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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.” THIS MONTH’S

ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR

When Luke Skywalker flew off toward the Death Star in his space-fighter, he had, tucked behind his canopy, the loyal robot R2D2.  Now it puts me in mind of a pirate with a parrot on his shoulder, a chirping, whistling little familiar augmenting the man of action. Star Wars is coming back, in one of those long-after sequels prompted by the hope for profits and an aging original cast’s still being willing to pitch in.  That’s not why I’m thinking of the pirate and  his parrot.  That came to me in the dark one morning, as the birds outside our windows chucked and clucked and hooted and sang.  Where had I heard that?  In “a galaxy far, far away,” as it happened.  R2D2, otherwise a companionable park trash can complete with hemisphere head, was really a bird beneath it all.  To make pirates of Luke and the rest–”rebels” avoiding “imperial” ships, dealing in contraband, and looking a little scruffy compared to the white-armored ranks of their opponents–wasn’t much of a stretch, especially with that squawking companion and commentator aboard. Inevitably, pirates were brought back for the mass box-office trade, with Disney’s Johnny Depp movies.  They didn’t have “The Force,”  an uncanny source of power with its dark and light sides, but they had plenty of occult and fantastic elements.  In neither set of pictures was human nature an adequate origin for villainy or heroism, nor social systems–conventions establishing trade, cultural traditions, political power structures– sufficient to explain antagonisms or alliances.  Conflict came from, and was resolved by, something supernatural. Perhaps such plots tap a popular hunger for hocus-pocus in an often post-religious world.  We have an instinct that there are invisible energies abroad, and superhuman Purpose arranging events.  A story which makes unseen influences explicit satisfies our sense that courage, loyalty, daring, and questing are larger than life.  Though the heroes look human, they have a heritage with the gods, like Homer’s warriors.  Like them, they follow the guidance–conveyed in birdsong or dreams or reading the signs provided–of divine beings, gaining a grasp exceeding their reach. There is something in these stories congenial to the religious mind.  When Darth Vader harnesses The Force into a noose around a scoffer’s neck, we think “So there!” to those who doubt the reality of unseen Power.  The human penchant for assuming that God is on one’s own side seems proven true by the victory of those tapping Good supernatural forces. Many Christians have adopted this plot-line.  They regard their own allegiance to God and Christ as an enlistment in “spiritual warfare.”  Their own struggles with temptation become elements in a larger drama, and each sin rejected contributes to a cosmic victory.  In this view, the fallen angels still contend with God’s messengers, and the Christ of the book of Revelation rides against the foe. This is a more satisfactory self-image than the powerlessness forced on Peter and the other disciples by Jesus’ refusing to let them swing their swords in Gethsemane.  “Spiritual warfare” makes more sense of the indwelling sin which Paul knew thwarted his desire to let his life manifest the mind of Christ.  Paul, however, didn’t choose this way of thinking about good and bad.  He regarded the “powers and principalities” as conquered.  He declared the battle ended, with only Death waiting to be entirely defeated, and that underway with every resurrection.  Paul, despite the experience of conflict within and the glaring example of contention in his churches, believed Christ already to possess the victory, and to be sharing it with those who believe. If the earlist Christians weren’t warriors, how did they understand themselves?  They were family, brothers and sisters, avoiding rough talk, refusing to let the sun set on anger, and instead striving for peace.  They were a community aspiring to love, and individuals prepared to be martyrs.  Not for them the willingness to die fighting Peter showed in the Garden, and fear of being killed unarmed he betrayed before the cock crowed. This is how they changed the world, not by blowing anything up, or by beheading anyone.  Love, inspired by God, and self-forgetfulness canceling fear, made them irresistible.  They didn’t give as good as they got– they gave better, and got worse from their fellow human beings, but in their suffering their serenity was seen, and the empire itself changed. In our time, violence and pride have their appeal, and fear its power, but imagining that Christianity is a variety of a mental, emotional, or moral martial art will only help if we use that peaceably to endure  what wrong imposes.  Big box office fantasies play to feelings which come naturally to us, like the desire for vengeance, and the will to dominance.  The supernatural on which we count isn’t divided between good and bad, like the Force, or hostage to mythic monsters.  Leviathan is drawn out by a hook, the Holy Spirit overcomes evils, and if we are to know God’s triumph over every obstacle, we must aspire to be people of Peace.Mac