Unity

Why the Church Needs to Gain Momentum

LoloStock / Shutterstock.com
Photo via LoloStock / Shutterstock.com

Nearly every issue of national concern — from prison to education to tax reform, from healthcare to LGBT rights — has become so polarizing that otherwise civil, intelligent human beings often digress to the level of obdurate toddlers staring down a bowl of broccoli.

Even as we jeer at our elected officials who can’t seem to get their acts together, none who have spent any time in a church business meeting should be surprised at the level of strife and vitriol displayed in the American political arena. Seriously, it’s getting as scary as Jack Nicholson’s eyebrows out there.

If you live in any kind of an urban context you’ll likely have witnessed the following scene.

You’re at a stoplight in your car and up rolls a cyclist. 

Part V: Unified in Our Common Humanity

Our fearless driver, Jacque, is a security guard. He speaks with an eloquent French accent. His words are few, but every now and then he’ll tell us a pertinent and profound fact as we drive. The tone of his voice perfectly narrates our scenic drive — whether we’re driving along the backroads of Rwanda’s hills, cruising peacefully through Kigali, or chasing elephants.

His story comes out in pieces:

When the genocide hit in 1994, Jacque was in high school studying in Kibeho, a beautiful village known for apparitions of the virgin Mary. He fled for another town to find safety with his family. The first time he’s been back to Kibeho was 20 years later, with us.

His son is now in high school at a boarding school. On our way from Kibeho, we stopped to say hello so that Jacque could give him money. Jacque was beaming with pride when he introduced us to his son.

Jacque also has a 3-year-old daughter — she’s the cutest thing.

When we visited Kigali’s Genocide memorial, Jacque stayed in the car. We found out later that the bodies of his wife’s parents are buried in the mass graves there.

His wife barely escaped death herself. When she was just 9 years old, her village was raided by the interahamwe who savagely hacked apart bodies, her parents’ included. As the genociders were merely Hutu youth who knew little about taking one’s life, victims were left beaten, mutilated, bleeding profusely — left to die. Thinking they had finished the job, the interahamwe threw all of the “dead” Tutsi bodies into a pile and moved on to the next village. She was one of the bodies — broken, but not dead. She was just a little girl — her body thrown into darkness among hundreds of other broken, bloody, and hacked-apart bodies.

When the interahamwe left, her classmate, neighbor, and friend, a Hutu, went back. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing any more of her friends to the blood-stained hands of her tribe members. She went back to dig through the piles of bodies — desperately searching for any semblance of life from the friends she held most dear. There, she found her dear friend, still grasping for breath, clinging to life, refusing to be consumed. In that moment, I can only imagine the overwhelming relief as the pendulum swung from sorrow to joy as they looked into each other’s eyes and identified with each other — literally finding life in death and hope in the midst of pain. Jacque’s wife survived only by the hopeful expectancy of a friend who intentionally went back into the destruction to pull out the life within.

Break Bread Together? Or Drive-Thru Alone?

Breaking bread, Shaiith / Shutterstock.com
Breaking bread, Shaiith / Shutterstock.com

Interesting fact: The term “breaking bread” goes back many centuries and crosses many cultures and religions. It’s a shared term for coming together in meal and friendship. The term applies today — you can find it in some urban dictionaries. 

For as long as we’ve been around, we’ve come together and connected over a meal. We enjoy breaking bread and telling stories, restoring friendships, and creating new ones.

Bread has been a staple of diets for a long time, so it’s a natural choice to capture the essence of eating together. Also, it’s wonderfully symbolic. When we break bread, each of us gets one piece of a bigger loaf. It feeds our sense of connection.

It’s not surprising that bread-breaking is a touchstone religious practice. For instance, it’s part of Jewish tradition. Two thousand years ago, a Jewish rabbi chose it as a way for his followers to remember their unity.

