Rebuilding Forgotten Mountains

If there’s one passage of Scripture I could avoid for the rest of my life, it would probably be Matthew 5-7 – the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters were the shape of my early life, and my existence now very often includes undoing damage that was done in the name of “education” or “character” in those days. “And seeing the multitudes…” used to launch a rapid-pace recital of the Beatitudes and all that follows, complete with memory-aiding hand motions. I knew every word, because every word had been carefully dismantled for me, torn asunder from context, and presented as the answer to any problem I would ever encounter in life. Over a dozen years of hyper-in-depth study of one passage proved to be a sure-fire way to kill truth. Because I was taught the passage meant everything, it came to mean nothing.

So when my pastor announced last month that he was taking a hiatus from a multi-year exposition on the book of Isaiah for a “brief” series on the Sermon on the Mount, I was not enthused. Although I have put some distance between myself and the years of Scripture-by-rote, there are still a few nerves that are easily exposed – and Matthew 5-7 was one of those nerves. Spending ten weeks in my least-favorite passage of Scripture seemed like a perfect setup for yet another spiritual crash.

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While I knew in theory that my experience of the Sermon on the Mount was not mainstream, I still feared revisiting the passage that had formed the roots of my old life. I am not alone on this particular journey; the community of Recovering Grace has proven that to me. Yet even though I could give mental assent to the idea of “Post-It Notes on a Work of Art,” I did not think I was capable of finding healing in wounds that went so deep.

How easy it is to forget God’s grace.

From that first sermon six weeks ago, I have been captivated anew by truth – and how truth brings freedom. There are many things in my life that have met a dividing line at my church; I shouldn’t be surprised that the Sermon on the Mount is now on that list. Yet I am surprised, again and again and again, that things I took for granted – under which I groaned in anguish – these things were not truth! How amazing it is to me, week in and week out, that Christ does not bring drudgery nor despair, but rather joy and peace! The law that bound and gagged me had already been fulfilled!

It will take time – time and love and patience – to find the truth and let it settle in my life, ousting doubt and fear. But I am unspeakably grateful to be in a place where I am encouraged to seek answers outside the four walls of a particular building, outside the mental walls of a particular idea, even outside the bounds of specific teachers. I am encouraged to question, to read on my own, to discuss and form my own opinions of what is presented to me. I need not agree simply to keep the peace. There is truth to be had for the asking!

Thinking and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Learning to think was not a process that came naturally or quickly for me.  In fact, thinking for oneself was tacitly discouraged throughout my growing up – mostly because thinking would inevitably lead to disagreement, but also (and this was never said in so many words) because I was a girl.  Oddly enough, whenever I exhibited a tendency to reason logically, my dad would reprimand me and point out that “logic doesn’t work on people.”

So I spent the first 21 years of my life blindly trusting those “God put in authority” over me.  I trusted them to think for me, protect me, and direct my every decision.  Though my parents were passive about the authority they exerted over my life, I was determined to live by the rules – to earn God’s blessing, naturally – and thus wholeheartedly “gave up my right” to think for myself.  I was raised in a culture where this was the “godly” thing to do.

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I still remember the day when the first real fissure appeared in my mind.  It was, fittingly, a bright, hot summer day, and I was sitting in the membership class of the church my family had been attending for just a few short months.  I had my green membership notebook and my Bible open on my lap, and I remember soaking up the discussion of Reformed Theology as if I’d been handed the moon.  In an unconscious effort to protect us from overtaxing our minds, my parents never discussed theology, philosophy, literature, psychology, or major portions of world history, so I had never been exposed to the idea that theology is actually the study of God – and how belief in and about God affects everyday life.  It was the first time I had encountered theology outside of a male argument (I had overheard enough to know that theology was a reason to fight about God), and I was enthralled.  Theology was for me, too?  And it wasn’t about fighting?!

Oh, and my pastor said that grace was a free gift – unmerited favor, he called it.

I had never heard of such a thing.

Until that day, all my information and instruction about faith had come from essentially one source.  And I had believed all of it.  And – until that day – I had never questioned it.

One shaft of light, and suddenly my entire existence shifted.  Once darkness had been banished and sight had come, it was impossible for me to envision a world where one person had all the answers.  My beginning may have been slow and it may have been “late” by contemporary standards (I was 21 and had finished my junior year of college – and college, incidentally, had nothing to do with learning how to think, though both in and out of the classroom I encountered plenty of “new” ideas), but I took the concept of using my own brain quite seriously once I had begun.

“When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.”   ~ Tim Keller

I’m developing my voice, and I do not intend to stop.