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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


I pass warily under the arbor vitae and by the outdoor stairs. The muscles on the back on my neck tense. Then the pair of doves breaks from cover and wings away, the sound of their starting up startling me. Youʼd think after all these times Iʼd get used to it but I donʼt. Their panic becomes mine, time after time.

Thereʼs Dove soap. The whiteness of the bird, and what, in repose, might appear its softness or grace, must be the connotation intended. The doveʼs gentleness is proverbial. Itʼs not the bird which swoops down and carries off the other bird. Itʼs the gliding bird which gets caught in the talons. Its murmuring–a low, hollow, ululation–lacks the jauntiness, alarm, or menace of other bird sounds. Itʼs like the half-heard, tentative noise of tourists wondering together where theyʼre supposed to go next.

When I can see where they are, through a window, the doves seem harmless enough. Theyʼre like slender pigeons. Like a bigger bird, though, they make an awful racket when they take flight. It always sounds as if theyʼre colliding with sheets of paper. On top of that thereʼs the counterpoint to their wingsʼ flapping, a noise like a loose engine belt at idle.

It comes out of nowhere. I bear them no ill will, nor they me. They are secure in their camouflage, and I oblivious to their being there, and then some unwitting footfall of mine triggers the eruption of their desperate departure. Thatʼs when they crash out of concealment and ignite my own fight-or-flight response.

Church people get used to the image of a dove. Rooke Chapelʼs tableware iconostasis features it as one of the symbols of the faith. I guess because of Dove soap, the talk of gentleness, and the self-negating patience of the birds assisting magicians, it has looked quiet and timid to me. It resonated with the Spirit of God as “a still, small, voice,” like the one which came to Elijah.

Now that I meet doves in motion, they seem like dynamite going off. Maybe Noah couldnʼt have heard a meek bird, the hue of a bright day, bearing green in its beak. Maybe Noah, managing an impatient menagerie, needed a messenger whoʼd be so all-at-once and noisy that heʼd notice. Thatʼs a dove. Maybe the “as” or “like” a dove describing the descent of the Spirit on Jesus at his baptism is supposed to convey flurrying and confusion. Perhaps it doesnʼt mean to make you think of a soft, fluffy, low-voiced visitor. Perhaps itʼs meant to make you think of the doveʼs crashing haste, and startling suddenness.

Some have a temperament suitable for seeking Godʼs spirit in softness and silence, and maybe my own take on the dove-like quality of the Holy Spirit has had more to do with me than past ignorance of the adrenalin-pumping experience of doves taking off. Some are wired to recognize God in disruption and commotion, and they may never have thought of the Bibleʼs doves in any way other than birds flushed from concealment. This latter take on the slim, murmuring bird may give some of us a fresh perspective on Godʼs coming into our world. It may be less a matter of a strange warming of the heart, and more like our breath being taken away, and our hearts skipping a beat, as though there is also a path less passive, and a way more vigorous, which leads to

Peace. Mac