I’m fed up with rules.
Not entirely, I suppose, I’m not joining the Anarchist Party or even those wacky Libertarians. Rules provide limits and boundaries that help us live together in cities and villages and groups—even churches. Living without rules leads to chaos. But still, sometimes the rules makers get a little out of hand, and when that happens the restrictions keep us from being fully human.
I’ll cite two recent examples from over here. First, over the weekend in the Times of London there was a front page article about Health and Safety regulations in the workplace. The H&S (think OSHA if you’re reading this in the US) is an important organization that, at times, is a little taken with its own importance. The story in the paper was about office workers at the BBC who are no longer allowed to change light bulbs on their own. Seriously. When a bulb goes out at this internationally-acclaimed newsgathering and broadcasting giant, they have to call a special crew to come in and bring light where there once was darkness (OK, that was a little on the purple side). The BBC regularly has men and women dodging mortar shells in some of the most troubled regions in the world, but they can’t get up on a chair and fix their own lights. Fittingly, the department who calls for this assistance is billed £10 for each bulb replaced (about 20 bucks). At the local market you can get two bulbs for £1.
Worse, in Scotland this week a firefighter is facing disciplinary action for—get this—jumping into the river and saving the life of a 20-year-old woman who was trying to commit suicide. Apparently he was supposed to put on some special trousers and harness himself to something firm before jumping in the water. What he was not supposed to do (apparently) was save this young woman’s life. ‘I was supposed to watch that young girl die in front of me’, he said, ‘I couldn’t live with myself if I’d had to do that.’
The firefighter in question is my age, a dad like me, and he responded as all of us hope we would—and as rescue workers are expected to—when faced with an opportunity to help. Firefighters sign on for the work they do with full awareness of the risks, but sometimes the rules get in the way of them doing their jobs. This guy is in danger of being fired—ironically—because he actually did the job he was hired to do.
In these cases the rules, instead of protecting human life, prevented people from being fully human. Office workers are fully capable of changing light bulbs, and certainly a firefighter is trained and willing to save someone’s life. When safety rules prevent us from living as we were made, they stop functioning as safety regulations and become prisons where we stare out through the bars and long for the freedom to act.
How we live is often more important than how we die. The firefighter said that he couldn’t live with himself if he hadn’t tried to save a drowning woman. Think about that. He knew he could be killed in the attempt to save her, but that was preferable to living with the knowledge that he’d done nothing. The lives we lead can never be risk-free, but they can be meaningful and courageous and helpful.
Christians are about to celebrate Holy Week. It’s a good thing there wasn’t a Health and Safety inspector telling Jesus what he could and couldn’t do. The point of his life was to risk it—and give it—on our behalf and for our benefit. If he had lived to be 80 years old and had avoided the sacrifice he was sent to make, just imagine how different the world would be. But we know that that’s not what happened. Jesus acted--he died to cover our own separation from God and rose to demonstrate that he had power over death. He didn’t sit in his house and worry that it might be too risky. He acted decisively, even though it caused him pain and cost him his life. ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ That’s the Gospel for us in this season and throughout the year. The Messiah came and jumped into the river when we were doing our best to throw away our lives.