Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cafeteria Christianity

This post first appeared as an article in St. John's parish newsletter. The rest of the newsletter can be read here.

The barber shop in my home town was a center of male public life. As in days gone by, older fellows with hardly enough hair to cut would come in every day of the week just to sit and talk. Saturdays were busy, of course, and boys and their parents would occupy many of the chairs in the small shop. Every day after school, teenagers would stop by to see if either of the barbers needed anything, knowing that a generous tip would be given to the one who returned with a cup of hot coffee. Pithy signs covered the walls, imparting anecdotal wisdom to anyone willing to read them. One of those signs is still emblazoned on my memory—partly because it seemed a little strange in a barber shop. It read, “This is not Burger King. You do not get it your way. You either take it my way, or you don’t get the darn thing.”

Expletive notwithstanding, perhaps that sign should be tacked to the front door of every church. This is the Christian community. This is not Morrison’s Cafeteria. You do not get to pick and choose which parts of our life together you will place on your own tray and which parts you will leave for someone else. We are in this together—all the way. We are God’s family. We are the Body of Christ. We cannot allow our membership (think “body part”) in the church to be more about taking than giving. The church does not exist for your pleasure. We, the church, exist for the pleasure of God.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages hisreaders to stick together, writing, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). The “one spirit” he refers to is the Holy Spirit—the one, unifying, animating presence of God within each of us and at the heart of our community. Being of “one mind” is a reflection of the Holy Spirit’s work, and it means more than simple agreement. The “mind” Paul writes about is the ψυχή or “pschye” that his readers would have understood as the very breath of life—the animating spirit or soul—that is found within every person. In other words, Paul is exhorting the Philippians to make their gospel-unity manifest at the deepest possible level. And he asks us to do the same.

Increasingly, ours is a world of choices. The five channels of broadcast television became the hundreds of channels available through cable or satellite, which are now being replaced by the on-demand streaming of shows and movies. The variety of apples in the produce aisle was once limited to red, green, and yellow, but now there are types to suit even the most discriminating palate. My children will never know what it means to think Neapolitan ice cream is “fancy” because it comes with all three flavors. Choice itself is not a bad thing, and I am chief among those who celebrate the inclusion of even the most eccentric options on a menu. But the gospel calls us to set aside all our differences in order that we might be united as those who belong to Christ. When the church forgets that our deeply held unity must transcend the pick-and-choose culture of our day, we begin to preach a gospel that conforms to our own whimsy rather than the gospel that shapes us into God’s unified people.

What does your experience of the Christian community look like? Are you perusing the offerings and selecting only those that suit your appetite? Are you fitting church into your busy schedule only when it works for you and complaining that the church should do more to accommodate the busy lives of contemporary families? Try letting go of the “what-has-the-church-done-for-me-lately” attitude and embrace a “what-have-I-given-to-my-Christian-community” approach to living out your faith. If you are holding back or hanging out on the sidelines because the church is not exactly what you think it should be, jump in more fully. The church is its members—its body parts—and you are one of them. Give yourself totally to Christ by giving every ounce of your being to the community of the faithful. Quit waiting for the church to conform to your individualized preferences, and instead let your participation in the life of the church shape you into the Christian God is calling you to be.

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