The plural you

One of the great things about the Christian faith is how it both affirms the best, and challenges the worst, in every culture.

For example, Americans have more freedom to pursue their faith compared to any society in history. But at the same time, we’re more inclined to view faith individualistically than any culture in history.

We make a “personal decision” for Jesus.

We have a “personal relationship” with him.

We say, “I’m a spiritual person.”

OK, but then what do we do with the stories in Acts 10 and Acts 16, where whole households were baptized at once? It’s hard to make the case that everyone there made a “personal decision” for Jesus.  

What do we do about the plural “you?”

In our culture, when we hear the word “you” we assume it’s singular. In the English language, the plural “you” is exactly the same as the singular “you.” Unless the context clearly says otherwise, we assume the “you” is singular.

But the Greek language has different words for the singular and plural “you.”

And in the New Testament, the “you” is almost always plural.

It’s impossible to overstate what a challenge this is to the American understanding of faith.

Faith must be lived in community.

We are a chosen people; we are a royal priesthood.

We are called out of darkness into light together.

We each have gifts that God gave us so that others can grow in faith.

We each have needs that God intended to be met by others.

There are deep theological reasons why, say, the pandemic lockdowns were so devastating.

Our culture would have us believe that life is “all about you.”

It is.

The plural “you.”

Abuse of office

One of the privileges we have as a church is to raise up new pastors. For over two centuries, people who’ve gotten their start in ministry here have gone on to make inestimable contributions to God’s kingdom.

But it’s not getting easier to raise up pastors.

I recently read an account of why churches have been splintering. One phrase seemed to sum up the problem: “Catechized by the culture.”

Church members might go to church for an hour a week, but for the remaining 167 hours they’re steeped in the culture.

How do churches compete?

In many cases, they don’t. They capitulate.

Some adopt the solutions of the culture.

Some adopt politicians as saviors.

The late Eugene Peterson, in his memoir, The Pastor, wrote about how he and other pastors were invited to receive weekly training in mental health by the county health department. The instructor was a prominent psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins. The idea was that pastors would be better equipped to respond to a growing mental health crisis. At first, Peterson appreciated the training. It was heady stuff. But slowly he realized that he was seeing his parishioners as “problems.” Instead of someone beloved by God, he saw “depression” or “anxiety.”

Peterson wrote: “By reducing them to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as a pastor. I was trading in the complexities of spiritual growth in congregation for the reduced dimension of addressing a problem that could be named and understood.

“Would I embrace the emotional gratification of solving a problem that could be diagnosed and dealt with head-on, rather than give myself as companion in searching out the sacred mysteries of salvation and holiness?”

This week I took part in seminary training for supervisors of field education students. It was on trauma, something we face in our downtown neighborhood every day. We’ve offered similar training here before.

But this training was solely from a secular perspective. “Meditation” and “mindfulness” were offered as ways to deal with trauma, but not prayer.

When I pointed out that there was nothing about Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t well received. One field education supervisor told me that my comments were, “An abuse of my office.”

When Jesus prayed his great prayer in John 17, it was in the context of the greatest trauma in history, his own. He said, “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

The culture offers lots of tools to help pastors cope with trauma, their own, and the trauma of those they serve. I use them often.

But if I were to leave out Jesus, that would be abuse of my office.

Discovering you

After living overseas for many years, a couple moved to the city and enrolled their daughter in a high school downtown. The first question her new classmates asked her was not, “Where are you from?” Their first question was, “Are you gay or straight?”

That was several years ago. Today the question students are asking is, “Do you identify as a male, female, or something else?”

In the January/February 2016 issue of Christianity Today, Alissa Wilkinson says that 2015 was “The year we searched for ourselves.” Wilkinson says that “Christians commonly assume, alongside mainstream culture, that the process of knowing ourselves is an individual one….”  “To thine own self be true,” the famous words of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, may be the unofficial motto of our culture today. But it’s not that simple. The people around us dramatically affect our perception of ourselves.

Wilkinson points to the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, about a young woman who’s freed after 15 years of captivity in an underground bunker. She sets off to New York to find herself. But the people she interacts with all have their own strengths and weaknesses; things they like about themselves, and things they’d rather not reveal.

The truth is, self-identification takes place in a particular context. If Kimmy went to Des Moines instead of New York she would identify something different in herself.  Wilkinson says, “In reality, though, we don’t first find ourselves, then participate in relationships. Instead, we were made to know ourselves in relationships.”

Christians understand that we were all created in God’s image. This is why God gave us the church; to be, in part, the context through which the creator reveals to us our truest selves. As Wilkinson says, “We become more like Christ as we participate in the life of the church and form relationships there.”