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
I suppose a man intending to write about the Christian holiday of Candlemas is likely never
to have heard of the Swedish doom metal band “Candlemass.” I ran into them by
misspelling the holiday, and was lucky that further down the page the one-”s” word was
there, for me to get straight the details of why February 2, before it had anything to do with
groundhogs, was a religious festival.
Iʼve never heard of “doom metal,” for that matter. LIttle serendipitous events like this–
researching a religious holiday and accidentally encountering an unheard-of musical genre
and an unheard-of proponent–drive home how crazy it is to be discussing centuries-old
Christian practices in a world with its attention elsewhere.
I meant to work into the groundhog via the old church custom of celebrating Jesusʼ being
presented in the Temple by his parents and prophesied over by Simeon and Anna. This
would have happened forty days after his birth, according to Jewish law, and so the early
church counted out forty days from Christmas and got to February 2. Still a dark season in
the northern hemisphere, it was congenial to celebrate the commemoration with candles,
emphasizing Jesus as light of the world (Luke 2: 32, Simeon concluding his words about
Jesus: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”) This is
how it came to be known as Candlemas.
Iʼll get back to doom metal, but first letʼs press on to Groundhog Day. The Wikipedia article
on Candlemas quotes three rhyming sayings from different European countries, all of which
assert that a sunny Candlemas day will lead to more wintry weather, while a gloomy or
wintry February 2 will herald an early spring. Germans, among others, believed this, and
those that settled in southeastern and central Pennsylvania brought with them a tradition that
a hibernating mammal (badger or bear in the Old Country) would leave its burrow that day
and mark, by casting a shadow or not, which of the two forecasts the dayʼs dawning weather
was making. The common woodchuck, or groundhog, got the call.
A local newspaper man in Punxsutawney promoted its local groundhog as an “official”
weather predictor. There are numerous lesser rivals to Phil, six or seven in Pennsylvania,
and dozens across the country.
Gloomy clergy from those churches which observe Candlemas–those in the Anglican
communion and Lutherans, too, as well as the Roman Catholics–might note the crowds at
Punxsutawney and the publicity gained by the groundhog and wonder where the world
went wrong. Pretending to trust a groundhog to promise relief from winterʼs rigors shouldnʼt
trump celebrating Godʼs Saviorʼs acclamation at the Temple.
Itʼs enough to drive the discouraged to doom metal, which, as you probably suspected, is
a subset of heavy metal music given to slower tempos, lower registers, and lyrics
expressing [from Wikipedia:] “suffering, depression, fear, grief, dread, death and anger.”
Of course, being disgruntled and world-weary might lead a person to approach life as does
the character played by Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day.” He plays a cynical
employee of a television news station, sent to Punxsutawney for February 2, and trapped
there by bad weather. Every day thereafter is February 2 for him, over and over, giving
him a chance to try various approaches to his life. Eventually, having discovered that life
goes well when he focuses on other people and their well-being, he is released from the
eternal recurrence. Itʼs a variation on “A Christmas Carol” or “Itʼs a Wonderful Life,” two other
stories which arrange for a character to get outside his regular life long enough to get
perspective on what it all means, and find salvation.
Religion itself is meant to serve as a different “place” from which to engage living, in
everything from oneʼs private prayers and devotions to public worship. Believers seek an
alternate stance with regard to reality, leaving aside for moments and minutes the treadmill of
routine responsibilities and habits, to review the world as conceived by God. The person
attending a celebration of Candlemas might meet it as just another obligation, but always
could discover that it offers a chance to rethink who we are, and how it is that we are to live
the gift of days and years left to us.