(With the release of my remix project, Song Cycles, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit and remix some musings I wrote about the ideas behind the song “More Like Falling In Love” back when it originally released.)
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 history and relics from the region of Qumran, where the Scrolls were discovered in the 1940’s, anticipation building 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 major religions, deepening our understanding of the ancient culture that produced these sacred texts.
Finally, we were led into a room that featured 6 tiny pieces of the scrolls in a light and climate controlled enclosure. Under glass were the holy texts, seemingly preserved by God himself as a gift to our modernity. Each piece was smaller than the palm of my hand, the writing so diminutive as to be barely readable.
I thought of Robinson Crusoe and how the common tools he gathered and the bits of wreckage that washed up on the shore must have become more like precious treasures because of their scarcity and his need of them. Likewise, these little bits of crude paper have washed up on the 20th century shores of this little blue rock that we are stranded on, and they are precious for their scarcity and our need. Or maybe they are more like messages in a bottle that have found their way to us over the waves of centuries, a voice from the past to answer the cacophony of critics who seem to never grow weary of challenging the authenticity of our ancient and sacred texts.
I don’t think I’m being merely sentimental when I say that to be present with these bits of paper was a moment pregnant with holiness. Each piece of the scrolls was from a different biblical book: Jeremiah, The 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”. This particular piece was fascinating to us and is what I would like to wonder about with you here. The bit of text on display, as I remember it, said something to this effect (disclaimer: I’m quoting from memory here):
If a member of the community sinned by oversight, that is to say by accident, they were to be excluded from certain communal meals and activities for two years time, at the end of which they would be able to rejoin the community. However, if they sinned by impertinence, that is to say willfully, they could 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.
Ironically, it seemed to us to be the very kind of religious ideology that Jesus took to task and came to challenge. Here were words and ideas added to the Word of God that carry in them the potential to distort our understanding of God, what he desires, and what following him looks like.
My wife Taya put it 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? To be initiated they had to solemnly make earnest promises to not talk to girls in order to be in the club, right? 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 as an outsider. Your survival depended on being part of the 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 and no amount of will power or vow taking will change that. But you can’t afford to get kicked out of the club. So either you lie, or you learn to 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 a little dicey in my mind when we rely solely on external motivation (i.e. “comply to our standards, or else!”) to get the job done. Because, of course, the most significant holiness can only come from the inside out, born of the Spirit. This is the difference between compelled obedience and inspired obedience. Legislating holiness can only deal with the outward symptoms of sin, but it rarely gets to the heart of the matter.
Here’s what I mean: let’s say I’m struggling with something, maybe it’s lust or some other 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 up the courage to be honest about it in the first place, so it doesn’t take much to feel shamed and like I’ve been shut down. And so 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 identify with 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 ought to lead us into deeper dependence and humility. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…” Too often, though, what passes for holiness has the whiff of self-righteousness. We often make holiness something to be performed, something that we achieve through discipline and our own effort. But isn’t this kind of holiness a sham and an insult to a Holy God?
Of course discipline, self denial, etc. is virtuous, but if we believe that we could for one moment accomplish perfect holiness for ourselves then don’t we nullify the necessity of Christ’s work on the cross? In other words, is it Christ alone or are we still clinging to the notion that if we just try hard enough we can save ourselves? It seems to me that the cross tells us that holiness is something we must ultimately trust God for, that we participate in rather than accomplish.
If we don’t trust God for holiness in our own life, we won’t trust him for it in the life of our faith community, either. When that happens, we begin trying to exact holiness 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, I believe 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. I still remember the day I realized that it wasn’t his yoke I was under at all, but rather the yoke of the demands of my religious community I was a part of at the time.
In other words, I was doing the right things for the wrong reasons, and ultimately for the wrong people. I misplaced my obligations, and when that happened my efforts toward holiness became a form of idolatry where I lived to please those who I let 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 an effective way to kill a relationship.
Show me a marriage that is healthy and fruitful and I’ll show you two people who have learned to love each other unconditionally and with forgiving hearts – 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 unless he was trying to help us understand something about the way he relates to us and the way we are to relate to each other?
From where I sit, the best that I can make of it is that it seems that God is telling us how the human heart works, why grace and unconditional love are of central significance, and why it’s so important that we let perfect love cast out all fear. Imagine a faith community defined by these virtues, where honest confession is free of fear and shame and instead is the key that unlocks grace and healing.
This kind of faith community is fertile soil for growing the kind of trust and intimacy that God desires of us and for us and that leads the way to holiness and sanctification, setting us free to do the right things for the right reasons, offering our obedience 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.
This was on my mind as I wrote verse two of a song about Christian faith being as much like falling in love as it is anything else. I am persuaded that only love can make pure holiness and pure worship available to us.
Parting shot: maybe the final irony in all of this is the grace of it all. Allow me a moment of presumption for the sake of hopefully seeing something beautiful about the mystery of God’s extravagance. Let’s assume for a moment that maybe my musings thus far have at least some merit. If it be true that some of the ideology that defined this ancient Qumran community was off the mark, and that perhaps this error was in essence a sin of either oversight or impertinence, then how much more beautiful and compelling is it that the Lord violated their own standards of holiness, choosing to use them to carry his very Word into history.
He works through the community of the broken and imperfect. This also happens to be, in spite of itself, a holy community. This is beautiful to me.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".