I know I’ve told this story before, but it fits so well with a couple of issues I am dealing with that I share it here again.
In my travels, one morning I stopped for breakfast and sat in a booth near two women. When the waitress came to take their orders, one of the women said, “I would like the Eggs Benedict, but could I have sausage on that instead of ham? And I really don’t care for English Muffins; could you put it on a biscuit, instead? And I don’t like that gunky yellow sauce they put on it, so you could just leave that off for me. And if it isn’t too much trouble, could they fry the eggs instead of poaching them?”
The waitress, being helpful said, “You know, if you get the sausage and eggs breakfast, it comes with a biscuit and is $2.00 cheaper.”
The woman, drawing herself up indignantly, spat, “I don’t want the sausage and eggs breakfast; I want Eggs Benedict!”
I was reminded of this story when I talked with a young woman who wistfully confessed that she missed going to church, and would really love to find one, but she only liked uplifting sermons; she didn’t like being challenged or made to feel guilty. And she wanted to go where there was really good music, but she really didn’t care for most of the hymns and she absolutely abhors praise music. And she would like to go someplace where she didn’t feel like a stranger, but she also didn’t want a lot of people bothering her. And she liked going someplace to pray, but she didn’t like it when she was expected to pray printed prayers. But she really, really wanted to find a church.
Another recent inquiry came asking if I knew of a good Bible study that was simple and quick, that could be done alone, and that wouldn’t focus on any of the really boring or irrelevant parts of scripture, but would give a person a fairly good level of competency and understanding?
We are living in an age of “me-first” consumerism and entitlement. We want what we want when we want it, and we don’t want anything we don’t want. We have lost any tolerance for enduring the good with the bad, and in the church and dominant culture it is resulting in pastiche spirituality as the new normal. People cherry-pick the bits and pieces they like from Bible, devotionals, sacred writings of other faiths, aphorisms, bumper-stickers, pop culture and create a mash-up that “works” for them. Jesus wept!
Now, we all do this to a certain degree. Due to my superior understanding and interpretation, my Jesus can beat up your Jesus any day. My beliefs, my opinions, my prejudices, my worldview, my practices, my engagement is better in every way than the “lesser” beliefs/opinions/prejudices/worldviews/practices/engagement of “lesser” people. Differences of opinion, exegesis, perspective, and worldview cause constant clashes. And this reveals the problem.
Where is our “we-ness?” What is our common good, our shared value, our connective tissue, our unity in diversity. How has the ME displaced and usurped the WE? Ours is a shared faith. We are the people of God. Sometime early in the 21st century the evangelical questions shifted from “and how is it with your soul?” to “do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” and “where have you experienced God’s grace in the world this week?” to “are you Born Again?” The context of the earlier questions was in community or small groups, while the neo-context was individual, personal, and all-too-often private. The plural “you” so often used in the Christian scriptures got squeezed through the singular “you” filter of modern Western culture. John Wesley taught about acts of personal piety, but he also preached and taught about the Means of Grace. Personal piety — prayer, devotional contemplation, journaling, reading of Scripture — was essential for all Christians, but so were regular participation in communal acts of prayer, study of Scripture, celebration of sacraments, Christian conference, fasting, and works of mercy. These corporate practices were so crucial and central for Wesley that he described them as ways we place ourselves in the path of the divine — means to the ends of grace. They were not optional. They were not dispensable. They were not irrelevant. The practice of the Means of Grace is essential to mature in the Christian faith. “We” matters as much, if not more than, “me.”
Today’s leadership needs to teach and preach that it is NOT okay to pick and choose the bits and pieces we like, and discard the rest. We need to let people know that you CAN’T be as good a Christian alone as you can be in community. We need to remind people that being and doing, believing and behaving, worshiping and working are not separate, but in every case two sides of a single coin. We need to remember that there is no such thing as “personal salvation” divorced from the Body of Christ. We rise or fall together, and shame on us for succumbing to the cultural values of “me, me, me, most important”. In the grand scheme and scope of God creation, a little humility is in order.
I truly believe that when every individual defines faith in personal and private terms, the center cannot hold. We are less and less the Body of Christ and more and more dismembered parts, lifeless and useless and perfectly happy in our personal delusion of sanctity. I have no meaning, no purpose, and no intrinsic value unless there is a you, and ultimately a we. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and alone we are meaningless. The “you” that Paul and Jesus so passionately proclaimed is collective more often than individual. Were Jesus from the south, he would have appropriately taught “y’all” and it would have been a whole lot clearer. Together WE ARE the Body of Christ. It is important not to forget that fact.