Bending Rules

Bending tree2This Week’s Lectionary Text: Luke 7:36-8:3

I am for the most part a rule-follower (so I’m trying to get back to posting some blogs!).  Part of it is due to what could probably be considered my meticulous, “Type A” personality, but my guess is that most of it is due to my small-town, Protestant upbringing.  Rules are good.  They create boundaries; they can provide protection; they serve as a foundation on which to stand and from which to grow as we are guided by the remnants of the past.  Our society and our lives are built on rules.  So what happens when the rules are not followed?  Does it always result in chaotic anarchy?  Or are there some rules that it’s alright to stretch just a bit? Do you think that there are possibly some rules that need to be bent?

We all know enough about religion to know that it was based on rules from the very beginning.  My own denomination’s generally-accepted beliefs and consensual polity are encapsulated in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  This is not a new publication.  It’s been around for about as long as Methodism has been in the United States.  I have a small collection of antique Disciplines and the oldest one that I have is dated 1828.  I also have one that I found in my great-grandfather’s attic.  It’s from 1900.  When you look through it, there are some similarities to our current one.  It has the Articles of Religion and the General Rules.  But it’s also got some rules that we would probably consider just downright odd.  They seemed to be very concerned with how people dressed and intent on insuring that people did not come to church wearing too much jewelry.  There are very few of us that would fit into that mold of what we’re supposed to look like when we come to church.  The point is that sometime rules change.  Sometimes they need to be edited or added to and I think sometimes they need to be thrown out altogether.       

In the Gospel passage that we read, we are given lots of rules.  It starts at the beginning when it tells us that Jesus “took his place at the table.”  He took his place as if there was a designated place where he was supposed to sit.  It was probably, you could surmise, toward the head of the table to the right of the host.  Isn’t that what the rules of etiquette usually tell us?  And then this woman enters—a woman already defined by the community and now by Scripture as a “sinner”.  Somewhere along the way she had apparently broken some rule of conduct and violated what would be considered an acceptable way of living and being. (People have often designated her a prostitute.  Go there if you want, but it never really tells us, so…maybe that’s not a great “rule of thumb”!)  And now she is apparently interrupting what is probably a perfectly-choreographed evening in the home of one of the most respected religious leaders.  She desires to anoint Jesus’ head with oil.  (Boy, I hope she doesn’t get that all over the imported tablecloth!) But standing nearer Jesus’ feet, she is suddenly overcome with emotion and begins to weep.  She begins to wash his feet with her tears, takes down her hair to dry them and then kisses them and pours the anointing oil on them.  What a spectacle that must have been!  And right here in the home of this respected Pharisee!

And so the Pharisee not only pronounces judgment on the woman, but also on Jesus.  After all, they had both broken the rules!  Woman of questionable reputation did not act like this, with weeping and flying hair and all, and if Jesus was really who he claimed to be, he would have known better.  But Jesus’ response is not the apology that the Pharisee and his “respectable” guests probably expected.  Instead Jesus challenges Simon’s pronouncement of both of them by launching into a parable about forgiveness.  And woven through the parable are reminders of what the woman did.  She openly and generously gave of herself, more than anyone else at the table had done.

Jesus is trying to make them realize that there is something more than rules, there is something more than religion, and there is something more than doing the “right thing”.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the faith that stands on authority is not faith”.  I think that is what Jesus is trying to get across.  Faith is not about rules.  The woman’s intense act of love beyond all reasonable expectations and all acceptable actions becomes a means of grace.  It leads us to God.  It shakes us out of our comfort zones of what is normal and expected and even acceptable because, when you think about it, Jesus was very seldom normal and expected and even acceptable.  Instead he showed us how to step out of our boxes and live a life of faith—real faith that is untamed and uncontrolled and virtually undefined, a faith that rips open our carefully-sewn-together lives just enough to let God’s presence spill into them.     

