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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.”



We were probably all in school, and only with my parents at holidays. It must have been a busy time, which wouldn’t have been unusual. Someone may have been ill, compounding the difficulty of getting things done. Somehow the days collapsing into Christmas found us without a tree. Whatever combination of inconveniences had put the annual tree aside, it’s not that it wouldn’t have been noticed. It would have been decided that we could forgo it for a year.

In my mind’s eye I can see Cousin Danny driving in with a tree in the back of his truck. There was almost no time left, and he’d pulled over on his way from work to buy us one. He propped it on the side porch. We took it in, and put it up. I recall it best bare, leaning by the door, a last-minute gift.

About twenty years later I needed back surgery and spent a lot of time lying down. Jim called up to say he was coming over to help Lisa set up the tree. I was offstage for the project, but eventually saw it standing in its accustomed place, after all.

The first night shared with a tree, it exhales its evergreen scents and conveys some of the serene cool of outdoors. Its boughs extend into familiar paths. The ornaments are a scrapbook of keepsakes, this one a friend’s wedding souvenir, that one from childhood, this knit by Dagmar, that made by Donald. Nursery school and Jr. Church projects, ornaments commemorating births, favorites sought annually nestle in the greenery.

The tree is the first long-term visitor of the season. Up close its character is personal, but from a larger perspective it signals a huge public holiday, by its kinship with millions of similar centerpieces reminding the homes’ humans that it is no ordinary time. Like a cat it drinks the water poured into its bowl, and keeps one company.

It’s a relief when it’s up, straightened by fussing flat on one’s back with bracing screws. It’s good to have it bedecked, and the boxes stowed, and floor swept. It never is entirely tidy. It sheds needles. Too close a brush or too heavy a tread might loose an ornament.

It is pleasant, though, and cheering. Would it be Christmas without it? Would the real signficance of Jesus’ birth among us survive in a room with its routine furnishings, in a house without cards strung, or manger scenes laid out? Would we have reason for grateful smiles and breathless awe without the scent of cinnamon or fir tree? Yes, we would.

For millenia, however, to be human has been more than sentiments in our breast, or notions in our noggin. We enhance meaning with things to look at, to touch, to smell, hear, and taste. We craft. We arrange.

Friends who feel that we need a tree when we lack one, or help setting it up when we’re lame, are sweet. Their kindness is Christmas itself, but the tree they leave behind echoes it. There are lots of hands on the Christmas tree, from the time it’s fingered by the finding family as the choice, to the day it’s borne away, the gray lit new year and winter ushered in sucessfully, and we sigh and resume the regimen of life. What is important in the providence of God is love, and many things that appear to be about decor or obligatory gifts or mere habit are revealed, by realization and recollection, to be about family, friendship, affection, contentment, compassion, faith, joy, hope and Peace. Mac