This is a post for the Rally to Restore Unity. Check out other posts and consider donating to the great charity the rally is supporting.
Rachel Held Evans is holding a Rally to Restore Unity on her blog this week. I’ve been thinking about what I could write to contribute to the conversation. I’m very much pro-unity, but then so is everyone else who is posting for the rally this week. This morning in our devotional time, I read John 17 to Cheesy and Bee. I so want Jesus’s prayer for us to come to pass – “they they would be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Jesus makes clear that our unity is tied up in our witness to the world.
And yet, we stink at being unified. As Rachel pointed out yesterday, the various reactions to the killing of Osama bin Laden only further illustrate this. It breaks my heart, the way we talk to each other sometimes. There are Christians who think unity is a misguided goal. They are all about truth, truth, truth. Well, I’m pro-truth, as well. But who is going to listen to our truth if we who follow Christ can’t go five minutes without attacking each other?
I’m not suggesting we can’t disagree. In fact, being able to disagree while still loving each other seems vitally important. My understanding of the truth is honed through talking to and listening to others. We all know the difference between disagreeing and attacking right? Here’s a good example from my own life.
Person A: (watching the news) That guy ought to be strung up, don’t you think?
Me: Well…I don’t support the death penalty, actually.
Person A: (now shouting) Oh, so then I guess you wouldn’t care if your kids were raped and killed!
Yes, that’s a real, unabridged exchange between another believer and me. We should do better.
I suppose we all have our triggers; subjects that just immediately send us to the crazy place. I know I have mine, and it’s extremely hard work for me to communicate respectfully when those conversations arise. Gender issues are at the top of my trigger list, but if you know me, you’ve figured that out already. I’m oh, so discreet about it.
I feel discouraged, but I want to give thanks for the unity we do have – and for at least having the desire for it, even if I fall terribly short. And so, I give thanks for my parents.
My mother was raised in the Seventh Day Baptist Church. Her ancestors were dissenters, accustomed to holding onto their distinctives while not just outnumbered, but actively persecuted. As is often the case with religious minorities, they stuck together pretty tightly and it was a blow to my mother’s family when she married outside the denomination. My father was far less involved in church in his youth, but after a dramatic conversion as a young adult, he began preparing for ministry in the United Methodist Church. Years later he’d shift to the Free Methodist Church.
My parents have been deeply committed Christians my entire life. It wasn’t until I began to get more exposure to the evangelical world that I realized they had given me an unusual gift. As conservative as they might have seemed to me sometimes, they had true generosity of spirit toward other Christians. They were friends with Catholics and Pentecostals and Congregationalists. My father read commentaries not just by Methodists, but by Baptists and Presbyterians. My parents had a truly “catholic” spirit, as described in this passage by John Wesley:
“If it be, give me your hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not. I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice. I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep your opinion and I will keep mine, and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavor to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Leave all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me your hand.”
I do not mean, “Embrace my modes of worship,” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does not depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold fast to that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same. I believe the Episcopal form of church government to be scriptural and apostolic. If you think the Presbyterian or Independent is better, think so still, and act accordingly…
I mean, first, love me. And that is not only as you love all mankind, not only as you love your enemies or the enemies of God, those that hate you, that “despitefully use you and persecute you,” not only as a stranger, as one of whom you know neither good nor evil. I am not satisfied with this. No, “if your heart is right, as mine with your heart,” then love me with a very tender affection, as a friend that is closer than a brother, as a brother in Christ, a fellow citizen of the New Jerusalem, a fellow soldier engaged in the same warfare, under the same Captain of our salvation. Love me as a companion in the kingdom and patience of Jesus, and a joint heir of his glory.
This is not to say that my parents didn’t have strong opinions. They were ardently Wesleyan in their view of free will and election. When I was in grade school we began attending an interdenominational church. Interdenominational – that’s a term you don’t hear often, right? My father took it seriously, thinking that a variety of theological views would be welcomed. They weren’t, though, and he was removed from leadership in Christian Education because he was not a Calvinist. I can still remember how hurt he was. He had believed (naively?) that Christians could disagree in the same congregation, and still be at peace with each other. Silly dad.
It was in that church, which I attended through high school, that I began to recognize that all Christians were not as openhearted as my parents. In that church a visitor was once chastised for raising his hand during prayer. “We don’t do that here,” he was told. Too charismatic, I guess. I can remember having arguments with others in the church over whether a Roman Catholic could get to heaven. I was on the affirmative side of those debates. It could have been worse: I would be in college before I met some who had been taught that the Catholic church is the Whore of Babylon. My father, meanwhile, was teaching at a Catholic school and was close friends with many of the Catholic staff members.
As for the pesky Calvinist/Arminian issue, I never could resist an argument. My youth pastor asked me over and over how I could be happy holding the theology that I did. Was I not in constant fear of damnation? Each of these conversations would end the same way. “When we get to heaven we’ll find out who was right,” he’d say. “And it will be me.” Then he would laugh while I sputtered indignantly. (Aside from our theological differences, I must add, he was a terrific youth pastor. He and his wife were wonderful to me in a hundred different ways.)
I am 46 years old now, wearily watching the flame wars between Catholics and Protestants, between Calvinists and Arminians, between Fundamentalists and pretty much everyone, and I am so very grateful for the upbringing I had. I am grateful for seeing my parents study the Bible alongside nuns. I am grateful for hearing my mother fondly remember her spiritual inheritance, even though she’d left that church behind. I’m grateful that they never pressed us to attend a particular denomination as adults. They helped me to see that the Church is bigger than my experiences, my preferences, or even my secondary theological commitments. They helped me to see the potential for love binding us together, even though we fall so short, so often.
I’m not making a sign for the Rally to Restore Unity because I’m photo-avoidant. But if I did, I know what it would say. It would have on it a line we used to say at my Christian college, as a little joke for an occasion like discovering that friend liked Ratt, for example, or didn’t think Raising Arizona was funny. It was a joke then, but it’s something I think often these days: There’s room for that in the Kingdom of God.
If, then, we take this word in the strictest sense, a man of a catholic spirit is one who, in the manner just described, gives his hand to all whose hearts are right with his heart. He is one who knows how to value, and praise God for, all the advantages he enjoys, with regard to the knowledge of the things of God, the true scriptural manner of worshipping him, and, above all, his union with a congregation fearing God and working righteousness. He is one who retains these blessings with the strictest care, keeping them as the apple of his eye. At the same time he loves, as friends, as brothers in the Lord, as members of Christ and children of God, as joint partakers now of the present kingdom of God and fellow heirs of his eternal kingdom, all of whatever opinion or worship, or congregation, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; who love God and man, who, rejoicing to please and fearing to offend God, are careful to abstain from evil and zealous of good works.
John Wesley, “On a Catholic Spirit”