Arthur motioned for me to follow him into their small, eat-in kitchen, and, as he filled the kettle with water, I pulled a chair away from the round, oak table and prepared to sit down.
“The tea is in the pantry there,” Arthur said, pointing to the sliding doors behind me. “Do you like Earl Grey?” Without waiting for my response he went on to say, “It’s in one of those tins. See if you can find it.”
Arrayed before me was a collection of metal canisters, in a variety of colors, either old or designed to look old.
“They belonged to my grandmother,” Arthur said. “I found them in a trash can. Somebody had thrown them out after she died. I couldn’t bear to see them discarded, so I rescued them. By the way, the tea you’re looking for is in the gray one.”
Of course, I thought to myself. Leave it to Arthur to put Earl Grey tea in a gray canister. I opened the tin, removed two bags, put one in each of the cups Arthur had just warmed with hot water from the tap, and set the canister on the table. I then sat down in the chair I had selected a couple of minutes earlier.
Arthur filled our cups with boiling water, set the kettle back on the stove, then took the seat across from me. The aroma of bergamot oil filled the room as our tea steeped.
I squeezed the teabag from my cup against the bowl of my spoon and placed it on the saucer. I stirred in a bit of milk and a spoonful of sugar, took a sip of the fragrant infusion, then said to Arthur, “So… what’s happening with the blog?”
“I don’t really know,” he answered. “I haven’t written anything in almost two weeks. I sat down to try to write something last night, and I just couldn’t do it.”
“Writer’s block?” I asked.
“Of a sort, I suppose,” he said. “It’s not so much that I have nothing to say. It’s more the case that I’ve lost the will to say it. Even that’s not quite right. I think I’m having a credibility crisis.”
“I don’t think I know what you mean,” I said.
“Well, it’s like this,” he said. “I can’t write a blog post simply as an exercise in creative expression. I need to believe that what I have to say is doing some good, is accomplishing something. And that begins with a sense of confidence that people trust me and believe that what I write is worth reading.”
“I know quite a few people who read your blog, Arthur,” I said. “As far as I can tell, they all find it interesting and helpful. I’m still not sure I know what you mean by a credibility crisis.”
“Okay, see if this helps,” he said. “My burden is for the church, and by that I mean the people of God in general, the body of Christ wherever and however it expresses itself, irrespective of historical tradition or denominational identity.
“A lot of Christian teachers, including many bloggers, seem to believe their task is to communicate truths and principles which can help individual Christians feel more fulfilled, more content, more comfortable in their personal relationship with God… as individuals!
“That’s not me. I’m convinced that Christianity is a corporate endeavor.”
He paused to take another sip of Earl Grey, and it seemed he might be lost in thought.
“Go on,” I urged. “Say more about that.”
“Well, here’s what I mean,” he said. “I couldn’t care less whether American evangelical Christians find their faith to be personally fulfilling. In fact, I think that what many evangelicals refer to as a ‘personal relationship with Jesus,’ when it is combined with the narcissism of our consumer-oriented culture, results in an excessively individualized religion that bears little resemblance to the gospel of the Kingdom.
“American evangelical Christianity emphasizes personal salvation, personal goal-fulfillment, and therapeutic problem-solving, which, when taken together, distort the message of the New Testament and promote a religious experience which encourages self-importance and undermines the quality of community.
“Spiritual maturity cannot develop in isolation from the community of faith. And when I say ‘community,’ I don’t simply mean a group of people all together in the same place at the same time. A crowd is not necessarily a community.
“Community is a special attribute that characterizes a group of people who genuinely love and care for one another; people who recognize that the quality of their lives as individuals depends upon, and grows out of, the quality of the group with which they identify.”
“Do you remember a book called Habits of the Heart?” Arthur asked. “It came out a few years ago.”
“Yes, I remember it,” I replied.
“The author was a sociologist who, as I recall, believed that the American emphasis on extreme individualism was not altogether beneficial for the culture,” Arthur said.
“That rings a bell,” I said.
“In fact, if I remember correctly,” he went on, “the author described two particular aspects of American individualism. The first, utilitarian individualism, basically says that, if it works for me, then it must be good. The other was expressive individualism, I think. That means that if something fulfills or satisfies me, then it must be good.
“Neither of those emphases reflects the message of Jesus. Or of Paul. I mean, consider this.”
Arthur lifted a well-worn Bible off the counter and fanned through the thin leaves until he found the passage he was looking for.
“Here,” he said. “This is what Paul wrote in Philippians 2.” Then he read aloud these words…
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
“That doesn’t sound like extreme individualism, does it?” Arthur asked. I shook my head in response.
“And yet,” he went on, “if you listen to most Christian preachers or read most Christian blogs, you get the idea that Christian discipleship is something we undertake on our own, individually. We are berated for our individual failings and taught principles which are supposed to produce a deeper, more fulfilling, relationship between us and God.
“It sounds good, because it is reinforces the individualism so prevalent in our culture. But it completely misses the point.”
“And what is the point, Arthur?” I asked.
“The point is that it takes a church,” he answered. “It takes a community of faith, to produce a balanced, mature, Christian whose transformed life, in company with the community that produced it, is attractive to serious seekers because it offers something the individualistic culture fails to provide. This is the way Peter puts it in 1 Peter 2.”
Arthur removed his glasses, wiped them with his napkin, then put them back on. He picked up his Bible, turned a few pages, then read…
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
“That’s the New Testament model,” Arthur said as he laid his Bible down on the table. “The church is a people. Not merely individual people who meet together for some common purpose in the same location. A people whose individual worth and spiritual health is bound up in, and determined by, the quality of their community.”
“I agree with everything you are saying,” I told him. “In fact, it sounds legitimately prophetic. I still don’t understand what you mean when you say you sense a credibility crisis that might prevent you from sharing this truth in your blog.”
“Don’t you understand?” Arthur said, his voice taking on a plaintive, almost mournful, tone. “This is what I believe about the church. Like the writers of the New Testament, everything I write is addressed to the church. And yet…”
Arthur paused, laid his hands on the table palms-down, leaned forward and said, “And yet, I don’t go to church anymore. I don’t go to church.”
Arthur stared directly into my eyes. I saw there a mixture of sadness, pain, anger, doubt, and longing. I sensed that our conversations had reached a new level of seriousness and poignancy. I broke the eye contact and refocused my gaze on the bare tree limbs just outside the kitchen window.
Arthur stood up and walked over to the stove. As he poured fresh water into the kettle, he asked, “More tea?”