I used to feel that being a Christian was exhausting. It was just plain hard work. I grew up singing nifty little choruses such as, ‘Read your Bible, pray every day if you follow Him’ and I knew that I didn’t. Therefore, I wasn’t following. And if I wasn’t following, I wasn’t part of the happy band of the redeemed. And if I wasn’t redeemed, I was lost.
And that’s the Good News? Sounds more like a straitjacket to me.
Now what is a straitjacket?
It’s a garment put onto someone to restrain them. The Macmillan dictionary says that it is ‘something limiting someone's freedom to do something.’ And in the context of religion, that means a whole set of rules telling you what behaviour is acceptable and what will have St Peter turning you away from the pearly gates.
Each spiritual straitjacket has its own set of neatly defined rules set out in best cursive handwriting on the front. And it was so important to the church I grew up in that any candidate for the Kingdom could recite their rules verbatim, they had their straitjackets custom made. And adherence to these rules demanded total obedience from these Christian fundamentalists.
To give you a flavour, here are a few phrases which would have been strictly verboten in my childhood church:
· Shall we pop down to the Red Lion for a swift half?
· Fancy a game of cards?
· What’s your star sign?
· I’m really worried about... (insert worry of preference). Anything would do.
Check-up at the dentist. The price of coal. Last posting date missed for Christmas.
The Cuban missile crisis. (Christians don’t worry so you couldn’t go wrong here.)
· Do you think the Creation story is really an allegory?
· Let’s have a few minutes silence and just listen.
· Shall we go for a picnic in the park next Sunday with the children?
· I like your new lipstick/earrings/ mini skirt.
Pretty firm straitjacket wouldn’t you say?
Now I have talked to my priest-friend long and hard about becoming a novice in the Third Order. And she is absolutely adamant that I don’t exchange one straitjacket for another. That would be easy-peasy for me she says, with my extensive inner script of not being worthy, of being an imposter, the Great Pretender and certainly not good enough.
Because the Third Order, like any religious order has certain requests and expectations placed on its members. For example, to regularly say the Community Obedience and read the Principles. And I suppose it’s not going too far to say that reading your Bible and praying every day is seen as a right-on thing to do.
But it is different. It has to be. I don’t want another straitjacket, even if this one is in bright rainbow colours and fits a lot better. It could still squeeze the life out of me and leave me unable to breathe.
But that’s not what the Third Order is about.
The most important thing in the Third Order, my priest-friend says, is for me to be myself because that’s who God loves. It doesn’t matter, for example when during the day I say the Community Obedience as the Order is worldwide and at some point, in the earth’s rotation, someone, somewhere will be saying it. It doesn’t matter if I don’t sit still when I say my prayers but say them as I’m out on my daily walk. God loves a good walk. And it doesn’t matter how I read my Bible – a verse at a time, a chapter, all sixty-six books (Yeah right!) as long as I enjoy it.
The truth is there are no straitjackets because God doesn’t use them. God loves the truth and tells us that the truth will set us free. And the truth is that we all fall short and we are all forgiven. And we can all know that we can shed our guilt and our shame at not being good enough because we are all absolutely grounded in goodness.
And this truth is big and expansive and will set me free.
And right away after this affirming talk, I bump up against a dilemma which tests my new found freedom. (I think the Queen has had a similar one. She can give me a ring if she likes and we can talk it through). My straitjacket whispers urgently to me that I should be doing something concrete, tangible, obvious, for COP-26. As a good Christiaan and a good Franciscan, I should be up there in Glasgow marching, hollering, waving a placard, Instead, I’m here at home in my comfortable house.
But if I was marching on in the light of God all the way to Scotland, my 95-year-old mum wouldn’t have a hot meal tonight and her boiler would still be out of action and her iron dangerously overheating. You can’t say that that straitjacket is very loving.
But then straitjackets aren’t.
Instead, I know that I can pray. And I do pray for COP-26 that right and reliable and swift decisions are made for the good of poor planet, our home, which is so abused and exploited and suffering and desperately hurting.
So, to hell with straitjackets. Absolutely. Because hell is where they put me and where they belong. I want to embrace freedom, the freedom I was born into as one of God’s beloved children.
I’m becoming free! That’s all She wants for me.