A devout old man, who had lived his life with unflinching adherence to his faith, found himself angry because his neighbor flourished. This neighbor was forever eager to smoke and drink, often had beautiful women as his overnight guests, was a frivolous spender, and rarely left for work each day before noon. Yet, the neighbor was a tremendous success and seemed entirely happy.
The old man decided to take his grievances to God, praying: “Lord, since my earliest days I have not failed to say my daily prayers, tithe of my income, and keep myself from any unbecoming behaviors. I have done everything asked of me – and more – while this neighbor of mine has done right the opposite!
“He consorts and gambles, seems to take no thought of morality, and hasn’t darkened the door of a church since his first communion. Yet, you seem to bless him as much as me! Why, O Lord, are you so good to him?” Miraculously, God answered the old man saying, “My son, it is because you are such a great pain in the neck.”
I have been part of a religious community for my entire life, yes even while in utero. And I know from lived experience and personal participation that we religious folks can be suffocatingly uptight. We work so extremely hard at being saintly, orthodox, and pious that we end up being nothing but prudish killjoys with a “code of morals that pins down and beats the brains out of nearly everything that is pleasant” (Thank you John Steinbeck for that apt description).
How sad that we equate rigidity with righteousness, scrunched-nosed harshness with holiness. Brothers and sisters, let’s lighten up. The world won’t end if you have a giggle or a cocktail. God won’t strike you dead from heaven for laughing at a good joke. You won’t forfeit your eternal reward for granting your neighbor – or yourself – a little grace and breathing room. Christ knows we need both of these in the times that we live.
On my desk I keep a tiny “Twelve Step Prayer Book.” I consult it most every day and rely heavily upon the recovery language contained in that book and in the movement. No, I’m not an alcoholic (check back after quarantine ends, however) or an addict, but I am definitely a recovering religionist, so the Steps help me to live a healthier and more joyful life.
That book contains this prayer: “God, help me to forget what I have done for others, and remember what others have done for me; to ignore what the world owes me, and to think what I owe the world; to own that probably the only good reason for my existence is not to be right, but to love and to be loved; to close my book of complaints against your management of the universe, and to look for places to live in grace. Make me willing to do these things.” To this, I can only say, “Amen.”