In early June, a few of my friends and I travelled down to Montgomery, AL for our friend’s wedding. The wedding was beautiful, Montgomery was amazing, and the food was delicious all around. The wedding was on Saturday, so everyone in our friend group booked tickets home for Sunday, except for me and one other friend. Because virtually everyone we knew in Montgomery was suddenly gone, we found ourselves asking the question, “What’s there to do on Sundays in Montgomery?” Apparently, the answer is “an epic quest to discover a restaurant that’s not closed.”
After finding almost everything closed down, my friend and I found a hole-in-the-wall bar which was anything but. The beautifully-decorated inside was matched by the drink offerings. Trappist beer on tap, a wonderful selection of Scotch, and Tabitha, the bartender, who could whip up a cocktail in her sleep. Because it was a Sunday night and we were in Montgomery, my friend and I were the majority of her clientele and she was clearly bored, so we talked for a while about Game of Thrones, the particularities of life in Alabama, and finally, about religion.
At this point, Tabitha shared how she had been born to an Independent Fundamentalist King-James-Only Baptist family. She told us about her strict upbringing, the various times she was strictly punished for menial things, and the first time she took a sip of alcohol—long after she had stopped any association with her parents’ church—and how afraid she was that God would strike her down where she stood. I sheepishly tried to console her by saying that God calls wine His gift to gladden the heart of man (Ps. 104:15) and for once my own inadequacy was immediately apparent.
It made me think of my own upbringing, in a fairly strict household in a strict society. Although my parents and I had plenty of disagreements as I grew up, I was always able to see that even when I thought I knew better, my parents were trying to teach me as best they could. In addition, they never tried to shove the Bible down my throat. Even “because I say so!” is better than “because the Bible says so!” especially when that’s not the case.
Growing up in the zealous Albanian Orthodox Church in the early 90’s was not an experience that everyone enjoyed, but I noticed that even when I was critiqued by people outside my immediate family, underneath the sternness was a deep joy. More importantly, I saw the whole community come together in the Liturgy, in a manner which transcended a mere gathering of people with the same interest. Being an altar server since I was about five, I remember well the Eucharistic prayers which ask God to unite everyone through the power of Christ’s Body and Blood. And that, I think, was the reason why I never felt the necessity to rebel. Rebellion against my family and my community would make about as much sense as a rebellion of my hand against my foot.
Whenever I am talking to someone about some teaching of the faith with which they struggle, I find it fruitless to explain to them the benefits of following that commandment for their own life. Rather, it is often more profitable to consider why God reveals at all. He has revealed Himself to us not out of gain, but because He loves us. He has not merely declared that He loves us, He became incarnate and lived among us and endured death for our salvation, even death on the cross.
It is, therefore, in this way that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Moreover, He has given us concrete physical signs by which He is made truly present among us, according to His promise. When the Bible is removed from the sacramental life of the Church and God’s great love for us is deemphasized, we run the grave danger of seeing the Bible as God’s divinely-inspired rulebook, and loving a rulebook is no easy feat. It is much easier, instead, to obey the Living and Breathing God who speaks to me and you in the pages of the love letter which He has dedicated to you and I. For that God, to sacrifice all things is easy.