me and more

Philippians 2:3-8

I’m going to let y’all in on a—
well, I’m not sure it’s a secret—
as much as it is a truth.
The secret (or the truth) of a marriage boils down
to the answer both spouses have to this one question.
The truth to being in any good relationship
boils down to the answer those in the relationship
make to one question.
The truth to being member of a healthy family
boils down to how members of the family answer one question.
The truth to being member of a good church
boils down to how the church answers one question.
And it’s all the same question—just to be clear.
Answered time and time again and again.
Never conclusively answered once and for all.
Asked and answered anew each day.
You wondering what the question is yet?
It’s a simple one.
Here it is:
is this about “me” or is this about “us”?

And so when it comes to money—
to discretionary income,
when it comes to time,
when it comes down to what you want—
what you want to do,
when it comes to making plans,
when it comes to how you choose to expend your energy,
is this about “me” or is this about “us”?

Such a straight-forward question,
but the answer determines so very much.
Because often the choices I would make,
just thinking about me,
are other than the ones I would make
thinking about us.
And that’s not any kind of sour grapes—
look at me, the martyr.
That is, rather, me having chosen “us” as priority.
So it’s not disregarding me.
It’s me highly valuing me,
while affirming that any me
is best as part of a we.
And ideally the right we, of course!

A key to a good life is identifying the right we’s
of which to be a part:
the right friends, the right spouse,
the right church—
not to say there’s just one of any of those,
but there sure are lots of wrong ones of each of those!

Last night, at Amy and Shane’s wedding,
we talked about the importance of their community
to their marriage—
the support and encouragement of those who surround them—
who will be there for them.

There are times I’m at the hospital,
and I see someone suffering,
but surrounded by family and by friends—
surrounded by a family of faith and by faith affirmations,
and I wonder, how does someone do this
without being thus surrounded?
And too many do.
Not having chosen the right we’s of which to be a part.

Statistics indicate that youth
who participate in a youth group
are more equipped to safely navigate
more complicated, dangerous we’s.
There is nothing better
than a safe, supportive, accepting, encouraging community,
in and from which to negotiate the complexities
and the dangers of life.

It’s not that it’s easy.
Not that it doesn’t take work.
And not that there’s not a lot working against us.

There’s a saying—a phrase—a cliché—
made manifest in much of our public policy—
our economic policies—
indeed, much of our image of ourselves as a country.
It’s the image of the individual
pulling him or herself up by the bootstraps.
Right?
To mean self-sufficience,
independence,
self-motivation,
hard work.

Of course, the earliest examples of that saying,
going back to 1834, actually clearly mean
for the phrase to indicate the impossible.
Someone trying to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps
is not only someone who is stuck,
but also someone who’s not going to get unstuck.

The phrase continued to have that meaning well into the 1900s,
though by the early 1900s,
it had already begun to take on its present day connotation.
So in James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses,
published in 1922, the phrase was used
to mean not the impossible,
but the admirable.

And that’s all tied to the protestant work ethic.
It’s tied to the american dream.
It’s tied to that fundamental image of the rugged individual
we so admire.
And we retain the images and the ideals of our history,
but less and less the circumstances and opportunities.
And we’re increasingly in danger
of becoming but a myth based on a memory
increasingly disconnected from reality.
And at some point, the growing distance between
who we think we are and who we say we are,
and who we actually are,
will explode.

No one, but no one, can make it on their own.

And it’s not as if being a part of a community—
part of a we—
comes at the expense of me.
It’s just me defined in we terms.
And while it’s true
that aspects of me are sacrificed in a we,
they are sacrificed as initiatives of love and grace,
not in submission with resentment.
Okay, sometimes with a little resentment—
sometimes a lot!
But overall, still chosen,
for the greater importance of the we.
Is it about me or is it about us?

And as long as the individual feels committed to the we—
good about the we—
fulfilled in the we—
hopeful in the we—
the I—the me—remains healthy.

Within a good, healthy we
in which each and all are committed to the well-being of the other—
not at the expense of the self,
but in addition to the well-being of the self,
it’s a balance—
a balance of what I need and want
and what we need and want.
And balance is about working with a tension
until it doesn’t feel tense anymore.

Most of us don’t remember our own experience
learning to walk,
but as a community, most of us have been around toddlers
and watched them in that process.
If you’ve never paid attention,
we have another set coming up
that will be in the middle of all that before long!
And as wobbly as they are—
as much as they teeter and totter and topple,
as much as they so obviously do not feel balanced,
something drives them to keep working through the tension—
the tension of feeling so very unbalanced—
to keep trying—
to get up and fall down time and time again—
until they walk—
and run—and skip—and dance,
and don’t even remember the tension
that once dominated their being.
Balance is about working with a tension
until it doesn’t feel tense anymore.

