honest doubt about the whole faith enterprise, maybe it's even anger or disappointment with God. Whatever it is, when I dare to be honest enough to give voice to it, I might be met with a religious attitude that is uncomfortable with my honesty, or that shames me for what I'm going through or the mistakes that I'd like to move beyond. It's hard enough to muster the courage to be honest about it in the first place, so it doesn't take much to feel like I've been shut down. I learn my lesson: that I have to lie or hide in order to be a part of this club.
This is an oversimplification, I know, yet I'm sure many of you reading this have felt what I'm talking about.
That doesn't mean that we go soft on holiness. On the contrary, we recognize that holiness is the Lord's domain, and that if he asks it of us it's because he intends to make it available to us - the desire for holiness leads us to deeper dependence and humility. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…" Too often holiness has the whiff of self-righteousness. This kind of holiness is a sham and an insult to a Holy God.
If we don't trust God for holiness in our faith community, we begin trying to exact it from those around us, and when we do that, our love becomes conditional, and we pervert the gospel by compelling others to be people pleasers - people who lie or hide in order to win the approval of those in charge of the clubhouse.
Meanwhile, the Lord is whispering to our hearts, wanting us to lay down our best efforts of holiness and instead let him shape it inside of us and draw it out of us.
"My yoke is easy, my burden is light" Jesus tells us, and at times I've been tempted to call him a liar as I've been crushed under the heavy yoke of legalistic obligation. At one point I realized that it wasn't his yoke I was under at all, but the yoke of what I thought was being demanded of me by the religious community I was a part of at the time. It was in this time that I had a grace awakening in my life.
In other words, I was doing the right things for the wrong reasons, and ultimately for the wrong people. I misplaced my obligations and my efforts toward holiness became a form of idolatry where I lived to please those who might stand in judgment over me. My unholy sacrifice upon their altar was my half-hearted compliance to their religious expectations. It became a stone around my feet that never let me move much beyond my sin and fear (or their control of me).
I've always believed that one of the chief purposes of marriage is to show us what a relationship with God is meant to look like. It's in marriage and parenthood that we're given a front row seat to sacrificial love, forgiveness, and trust.
Early in our marriage Taya and I (especially me) were guilty at times of coercing the other to get what we wanted, and withholding love and approval if the other didn't perform to expectations. It doesn't take long to realize this is the way to kill a relationship. It just won't work this way.
Show me a marriage that is healthy and fruitful and I'll show you two people who have learned to love each other unconditionally - recognizing each other as sinners, but not making the marriage dependent upon the other's performance. This kind of marriage is the soil that grows souls that are rich in freedom, honesty, intimacy, and transformation.
Why would God create an institution guided by such principles if he wasn't trying to help us understand something about the way He and the human heart work?
Well, from where I sit, it seems clear that God is telling us how it works, how relationships work, why grace and unconditional love are of central significance, why it's so important that we let perfect love cast out all fear. It's the only way to grow trust and intimacy, the very things that God desires of us. These will lead the way to holiness and sanctification, setting us free to do the right things for the right reasons, offering it as worship to the Lord God Almighty alone - a worship that he isn't willing to share with the people who we are tempted to please.
And this is another reason why our faith is more a matter of falling in love than it is anything else. Only love will produce pure holiness and pure worship.