Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
Have you ever wondered why you keep repeating certain phrases whether they are your own mottos or someone else’s? Even if you don’t express them verbally, they can still drive your behaviour. They are called life commandments. John Savage, a United Methodist Minister and author of Listening and Caring Skills defines Life commandments as deep inner belief systems that act as the integral guidance gyros of your mind. A life commandment is possible because the human mind is capable of believing anything! That’s very scary yet hopeful at the same time. Our life commandments work as long as we believe them. However, they are not our ultimate commandments. We can break them. Sometimes we must break them, however difficult it may be to do so, and make new commandments.
In my 20s and early 30s, I had this thought that there was no one in the world I could trust, and that I was all alone in the world. The real problem was that I believed it. So I did my best to be independent, and I barely listened to anyone’s advice. I tried to be the director of my life, making my own path and future without getting any help from others. Later I learned that the life commandment I had was my coping mechanism for rejection I experienced in my infancy.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she already had two young children, 4 and 6 year old. She was raising them while my father was away from home. He put his business over his family, leaving all the responsibilities, including looking after his parents and siblings, to his wife. My mother was under extreme stress, worried about adding more burden to her already full and impossible task. One day, my mother decided to abort her baby, and her mother-in-law agreed to go along with her. On the night before they were going to the hospital, my mother went to the church to pray at 10 pm. It was her regular daily prayer time alone in the sanctuary. For some reason, she couldn’t pray. It was as if somebody was interrupting and stopping her. And she heard the voice of the Spirit saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ She realized that the Holy Spirit invited her to reconsider her decision. So, she decided to deliver me.
What a life-giving story for me! I thank God that my mom changed her mind. Actually my mother told me the story last week. In preparation for my reflection, I wanted to find out what exactly happened regarding my birth and infancy. Through all those years I knew a much simpler story that my father wanted me while my mother didn’t. I grew up with confusion that how come I was raised by a parent who didn’t want me, while the other parent, who wanted me, actually left me before I was born. Some life commandments must be checked out.
Another life commandment began when I was in grade 1. The academic year in South Korea begins in March. Those who were born in January or February can start going to school one year earlier than those who were born between March and December in the same year. Born in February, I was one of the younger ones in my class. My mother worried about me. She wasn’t sure if I was ready or if I was smart enough to catch up. One day, after school, I was walking down the street along with my grade 1 teacher and my classmates. My mother was also walking alongside the teacher. They were talking about me! I was able to overhear her concern asking the teacher, “Do you think he will catch up with his peers? Or should I have him drop out so he can start school next year?” The teacher assured my worried mother that I would be okay, but she wasn’t convinced. Pointing at my shoes, she said, “Look at how he put on his shoes! They are on the wrong feet!” I was embarrassed. The real problem was that I believed that I wasn’t smart enough. I believed the commandment for the next 20 years until I was finally able to find my voice and academic achievement in the seminary.
Some life commandments are harder to break especially when our shame is involved, and we try to mask or numb our painful feelings. Fritz Kunkel, one of the earliest psychiatrists, believed that we, as adults, carry on our backs a shell like that of a turtle. That shell is made up of lies that we still believe are truths, and the function of adult life is to rid ourselves of that shell, so that we come to the end of life knowing only the truth for us.
When we hear people say ‘I can’t sing’, ‘I can’t dance’, ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I am not good at this and that’ we can feel not only the pain they carry, but also the truth they haven’t expressed yet. Everyone has their own life commandments. They make us unique. No one else believes what you believe. The question is how we can help each other to rework or disobey our life commandments so we can live our lives as God intends us to live?
Jesus knew our need to break the old and to live the new. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In today’s gospel reading, three times we hear him say “you have heard that it was said, but I say to you…” He invites us to reorient our lives by giving up what is no longer true to us, and to embrace what gives us life.
A few Sundays ago, I was inspired by a fresh perspective when a congregant told me after church “You’ve got a life-giving congregation.” Her point was that most of the people in the congregation come on Sunday without any agendas. They have time to listen, and they know how to care for anyone who walks into the building. And that is a gift we can offer to the wider community. I was thinking, ‘what a great way to live and share the good news we have been given!’ That can be a new life commandment for our church. This new life commandment of ours requires no sacrifice. Instead, we can taste and participate in the life abundant Jesus promises to give us all. It works as long as we believe it.