Now, I’d like to point out a two-fold risk.
Because there is clearly not enough healthy affirmation of self.
And I’d like to be very clear:
too many of the applications of the self-emptying imagery
we find in Scripture and theology
are sick—
are unhealthy—
not the celebration of self in relationship,
but the sublimation of the self in relationship.
And a lot of folks simply need to be reminded
that God loves them—
that they are an amazing creation—
part of God’s will and integral to God’s work.

On the other hand,
there’s also clearly the risk of an excessive focus on self.
And domination,
which in community is how excessive focus on self is manifest—
domination, in any of its myriad forms—
domination of a person—
that person’s wants and needs,
domination of a people group,
a gender, an age group, a socio-economic demographic,
domination of any—
is antithetical to who God is,
and so, when done in the name of God,
blasphemous.

Too much of our religion,
as expressed and practiced,
is blasphemy.
And at some point, the growing distance between
who we as the people of God think we are,
and who we say we are,
and who we actually are
will explode.

Because the secret to our faith, too,
boils down, I believe,
to the answer to this one question,
is this about “me” or is this about “us?”

And we all need to remember
that before religion ever became a matter of us
choosing (or not choosing) God,
it’s a matter of God choosing us—
of God choosing to be part of a we
that includes us—
that includes all creation.

We’ve largely made our faith about “me’s”—
about our individual responses to what God has done.
So Jesus as personal savior,
faith as personal profession,
religion as my salvation.
And it’s certainly not that there’s not an individual dimension
to our faith.
We experience life,
and we experience our faith
as individuals.

But the Bible is never not written to a community.
It’s written to the community of Jews—
be they in Egypt, wandering through the wilderness,
in Israel, in Exile.
It was written to the community that was and is the church—
wherever it was and is to be found.

Elements of Scripture certainly address individuals.
but always within community and relationship—
within, always, interdependence
and responsibility for each other.
Me and more.

We’ve noted time and time again,
so many all y’all’s in Scripture.
and so many charges to look out for the least of these.
Consistent throughout Scripture is the exhortation
to care for the widows and orphans,
the aliens in our midsts,
the poor and sick and hungry and imprisoned—
the weak and the vulnerable.

It’s part of the whole loving your neighbor as yourself
neither at the expense of the other.
That’s where we so often go wrong.
We hear an emphasis on others
at the expense of self,
or we see an emphasis on the self
at the expense of others.

And I repeat: as long as the individual feels committed to the we—
good about the we—
fulfilled in the we—
hopeful in the we—
the I—the me—remains healthy
within a good, healthy we
in which each and all are committed to the well-being of the other—
not at the expense of the self,
but in addition to the well-being of the self.

You heard earlier, our confession of sin:
we confess, our God, to too often regarding ourselves
better than others.
Hear now these words of assurance:
Dawn Baker, our wise WEE School director,
loves to travel, but hates to fly.
And so it comes as great gift to her
to travel with someone
who knows how to get to where they need to be
to check in at the airport,
and which lines to get into
to get boarding passes and to go through security—
to get to the right terminal and the right gate.
Traveling with someone like that takes away her stress
and allows her to relax into enjoyment.
She says that’s our job as parents.
To provide a secure, structured environment
in which children trust they are safe
and can relax into the work of their play
and their growing up—
teetering, tottering, toppling,
walking, running, skipping, dancing.
And, I might add, that’s our job, as church—
in the presence of God,
to provide for each other
a safe enough environment
in which to risk growing in the faith
and growing into God.

So here’s my question.
Amidst our life together as church,
amidst the me’s and the we’s,
amidst all we do to support and encourage each other,
where is it tense?
In that good, positive way full of potential!
Where do we feel unbalanced?
teetering—
tottering—
toppling
toward further growth.

And if we’re feeling pretty good—
pretty balanced,
then how do we find that tension,
within feeling safe and secure
of not feeling safe and secure,
but somehow driven to keep working through the tension—
driven to find out what grace there is
beyond the tension—
oh, not to walk, run, skip or dance—
not to fly,
but to love—
ever more inclusively,
ever more deeply,
ever more gracefully.

And the question for all of us to answer,
time and time again,
never conclusively answered once and for all,
asked and answered anew each day—
is this all about me or about us?

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