Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19.14)
God is Moving
Yesterday was one of those delectable spring days that make quarreling with a Chicago winter worth it. The bright sun held the temperature at a steady 60 degrees and big warm gusts blew away the cobwebs in everyone’s head. Walt and I headed out for “the Broadway stroll”—a tradition on days like this, when it seems like our entire neighborhood converges on a mile-and-a-half stretch of Broadway lined with shops and restaurants. A half-block down the street we bumped into one of many regulars we’ve got to know over the years. Elizabeth is a schizophrenic who lives in a nearby shelter. Her meds have caused her to grow a scraggly goatee and she spends most of her day seated two doors down from a Subway franchise. Like many of our neighbors, when we see her, we always stop to ask how she’s getting along. She held an unwrapped sandwich; so we asked if she was covered for dinner. “No, sir,” she said. We helped her with that, hugged her—she’s a big hugger—and I said, “We’re praying for you, Liz,” to which she answered, “I’m praying for you all, too.” Then she added, “God is moving in our lives.” We smiled in agreement. She said it again: God is moving in our lives.
As we moseyed along, Walt and I remarked a number of times about what Elizabeth told us. The purity of it wouldn’t let us alone. And as we repeated her words, the joy of an early spring day gave way to something brighter, warmer, richer. It rode on the breeze and glinted in the sunlight. We heard it in fellow pedestrians’ laughter, in the melodies of street musicians, in all the happy sounds filling the air. God is moving in our lives. There it was all around us: God. Moving. Life.
Increasingly High Hurdles
Before we left the apartment, I’d glanced at Sunday’s readings and, to be truthful, was glad to let them wait. The Old Testament text (Exodus 20.1-17) reviews The Ten Commandments. Psalm 19 extols the beauty of God’s laws. The New Testament (1 Corinthians 1.18-25) has Paul guiding his readers away from viewing the Law as an ironclad imperative, since we can never fully comprehend God’s reasons. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” he writes. The Gospel (John 2.13-22) recounts the infamous Temple-clearing episode, where Jesus subverts the authorities’ demand for a “sign” that He’s qualified to take the Law into His own hands by offering His upcoming death and resurrection as proof He embodies the Law.
It was apparent the lectionary wanted us to see The Ten Commandments and all the religious laws that have cropped up around them—both in Scripture and post-biblical doctrines—as something greater than codified behaviors and beliefs. But if laws and doctrines are supposed to achieve more than corral our attitudes and actions, what might their objectives be? How often do we hear good-hearted, spiritually inclined people say they want nothing to do with the Christian faith because it’s nothing but a bunch of do’s and don’ts? (A lot.) And how often do we cogently explain why following Christ is so much more than obeying an archaic set of rules? (Rarely.)
Uncertain that I could make sense of this double-bind—loving God’s laws while exercising Christian freedom from the Law—I put it out of mind. “Maybe something will come to me,” I thought, breathing a prayer something would. No less than 10 minutes later, the answer met me in Elizabeth’s profoundly assured wisdom. God is moving in our lives. The laws we so desperately want to carve in stone cannot be pinned down because the God Who issues them will neither be carved in stone nor pinned down. God moves in us constantly, responding to our movements, growing in us as we grow, perpetually challenging us, always asking more of us than we presently possess or believe we can achieve. God’s laws aren’t like our laws. They’re not given to mandate morality or deter behaviors, even though they ultimately do both. They’re meant to draw us into the process of moving with God as God moves in us. They’re not fences designed to hem us in; they’re a series of increasingly high hurdles we learn to clear so that God’s presence and purpose become increasingly evident in our lives. A good look at how The Ten Commandments are organized explains how this works.
The Degree of Difficulty
There’s a deliriously funny moment in Mel Brooks’ History of the World—Part One, when Brooks, as Moses, comes down from Mt. Sinai with three tablets. He declares, “The Lord Jehovah has given you these 15”—then he drops one of the tablets and it shatters—“oy, 10, 10 commandments for all to obey.” I mentioned the scene to Walt while telling him I was at a loss about how to approach Sunday’s texts. He said something that got me thinking. “What if there were 15,” he mused, “and the five that got away were ‘happy’ commandments like, ‘Have fun every day’ or ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself’? What if 11 through 15 were really easy commandments?” While I resist imagining they’d be as easy as those Walt invented, their placement at the bottom of the list suggests they’d be easier to obey than those above them.
If we look at The Ten Commandments in descending order, the degree of difficulty is markedly reduced as we go down the list. The bottom five are straightforward “don’ts”: don’t covet what your neighbor has; don’t tell lies about your neighbor; don’t steal; don’t commit adultery; and don’t murder. Most of these behaviors go beyond the pale for us—they’re literally unconscionable—and those that aren’t nonetheless require a conscious moral breach to disregard. As we climb the list, however, what God expects of us involves more judicious responses. “Honor your father and your mother” requires us to evaluate our motives: are we making choices for our good? Or are we reacting to parental prohibitions to prove a point? “Keep the Sabbath”: are we respecting God’s wish that we set aside a day to worship our Creator and rest from our labors? Or are we taking a day off for idle self-indulgence? “You shall not make for yourself an idol”: Do we reserve worship for God? Or are our lives overcrowded with other objects of adoration? “Have no other gods before Me”: Does faithfulness to God top our list of commitments? Or do we rank others above God? The higher up the list we go, the harder it gets. Suddenly we’re aware that this seemingly arbitrary roster of laws presents us with a process—a gantlet of sorts that gets us closer to God as we master each increasingly difficult demand.
Fixing God’s law as a monolithic wall writ large with do’s and don’ts will result in constantly crashing into it. We will never reach the place it wants to lead us, a point in life where we become intensely sensitive to God’s movement in us. Mastering God’s laws one by one is no easy task. It’s fraught with failure. We keep trying again and again. Yet only by learning to obey God’s laws can we be like Jesus, Who rose above the Law by conquering its impossible demands.
A Hurdler’s Prayer
When we come to view God’s law as a gradually difficult process, we understand why David fills Psalm 19 with high praise for God’s edicts. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul,” he sings. “The decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.” (v7-10) With every hurdle, God’s movement in David’s life becomes more evident. And he closes his hymn to God’s expectations with a hurdler’s prayer we should all incorporate into our daily lives: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” It’s a gradual process, not a grueling list of prohibitions.
God’s laws grow more demanding in order to make God’s movement in our lives more evident.
Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/03/11/movement/.