“‘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

The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt” (John Philpot Curran, Irish judge, July 10, 1790).

Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty” (Andrew Jackson, March 4, 1837).

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias” (Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944).

Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Jesus, Matthew 26:41).

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…” (Paul, Romans 13:11).

Vigilare (Latin,keep awake”)

Funny how my mind works. I was out pulling weeds the other day when I thought of the famous statement usually quoted as “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”  (erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson). I suppose that at the same time I was thinking about my blog for this week, I was reflecting on how I have to keep a constant watch on the weeds or they’ll take over. And for good or ill, this post was the result of my down-in-the-dirt, on my knees meditation.

Freedom is extremely important to me. It forms a kind of trinity of essentials, along with love and truth. That’s why I’m glad I’m an American, blessed with a Bill of Rights that grants my neighbors and me freedom to worship (or not) as we please, to speak, to enjoy a press not under state control, to assemble with others peaceably, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Freedom is also one of the reasons I have chosen to remain a Presbyterian. One of our dearest historic principles is that “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” (Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], G-1.0300). Another important viewpoint from my tradition is that God is completely free and sovereign. Related to that affirmation is the recognition of the human tendency to try to usurp the place of God or to worship something or someone else in the place of God. Thus we become tyrants and seek to force others to bend to our control and our ideas (cf. Book of Order, G-2.0500a[4]).

For me, the greatest threat to our freedom comes not so much from outside enemies, but from those tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry that we have within ourselves. Because of our fear, lust for power, drive for control, ignorance, and whatever else, we want to restrict the freedom of others while maintaining the broadest possible set of rights and greatest array of choices for ourselves.

Ironically, some of the most vehement opponents of freedom are found among those who name the Name of Christ and profess love of America. Many preach and act against reproductive choice. Others (falsely) proclaim America a “Christian nation” and long for our land to be a theocracy, governed, of course, by their narrow interpretation of God’s law. Still more rail against the separation of church and state and/or try to have fundamentalist doctrine enacted into law or replace sound science in our schools. Freedom of thought, of exploration, of relying on one’s own moral judgment go out the window. Those of a different faith or none are looked on with suspicion, made to feel second-class or regarded as intellectually and morally inferior.

But don’t be smug, progressives! Just because you or I might have a kinder, more tolerant heart or a broader mind doesn’t mean we won’t be susceptible to the same tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry we see in fundamentalists and the Religious Right. We merely express them in a different way. So we need to be eternally vigilant, ever on the watch for those weeds of prejudice, hatred, and fear in our own lives that would lead us to be unfaithful to the One who said his Truth would set us free. Root them out lest they choke the good seed of the liberating Word. Freedom is too precious a gift not to be thus protected and allowed to grow and flourish in our hearts and minds and in those of our neighbors.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham