I had a Saturday morning breakfast with a friend and colleague just before I left to go overseas. During the conversation we got on to the sermons that we had preached and he told me that he had recently preached a sermon and used the story of watching one of his children colouring in a picture when the child was small. The little boy struggled with keeping inside the lines on the picture he was colouring. My friend used that example to illustrate that Christian faith is not always about "keeping inside the lines." You know how sometimes something just keeps going over and over in your mind? Well thats what this did to me in the last few weeks. I kept thinking about "colouring outside the lines."
I wondered if somehow or other this was one of the great lessons of life. I remember my own children when they first got a crayon in their hand and they held it tightly and scribbled all over the page, completely disregarding the lines on the page that someone else had put there. I suppose that Jean Piaget, the great children developmentalist, would call that the "ego-centric" stage or the Pre-Operational Stage. Of course we parents delight in saying, "Well done; that is fantastic. One day you will be a great artist." While we secretly think, "One day I hope she works out that she is supposed to keep within the lines."
Then comes the day when a child will try hard to stay within the lines, carefully tracing the outline of the drawing, and become frustrated when they cross the boundary and draw outside the lines on the paper. They have reached Piagets Concrete Operational Stage. They are no longer happy to scribble all over the page in an unformed way. They want their drawing to be right! The way it should be. The way they have seen others do it. To follow what is on the page. And they are frustrated when they cross the boundary which has been placed in front of them. And we say, "Dont worry, its OK. Just keep trying, you are doing your best and that is what really counts." But secretly wondering if they will learn to keep within the lines; or question whether or not it is important to keep within the lines anyway.
Keeping within the Lines:
Not wanting to push the metaphor too far, but there are other places where one must keep within the lines. When I was in the USA recently, there was an International Athletics Championship. I dont recall where it was but I heard on the news one of the commentators say that the American relay team was disqualified in the finals because one of the runners did not keep in his lane. He crossed the line into a competitors lane and so they didnt get the gold medal. Not staying within the lines can be very costly.
As children grow they want the skills to be able to draw within the lines. Without lanes and lines to keep within for an athletics team running a relay on a track, or say competitors swimming in an Olympic pool, the experience would become meaningless. However, there are many places in our lives where we need the courage to take a risk and colour outside the lines. And most often it means shedding a constricting conformity or jettisoning the constraints and structures of what has gone before and filling ourselves with a blaze of colour, creating our lives in a new and dynamic way.
Discernment and wisdom are necessary to know when to keep within the lines and when to cross them and often the guiding principle is love and compassion for others.
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath day when a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years appeared. She was bent over, unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." Then he laid his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight, and began giving thanks to God.
Who could ever be critical of such an act? This woman who had suffered for eighteen years was free now from this painful condition. She was liberated to live her live with freedom and dignity. Surely there is no one who could be displeased with this outcome; no one who would want her to be again put back into her suffering. However, Jesus is drawing outside the lines. There is a template of how healing and freedom should be dispensed in this world, the world in which Jesus lived, and he was not following it.
the leader of the synagogue was indignant because Jesus had cured this woman on the Sabbath day. He said to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done. You can come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath day."
I suspect all religions have a kind of default system that calls its followers back to drawing within the lines. Of course in this situation Jesus wasnt following the rules. He was in fact following a higher rule and that was the rule, the law of love and compassion. It takes both imagination and discernment to know which rules to break and which rules to keep. A child may need to break some of the rules a parent has set for them, so that they can create their own lives and grasp the freedom they need to live fully. Well, thats easy for me to say because my children are all in their mid 30s! But we do know it is true. Yet on the other hand there are rules and lines that should not be crossed; those that history, tradition and wisdom have shown us to have great value and important in the lives of those who embrace them.
In the 1970s I was introduced to the American linguist and later political activist Noam Chomsky, who is also known as an advocate of non-violent civil protest. In an article in the New York Times the story is told by a journalist who had been invited to have lunch with Chomsky that as they were walking to the restaurant they came to a street crossing. The light to cross was red. So the journalist looked both ways and seeing no cars coming walked quickly across the road. Arriving on the other side of the road, he looked back and saw Chomsky waiting for the light to change to green. When they were both on the other side of the road the journalist said to Chomsky, "Sorry, I thought you were following me." To which Chomsky replied, "Well, there are some laws that are always best to follow." There are many times when it is best to stay within the lines. But that must be based on the understanding that there are other times when life, God, love and compassion call us to cross the line.
If we look at this passage carefully, I think we see that Jesus is saying we all need to cross this imaginary line between what is and what could be; between rules that are life-denying and the promise of freedom
and the list goes on. And most importantly, that we dont judge others by standards that we do not keep ourselves:
then Jesus answered the religious gathering and said, "You know, you are all hypocrites! Doesnt every one of you on the Sabbath day untie your ox or your donkey and lead it away to give it water? So surely this woman, who is a daughter of Abraham and has been bound by the evil one for eighteen long years; shouldnt she be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?"
Thats good rule-breaking. Thats creativity and drawing outside the lines. Jesus challenged the religious leaders and the crowd to think about the way they projected their own hypocrisies, their own inconsistencies, on to others. In fact, thats how those things in our lives that are no longer life-giving are challenged, confronted and changed.
When Jesus said this, his opponents felt shameful; and the crowd rejoiced at all the wonderful things that Jesus had been doing.
Great works of art, literature, architecture and science happen when someone has the courage to draw outside the lines. Yes, they do build on the experience of having learned how to stay within the tradition or the received wisdom. But there comes a time when inspiration or compassion call all of us beyond our predetermined pathways and beckon us to cross the line, perhaps into uncharted waters. I think this is the great message of the gospel: not that we should be shackled or bounded by a line drawn on a page, but that we should have the courage to draw outside the lines and encounter some times that take us into a new and life-giving way of being in this world.