Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Lenten Reflection: The Spiritual Practice of Keeping the Eighth Commandment

A reading from Exodus, Chapter 20, the 8th commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
The Gift of the Commandments, copyright Dan Erlander
And from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism:
“Vas is das? What does this mean? 
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray, or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

When I attended seminary in Berkeley, California, my professor who taught about the teachings of Martin Luther spoke about Luther’s unique view of the 10 Commandments. Luther said we were not only to follow the Commandments, but he took an expansive view as to the scope of the influence of the Commandments. So it is that the eighth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness” is not just about not lying in the courtroom or elsewhere about someone else. For Luther, it also meant that we would come to our neighbor’s defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
The very wise Rev. Dr. Jane Strohl. Doesn't she look kind?
I am sure I had heard Luther’s explanation before, but it was after that class with Dr. Jane Strohl that I began to take Luther’s expanded recommendations on as a spiritual practice. Initially, I found it very difficult to interpret the actions of those closest to me in the best possible light- after all, I could see for myself how my personal acquaintances and close associates had failed me, and I knew their reasons. My problem was that I judged based on my own high standards.  If a class partner failed to do their part of the group assignment, I judged that the person had let me down because they had not worked hard enough, which would have been my own explanation if I had not come through on my commitment. I found that knowing too much actually kept me from gentleness. So instead, I began to practice on people whose stories I would never know, people I could not judge: other drivers in traffic.
The stretch of freeway in question. Traffic looks pretty light. 
The freeway entrance nearest the seminary leads to a fast and full road, often choked with several lanes of traffic, all the cars going as quickly as possible. A mile down the road, the road divides- one side going to San Francisco, the other to Oakland. People are invariably changing several lanes of traffic, some merging left, some merging right. I was always tense as we crossed several lanes of traffic, and because I was scared, I would react with anger when someone cut me off.  So I began my spiritual practice by making up imaginary stories for these hurried and careless drivers. The woman who nearly clipped my front bumper- perhaps she was rushing to her daughter, who was in labor with the first grandchild. The man who cut me off with a yell and a rude hand gesture- perhaps he was impatient with me because he needed to get to work where he was worried about keeping his job. It was all imagined, but somehow, the sometimes humorous practice calmed me. I was able to be generous toward these people who had wronged me.

In the years since, I have kept the practice up. I know there are some people who think I am too soft- that I don’t hold other people to a high enough standard. It is a struggle to know when to hold a line, when to let things go. That’s a prayer I pray too- the wisdom to know the difference, as the serenity prayer puts it. But I have found that interpreting other’s actions in the best possible light has enabled me to love my neighbor better, and to hear with new ears about God’s unending and patient love for my neighbor, and also for me. For God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Thanks be to God. 

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