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
Regina had said a lot about her pastoral work, and about herself, but Pat kept pressing her to say more about her sense of call. What had persuaded her that God wanted her to work in the church? She hadn’t wanted to be a pastor, she said, emphatically.
She struggled against it, she told us, gesturing with clenched hands dramatically.
She is a pastor now. At some point she surrendered, the same capitulation that she now urges on the people to whom she ministers. They are ensnared in addictions or attitudes or activities which are harming them, but they resist opting for God. They literally cling to the devil they know, not being sure the consuming spirit Regina recommends will be what they want. God, who got Regina, gets some of them. That’s what the ministry is.
People in the Bible often are more reluctant to “let go, and let God” than we expect.
We think that being characters in those stories of divine encounters and mighty miracles ought to make them quicker to align themselves with what God asks them. Their hesitation, their second-guessing the meaning of spiritual guidance reveals them as more like us.
Gideon isn’t the first person God taps for greatness who hopes to dodge it, but it’s a good story. He apprehends God’s calling to him, but how can he be sure it’s God? What does he do? He requires a miracle to begin to listen, and then when the extent of God’s expectations are revealed, he devises two additional tests. First he tells God that if the fleece he leaves overnight on the threshing floor shows dew while the floor stays dry, he’ll believe what God says. When results confirm it is God, he insists on another trial–let the fleece this next time stay dry while the ground gets dewy. That’s what happens, and it’s bad new for the Midianites.
Moses wasn’t’ eager to listen to the voice out of the burning bush. He pointed out his shortcomings. He thought the Almighty probably wanted someone else, but God met the objections, and Moses was stuck. His subsequent career confirmed his reluctance–he had to remonstrate with the people and he complained to God. What he was asked to do was hard.
Neither Adam and Eve, come to think of it, was as willing a listener as each was asked to be. They did their bit for a bit, blithely unaware of moral matters, tending to the garden, complementing each other, but they couldn’t keep it up. The whole book of Genesis is full of failures, from the generations so wicked that God could only start over, to Noah, whose careless boozing and deportment became the opportunity for skewing the destiny of his household.
Jonah is the poster boy of an unwilling instrument of the Almighty. Elijah may have run off fearing for his life, but at least he was engaged as God’s spokesperson during a persecution before he did that. Jonah simply wants nothing to do with what God asks him.
On top of that, once he’s forced to fulfill God’s instructions, he resents the success God gives his mission, and regrets the salvation of the people to whom God sends him.
One of the gospels has Peter fall to his knees on his encounter with Christ and beg “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus didn’t depart. Peter became his lieutenant, with a shining and a shameful moment–one revealing the Spirit and one exposing the man–before becoming what God needed.
Paul, if you consider his persecution of the church a symptom of a radical rejection of God’s will, might be the most dramatic example. That’s not skeptical testing or pusillanimous squirming. That’s violent antagonism. Paul, too, however, comes around. He finds a way, believing he’s gained an insight into the ways of God, to make a strength out of weakness, and finds in his sufferings something positive. The life he was so far from embracing has its confrontations, frustrations, beatings, shipwrecks and imprisonment, but his endurance of that supports faith in divine sustenance, and validates his apostleship.
What do these examples mean to us? At the very least, those mornings on which we’d rather stay in bed reveal us as more ordinary than reprobate, and show our reluctance no obstacle to God’s achieving good through us. The next time you feel that God may be asking more of you than you are willing to do, consider that you are in good company, and that despite your lack of faith in your own promise, you may yet, by what you do, or say, or refrain from doing or saying, be an instrument of God’s