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Free To Think…Bound to Serve

Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine:

Half of every relationship with God is the individual.  God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live.  We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives.  And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other.  Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases.  We each have our own perspective.

Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive.  Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations.  Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma.

Our tradition takes a different approach.  We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs.  This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God.  We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life.  We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world.

We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others.  Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life.  We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God.

The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character.  For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.”



PilgrIMAGE, pilgrimagination.  The Rome-bound jetliner had its cadre of Catholics at home among themselves, bantering, relaxed amid the boarding strangers.  They already were a community, some from the same parish, all from the same bus ride.  They were making their way to Rome, the seat of Saint Peter, the founding and still predominant church of their faith.

They’d see the Pope and Saint Peter’s.  People and places and events known only from broadcasts and publications, mediated by messengers and artists, they soon would see with their own eyes.  They could crowd at the front of a little church and see shackles believed to have chafed Saint Peter, and huddle in a cathedral transept beneath the ornate box holding what tradition says are the skulls of Peter and Paul.

They could go to the Forum and see the victory arch celebrating the overthrow of rebellious Judea, with bas relief legionnaires hoisting a huge menorah as plunder.  On its old stone paving they could imagine standing in the same empire and era as Christian origins.

Catholicism is a tactile religion.  God’s embodiment in Christ bequeathed it an approach to holiness felt in the flesh–hands and knees, seat and chest, lips, teeth, and tongue.  Every altar held a relic, a bone or garment or some solid physical thing evident to the senses, like Peter’s chains.  Millions of mouths, by ritual kissing of the feet, have worn through the bronze of his statue.  Beads between fingers, the pressure of one’s weight on the kneeler, the forehead tapped by fingertips at the apex of the cross, are to many as much Catholicism as its teachings.

Getting one’s body to a holy place is a natural part of such religion.  Faith is not only doctrine, but presence.  It’s lived not only in a devout mind and by inspired deeds, but with all the senses.  Those who belittle “smells and bells” imagine they’ve outgrown a God who communicates with the whole human being, but to a Protestant from a rationalist tradition, it seems a wiser path to God as time passes.

I pooh-poohed pilgrimage.  From earliest schooling we’d been told how history buried the past, sediments settling over eons, making Troy, for one, no longer a city but an excavation.  We knew erosion reduced mountains, so it certainly altered the cut stones composing old places.  Devotion itself was smoothing hollows into holes, hands seeking a sacred touch rubbing off rock.  It was only in their imaginations that anyone followed Jesus’ progress through Jerusalem, or stood on the same shore he’d walked.

I changed my mind at the Acropolis.  No picture, no video tour, no knowledge of history approached having one’s spine parallel the columns, feeling the wind blow across the temple face and across one’s face, being on the height.  It is imagination, but imagination is not the delusional thinking, or daydreaming, which I had dismissed.  It turns out to be a power we possess, which permits us to know more of what’s real than we otherwise could.

There’s something about really being there.  This is no revelation to many of you, who always have believed this, but it’s worth declaring in a world in which more and more connections are “virtual.”  Technology links people constantly, screens of some size and sort present information incessantly, some part of us always is engaged.

This reinforces the illusion that the image, the record, the facsimile suffices.  Seeing someone over the computer seems so much more than merely hearing their voice, we don’t recognize how much less it is than talking to them across a street.

We have good audio and video now,  It gets better daily.  We can see great musicians and hear them whenever we wish.  The clarity of headphones distinguishes the different instruments better than hearing would at the concert hall.  Sound is so much better, tape hiss and LP crackles gone, that one thinks it couldn’t get better.

It is better at the concert.  The same thing you could pull up on Youtube and run through a world-class high-fi is entirely different in person.  As we always are forced to say when explaining why something was so funny, or so meaningful, “you have to be there.”  It doesn’t make sense that your elbows, collar bones and hips being in the same room with the artists enhances the music, yet it does.

We are learning to be creatures which devour signals and soak up stimulation every waking moment.  We are used to reality being offered to us at one remove.  Even a “live broadcast” is remote by the interface of some gadget.  We run the risk of forgetting that God has things for us to discover, not by reading, or watching, or researching, or discussing, but simply by being.  It is a commonplace to reiterate, seeking to keep priorities straight, that the church is not a building, but a people.  The building, though, remains a place hallowed by long association with events of great moment, and a message of true importance.  When the church year resumes after summer’s gracious liberty, come to worship with all of who you are.  See if the beauty of the architecture or of the music doesn’t do more for you than thoughts in your head about God can do.  Better, see if the people who really do compose the church themselves can become so solid, well-ordered and beautiful that we ourselves communicate to the whole persons who come into the same place as us something of God’s grandeur, kindness, possibility and

Peace. Mac