Jesus spent the last years of his life teaching that everyone is responsible for everyone else and must live that way — feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, care for the poor. Breaking bread is a reminder that our lives are about more than ourselves.

That They May Be One: Immigration and Christian Unity

Unity concept, C Jones / Shutterstock.com
Unity concept, C Jones / Shutterstock.com

As we approach Holy Week, I’ve been re-reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Last Supper, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. In John 17, as Jesus prays for his disciples and their successors in the hours before he is arrested, he prays for our unity as his church:

…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:21, 23)

Central to our mission as Christ’s followers is to share with the world this good news: that the Father sent the Son because he so loved the world — but the best observable evidence of that Gospel reality, a unified Church, seems a distant, utopian dream. Just within the United States — this small sliver of the global church — we are divided by denomination, by race, by political ideology, and by the competitive human instinct that leads even those congregations who resemble one another doctrinally, ethnically, and politically to jockey over the same individuals in order to fill their sanctuaries (or auditoriums) and offering plates. Perhaps the situation is not quite so stark: I know that many — probably most — believers share the desire for unity. It just seems at times that we have so far to go, and might be drifting in the wrong direction.

Getting Beyond Infighting to a Unified Church

Unity concept, ra2studio / Shutterstock.com
Unity concept, ra2studio / Shutterstock.com

It has been a tough go for the church in the United States over the past couple months. The name calling, division, and posturing reached a deafening volume last week in the wake of the World Vision controversy around employing those in gay marriage.

Noise.

Massive amounts of energy poured into proving our “rightness” and your “wrongness.”

Relationships severed. Most without ever having created the space to share a meal and simply listen to one another.

Social media. Interviews. Articles. Press releases.

Noise.

There have been so many chiming in on this thing that I saw no need to jump in and, well, to be honest, I’ve just been sad. Sad at the failed state of discourse within the church. Sad at the demonization. Sad that hungry kids across the world were losing their access to basic needs to live as a result of our inability to live, love and lead … together.

Let's Go Beyond Consumerism, Citizenship, and Individualism

Bulatnikov / Shutterstock
Rather than stumbling into single-serving citizenship, what if we learned to be a body together? Bulatnikov / Shutterstock

This morning at breakfast, I was reading an article in the newspaper about how the Affordable Care Act is negatively affecting some individuals — especially those who buy their own insurance, rather than receiving it through an employer. The article was interesting, but what struck me the most was the way the problem was framed. Rather than approaching the story from a public policy angle, the article mainly focused on the reaction of consumers of health-care goods and services. The crux of the article was whether some individuals should be required to buy a product they might not want or need so that other individuals could have affordable access to health-care products they need desperately but might not be able to afford under the old regime.

The dilemma was presented as a story of tension between healthier consumers and less healthy consumers fighting to get the best deal for their health-care dollars. But could there be another way of thinking about health care, and about our society as a whole? Is there a framework that would allow us to consider these questions in a way that assumed connection, caring, and community between individuals, rather than the zero-sum competition of the market?

Radical Welcome

ONE OF THE most well-known and revered icons today is Andrei Rublev’s reflection on the Holy Trinity, painted between 1422 and 1425 in Russia. It depicts three angels seated around a table that bears a chalice. The female figures form a circle evoking deep mutuality, interconnectedness, and love between one another. But the circle is open, inviting the world into this profound experience of community. As Christine Challiot, an Eastern Orthodox laywoman, wrote, “Rublev painted the three angels with a circular motion to signify their unity and equality, ‘thus creating a unity to represent the Holy Trinity in its movement of love.’”

This profound reflection is set in the biblical context of giving hospitality to the stranger. The icon depicts the story of the hospitality offered by Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:1-15 to three strangers. Abraham rushed to offer them hospitality—water and food.

