It was raining on Tuesday when I walked into Paul’s Diner and saw that Laurie had gotten there first and was sitting in our regular booth, reading her Bible and making notes in a wire bound notebook. Laurie’s Bible is black and small and slim. Its black cover is crinkled and chipped in places from years of use. We talked, as we usually do, about our lives, our children especially, and about the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. We’ve been meeting for a year now, and I’ve come to rely on Laurie’s insights.
It was near the end of our breakfast together that I began talking about the thing that had really been bothering me. The Friday before we had talked about the end of Exodus in the Biblical literature class I’m taking at Ohio State University. My professor, Jim Fredal, had been talking about the similarities between both Exodus and the Deuteronomic Code, and suzerainty treaties in the ancient near east. Scholars believe that a good portion of the Pentateuch is formally based on these treaties, in which an Emperor would set out the expectations he had for his client kings. As Professor Fredal talked, I felt a quiver at the edges of my faith. To base an understanding of God’s relation to the world on an elaborate ancient treaty form feels a little like basing that understanding on an iTunes contract in today’s context. I’ve always defended the Old Testament from its detractors, mostly because I love Job and the stories in Genesis. But now I had to admit that those detractors had a point. God in the Old Testament doesn’t seem to offer us unconditional love.
I said all of this to Laurie, and she asked if the story of Jesus didn’t take away all of that. If we read the Bible as a story of God’s development as much as humanity’s, we see that God eventually abandons this contractual, conditional relationship with us. It is, of course, good to remind ourselves that the Deuteronomist was putting words in God’s mouth, that if God changes throughout the Bible, it’s only because our understanding of God changes. But with Jesus we see a profound change in that understanding. “All God really wants is to be with us,” Laurie said. We talked about the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday. “All God really wants is to welcome us as children.”
This felt profound to me, even though I’ve heard it in a hundred sermons and said it myself any number of times. I’ve started a new job, and its parameters are wide and somewhat ill-defined, although the scope it gives me for creativity and experimentation is amazing. But I’ve been looking for someone to approve of my work, to say to me “you’re doing a good job.” And the funny thing is that many people have said that, but I haven’t been able to hear them, because a large part of me keeps worrying that the work isn’t justified somehow. I don’t know what success looks like, and neither does anyone else. It’s as if I’m afraid of being judged by God. Yet all God wants to do is welcome me. I feel like I’ve fallen into the mindset of the Deuteronomist, hoping to get the contract right, and hoping that if I do, God won’t abandon me. I needed Laurie to tell me that God will never abandon me, because all God really wants is my company.
The rain had let out when we left the diner, and I took a bus downtown. I was meeting Dick Burnett, the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, for lunch. We planned to meet at the noon service and go to a restaurant afterwards. It turned out that Dick and I were the only ones who attended the service. But Dick didn’t seem worried about this at all. He led us in the prayers and the readings, gave a small sermon, and then he did something remarkable. Before we celebrated communion together, he blessed me. Specifically, he read this blessing over me, from John O’Donohue’s book To Bless the Space Between Us:
May your new work excite your heart,
Kindle in your mind a creativity
To journey beyond the old limits
Of all that has become wearisome.
May this work challenge you toward
New frontiers that will emerge
As you begin to approach them,
Calling forth from you the full force
And depth of your undiscovered gifts.
May the work fit the rhythms of your soul,
Enabling you to draw from the invisible
New ideas and a vision that will inspire.
Remember to be kind
To those who work for you,
Endeavor to remain aware
Of the quiet world
That lives behind each face.
Be fair in your expectations,
Compassionate in your criticism.
May you have the grace of encouragement
To awaken the gift in the other’s heart,
Building in them the confidence
To follow the call of the gift.
May you come to know that work
Which emerges from the mind of love
Will have beauty and form.
May this new work be worthy
Of the energy of your heart
And the light of your thought.
May your work assume
A proper space in your life;
Instead of owning or using you,
May it challenge and refine you,
Bringing you every day further
Into the wonder of your heart.
I don’t know how Dick knew that this was the blessing that I needed, but it felt like magic. “May you come to know that work / Which emerges from the mind of love / Will have beauty and form.” Indeed. And may I feel God welcoming me into that work, and welcoming me as a child into divine presence.