Raising my head after the reverent pre-communion prayer, I look over to see Elijah and Priscilla both bending their torsos and readying their legs, two small faces hardened with determination. “What in the world?” I think. The Chalice is raised and the words “Let us in faith and love draw near,” signal parishioners to come forward in reception of the Eucharist. To my horror, our two oldest children spring from their positions at the very edge of the Oriental rug and race, in fierce competition, to be first in line. With arms crossed they elbow and shove one another until I abruptly grab them by the collars and pull them to the side. “What is wrong with you two?” I seethe. “He always gets to be first,” pouts Priscilla. “Nu-uh!” says Elijah, “she’s lying.”
Utterly confused and embarrassed, I am lost for the words that would even begin to describe how wholly inappropriate it is to sideline fellow church members in order to claim first dibs on the body and blood of Christ.
“Me first!” has to be one of the most annoying, grammatically poor, peace shattering sentences, known to mothers everywhere. I think its safe to ascertain that it originated with the first ever siblings, Cain and Abel, and has been torturing the ears of parents ever since. The other morning as I was painstakingly trying to set three bowls of cereal on our kitchen table without any one bowl touching the surface before another, I asked my children why they cared so much about arriving first, departing first, eating first, and speaking first. Elijah, Priscilla, and Ben just looked at me. Apparently, such a foolish question wasn’t worthy of an answer. “No really,” I asked again “what about being second makes you angry?”
“It’s for the revenge, mom,” Elijah finally ventured, reading my eyes to make sure he wasn’t going to be punished for this honest response. “I get angry when Priscilla or Ben get to go ahead of me all the time.”
“Uh,” I said. “Interesting.”
No too long ago I was looking for a parking space at the grocery store on a busy Saturday afternoon. There was a spot close to the front that I was hoping to nab, so I put on my right turn signal, pulled up close, and waited for the couple to finish loading their groceries into the trunk and pull out. Meanwhile, another woman in a Suburban had the exact same idea. While I backed up to make room for the couple to leave, the woman on the other side slid in to the now empty spot and parked her ridiculously large vehicle. I was livid. I scowled at her and rose up my hands in disgust. Never mind that it was warm, that I was perfectly capable of walking, and that there were plenty of open spaces a little further down. I was there first! I wanted to yell at her. I wanted to prove that her actions weren’t fair. I wanted acknowledgement of my correctness. I wanted revenge.
Little Mary, my 16-month-old, is perfectly content looking through her board books when I walk into the room holding my two-month old niece. Immediately she toddles over, forces a whimper, and pulls on my pants leg. She can’t yet talk, eat with a spoon, or get off the couch after crawling on top of it, but she is acutely aware of what is hers and isn’t shy about claiming it. “Mine,” is a word spoken often by toddlers.
This weeks’ Gospel reading was about the rich young ruler, a story that I have always viewed as somewhat discouraging. Here is this nice guy who had probably worked very hard to secure a good living. He had done his best to obey all of God’s commandments and now he was coming to this Jesus of Nazareth for verification that he was on the right road to eternal life. “Sell all your possessions,” Jesus said “and follow me.” I have often tried to put myself in the shoes of this young man only to step right back out of them just as confused and dejected as he was at such an extreme order. It almost seems like a set-up for failure. Even the disciples questioned Jesus, “then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
There are many good and honest people all around us, people who donate their time, labor and finances to help the poor and needy. Goodness, is honored in nearly every religion, culture, and society. Jesus was not content with the rich young ruler’s good behavior. Following Christ could not look, taste, sound, or feel like following anyone or anything else. Jesus went straight for the jugular, He had his finger on the pulse of this man’s security and His request was a death sentence. Like the rich young ruler, I too desire to follow Christ while retaining just a sliver of myself.
Protecting my interests has been a priority since I was born. It is foolish to let yourself be stepped on, to not stand up to injustice, to not lock up your valuables, or to offer the other cheek when you’ve been slapped. “Me first,” has been the motto of some very successful individuals, leaders who would not be held back by naysayers. “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God,” says Paul in I Corinthians 1:18. Christ’s command to the rich young ruler will not make sense, cannot make sense, in the context that I want it to.
It would be worlds easier if I could be good, and through being good, be saved. I have offered up the “majors”, as I like to call them. I am a very regular Church attendee, I am a devoted wife, I ask for God’s blessings on my decisions, my future, and my children. I am mostly honest, I am moral, and even so I am faced with the eye of a needle and the chances of me squeezing through on my own are next to none. It is fluff, my outward offerings. Christ has his finger on the pulse of my security and His touch is hot and painful. He has his eye on that sliver I want to retain, and if I can’t hand it over I may as well take back all I have given for the sake of my faith thus far.
Then I don’t want to pick up a ringing phone or take the time to fix two bowls of soup in case my husband is also hungry; when I get something in my mind that I want to own and figure out ways to be sure I get it; when I automatically tense up at a request to volunteer for school, church or community events; when I become anxious for a future I envision as perfect; when I can’t stand to read one more book, play one more game, or clean up one more mess; I become acutely aware of the chasm between a full and partial surrender to the will of God.
A “Me First” life is not a peaceful life. I can tell by watching my kids, how exhausting and emotionally draining it is to keep track of score. Only by emptying all of myself will I have ever have the opportunity to be filled back up with the life of Christ. By dying, I will live. By losing, I will win. Through my weakness, I will be made strong. By offering up what I am most terrified to give, I acknowledge the difference between following Christ and following anything or anyone else.
First thing in the morning, I will be awakened by the demands of four young children. Before I even step out of bed, I will feel the stress of meeting these needs. My gut reaction will be one of annoyance, frustration, and self-protection. This is the ideal time to start praying, to offer up every resistance as I feel it. I can’t trust myself to ever stop, to ever assume I have it down. Taking one thought captive at a time is all I can currently handle. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall added unto you (Matt. 6:33).”
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me!”