I don’t remember the exact year, but I remember going to a retreat with my middle school youth group to our church’s camp next to a lake on the flat plains of western Minnesota. My church geekiness set in quite early; I had always been fond of church and I was turning to the age where the simple, pat answers to my religious questions of childhood were no longer suitable as my mind and reason was expanding. I had just started to read the Bible as sacred text on my own, not simply as isolated chunks of stories (pericopes) but continuously from one story to the next.
An unusual part of my own childhood religious formation is having been formed concurrently by multiple Christian traditions. Our family held formal membership in a local Evangelical Lutheran Church of America congregation (with whom we in the UCC are in Full Communion), where we went to worship, Sunday School, and children’s choir each week. That church didn’t, however, have mid-week activities at the time, and so my sister and I went to children’s and youth programming at the local congregation affiliated with the Church of the Lutheran Brethren: a much smaller, more conservative Lutheran denomination that has more in common with the modern Evangelical movement. In addition, from third through fifth grades I attended a small non-denominational Christian elementary school where most students’ families attended Pentecostal, Charismatic, Fundamentalist, or other Evangelical churches in my hometown. I was the only “mainliner” among my classmates.
I deeply cherish and value this parallel formation. There are many specific things I can point to from each experience that still continues to shape my religious practice today. One of them is the same thing that struck me some 25 years ago at that weekend retreat at camp: you.
No, of course, dear reader, I don’t mean you specifically. I also don’t not mean you, specifically.
I didn’t entirely have the words for it at the time, yet I recognized each of these places held a very different understanding of the word “you” when it appeared in sacred text. In Sunday School, “you” had a bit more of a collective meaning — it was almost always in the plural, rather than the singular — as we got older. For example, in Matthew 4 when Jesus is calling Simon and Andrew, in verse 19 Jesus says that he “will send you out to fish for people.” In early childhood the you was understood: Jesus was talking to “you,” Simon and Andrew. And yet by middle school the meaning had shifted, and instead the “you” was understood to mean us — the ones today who were reading the story being invited to find our place in the story’s call to discipleship.
There was an understanding I gained from our church on Sunday mornings that religious practice was formed in community, and that the communal response to the text was of most importance. “You” always was directed toward the plural. It wasn’t ever stated directly that one couldn’t be religious on their own, yet I still clearly understood the message that we needed one another in a religious community — our local church — in order to most fully experience this call to discipleship.
During devotions, chapel, and Bible study at school, on the other hand, “you” was always singular. Yes, Jesus was talking to “you” Simon and Andrew, and “you” the reader. The responsibility for the life of discipleship was solely on the shoulders of “you,” the individual. One’s individual actions and decisions demonstrated the strength of their own faith commitment.
At youth group, though, our leaders seemed to speak in nuance, somewhere between these two positions. I asked a question of my camp counselor and what he thought. He told me that sometimes you means me, and sometimes you means we.
This was unsatisfying as a pre-teen. Sure, I nodded, and said I understood, yet the more I sat with it the more frustrated I became.
- If you means me, how do I shoulder this sacred responsibility?
- If you means we, what holds me (or anyone else) accountable?
- If you means me, how am I humbled in love when my ego turns to arrogance and division?
- If you means we, where do I most fully express the creative imprint of the Divine on me when it doesn’t conform?
- If you means me, who am I that God would have time to focus on just me?
- If you means we, why does God give us reason and free will?
Come to think about it, I have more questions today:
- If you means me, why do I have to keep wearing a mask when I’m vaccinated and boosted?
- If you means we, why don’t people get that wearing a mask indoors is still important even with vaccines?
- If you means me, why should I keep friends and family members whose politics oppose mine?
- If you means we, what can we do to recreate genuine community when we are so segregated — by race, class, politics, educational level, economic opportunity, and every other measure?
- If you means me, why do I deserve a break when the work isn’t done?
- If you means me, how do we collectively make space for self-care and liberation without shame or burnout?
Well, camp counselor, wherever you are: thank you. I guess I’m still wrestling with you, me, and we.