Discerning Effective Ways of Nurturing Our Relationships with God

            If you know me, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I earned a reputation as a bit of a rulebreaker. I don’t always behave the way some people might say I’m “supposed to behave.” I don’t always dress in a way that some people would probably call “professional.” I’ve been known to (gasp!) use four-letter words in conversations, and I don’t always keep things nice and tidy. In fact, I’m terribly disorganized. Stop by my office sometime and if it’s been more than a week since I’ve cleaned my desk, you might have a hard time finding a place to set down your stuff while we talk. As you can imagine, the person probably most frustrated with the way I carry myself is my wife. She has to live with me. She has to go places with me when I’m dressed like a goofball. She has to roll her eyes and save face with company when I make a dumb joke. She has to share the same dwelling space with me. She likes things tidy, and I don’t notice when they’re not. This means she spends far more time cleaning and tidying the house than I do. It also means that for her own sanity, she chooses to clean up not only her messes, but mine, too! God bless that woman! So if I recognize that I’m not exactly the best rule follower, why don’t I change my ways? In fairness, sometimes I do try to work on these things. But other times, I’m quite comfortable following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.

            But Fr. Tim, aren’t rules (and laws) put in place for a reason? Yes, many times they are. And following rules and laws is a helpful way to keep order. If the speed limit is 25 miles per hour, there’s a good chance that you’re on a road that runs through a residential area. There might be children at play or families out for walks. It’s much easier to stop quickly when you’re not travelling very fast. Driving faster than the speed limit in this case could be a nuisance at best, and dangerous or even deadly at worst. Or what about when your mother told you not to run with scissors? That’s a pretty good rule! You could trip and fall, and the blades could cause a serious injury to you or to someone else, or damage walls and furniture. But some rules are less important. Once a news organization was planning to come film footage at the hospital where I served, and someone asked me not to wear an aloha shirt that day because we were going to be on television. I considered that a “them” problem and not a “me” problem. Guess what I wore that day? The loudest shirt I owned! But for the most part, rules and laws are intended to keep us safe. Good rules and laws exist to protect people, animals, property, and the environment. I can easily get behind those kinds of rules. But rules that exist simply because someone else thinks they should exist? I’m often quite willing to disregard those rules. At the very least, I’m willing to push them to their limits.

            There are rules and laws in life, but there are also a lot of rules in the Church. Again, these rules are designed to enhance our spiritual experiences and to acknowledge the sacredness of God and all things holy. For example, there are a lot of rules surrounding sacramental theology. For a priest to perform a wedding, that priest must ensure the couple has participated in premarital counselling. For a person to receive Holy Communion, denominations have rules in place to teach their followers when and how they ought to receive. A person seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church must be baptized and confirmed before entering the process. All these rules make sense, and they are all good rules. But sometimes, it isn’t practical to follow rules. When I was in seminary, I participated in a chaplaincy internship at San Quentin State Prison in California. You know. That San Quentin. The one where some of the world’s most notorious convicts served their time. The San Quentin that houses the largest death row in the Western Hemisphere. The San Quentin that has a history of California’s gallows and its now disassembled gas chamber. The gas chamber that claimed the lives of nearly 200 inmates before it was replaced by a lethal injection table (installed in the space once occupied by the gas chamber chairs). The San Quentin where Johnny Cash performed his famous concert for the inmates and the San Quentin where Charles Manson, Scott Peterson, and yes, even Danny Trejo, served at least portions of their sentences. The San Quentin. The internship and corresponding seminary course were led by a Catholic prison chaplain. I learned so much from the chaplain, a Jesuit priest who welcomed everyone to the communion table, even the Episcopalians. In his eyes, if a death row inmate could receive communion, then certainly an Episcopal seminarian could as well. And that example, in and of itself, is an example of what I mean about following the spirit of the rule even when it contradicts the letter of the rule. The chaplain’s job was to bring people closer to God and to help them to find hope. Communion and other sacraments help facilitate that closeness. To him, the rules that need to be enforced outside the prison walls interfered with the tools he could utilize to help prison inmates to find God in an otherwise horrible place.

