And yet ...
The problem with rules and a personality like mine is that the anxiety of them tends to wear me down and rob me of joy. I get worried and fretful. I read what other people have written, trying to suss out what's right from the myriad interpretations. I start doing my own clumsy, amateurish research.
What I end up with is feeling very down about myself. I can never be good enough. I can never surrender enough.
That leads me, fortunately, to God, begging Him for forgiveness and knowing He can make up my deficit. But I'm still sad. And it doesn't help when the advisors (of various stripes) say, condescendingly, "we must have joy in our hearts, so celebrate! ...but do it carefully."
That's why the fruits of my fast have been so really astonishing to me over the past couple of weeks. I use A Guide to Prayer from the Upper Room, both the "blue" edition (for ministers) and the "red" (for all God's people). I tend not to study during the week, but do the whole week's study in a gulp on Saturday and/or Sunday. It just seems to work better for me that way.
One of the readings one week was from Psalm 116, 1-2. In the NJB, it reads, "I am filled with love when Yahweh listens to the sound of my prayer, when he bends down to hear me, as I call."
I was struck by the thought that could mean "I am filled with love for Yahweh" - or it could mean - "I am filled with love -- from him loving me."
I rather like the second idea: that, when God listens to the sound of my prayer, I am filled with love. My life is filled with love.
Then a reading from James 2: "Talk and behave like people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom. Whoever acts without mercy will be judged without mercy but mercy can afford to laugh at judgement."
I highlighted that in my journal. It struck me because I've had to make some hard decisions over the last few years. I've had to separate myself from individuals who said they loved me, but who drained my spirit even after I communicated clearly what I needed from them... things appropriate to their role in my life. In making those sometimes terribly difficult choices, I've prayed and acted in the most fair and generous way I could. That has meant monetary hardship for me and, sometimes, humiliation. I felt at peace about it, but that verse from St. James was such a comfort. Even though there are those whose understanding of scripture tells them that what I did was wrong, God knows, and it is to God I will answer. For me, that's a rather brave stance.
When I was very young, and new in the church, my whole goal was to follow the rules carefully so as not to have regrets when I got older. This applied to everything in my life. When it came to dating, this meant being very careful to dress modestly, not tease the boy, etc. From my grandmother and mother, I learned that it was wrong to be forward - to bring up marriage, for instance. I held to these precepts even when my young man - a dear friend from high school, whom I really, truly loved - told me that he loved me, and I felt a huge need to respond to that and to follow up with something like, "can we please be married?" I couldn't breathe. I couldn't speak. I couldn't do anything in that moment, because all my energy was on not saying those words. That night, as we said good night, I felt so sad. I knew the moment had been lost. I tried to comfort myself that it would come again... he'd ask me later. He didn't. As it turned out, he wasn't thinking about that at all, being young and clueless himself. And my chaste behavior, which he always honored out of love for me, left him vulnerable to a direct attack by a determined young woman to whom I couldn't avoid introducing him. He was gone in weeks. The day he told me he was leaving to go with her, we held each other and sobbed.
Obviously there were more factors than I'm disclosing or can possibly accurately convey. Our parents and their issues, which kept them from inquiring too deeply into what was going on so they could advise us. The young woman's incipient mental problems. His Cleaver-esque upbringing which left him completely unprepared for her tactics. My long experience with my bipolar mother, which let me see the train wreck happening from afar off, helpless to stop it.
I was left with the certain knowledge that, if I had spoken what I was impelled to speak that night, I might not have lost him. Losing him was one of the worst things that could ever have happened to me. The well-meaning rule-makers had inadvertently caused me to let go of my very life. I had bought into their dogma, and, ironically, the very rules I depended on to preserve me from regret left me to deal with it years and years later, after a lifetime of refusing to acknowledge I even felt any. After all, I'd followed the rules, hadn't I?
But I hadn't trusted God, or myself, or him.
In the Daily Guide, there was a quote from James C. Fenhagen's Invitation to Holiness in which he reflects on the many passages in the Psalms and elsewhere where the authors speak of their love for the law of the Lord and their delight in meditating on it. Fenhagen writes,
"Our concern is not to have presented to us a blueprint for life that will allow us to avoid risk, but rather a vision of integrity from which decisions are made and life is lived. Similarly, our concern for the Law and the prophetic insight into the power of evil as it operates in the world is not to win God's acceptance by so-called right behavior, but to know within ourselves the desperate need we have for the Grace offered to us in Jesus Christ."That quote arrested my thought and led to the vivid teenage memory I related above. I still need to learn that lesson now, as a mature adult.
But God goes with me ...