There is a story about two monks walking along the road when they come to a shallow, muddy river. A beautiful woman in a long white dress is standing there. She can’t figure out how to continue her journey without ruining her outfit. So one of the monks picks her up in his arms – something he was absolutely forbidden to do, for touching a woman was against his vows – and he carries her across to the other side. Then, all parties continued on their journey.
After a few hours, the second monk was unable to remain silent about this breach of conduct. He blurts out, “How could you pick up that woman when you knew it was against the rules?” The first monk replied, “Are you still carrying her around? I put her down hours ago.”
This is an instructive tale about two different approaches to spirituality. One can view faith as a tightly controlled, carefully managed list of “dos and don’ts,” or one can move with the spirit, so to speak. While the latter is not without its pitfalls, the former is certainly rife with peril. Managing our spiritual lists becomes a heavy, taxing burden.
This point is eloquently driven home by pastor, author, and scholar Eugene Peterson. When he discovered that his congregation was failing to connect with the Bible, he did something radical. He rewrote it. Technically, he paraphrased the original language, crafting a translation for the contemporary context called “The Message.” Beginning with the book of Galatians, and taking more than a decade to work his way through both Testaments, Peterson “hoped to bring the Scriptures to life for those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too…irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.’”
For me, someone who actually learned to read with the Bible as my English textbook, the Good Book can be overfamiliar. As such, Peterson’s adaptation forces me to read the text with a new openness, a new curiosity. “The Message” is not without its critics and detractors – there is a slew of them who think the translator has gone too far. But I find Peterson’s words to be absolutely shattering – and invaluable to my devotional life.
Consider the well-worn words of Jesus from Matthew 11: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” The traditional rendering is beautiful, comforting, and poetic. Eugene, however, is not as concerned with artistry as he is with relevance; with showing the two ways to practice faith. He restates the verses: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. You’ll recover your life…Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
The “unforced rhythms of grace.” I don’t think there is a more incomparable phrase, and nothing any higher to which anyone could aspire: To express the life of faith with freedom, harmony, and lovingkindness. What relief and liberation – and I’m speaking not simply of Peterson’s translation – but the Christ-infused spirit behind the words. For the way of Jesus is indeed effusive and free-flowing. Nothing about it is coercive, heavy, or manipulative. Jesus does not require the imposition of shame, false guilt, “sacred” extortion, or browbeating to keep people on the path. Maybe that is why “rhythm” is such an appropriate word; because following Jesus is much more like dancing than it is marching.
Do you want to live the free and gracious life? Then partner with Jesus. Move with him. Mimic him. Stay in step with him. When the music of mercy plays, follow his lead, and you’ll find yourself enjoying faith – actually living it – rather than enduring it. Following Jesus leads, invariably, to recovery, not religion; to empowerment, not exhaustion; it leads to the laying done of our burdens. It leads to grace.