The second hardest life lesson I’ve had to confront is asking for help. The hardest one has been actually accepting the help. (Note: I haven’t mastered either one yet.)
I’ve always been a capable person with the full calendar and resume to prove it. But ever since our oldest daughter was born with life-threatening complications, it was like having someone press my nose into the mud of my personal weakness and hold it there. It was a shock to discover how incapable I could be. It forced me to examine why it was so painful to accept that I need help. Why is it so humiliating to ask for and accept that help? It appears that I am not alone. Once I started looking for it, I discovered that this thread of I-don’t-need-help independence weaves through the American national identity and it influences how Christianity enters and merges with that national identity.
So begins Joy Bennett’s poignant piece: “Independence: The False Gospel Destroying Christianity“.
Her prose is compelling, insight significant, but I was most struck with her story of independence. It was her struggle with what she knew to be true, but couldn’t bring herself to face. That we aren’t able to do everything ourselves. And we aren’t supposed to.
I think we ought to sit for a second with that idea. We aren’t supposed to do it all. We aren’t supposed to be truly independent.
- We value independence, despite Jesus’s direction to work together as one.
- We shun dependence, despite Jesus’s coming as a helpless baby.
- And we trade interdependence for individualism, despite Jesus’s presence promised for community.
Our bull-headed individualism runs counter to the gospel. And it threatens our society and values. We need look no further than the recent Hobby Lobby decision to see that a person’s independence is more important than the thousands of people whose very lives and health are dependent upon them.
I have shared my own fear of not being independent before, but a different story came to me yesterday.
A long time ago, my parents left the country on a sabbatical. I must have been a senior in high school or in college at the time. I was old enough to take care of myself.
A parishioner, who knew my parents would be gone for 6 weeks and all I had to live on was the money I was making at a summer job, asked me how she could help.
Like a good Midwesterner and rugged individual, I told her
I’m fine, thanks.
“It’s no trouble,” she said. She wanted to help.
No, I’m good
I told her. I didn’t want her to put herself out.
“It’s no trouble,” she assured me.
I kept saying. Each time, her expression dropped with the corners of her mouth and the happiness in her eyes.
After six or seven protests and assurances, and in complete exasperation, she asked
“What do you eat for breakfast? You need to eat,” she added.
Special K. Thanks.
“OK,” she said. “I’ll get you two boxes.” She walked away.
That afternoon, I found two boxes of Special K cereal on my porch.
Some two decades later, I replay that story in my mind with such sadness and anger at myself. My need for independence and self-righteousness. My need to prevent this caring woman from helping me, allowing me to receive her gift.
I’m not sure if its true, or if the insight came much later, but this is how I remember it:
From that moment on, I vowed to accept gifts given to me. A person gets one perfunctory “you don’t need to” before they receive a “you shouldn’t have.”
This is the stake of our independence and re-framing of the gospel to suit our cultural preoccupations. The hurt and indignity and arrogance that comes from doing it alone.
This struck me so much because I often feel that we are breeding this in our churches; with our people and with our leaders. I have fallen into that same trap. I like to call it “over-functioning” as if this were just a pretty word or some simple mistake. But it is something much worse. It is doing alone what must be done together.
The hard look in the mirror isn’t around the theology of this. Any reading of the gospels shows we are so very wrong about it. It is around this as our expectation for ourselves and for others, coming out in our leadership and in the way we treat our leaders. That we believe our lives can even be lived without mutual dependence or interdependence is foolish and dangerous.
For the very nature of faith, society, and all that we value in this world can only be maintained by a persistent belief in our interdependence. For, with only individualism, there can be no society or community. Which means there can be no Kingdom of GOD.