 In a 2006 article in the “National Catholic Reporter”, editor Tom Roberts said that “we live in an age of expanding religion and a diminishing God.”  Those words probably make several of us squirm.  After all, have we become so sure of who we think God is and what we think God wants from us that we are willing to sacrifice the new and expanding ways that God interacts with our lives?  Religion and faith are not the same thing. Religion is about what we believe and why we believe.  It is about tradition, the institution, the system, and, yes, the rules.  When you think about it, our religion has been constructed over centuries.  It has given us creeds and liturgy and definitions of God.  It gathers us and grounds us and reminds us of a world to come.  It gives us commandments and rules that guide the way we live so that we can become what we seek, so that we can journey toward a oneness with God.  It is meant to lead us to God, not pave the way (as in make it easier) or drive us there. 

Somewhere in the midst of those rules we, like Jesus, have to do a little bending.  We have to at some point move beyond and transcend the rules and rituals.  We have to look beyond where we are to that place to which God calls us.  That is where faith comes in.  That is where God, greater than any religion, meets us.

In her book, Called to Question, Joan Chittister says that “in order to find the God of life in all of life, maybe we have to be willing to open ourselves to the part of it that lies outside the circles of our tiny little worlds.”  She goes on to tell a Sufi tale of disciples who, when the death of their master was clearly imminent, became totally bereft.  “If you leave us, Master,” they pleaded, “how will we know what to do?”  And the Master replied, “I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon.  Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.”  The meaning is clear:  It is God that religion must be about, not itself.  When religion [or rules] makes itself God, it ceases to be religion.  But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility.”[i]  Chittister maintains that “religion ends where spirituality begins.”  From that standpoint, these rules, these dogmas, all of these things that make up our religion are not our faith journey, but they lead us through it.  They are, from that standpoint, a means of grace.

And as we change, as our journey changes, as our context changes, perhaps we are sometimes called to the act of bending rules.  It doesn’t mean that we’re dismissing them or ignoring them.  It means that we are allowing the conversation about God to continue.  But more important than that, it means that we are becoming part of the conversation.  We are becoming part of the journey.  And so, perhaps we really are called to a spiritual discipline of bending the rules sometimes.  It is part of the ongoing conversation, the ongoing faith journey of which we are a part.  Sometimes that bending means we just understand it better after we’ve questioned and explored.  Sometimes it means that we need to add something to make it clearer for us and for those who walk this journey with us.  And sometimes it means that we need to get rid of things that no longer augment or serve to depict our understanding of who God is and how God enters and is revealed in our lives.   Hugh E. Brown said that “Christianity is not being destroyed by the confusions and concussions of the time; it is being discovered.”  That is the point.  We don’t discover how God is revealed to us without continuing to think about it, continuing to look and re-address how we have understood God. 

That’s what Jesus was doing that day at the Pharisee’s house.  He wasn’t shunning the rules that had been a part of the faith tradition for as long as anyone could remember.  He was just bending them a bit, making them a bit more pliable, a bit more nimble, a little bit more transcendent, a little bit closer to what God had in mind.  The rules are meant to be foundations on which we can stand and through which God is revealed.  But when they become boundaries that control who is welcome and who is accepted, or who is invited to live out their own calling or who is not, that is not what God is about.  So, Jesus didn’t really follow the rules.  In fact, Jesus often got himself in trouble with those rule-followers.  Jesus just loved God and wanted to reveal that love for us and everyone else.  And here was this woman—a sinful woman, the Scriptures say—shunned by the rule-followers and welcomed by God.  Because you see this woman did what we are called to do—love generously and extravagantly, love the way that God loves.  G.K. Chesterton said that we should “let our religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  There are really very few rules—except to love the way God loves and be open to doing perhaps a little bending.

So, go do a little rule-bending of your own!
Grace and Peace,
(To see notes on all of the Lectionary texts for this week, go to

[i] Joan Chittister, Called to Question:  A Spiritual Memoir, (Lanham, MD:  Sheed & Ward, 2004), 19-20.


"Women at the Well", part of a mural by Emmanuel Nsama, Zambia
“Women at the Well”, part of a mural by Emmanuel Nsama, Zambia

Scripture Passage:  John 4: 5-26

5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’;18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

The journey has shifted.  No longer are Jesus’ words limited to those in his immediate circle.  He leaves the confines of what he knows and begins to turn to outsiders, those who tradition and cultural and societal norms have rejected. First on the list are the Samaritans.  The less than civil relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans dated back at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.  Both believed in God.  Both had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared tradition of belief.  But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead worshipped God on Mount Gerizim near the ancient city of Shechem.  And with that, a new line of religious understanding was formed.  The Samaritans believed that their line of priests was the legitimate one, rather than the line in Jerusalem and they accepted only the Law of Moses as divinely inspired, without recognizing the writings of the prophets or the books of wisdom.   What started as a simple religious division, a different understanding of how God relates to us and we relate to God, eventually grew into a cultural and political conflict that would not go away.  The tension escalated and the hatred for the other was handed down for centuries from parent to child over and over again.

