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 we were schoolchildren in Connecticut teachers would approach Thanksgiving with tales of Squanto and Massasoit and the Plimouth Plantation. When we were older, they’d read the governor’s proclamation of the holiday. Eventually we’d get the classic 1936 version by Governor Wilbur Cross.
I Googled it, to refresh my memory before writing. I found film footage of the 1938 proclamation. Cross, a former professor and administrator at Yale, used the popular medium–the first Connecticut governor to do so– to exhort his fellow Nutmeggers to keep the holiday.
1938 was a hard year. The hurricane of the century had scoured homes and businesses off miles of Connecticut shoreline. The Great Depression continued, and war loomed in Europe. Cross had been defeated after four terms in office. This was his last large gesture of leadership.
The governor read from his desk, looking up solemnly. He evoked the colors of the autumn landscape and the fading daylight of late November before mentioning harvest. He made topical references–gratitude not to be at war, nor to live in a state where speaking one’s conscience might be fatal–and concluded remembering those great abstract realities which have so impressed human beings as to recognize God as their source.
He was passionate. It was a version of prophecy, to address a beleaguered people and call upon them yet to thank God, and in a time of privation and apprehension gather for a feast. In our time, when those in the public eye are handled by the image-conscious, advised by strategists, and alert to market research, the message doesn’t come across as well. Everyone understands that pronouncements are mediated, that the appearance of intimacy misleads, that comments are calculated. Speakers are not credited with the same sincerity. Their hearers do not expect it.
The same immediacy of film which Cross exploited now means that bad news travels fast, and repeats every few minutes. Terrorists, relying on publicity more than violence, kill a few and unnerve millions. They bait big powers into responses which reinforce their presentation of themselves as champions of the weak. Ebola is as difficult to survive as it is to catch, and so far even harder to quarantine effectively.
Hardship is relative. Those accustomed to softer circumstances, and those who dreamed of easier outcomes, are dismayed, even with money in the bank. People still eat out, and drive cars with power seats, but spirits are low. Politicians will still proclaim Thanksgiving. In our time one can imagine a campaign to boycott the holiday just because the government calls us to keep it.
What proclamation is meant to do is to add to the turkey and travel a sense of purpose, and to remind the nation that the holiday is its own–that of a people, however divided by ideology or discouraged by events. We are called to consider that we have received much. Cross in 1938 mentioned food and shelter. He knew some of his public had little more than that, and it still made sense to him to roll out the roster of blessings: beauty in nature, security from the suffering to which much of the world is exposed, and “Justice, Freedom, Loving-kindness, Peace… resolving, as we prize them, to let no occasion go without some effort worthy, in a way however humble, of those proudest of Man’s ideals, which burn, though it may be like candles fitfully in our gusty world, with a light so clear we name its source divine.”