Thursday, October 8, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
In school, we always had fish on Fridays
Every now and then I think back to my school days and think of particular meals we enjoyed in the school cafeteria. Now, I know I have entered a controversial space, because people have sharply different memories of food from their school days!
I was one of the lucky ones. Our school had great food. Janet Smith-Vaniz was the dietician in my hometown of Cleveland. Everyone loved her, and she was so good to the children. If we would whisper our requests for a “favorite meal,” magically, it would soon appear on the menu. My delight was turkey and dressing, with those wonderful school-made rolls!
When I was in school during the 1960s and ’70s, we always had fish on Fridays. This was a provision for the Roman Catholic children, who made up a significant proportion of our school population. Exactly when and how the rules of that church have evolved, I am not sure, but even though hamburgers or vegetable soup were usually available for those not obligated to eat fish on those days, I always chose the fish because I liked it.
I always thought it a little odd that God would lay down such rules, especially when the little Presbyterian children did not have to do such things for the Almighty. But now that I am older, without commenting on the requirements of any particular religion, I muse about our current American reluctance to allow God to make any demands upon us, particularly as to what we eat, how we behave, or how we order our time.
Religion always has a sniff of the arbitrary about it. Some requirements are self-evident and universal. Do not steal. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. These have to do with social good order. It is empirically demonstrable that theft, murder, and lack of family stability all detract from a prosperous, healthy community.
But it is harder to make a case for some of the other religious obligations. Keeping the Sabbath. Contributing a proportion of our incomes. Receiving Holy Communion. Getting married in a church ceremony. Abstaining from meat on certain days or at certain times of the year.
Why? The particulars vary in different places and times, but I think it is to make the point that God has the right to ask things of us. It is to teach the principle that we owe obedience and fealty to our creator. If we believe that God gives us life and breath, then it follows that we have some obligation to live according to the Creator’s rules.
Granting this is one of the basic lessons of life, and it is not surprising that we sometimes push back against it. What’s the harm of a hot dog on Friday night in Lent? Yet, the discipline of bending the will towards heaven is a necessary corrective to the “All that Matters is Me” mentality.
Many people — and not just religious people — will testify to finding freedom through rituals and disciplines of various kinds: athletic, military, dietary, and so forth.
A prayer of my tradition says, “In thy service is perfect freedom…” I would argue that we need the discipline of religious routine and ritual. We need to have demands made upon us sufficient to cause us to do things by way of order and sacrifice we would not otherwise do. We need enough sense of God that we have to give and even suffer a bit to inconvenience ourselves and interrupt our own priorities.
Eating fish on Fridays was a small thing. Vegans do without it just fine. According to a book I read recently, George and Martha Washington evidently had fish every Friday as a matter of preference, for their Protestant religion placed no such obligation on them. They just liked fish.
Lots of us go for catfish every weekend. But if you said God wanted us to do it, human nature being what it is, the catfish restaurants would likely go dark on Friday nights for want of customers. Suddenly our mouths would be watering for beefsteak.
So I think about what God asks me to do, and am glad God can use lots of things to teach us the lesson that self does not belong in the throne. We need this, and are all the happier for it. As James Simpson of Scotland puts it, “At its finest, Christianity is a choice blend of love of self and love of neighbor, nourished by God’s love for us and our love for God.”
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