So, here is Jesus breaking all of the boundaries of traditional religion.  He, unescorted, speaks to a woman.  He speaks to a woman of questionable repute.  And he speaks to the enemy. The truth is, there is nothing about this woman that is wrong or sinful or anything else that we try to tack on her reputation.  This woman was just different.  Her life had been difficult.  She lived in the shadows of humanity.  And the most astonishing thing is that this seemingly low-class woman who is a Samaritan becomes the witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Once again, the Gospel is found not in Jerusalem and not on Mt. Gerizim but in our shared existence as part of this “new humanity”.

Now, the woman does miss Jesus’ point.  She looks upon Jesus as some sort of miracle worker, rather than seeing that he offers a new way of being.  Even this story deals with suffering—the woman surely suffered.  Good grief, she was there by herself—couldn’t even face the crowd.  And Jesus—well Jesus was just thirsty.  “Give me a drink…I thirst.” We all have needs; we all have fears—that is the nature of our true humanity.  And maybe the story teaches us that from our need we will realize who God is.  Maybe, in fact, it is IN our very need that we find God, those times when we are unsure of ourselves and not quite so confident that we are heading the right direction in our lives.  So, this woman’s new life begins when she recognizes Jesus’ true identity.  Maybe that’s our problem.  We are still looking for the Jesus that will make our lives easier rather than the one who will give us new life.  We are still looking for a Jesus that will affirm where we are rather than leading us to this new thing that God is doing.  We are still looking for a Jesus that will become our own personal Savior, our own private Messiah, rather than the Salvation and Life of the world.

Our faith journey is not just ours.  Contrary to what some may tell you, you are not carrying the sole responsibility for “getting it right”.  The journey, rather is made up of encounters with those that God places in our path.  At each turn, we grow, we change, our pathway broadens.  The procession to the Cross has already begun.  We are walking together, gathering others into our midst as we walk.  This is what Jesus did.  The journey to the Cross began long before the gates of Jerusalem at the end of the Palm Sunday Road.  The journey began “in the beginning”.  The journey weaved through a garden, into the lessons learn from the stories of an ark, and was there as its followers were carried into exile.  The journey held deliverance and led us up to a mountaintop.  It has held prophets’ voices and the wisdom of sages.  On it were two women named Naomi and Ruth who held each other through their trials.  It was the road for kings and judges and those who were trying to figure out why a life had fallen apart.  The journey turned into a small town outside of Jerusalem where life and clarity and salvation were born.  It returned us to the place of exile, which this time held deliverance.  The journey is one of water and wine and welcome for all.  This journey has taught us how to love and how to thirst.  It has shown us what it means to have faith and not need certainty.  It has taught us that questions are part of it all.

We are still gathering in.  And now it turns…one more mountain to climb and then the procession will enter Jerusalem.  But that is not the end; there is always more up ahead.  But we do not travel alone.  God has already gone before us and still walks with us to show the Way.  So, as our Lenten journey nears Jerusalem, remember from where you’ve come and remember what you have received from those that you have encountered on the way.  Remember who and whose you are.  Remember that you do not walk alone.

Grace and Peace,


The Road

This Week’s Lectionary Passage:  1 Corinthians 10: 1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,3and all ate the same spiritual food,4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.  6Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.”8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.10And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.11These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Well, it seems as if Paul is trying to shake up his Corinthian hearers a bit.  After all, they were pretty sure of themselves.  They were righteous and God-fearing and their faith was serving them well.  But Paul reminds them that it is not about them.  After all, a life of faith is not a life of checking off the boxes of all things good that one has done and counting one’s accolades; it is, rather, a life of an ongoing relationship with God.  And, as we all know, relationships do not move in a neat escalating line.  They have ups and downs and sometimes feel as if they are going to break completely apart.  Paul (as opposed to others in that day and, sadly, in ours) sees salvation here as a journey, an ongoing relationship, rather than securing a place in heaven or avoiding a place in hell. 

The truth is, relationships are hard.  This faith thing is hard.  It does not guarantee one a life of ease or plenty.  As Paul reminds us, look at the past. Faithful people lived in the shadows and had the waves crash over them.  Things were not easy.  Why would our life be different?  You see, faith is not something that removes us from life, that separates us from the world.  Faith is what calls us to live there, to be who we are called to be in this world, showing the world a different pathway.  Yeah, I know, it’s not easy.  But we have to persevere.

In our time, so much of religion is presented as a cure for all.  Well-meaning seekers are promised that faith, REAL faith, UNENDING faith, UNFALTERING faith, will bring them health and wealth and ease.  OK, excuse me here, but, really…no.  The Scriptures never depicted that.  This faith thing is hard.  Did you forget that it has to do with a cross, an instrument of death?  Did you forget that it acknowledges that pain and suffering is part of life?  Did you forget that we are told to deny ourselves and follow a pathway that we’ve never followed before?  But, more than anything else, did you forget that God has walked ahead?

It may not be easy; it may destroy you; it may even end your life as you know it.  But God has walked this way before.  That’s the difference between shallow, empty pictures of fame and fortune dangled above a well-paved and perfectly landscaped path and following this bumpy, over-grown road with the marks of a cross drug through it and the, albeit faint, footsteps of faithful travelers who have gone before. 

Faith is not about finding the easiest way but following where God has gone before.

Grace and Peace,


LENT 2B: Religiosity on Life Support

Lectionary Text:  Romans 4: 13-17 (18-25):
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,  as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

In our pragmatic 21st century minds, sometimes it is much easier to grasp at the obvious and to make that the basis of our belief.  But, as Paul reminds us, if our whole faith system depends on nothing more than adhering to the set of laws or interpretations that have been laid down by those that came before us, what good is faith?  Remember that faith is about relationship.  The law is not bad.  In fact, it’s usually a necessary construct to help us understand, to help us point to that which we believe.  But it is not the end all.  It is not the God who offers us relationship.

Now, that said, I personally struggle with those who profess to be “spiritual and not religious”.  Really?   For me, it’s a little like traveling without baggage, which can mean that your not weighted down and are essentially free to do what you want, but, chances are, at some point you’re going to find yourself virtually unprepared for what you encounter.  To put it another way, how many of you really want to go to dinner with someone who always leaves their wallet at home?  They may be fun to talk to and all, but is that really the way we live?

There is a story told among Zen Buddhists about a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading. “I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.” Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”  Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” (from a commentary by Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, available at, accessed 27 February, 2012.)

Now I don’t think Paul would in any way dismiss religion or even the rules.  He’s just reminding us that they have their limitations.  They are not God.  In fact, it is easy for them to become idols of worship in and of themselves (and last I read that was frowned upon!).  But they have their place.  They provide a systematic way of at least attempting to understand something that, in all honesty, really makes no sense to us.  (And, to turn it around, professing to be “spiritual and not religious” actually has a good chance of becoming a religion in and of itself.)  An authentic faith, it seems, is one that weaves what doesn’t make sense into understanding, laughter into prayer, and a grace-filled encounter of the Divine into our everyday life.  It is about both transcendence and meaning and, on a good day, the weaving together of the two into a Holy Encounter with the Divine Presence that it always in our life. 

You cannot practice religion for religion’s sake.  That would certainly be the death of your being.  You need to somehow breathe life into it.  That’s where spirituality comes in.  But spiituality cannot stand alone because it has nothing on which to stand.  Together they are religiosity on life support—a practice of faith, an embrace of the faith community, a recognition of one’s call to help and serve others, all with the Spirit of God, the life of your being, breathed into onself. 

G.K. Chesterton said to “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair”.

On and on…continuing with our act of giving up so that we can take on, on this seventh day of Lent, think about the rules that you follow in your life and in your faith.  Which of them give you life?  Which of you them do not?  Let go of those rules that do not give you life, even if they are the “untouchable” ones!  It’s not about rules; it’s about life! 

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,