By the book

I remember when and where I first learned the word.

I was 18 and sitting on a folding chair among a crowd in an enormous gymnasium-converted auditorium. It was dark in the giant room; only the stage was lit. Eager to be an excellent Christian, I was at a conference sponsored by The Navigators (an international, interdenominational Christian ministry) with a couple thousand college students. I attentively listened to the preacher, highlighted verses, and scribbled some “A-ha!” insights in the margins of my clumpy Catholic Bible.

That’s when I first learned the word legalistic.

Basically, as I understand it, to be legalistic is to subscribe to specific faith practices and beliefs just because one feels like they should. Motivated and guided by ideas of “ought to,” Christians are slowed from having an authentic love life with God, community and self. All matters of Christian living are directed by how one follows a rule book of their religion.

A legalistic faith is immature. Being told what to do and following right along is the stuff of childhood.

The introduction to the concept of a legalistic faith life was revolutionary for me. Eventually, essential, personal convictions about faith evolved from what I learned. These are some of the things I still think about a lot:

  • A faith not challenged is not a faith at all.
  • The most important thing I can ever do is help a person know they are loved.
  • Faith in God is all about relationship, not rules or right-thinking.

Of course, rules do matter and they have a role. Proper belief and proper practice help us unite and be a stronger community.

The concern is really about rigidity. Religious rigidity is a thing that Scripture cautions us about. We’re called to focus on knowing and loving Christ, not to be rule masters.

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.Romans 12:2

Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.  -2 Corinthians 3: 4-6

As highlighted here, Pope Francis recently said some smart things about rigidity too. For example, he warned against “exaggerated tendencies toward doctrinal or disciplinary ‘safety.'”

Pope Francis also said that “if we remain within the parameters of our ‘traditional culture’ we will end up nullifying the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Whoa–what!? Doesn’t the Church like tradition? I think what he’s saying is that we need to remain open to the Holy Spirit; the Spirit who is very busy expressing compassion in the messy world but not so busy attending to our tidy rule books.

If you like rules, don’t worry. There are totally times when rules matter and it’s best to do things “by the book.”

I bought a giant book with my birthday money this year. It’s what got me thinking about all of this.

Thanks Mom and Dad!
(Photo credit:

I sort of need the book. I’ve started trying to complete a MA part time. (Considering my ADD and my dislike of self-discipline, I’m hoping that I’ll be allowed about 99 years to get the degree done. Please pray for me!)

Being enrolled in grad school means that I’m writing research papers again, and this has caused me to learn something new about myself. I realized I actually enjoy the technicalities of writing! Figuring out the rules of proper footnotes is disturbingly fun for me!

Maybe I’m too nerdy for my own good. Or, maybe I am comforted by the black-and-white morality of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Really, I have another guess about why I like the laws of citations. I am a woman who is involved in the matters of a messy and gray-shaded faith full time. Math is a struggle for me so I don’t interact much with absolutes. So, at last I found a place where I can go back to some of my adolescent faith habits; where right-and-wrong is straight-forward and judgement is clear. After all, isn’t it easier when all we have to do is figure out what the rules are and then conform?

Chicago Manual of Style is my new love that allows me revert to being immature. It’s really nice to just do what I am told again, even though it’s just in the formation of my footnotes.

When it comes to following Jesus, though, I’m very glad Jesus keeps me grown up. I’m so thankful God and I have an adult relationship, and this relationship is based on Love.

Love motivates me to be faithful and follow rules for the right reasons. I really want to please the love of my life.

The rules, though?

Yeah, not too clear-cut. And that’s OK with me!

stewardship and balancing acts

The start of the new school year is energizing, exciting, and quickly approaching. Yet before I can start preparing my classroom and my curriculum for a fresh batch of 9th graders, I’m frantically trying to finish my summer projects.

When I see all the unmet goals on my “Summer List,” I feel sad as the reality sinks in: a lot of those things will have to be put off until the fall. I know the start of a new school year will mean bracing myself for a faster pace and more jammed-packed days ahead.

Transitions cause feelings to emerge and the work of getting ready can be exhausting. Some of my attitudes and hopes about the transition are typical. I want to start off the new school year with good organization and clear structure in place for myself and my students. Certainly, great plans and routines are good ideas for balance, health and student learning. It’s so obvious, but it’s not easy for me.

This time, however, my motives have shifted. I have new reasons for wanting better structure and balance in my life.

Here’s something that is a guide for my desires:

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. – Luke 12: 48b

This reminds me of the responsibility I have to be a good steward and to respond to God’s call. Yes, I’m called to be a wonderful teacher for my students and that includes offering them structure and clearly-defined plans. I’ve learned that I have a responsibility to be a steward of the gifts God has given me. I used to associate stewardship with caring for physical things, like the earth or the vehicle I share with my community. My life is more than the material world, so why did I think stewardship would only include that?

