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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.”


There is an Old World joke about a beggar. He goes to the merchantʼs family home during a festival, humbly knocks, and gets on his knees. The cook, expecting something like this in the season, opens the door and tells him sheʼll give him some bread. She brings out some of the coarse-grained, dark loaf which is the prosperous familyʼs fare most of the year.  Today they are luxuriating on white bread, and the beggar knows it. “Please,” he says, “couldnʼt I have some white bread?” “What?” the servant says, “white bread is so muchmore expensive!” “Yes,” agrees the beggar, “but itʼs worth it!”

It isnʼt the case that people used to pace themselves with luxuries, limiting their intake of delicacies and sweets, in order better to appreciate them at a holiday. Almost nobody had special treats except at holidays, and many didnʼt get them then. The world was much more constrained. It is hard to recover, after a twenty-first century Halloweʼen sending legions of trick-or-treaters home with bucketfuls of candy, the reality of the children described in Clement Mooreʼs poem as indulging, with the arrival of Christmas, dreams of sugar plums.

Oranges were a luxury good, and one in a stocking prompted delight. Hard candies flavored with peppermint, clove, anise or cinnamon were made specially for Yuletide. Rich foods and rich desserts, fatty foods, were enjoyed. Their aroma and taste, and the sense of repletion, reminded diners of the previous holiday. Almost nobody ate like that all the time.

Then there were the breads: White breads, sweetened with sugar or honey, filled with almond paste, dotted with raisins or currants, rich with nuts. There were specialty baked goods, crumbling confections dusted with sugar, tarts gleaming under glazes, or layers of buttery pastry oozing syrup. There were specially-shaped loaves of soft, sweet, cake-like bread, flecked with preserved fruit.

There was fruitcake. Itʼs an object of fun for many, and I suppose there must have been a lot of bad fruitcakes in the world to ruin the reputation of one of the crowning indulgences of holiday excess. I myself donʼt care for the taste of the various spirits sometimes used to soak the loaves, but nuts and candied cherries and pineapple and figs and sultanas are fine by me. Back in the humble lives led by our ancestors, they were a marvel of rich and pleasant flavors packed into something made to make the day special.

Kitchens would be humming. People still go on marathons of baking. The difference isnʼt so much the effort made, though of course modern kitchens are more convenient. The gulf between our ancestorsʼ holiday preparations and our own is that most of us have had some candy, or cookies, or cake, or pie, last week. Or nuts, or a rich drink–the point is that we much more easily, and frequently, and affordably, indulge ourselves than they everwere able to do.

That canʼt be helped. Someone might, by great discipline, eat terribly sensibly for weeks and weeks before a holiday–rather like the way Lent is supposed to serve as prelude to Easter–and then perhaps taste the abundance of the day like oneʼs forebears did. Sensible eaters, in my opinion, would be far ahead to do that than to pay attention to those killjoy articles inevitably published seasonally offering suggestions for cutting the calories out of customs.

But my point is this: we eat the way we do at holidays, not because the enormous meaning of Christmas justifies rare luxury and almost-unknown enjoyment, but because we have inherited these festive foods. They seem something like the goodies which we always enjoy. We have lost sight of the way that they once represented sacrifice, and saving, shrewd preservation and anxious preparation, and finally permission to oneself to honor the gift of God with an annual binge of beautiful, sweet, savory, flavorful, rich things to eat and drink.

Donʼt deny yourself at Christmas, or feel guilty to live in an affluent world. Enjoy.  Consider, though, that the sugar and almonds, the pecans and spices, the confections and holiday breads remain from a world in which Godʼs goodness and generosity were declared, not only in pious deeds and steady worship, but at holidays with every kind of loveliness possible for human skill–great art, beautiful music, pleasing scents, and wondrous food. Donʼt let abundance obscure what has been special in holiday eating, or let the tongueʼs delight make the heart forgetful of how celebration always has been the human response to great gratitude and common hope. What party is too fancy to throw, to remember the coming of the Prince of                      Peace? Mac