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
Sometime in our childhood our mom had us all work together at the kitchen table on homemade figures for the creche. There were scraps of cloth and construction paper. There were old Christmas cards, less for reference on costuming than for salvaging metallic paper to make into crowns and royal gifts.
Everything was glued onto small cardboard rolls of humble origin. We had shepherds for one side of the scene, and kings for the other. In the middle, Mary and Joseph flanked the Christ child. The three were centerpiece before the rough wooden stable my mom had built for the purpose years before.
The scene was set up in the dining room, but it wasn’t static. At some point the kings and shepherds moved from their places on either side, and turned their paper faces inward, and huddled, with Jesus’ parents, around him lying in the manger. My youngest brother felt the scene as laid out was wrong; he thought everybody should be paying attention to the baby. Putting it like that, it sounds like a youngest-child thing, but I think it really was common sense. The Christmas story we knew from church didn’t have visitors showing up to strike a camera-ready, left-to-right pose giving space for each person’s profile. They came to see Jesus.
This distinction between an important sight, Jesus the center of attention for his visitors– and witnessing an important sight-being-seen, the kings, the shepherds, the parents, the animals and the Christ child each visible at once, reminded me of weddings.
Many couples include a “unity candle” ceremony at the conclusion of their vows. Each family has lit a small candle flanking a larger, central candle The couple, as part of the ceremony, walks to the candles and, each taking “their” family candle, jointly light the center candle as a symbol of their new reality.
A lot of the wedding is done with the couples’ backs to the congregation, shoulder-to-shoulder. People usually only “see” the vows being made, as the couples face each
other. The unity candle provides another opportunity for the wider audience–including the two families becoming kin–to witness something. Brides and grooms acknowledge the public nature of the ritual by approaching the lighting from slightly to one side and the other.
It’s not just that they light the candle. It’s that everyone gets to see them light the candle.
If manger scenes were true-to-life, my little brother would be right. There’d be silhouetted heads, tilted away from us viewers, atop dark, hunched shoulders, all illuminated from the little halo-crowned infant invisible to us. Shepherds in the back row might be on tiptoe, craning for a look between the backs of their companion’s heads, and the retinue of the kings, if awe or daring sufficed, doing the same.[if we stick with the kings motif, it's hard not to picture at least a servant apiece-- and if we go with Magi, I think a wise man would bring a servant along, too.]
Church holidays have this dual nature. They are an invitation to each of us to come to a new place personally, to show up, to pay attention. They exist for us to connect with important truths about the way God has been revealed.
Christmas and the other salutary observances aren’t only for us. They exist, too, to display the love, power, mystery, and achievement of the Almighty to the wider world. Any witnesses who might glance this way are meant to see what’s going on, too. There is something on which we fellow mortals are focusing our attention, and it– the story of salvation, the humility of God, the transformation of history–looks to be the focus for everyone else as well.
Our own individual lives at the holidays sometimes seem to divide into inner and outer. All within our own heads and hearts there is reminiscence and expectation, duties acknowledged and desires indulged, hopes in suspense. There is the effort, in the face of our familiar faith’s astonishing origins, more wholly to own the identity we have as children of God.
Outer things, however, seem to dominate the days leading to the Christmas season. We have places to go, things to get, things to do. We have decorations to put up, cards to send, gifts to wrap. We have seasonal greetings to exchange, and seasonal occasions to attend–concerts at schools or elsewhere, extra times of worship, the entertainments offered by people we know.
It’s important to make time for prayer. It is right to resolve to prepare for the holiday by reflection, worship, and a heightened sense of the importance of God and everything connected with our faith.
Let the whole year serve to show the difference that makes in who you are. For the next weeks, the world also will want to see what Christmas is by the outer things, the visible, the public things. Be of good cheer. Make things look nice. Offer kind gestures, in small ways and large. Be a bigger person than you are outside the context of Christmas, and perhaps the miracle at the center of it all will be magnified, and God’s desire to be made known will be served. Then the world may more nearly approach a wonderful Savior, and Prince of