Now, though, I desire balance and structure in my life because I want to take better care of ALL the gifts I have–time, energy passion and talent–along with the material stuff.

So, as the summer winds down, I’m in a period of evaluating what I’m doing with my time and abilities. I’ve learned that if God gives a gift–a talent– it comes with a responsibility to develop it, learn all you can about it and be the best you can be at it. Then you can give your gift back to God in the best way possible. Even if it’s hard work. Whew, not a fun lesson for me because sometimes I just want things to be easy.

Photo by Fritz Liedtke
Photo by Fritz Liedtke

I met great artists this summer who wowed me with their practical advice about balance. It feels a bit embarrassing to admit I’m learning this adult lesson right now, but I really am marveling in them.  I gained a lot from hearing professional artists like Fritz Liedtke speak about balancing their “day job” with art-making. Fritz really seemed to love and value his day job. He spoke about how his money earning informs his art. Because he works at balance, his day job allows him to develop the skills, freedom, time and funds he needs in order to do what matters most to him. Old lesson, new spin: we must balance!

The goals of balance now feel like they apply to me in a new way.  I have come to realize–and to accept–that I have gifts, passions, and struggles I wasn’t attending to before. So, I’m challenged to grow: to be better, to be healthy and to still serve with joy. I need to take care of myself and the gifts I’ve been given so I can be the woman God needs me to be. Good intentions, but easier said than done, of course.

By the grace of God, may the stewardship and balancing acts be good going! Amen!

A great big exciting God question

A vivid memory has been speaking to me all summer: a sunny spring day, as the fourth period of the school day began, a few excited ninth-grade boys came to class eager to ask a question. Their energy was animated and slightly nervous (“You ask her.” “No you ask her!”) for I believe they knew, at a great depth, they were considering something powerful. Then the question came forth–maybe the greatest question I have ever been asked:

“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”

I was stunned. I said “WOW!”  What else could I say?

I loved the idea of God needing us so much that he is practically dependent on us to help create the universe of his dreams; it is empowering to consider that God’s love can only be fully manifested if we say “yes.”

Participation and relationship is natural activity and genuine Gospel living, of course. Certainly, building the kingdom of God is work of service, prayer, community, activism, and solidarity. Good Christian activism, in particular, is a loving labor of creative problem solving so yes, I knew that God needed us and has hope for our lifelong to-do lists. Even so, this is what happened in my journal a few days later:

“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”

Yes, “What if!” What if God needs us so much to dream up new realities in order for them to exist?

It’s expansive stuff, really: the new realities we must imagine might be in an evolutionary metaphysical dimension, or they could be about coming up with new ways of being Church, sharing our abundance, and showing forth the Gospel goodness–ultimately revealing the solid strength of peace and justice. Christ totally has a way “of making all things new,” maybe even those things that we think are going just great.

It takes more than dreaming though. Gospel living is really about letting go and allowing God to work through us. When we let go we could end up in a place of awe, of just being free to step back and see how God wants to show up and be seen.

photo by Jane Comeau
God shows up in the art of free-writing

Amazing artists certainly seem to experience this.

Throughout the summer, I have been on a bit of a creative journey and have been learning a lot. Presently, I am very blessed to be here on a scholarship and have my first-ever experience of a writer’s workshop.  I’m amazed as I listen in to other faith-filled artists disclose their process and experience. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and awe that I get to learn and be encouraged by some of the most brilliant creators I have ever met.

As I listen, I notice that each artist seems repeat a truth: it is necessary to submit to an energy outside of ourselves (God!). It may be called “letting the poem say what it wants” or “seeing what’s behind what you’re saying,” whatever it is, it’s an act of trust and trial. Basically, as we create, we must let go of judgement, be vulnerable, take wild risks and let God take us where we’d rather not go. It’s discipleship– following Jesus’ way of humility and self-emptying. Otherwise, we become journalists and not artists and end up recording what we see and not what God is trying to say.

God has a lot of truth to tell, has a lot of love to show off. Is this why God calls us and creativity compels us? What if God needs us, desperately, just as we need God for our basic existence?

“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”

Back in my classroom, after I said “WOW!” to the great question my students, in their 9th grade boy sort of way, then said, “I know, right Sister?! Like, what if since we can imagine a planet ruled by aliens and robots, then now God will make it?”

Ha! OK, well, that’s not really where I went with the question. Still, I just said “Wow!” with a wide smile. I felt relief that my response of wonder seemed to satisfy their young seeking souls.

How wonderful it is that youth are so great at speaking the truth without knowing it!

How wonderful God is for loving, trusting, and needing each of us, even if we don’t know it!

Wow! Amen!