“Only the good die young . . .” – Billy Joel
That song by Billy Joel always irked me, catchy though it is, because I was one of the good girls, always.
“I’m tired of following the rules all the time,” I told my husband, standing in the kitchen on a Saturday morning.
We were procrastinating taking down the Christmas decorations, the sparkling green tree, the glitter garland, nativity and cheery red and green nativity pockets. I was dreading a return to plain white walls, stretching out in every direction, dreading the long stretch of winter inside, cold and bare.
That’s when it struck me, “Why not paint a wall, just one?” I asked.
The lease says no painting, no hanging things on the wall and for six months now we’ve endured with a few pictures leaning back on shelves, with pictures and sayings I’ve drawn and cut out, permanent markers on clear contact paper.
More than that, though, we’ve waited, it seems, with our bags packed for that glory train to arrive, the one that lifts out of here to the happy ever after, but despite the sound in the distance, despite the lone whistle in the night, the sighting of puffs of steam on the horizon, our deliverance has yet to arrive.
So I wanted to paint a wall, to break a rule in a symbolic way, because I know the way color can give me life and at this point we’re clutching at life in all its forms, wherever we can find it.
My daughter danced her way out of kindergarten most days to report a double or triple Wow Star day, clutching a cheap, but carefully chosen prize in her little hand. She was renowned among the kindergarten crowd – nobody got as many Wow Stars as Sophia. No One.
I congratulated her, proud, but I wondered about the weight of all those stars.
I joked about her getting Stop Signs and one day the conversation turned serious.
“Mommy, what would you do if I got a stop sign?” she asked.
“Well,” I replied, “I’d probably be a little relieved. No one can be good all of the time and getting a stop sign isn’t the end of the world.”
Later, it came out that she did get a stop sign one day for some minor infraction, but she wasn’t eager to share the information, especially not in front of her young brother. “It’s ok,” I said, “It’s not a big deal.”
Brennan Manning writes in his memoir, “All is Grace,” about his decision to become a good boy. The task, he writes, required embracing an imposter, shutting off his own wants and needs to maintain a facade. Summarizing his childhood, Manning says,
I wish I could share more specific memories like this from my early childhood, but I can’t. . . . As I said, the decision to become a good boy effectively cut me off at the roots . . . (74)
All of my life I’ve wanted to be “good enough,” but it occurred to me one year during Advent that few of the individuals involved in the story of the nativity shared my concerns. The things they did, the choices Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men made were maybe on the surface good, but deeper than that, they were courageous, bold, flying in the face of conformity.
And maybe that’s the problem.
Goodness, obedience, when looked at through the lens of conformity is a dangerous thing.
There’s a whiff of conformity in all of those Wow Stars, a hint of crowd control. When I really read scripture, casting off the gold-leafing added through hours of Sunday school lessons that also bear the scent of conformity, I see a community of individuals who were not always so good on the surface; Jesus wasn’t crucified because he went around collecting Wow Stars, no, he was crucified because he refused to conform to the established norm.
I can’t write about obedience though, apart from the context of parenting – I am after all mother to four young children and instilling obedience at this stage of life is high priority. Richard Rohr has an excellent discussion of this in his book, “Falling Upward,” where he addresses the need for two-halves of life – one in which we learn obedience within safe, sound and predictable structures (first half) and a second within which we learn to “hear and obey” the “deeper voice of God.” This voice, Rohr suggests will sound an “awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender . . . (48)”
Rohr believes that we’re failing to do either half of life well in modern American culture and, more specifically says, “very few Christians have been taught how to live both law and freedom at the same time (36).”
Freedom, for most of us, is a scary concept and the invitation to move beyond conformity to cultural norms of the “good” boy or girl, the “good” mother, the “good” father may seem to our wary ears to run the risk of too much subjectivity, too much individualism – too much, “what’s good for me is good.”
I want to suggest, though, that this need not be the case.
What Rohr is talking about, what I’m talking about, is an obedience that stems from a deeper place – a place of deep knowing, submission and unity with God, so that our outward actions conform to the will and movement of the spirit within us.
One might think, for example, of Rosa Parks whose civil disobedience came from a deeper place within – her decision was neither subjective nor individualistic. By listening to the leading within, she acted in alignment with the deeper movement of God already at work in the world around her – by listening to the movement of the Kingdom of God within herself and acting in obedience to ITS dictates, Parks sparked a deeper awareness in those around her of the movement of God’s Kingdom.
There’s a time, I guess for Wow Stars, a time for sheer obedience, for obedience’s sake.
But there’s a time also for honing one’s ear to the sounds of a deeper voice.
I suspect the lyrics to Billy Joel’s song bothered me because they hinted at what I feared, that by being the “good girl” I was missing out on life, that maybe my own obedience was motivated more by fear than by love.
Either way, I’m grown now, a girl no more, and my husband went to the hardware store last night to pick up a gallon of paint in the shade of “moss.” He said he thought for sure our landlord was going to come walking into Lowes while he stood there, red handed, with a gallon of paint in hand.
This afternoon while the kids were out, we painted two arched walls the shade of new leaves and spring. We’ll paint it back to white, a clean slate, when we move. But for now, we’ve planted one more stake in the ground, one more reminder of our belief that this winter, too, shall pass.
This post is linked with Diana's Q and A on the topic, "Obedience." Stop over to read her take and others on the topic of obedience.