I was talking with my new friend Phil over a cup of coffee when he brought up a word I had not thought of since my days as a seminarian- they seem so long ago. Somehow the conversation led to us talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, fear, freedom and the God who is for us (That seems to happen a whole lot to me), when Phil mentioned he had been preaching for the past year on just that. He had noticed that the church is run, far too often, on a basis of fear, guilt and shame, so he embarked on something I would call remarkable, if not a bit unconventional. He began preaching through the book of Exodus.
Now, for a refresher, the book of Exodus is where we find the 10 Commandments- God’s short rulebook for his people. It is also in Exodus that we can read about various rules, stipulations, measurements of tabernacles, procedures for sprinkling blood and the like. The story of the Exodus is littered with terrifying stories, from the Burning Bush to the plagues, to the Red Sea. In Exodus, God meets his people on the mountain and they are so shocked in fear that they promise to remember him- if only for a few days. Exodus contains the story of Aaron melting the peoples’ gold into a golden calf and it has the story of Moses pleading for God to spare the lives of his own people. If you find a preacher who loves to preach the law and stifle the freedom of his people, you can bet he will spend an inordinate amount of time in the book of Exodus. You can understand then why Phil’s choice to preach through Exodus would be intriguing. And if you met Phil you may be even more curious.
Phil is one of those guys you meet and immediately like. He is soft-spoken and unassuming. He builds things out of wood when he is not preparing sermons and he spends a ton of time with his wife and children. He is the type of guy that embodies what Eugene Peterson described as the pastor’s most important work:
directing worship in the traffic, discovering the presence of the cross in the paradoxes and chaos between Sundays, calling attention to the “splendor in the ordinary,” and, most of all, teaching a life of prayer to our friends and companions in the pilgrimage.
Phil is the type of guy you would go to for spiritual direction that was about more than solving your problems. Simply, the guy lives well.
And so when Phil used the long-forgotten seminary word, it all made sense. He told me that he saw the story of Exodus moving from slavery and fear to freedom- but it did not end there. The final piece was covenant. The people of God live in a particular, peculiar, prayerful, repentant and loving way. We are not a perfect people but a people who grieve for our imperfections because of the damage we do to God and neighbor.
This is what Bonhoeffer meant when he wrote: There is no “being-free-from” without “being-free-for. There is no dominion without serving God. Just as God led his people out of Egypt with a specific plan for their life and holiness, he has set us free from sin, death, the grave and our selves with a specific purpose in mind. He has freed and empowered us to love him and to love each other. Freedom lies not in drafting our own personal constitution, but living our part in the kingdom of the God who is for us.
So how are you using your freedom today? Are you drafting your own constitution, as if you can actually escape the rule and reign of God? Or are you embracing the life of the covenant that you are invited into, day by day?
If I have learned anything from my new friend Phil, it is that those who embrace a life of service to God, born out of love, live really, really well.