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
St. Patrick’s Day has outgrown the Irish to become enough of a national observance that there’s an industry for producing its seasonal decorations and greeting cards. Perhaps the revelry–the green beer and the northern races’ recourse to stronger stuff–has helped it cross identity boundaries. When winter has been long, it’s a chance for fun, and even Mr. Schwartz can sport a t-shirt which says “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”
The Irish are a poster ethnicity for the “melting pot” metaphor of American life. Unlike traditional peoples, who arise as family, clan, and language group and eventually constitute nations, our country is based on principles. Identity comes from believing in the mottos stamped on the money. We are used to people seeming less American at some point– the Irish were objected to for all kinds of reasons, many of them the result of their exploitation by the English, whose prejudices against them Protestant America adopted. On top of everything else, they weren’t Protestants, back when Protestantism had come to regard itself as synonymous with Americanism.
Still, they persisted, and eventually, with the breakdown of ethnic enclaves, intermarried. A good many people recover a shillelagh-thick branch of their family tree come March 17. The holiday, however, has ceased to require anything but a willingness to be Irish for the day, whatever that means. People wear green, and those work environments which display hearts in February show shamrocks in March.
It’s nice when a holiday becomes a time for people to feel included. The “happy holidays” regretted by some Christians– because the inclusive term indicates a loss of hegemony– I think are great. It’s nice that my Christmas somewhat overlaps with other people’s winter festivals, so that all of us can be somewhere else around the solstice besides the regimen of getting and spending, resting and rising again to work. Creeds may not match, but I am glad the neighbor has his or her season, occasions for greetings, special approaches to eating, customs which elevate the spirits.
The Bible’s vision of eventual agreement among the peoples on earth, Jerusalem and its God a beacon to the hearts of humankind, may be more about fellowship and a largerfamilythananyparticularreligion’s”winning.” Alotofenergyandagreatspiritofself- sacrifice is generated by believing that God appoints people to cleanse the world of those who don’t think properly about God–either by conversion or killing. Still, the example of people whose take on religion is familiar–monotheists with a holy book who include Abraham among their founders–waging “holy war” raises questions about the quest for dominance. Perhaps the search ought to be, like those boring old Christian liberals from half a century ago believed, for a way to recognize both the religion in our humanity and the humanity in our religions, and to accept that the neighbor’s prayer and practice is as sincere as our own, and a source of strength and wisdom for him. So long as he sees the same is true for me, God’s will can be well served, if what God wills is peace.
Humans have an unhappy habit of grouping, excluding, and then opposing. Inner cohesion is helped by outside threats. When the Irish in America were an oppressed race, they stuck together and met the contempt of others with disdain of their own. Now that we’ve lived together for so long–and alas, perhaps because we’ve found common outsiders against whom to define ourselves–old ideas of identity don’t as much matter.
This tendency to care about one’s own group is a strength of the church when those who compose it need attention and help. It is an obstacle to God’s hope for the world when insiders forget the imperative to include, to be open to the new, to make strangers feel at home.
People who come to a worship service are seeking God. They also are alert to how God is present in the people who are there, because they know that church is not a lot of individuals, but a group. People want to see people in the church with whom they’ll feel comfortable. St. Patrick’s has created an ambiance which embraces a culture with a fluid identity, and church needs to do the same, if we are to increase, in the hearts of our seeking neighbors, love, joy, self-sacrifice, righteousness, hope and