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Thou Mayest … or Not

I hate to say it but I once had a dog who did not like going to church. Sometimes he and my wife would walk me back to the church for evening events after dinner, and when we rounded the corner so the church was in view, he would sit down on the sidewalk and refuse to budge.

You can imagine how embarrassing this was. I know people who balk at crossing the church’s threshold, but not the minister’s dog. A colleague rather gleefully told me that his dog loved going to his church, but I was honor-bound to point out that his dog was a new convert and that his enthusiasm would fade with time.

All dog owners know that canines are endowed with a certain level of self-consciousness and so are responsible for their behavior, and while there may not be many rules these days, some things are still just plain wrong. I lost count of the times I told him not to lick the dishes in the dishwasher, for example, and then there was the time he rolled in the remains of someone’s fishing trip. I told him he can’t do that, either, which was pointless since he obviously could—and was pleased as punch with the results—and then it dawned upon me: whether rolling in old fish heads or going to church (or not as the case may be), only two words apply: thou mayest.

Thou shalt and thou shalt not may come from On High, but the fact is that we still may or may not and frequently do or don’t depending on the whim of the moment, for we are free and not even God can compel us to follow a certain path if another one comes along that looks more interesting.

Freedom places a great deal of responsibility on us, for our countless choices give shape to our lives. At one time, we had more help in making those choices (old rules, veritable truths, neighbors who knew our names and where we lived), and not so terribly long ago, there were fewer options available to us. Now, at a time when we face a dizzying array of possibilities (and the anonymity to wander where the potential disapproval of the wider community will not follow), the old rules don’t have quite the hold on individuals and communities. As someone put it, we live in the postmodern triumph of the will, accompanied by a corresponding loss of moorings.

For times like these, perhaps it will help to keep in mind Jesus’ summary of the rules he taught … to love God with all we are as persons and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.