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Giving or Getting?

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-26

One of the modern misconceptions with regard to scripture, and the narrative it conveys, is the notion that the Bible speaks to us primarily as individuals. I was raised with this idea, and I dare say that nearly everyone in the Western world was likely raised with it as well. I was taught, though not explicitly, that going to church was a matter of satisfying something personal. Whether it was a need for divine forgiveness, a spiritual direction, a fleeting desire to please my parents, all roads led to Rome, so to speak. It was all about my relationship with God, regardless of what else the church might be up to.

It was only much later (embarrassingly so for a seminary trained professional) that I began to see that in fact the Bible speaks to us as a community. The “you” to whom Jesus addresses nearly everything isn’t me, it’s us. This is an important distinction, but one that may ultimately spell disaster for The Protestant Church in the U.S., as it has in Europe. On the heals of Rene Descartes we have come view our religious and cultural institutions as, for all practical purposes, voluntary associations of fully autonomous individuals, the arbiters of our own tiny universes.

Consequently the fortunes of our Churches rise and fall on the caprice of individual will, and frankly, we don’t know another way to be. I see this regularly iterated in the lifecycle of theoretically important institutions, and it often comes down to a choice we make as individuals, a way of answering a certain vital question. This line of demarcation is between asking “what can I get,” versus “what can I give,” in our approach to a particular community enterprise. I realize that we are hopelessly complex in our attitudes, and that the ground shifts regularly between these poles, but it has been my experience that Churches where most stakeholders ask only the first question do not last long past the fulfillment of whatever need gave rise to them in the first place.

Over and over again scripture attempts to address the second question. What can I give? How can my gifts and skills be combined with the gifts and skills of others to create a more deeply rooted and effective whole? Is my purpose to have a purpose, or merely to consume? Where is the balance point between the two? Every community, especially every Church community, has to reflect upon, and answer, some version of this question. Will we simply serve ourselves, or will we be a community gathered in behalf of the world?

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
Dorothy Day

“Without community service, we would not have a strong quality of life. It’s important to the person who serves as well as the recipient. It’s the way in which we ourselves grow and develop.”
Dorothy Height