“‘God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or
beside it, in matters of faith or worship.’… Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable….”
(Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], 2011-2013, F-3.0101).

“It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it
in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as
expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from
these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained. It is to be recognized, however, that in entering the ordered ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek, or serve in, ordered ministry”
  (Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], 2011-2013, G-2.0105).

As I mentioned last week, Missy, the dachshund we’re fostering, is terribly overweight. Her owner fed her bacon and eggs every day, and of course, being a hound, Missy ate every morsel. She had no idea that the food she was offered wasn’t good for her, that it didn’t provide balanced nutrition or that it would turn her into a waddling and unhealthy animal, twice the size her breed was supposed to be. All she knew was that the stuff in her bowl tasted good and was readily available. It was up to her owner to make sure the dog was fed a balanced diet, as well as trained to heed commands, regulIMG_0645arly checked by the vet and kept safe and warm.

Missy, fed such fattening fare, was almost loved to death. A miniature dachshund simply cannot sustain that kind of body weight without consequences for her heart, her back and her general wellness. I call the way she was treated “benign neglect” or “loving abuse.” Her owner, for whatever reason, drew no boundaries at what Missy ate or what she was allowed to do. When we got her, along with being fat, she knew no commands and acted as if she were the Alpha Dog. Fortunately, she seems much happier now and recognizes the hierarchy of the pack, though she still has some work to do and weight to lose.

Our whole experience with Missy has led me to reflect on the matter of discipline and boundaries. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to find that Goldilocks zone (“just right”), the “sweet spot,” in matters of personal freedom. What are appropriate boundaries for children and youth that encourage independent thought and nurture the love of freedom, yet are not so broad and open as to bring on confusion and endanger their safety? When is discipline too strict, the environment so conformist and repressive that it creates resentment and the desire to escape?

When it comes to matters of religion, the middle ground is especially hard to hold, the Goldilocks zone particularly difficult to discover. Some want to reduce faith to an ever-lengthening list of don’ts, while on the other extreme, whatever seems right to our consciences must be in accord with God’s way. Presbyterians are supposed to know better, given our standard quoted at the beginning of this piece. But we also tend to slide off one side of the moral and ethical plateau time after time.

Fortunately or I should say, providentially, the grace of God both restrains our worst impulses and empowers us to do the good we would otherwise not even contemplate. It turns out that the Goldilocks zone is wherever God, who is both merciful and just, is at work.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham