Faith Rule #3 – God Is God and I am Not

And neither are you.

You think we’d learn this somewhere along the way, but it is a rule that eludes us. The serpent in the ancient Garden of Eden tells Eve that if she eats of the fruit of the tree she and Adam will be “like God.” They eat it, of course, and learn the hard way that God is God and they are not, and no amount of forbidden fruit will change that basic reality. Moses tries to learn the name of God and is told, “I Am Who I Am,” which is a way of saying, “I am God and you are not – nice try though.”

And the futile human endeavor continues in our own day. There are those who like to speak of God with the familiarity that they might speak of their favorite uncle or a next door neighbor; some love nothing more than to explain to the rest of us why it is that God caused an earthquake in Haiti or sent two planes into the World Trade Center. If we are honest, we are all prone speaking for God to a greater or lesser extent. The other day at a church dinner, a little girl looked down the table at me and said to her mother, “Look Mommy, there’s God.” I have to admit, I kind of liked it. Which is exactly the problem. All of us would like our shot at a bite of that God-like fruit; all of us would like inside knowledge on the name of God.

I am not suggesting we should fall silent regarding God – though in some instances it might not hurt. At the very least, however, we could show some humility. Those of us who preach might do worse than ending every sermon with the words of Paul, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?'”

In other words, “God is God, and I am not.” And neither are you. Sorry about that.

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Faith Rule #2 – Grace is Free, but It’s Not Cheap

A follow up to rule #1. If it is all about grace, and if grace is a gift that cannot be earned or bought, then it is by definition free. Maybe this is the problem many of us have with grace, and the reason we sometimes think we have to “do something” to deserve it. A gift is not a gift if must be earned, or even “deserved.” A gift is an act of love. So, grace is a free gift.

We must be careful here, though, because we have been trained as Americans to believe that “you get what you pay for.” It is natural for us to think that because something is free, it must be cheap. The great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that grace is not cheap. The grace of God is manifest in God’s gift of Christ, God’s very self given for the sake of the world in an act of love. “For God so loved the world that God gave…” To truly comprehend the gift and the love that compelled it is to live one’s life in thanksgiving. A life of thanksgiving will be one filled with worship and service and discipleship, not in order to earn God’s grace, but in response to God’s grace. To take the gift for granted, to refuse to respond, to carry on with our lives as if nothing decisive has happened would be to run upstairs with our new gifts on Christmas morning and never say thank you. To do that would be to cheapen the gift.

I think that the entirety of the Christian life before God can be summed up in two words: “Thank you.”

Faith Rules

I read Food Rules: Eater’s Manual, by Michael Pollan, during a recent trip. I had read In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma prior to this one. Even though the food advice is sound – and we are trying to follow the rules in our household – the thing that struck me is Pollan’s ability to condense what is an almost impossible amount of often contradictory dieting advice into common-sense, succinct, and sound rules that are easily remembered and applied. A top-ten list culled from the total list of 64 rules:

1. Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.
2. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
3. Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.
4. Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third grader cannot pronounce.
5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
6. If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
7. It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.
8. Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.
9. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.
10. Pay more, eat less.

I commend the book to you. Each of the 64 rules come with a brief paragraph – sometimes only a small sentence, explaining the rule. Most of the rules require little explanation; the rules themselves are common-sense and simple. Following them, on the other hand, is not so simple, which is why I suspect we Americans are always looking for the complicated diet or the magic pill.

After reading this book in less than thirty minutes and finding my views on food radically altered, I wonder if it is not possible to think about matters of faith in the same way. Don’t get me wrong, the last thing Christians need is another list of rules, if by rules we mean a list of all the things we should not do. Lord knows those lists abound, and they are usually only good for creating guilt and building a faith on the unsteady foundation of what Calvin would have called “works righteousness.” If you believe – as I do – that we cannot work our way to God’s favor, but that faith is a gift, then a list of rules to follow in order to be in God’s favor is a futile and misleading effort.

The rules I am thinking about are more like Pollan’s rules. They serve as easy to remember guideposts into deeper reflection, they point to a way of life,not a list of dos and don’ts. And because they are easy to remember, they can be a real grace when we find ourselves in the midst of an often confusing world filled with competing voices. Like the Ten Commandments, they are a gift designed not to produce guilt, but to introduce us to a life that is really life, the kind of life Jesus called “abundant.”

So this Holy Week, I want to commend my own take on what might be called “Faith Rules.” I hope it might start a conversation with those who read this blog as you respond to my rules and add your own. I don’t think for a minute that these will rise to the level of the manifold “rules” that make up the rich Christian tradition, but I do hope they might do what Pollan’s book did for me regarding food – spark deeper reflection, a return to the Scripture and tradition, and a desire for the walk of faith to extend to all areas of living. So, here goes…

Faith Rule #1 – It is all about grace.

And by all, I mean all. The Old Testament, with the ancient tales of creation and call and covenant; the New Testament, with the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection; and your story and mine, with its joy and sorrow, glory and tragedy, life and death. When we wake in the morning and take a deep breath of air we did not buy, it is grace. When we step out into a sunshine we did not create, it is grace. When we receive an unexpected card in the mail in a time of grief, it is grace. Grace is the mystery that sustains the world. We do not earn it, we cannot control who receives it, we do not get to mete it out based on age or race or income or merit, we can only receive it and live it. Here’s a rule to live by in all relationships: if you must err, err on the side of grace. You’ll rarely go wrong, and if you do, grace abounds.