The three migrating strangers are messengers of God. The text says simply that they were the Lord; interpreters see the three as the presence of the Trinity. And they, in turn, bring an announcement that Sarah, in her old age, will bear a son, fulfilling God’s promises. Sarah and Abraham suddenly find the tables reversed, and they are the guests at God’s table, being invited into this community of love. Thus, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, “This is a depiction of a trinitarian God capable of immense hospitality who calls the world to join the feast.”

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On Scripture: When 'Homeland Security' Keeps Us From Encountering God

spirit of america / Shutterstock.com
Thousands gather to rally for immigration reform in Los Angeles, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

We return to the benefits of connecting with others, and the dangers of allowing society to drift into one in which we count it too dangerous to trust.

Jesus’ prayer affirms this: I need other people. I do, if I want the chance to experience union with God and plunge into the heart of what God is about. And I don’t need only other people who are like me; love requires me to attend to a wider group. When I’m very different from someone else and yet we manage to live into an authentic unity supported by trust, we may gain a glimpse into God’s own wideness, perhaps discovering God to be more than we predicted.

For Jesus does not limit the venues for encountering God to churches and to groups of familiar people. What keeps it from being possible in public life, as well? It must be possible to encounter God there, given the world’s need to know God (verse 25) and God’s love for the world.

One Baptism, One Faith

AFTER SEVEN YEARS of theological, historical, and pastoral conversation, leaders of Reformed and Catholic churches in the U.S. this January signed a carefully worded, one-page agreement to mutually recognize the sacrament of baptism as it is practiced in each other's churches. This agreement represents dedicated—and inspiring—ecumenical work.

The agreement was signed by representatives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Church of Christ. This agreement is not unprecedented, coming as it does nearly five decades since Vatican II's decree on ecumenism, in which the Catholic Church recognized non-Catholic baptism whenever "duly administered as Our Lord instituted it, and ... received with the right dispositions." However, for each tradition, baptism gives sacramental expression to that tradition's understanding of the church and what it means to be a member. For these churches to recognize each other's baptismal rites gives visible witness to their mutual desire for unity among the members of Christ's body.

This desire for unity between the churches is not an add-on to the gospel; it is not something we do if we happen to get to it. It is central to the saving work and mission of Jesus.

This January's agreement is spare in its requirements. It states that the use of water and a reference to the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are all that are needed for mutual recognition. By specifying these two simple elements, the ecumenical team made a decision to respect the liturgical tradition of each church. The unique way that components of the rite have developed in each church—how catechesis is done, the use of scripture, the use of sponsors, anointing, and other elements—do not need to be changed.

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Eye on the Sparrow

WHEN I READ about the dire impacts of global warming, I think about Howard Thurman. This might be perplexing to those more familiar with Thurman as the author of Jesus and the Disinherited, a book Martin Luther King Jr. was said to carry with him wherever he went.

While Thurman is well-known as a theologian, prolific writer, mystic, seminary professor, and religious leader, few realize that—well before environmentalism became mainstream—Thurman articulated a complex theology of the “original harmony of creation,” a harmony that human action had significantly disturbed. As he lamented in 1971, “Our atmosphere is polluted, our streams are poisoned, our hills are denuded, wildlife is increasingly exterminated, while more and more [humanity] becomes an alien on the earth and a fouler of [our] own nest.”

From the early years of his life at the start of the 20th century, Thurman’s faith was formed in intimate connection with the natural world—specifically, the Halifax River and northeast Florida woods and coastline, where he wandered and played as a boy. Thurman’s relationship with nature deepened when a heartbreaking event estranged him from organized religion. When he was 7, his beloved father died quite suddenly. The family pastor refused to conduct a funeral because his father was not a regular churchgoer, and a traveling minister who officiated at the service took the opportunity to expound on the dangers of dying “out of Christ”—to the small boy’s wonderment and rage, “preach[ing] my father into hell,” as he later recalled.

In contrast, the young Thurman found solace and comfort in nature’s seasons and cycles:

Here I found, alone, a special benediction. The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings. The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances.

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