Around the globe, churches are observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Growing up, when I would hear about this week or other calls for unity among churches, it was often with despair at the fact that there were so many different denominations. If only those differences might go away and we could all be one big, happy church.
Over the years my thoughts around “unity” have shifted. I no longer see it as a call for those who are being brought together to be morphed into one thing with no differences. In fact, I think the unity is stronger when the parts are able to be truly authentic and honest about who they are.
It’s similar to my union with my spouse, Jeff. We did not cease to have our different strengths, weaknesses, interests, and so forth when we were married. In fact, our union is strongest when we find ways to listen deeply to that which we view differently, learn from one another, and allow one another to grow in our various interest and areas. It also means that there are times that I know I need to look to Jeff to take the lead or problem-solve because of what he brings to the family and there are times where he looks to me for leadership and problem-solving because of my gifts. Our union is also strongest when we listen deeply to one another, not just for each other’s greater qualities, but also the things that bring us pain, the things we struggle with, and those places of brokenness.
This week is also the week where we came together as a community to celebrate and listen to the call from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Growing up as a child in the ’80s, this day was often marked with hearing about MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and then a call to be “color blind,” a call many well-meaning Christians heeded. Then, in high school while serving on the National Board of the Lutheran Youth Organization, we went through an anti-racism training during our time together. During one of the exercises, I was standing next to my friend “Nick,” who happened to be African-American.. We stood in a line holding hands and then when different statements were read about our experiences in the world we either took a step forward or backwards. Soon, I was reaching to hold even just a finger of Nick’s hand. Eventually we had to fully separate; by the end of the exercise we had a giant space between us. In debriefing the exercise I heard Nick’s frustration with the concept of people being color blind. He said when someone talks about being “color blind” because everyone is God’s child, what he hears is that they don’t want to fully see him. They don’t want to hear the truth about his experiences. They don’t want to see the unique gifts he brings. They don’t want to see the brokenness and pain that he struggles with especially as an African-American man living in the United States. They try to wipe away the whole truth of his life.
This moment was one of the hardest and most important moments in my life. It helped me realize how much I had to learn and the lens of privilege I viewed the world around me with. What also happened is that my friendship with Nick and our conversations about all kinds of things were deeper, more honest, and more authentic. Because we were willing to name those differences, our unity was stronger. We could celebrate the ways the diversity brought depth and a variety of gifts to the table. We could also be honest about the struggles and brokenness of the systems of sin that challenged the call of God for community around us and within our relationships. We could work on engaging those issues because they were named.
My prayer this week as we strive for unity in our churches, on our campus, in our community, and in our world is that we will work for it with tools of deep listening, authenticity, humbleness, and leaving space to hear God’s call for how we walk together. When I look at the various denominations in the world today I now see the variety of ways that God is willing to come down and connect with God’s people. After all, some like to praise God with the music of drums, others want space for contemplation, and others connect in a space filled with organ music. I also see that all denominations are filled with fallible human beings. Therefore, I know that people have been hurt and let down in churches of all denominations. How are we honest about the gift and brokenness of our own denominations and open to what others offer? How do we listen and learn from one another about what God is up to? How do we listen for God’s voice in each other to help us see the places where we need to examine ourselves? How do we open ourselves to seek understanding of others’ experiences? How do we acknowledge that which is broken and has hurt our neighbor so we can begin to work together for a better way forward? May we pray for unity that doesn’t ignore the fullness of one another, but instead brings depth through authentic and honest sharing with each other.
Jan. 23, 2019