            While I served at San Quentin, I did not have the necessary clearance to spend very much time on death row. I visited death row on occasion, and I even had a nightmare-inducing experience at the infamous, green gas chamber. But death row is notoriously difficult to visit. Even the chaplain, a trusted man who was employed by the state of California, was required to wear protective gear for his visits to the row. Instead of wearing the state-issue green bulletproof vest, he used his own money to purchase a black vest that matched his clerical clothing better. And even the chaplain, a certified state employee wearing approved protective gear, was not permitted to have physical contact with some of the inmates. The chaplain, who frequently reminded death row inmates that the most famous death row inmate of all time was Jesus himself, needed to operate by the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law. Baptism requires physical contact for the sprinkling or immersion and then chrismation with holy oil. But he baptized inmates with whom he was not permitted physical touch. Distribution of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church must take place in the hands or directly on the tongue. But without the ability to contact the inmates directly, he admitted to sliding a consecrated host through the space between prison bars. This is a huge violation of the written rules in the Catholic Church. And yet, the spirit of the law—Jesus’s command to distribute Holy Communion in his memory—was being honored.

            I recently had a disagreement with another member of the clergy about his insistence that Christians abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. The Episcopal Church has no official teachings about exactly how Episcopalians ought to fast, but many have our own ideas. This clergy person seemed to insinuate his way was the right way. And my argument was that it might be the right way for him, but it doesn’t have to be the right way for everyone. He continues to disagree with me, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s fine.

            The way I see it, Lent is about the spirit of the law more than it is about the letter of the law. If I’m a vegetarian and I abstain from meat on a Friday, is that really much of a sacrifice? At the same time, what if I’m on a low-carb, high-protein diet, and the only things I can eat are meat products? Should I simply not eat on a Friday just because someone suggested I can’t eat meat that day? While the letter of this arbitrary rule followed by some Christians does say not to eat meat on Fridays during Lent, the spirit of the rule is intended to help followers to do something meaningful and to remember the reason for doing so. So a vegetarian might want to perhaps skip his favorite vegetarian entrée in lieu of a lesser desirable one. Instead of a decadent meal of cheesy broccoli and mashed potatoes, he might choose a simple salad. And a keto dieter might choose the less flavorful chicken breast over the perhaps tastier ribeye. In my view, these types of changes accomplish the same end goal: self-denial in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus. In other words, it isn’t the food that a person is eating or abstaining from that is important. It’s the end goal. The food (or abstinence of food) is intended to nurture relationship with God. As the comedian George Carlin once mused, no one is spending eternity in hell for eating a piece of beef jerky.

            I happen to be fine with breaking rules for the right reasons. If a rule is arbitrary, like refraining from wearing an aloha shirt because someone finds it tacky, then I’m happy to see that rule be broken. If a rule is reasonable, like driving the speed limit in a school zone, then we probably ought to follow it. I’m perfectly willing to break liturgical rubrics for the sake of pastoral care. For example, the rules of the Episcopal Church say that only baptized Christians are permitted to receive Holy Communion. However, I make it very clear that I will gladly distribute communion to absolutely everyone who wishes to receive. It isn’t my job to limit the power of God. I’m also not a proponent of abstaining from meat on Fridays just because someone said I should. I’m hopeful I have articulated what I mean. The spirit of the law informs us about the reason for its existence.

Do things this Lent that help you to nurture your spiritual life. If that includes abstaining from meat on Fridays, then, by all means, do it! But if it instead includes a commitment to going on a rejuvenating hike, then do that instead. If that includes skipping dessert, then that’s great. But if you get more value from spending time in quiet contemplation, then do that instead. Do things that bring you closer to God, not things that don’t serve you in your relationship with the Divine. We believe in God and God believes in us. I suspect God is powerful enough and omniscient enough to know our hearts and our intentions. I believe God expects us to participate in practices that bring us closer to him, but I don’t believe he expects us to do things simply because someone in a black (or purple!) clerical shirt tells us to. Follow the teachings of Jesus. Participate in the sacraments. Be discerning and intentional about when and how to follow the letter of some rules and the spirit of others. Love God and receive God’s love in return. Even if you’re a rulebreaker.

Fasting in the Spirit of Lent