So what about Christian unity?!

There is much to be said about Christianity unity, and the lack of it throughout Church history. In spite of the Apostle Paul’s best efforts, we do not strive for it among the brethren. To me, unity seems like a noble biblical principle, like loving one’s enemies: It’s a super, much-discussed exhortation, but rarely played out.images

This blog is not meant to be treatise on Church unity—certainly much can be said about it, particularly mass historical failures. That said, I thought I’d throw my cards on the table and see if anyone is interested in offering their thoughts.

I am a failure at bringing together polarized groups of Christians. Perhaps there’s too much water under my bridge. I did not like Christians before I became one, and I did not find a ton of reasons to like them en masse afterward. In fact, after 20 years of slogging through the culture war, I often see strife, and animosity simmering just below the surface of religion. I get easily annoyed. Call in the Holy Spirit brigade, this chick needs to be sanctified.

Several years ago, I took the mic during a town hall meeting at a conservative ministry I worked for and suggested we build bridges with Sojourners, a progressive Washington D.C. ministry. My argument seemed sound: We learn from them and they learn from us—and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could find common ground on an issue or two. I believed then as I do now, that God would be glorified through the relationship.

Well, this was not a popular suggestion. After I spoke, groans and eye-rolls came from all corners. Unity, what a dumb suggestion!

Looking back I realize that many of my colleagues did not consider Sojourners believers to be actual believers. Perhaps it’s their alternative views on war, the federal budget, approaches to poverty and the environment. They hold a different perspective on how the scriptures should play out in culture. I could imagine my colleagues rationalizing their beliefs with their own scriptural weapon: “Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?” 2 Corinthians 6:14.

Perhaps Sojourners would not have been open to dialogue either. I know Christians on the left who reach out and those who keep the door tightly shut. I praise my old boss Jim Daly at Focus on the Family for breaking through these barriers. He knows, as I know, that when you share a beer or a (veggie) burger with someone, it’s tougher to close down dialogue. I also praise my friend Jonathan Merritt, who in spite of his strong beliefs, often gives the “other side” equal air time on his popular blog.

I’ve been taken to the woodshed for my criticism of other believers on Facebook. It’s true, I can be a critical doo-bee. And it’s true, I harbor anger and lash out at those I believe cast my faith in a harmful light. However wrongly, I see them through the lens of someone who once desperately needed “living water” but was kept on dry land by believers exercising the worst kinds of evil. (See, there I am, building unity!)

I am a fan of transparency and honest dialogue. I will not forsake these virtues to keep the peace in the name of Christian unity. That mindset leads to damage. Transparency means that animosity is not cloaked in religion. Get it out there, with gentleness! Transparency means grievances, sin and brokenness are generally aired for the world to see, and for us to deal with biblically (and likely imperfectly).

The word “unity” is dismissed when it fails to subscribe to certain theological or political views. A pastor friend I have mad respect for, and would seriously follow to the ends of the earth, criticizes other Christian faith traditions. He is a so-called “wolf watcher.” I am quite sure he is a supporter of unity when others give a nod to his theological leanings. Otherwise, no dice…

Working in hospice with all stripes of Christians I tend to agree with Pastor Glenn Packiam when he says, “Let’s do each other the service of being more attentive and giving more weight to the best of each tradition/situation than to its caricature.” Amen.

So what to do? I believe unity requires us to sacrifice stridency and become authentically humble in our view of our selves, our faith, and our world. It does NOT mean lessoning deeply held beliefs… which I need to say, lest some believe I’m suggesting “soft” minded thinking. It does, however, mean admitting that you don’t have all the answers, that you see through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). I stand with you in that acknowledgment.

Being taught by the negative

As I age I become more aware of what drives my ministry. I realize a large part seems to be shaped by the negative… the offenses (real and perceived)… the ways I’ve seen others treated by those in power and those who should just know better… and a whole host of intangibles, hard memories nesting just below the surface.

The negatives drive me to reach out, to grasp others before they fall prey to the harsh, gracelessness of human beings, and to meet glaring needs among groups of people Jesus calls us love. I get that line smacks of criticism. But there you go; I’m feeling the sting tonight.

Looking back smoldering compassion drove me to take a ministry position working with male street prostitutes in Chicago. Weaving my life with a marginalized population—men seen as utter outcasts—and walking beside those stricken HIV/AIDS, set a calling on fire. It’s a calling that now bleeds into the lives of the dying, orphans in India, and those who’ve experienced little grace or kindness.

But the smoldering began from a negative experience at a high impact event in my early 20s.

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The AIDS Memorial Quilt (courtesy of the Washington Post)

The AIDS crisis in the U.S. reached tragic proportions in the early 90s and my partner worked as an educator in the field. This is how I got roped into being a “quilt angel” at a full display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall in Washington. Quilt angels dressed in white and fanned out along walkways in between miles of quilt panels. Each panel, loving woven, personalized the life of someone who died from the virus.

Like all angels, I carried a box of tissues and bore witness to my block of quilt. I recall it included a boy who died from a tainted blood transfusion—his portion had a soccer ball and trophies; and the panels of three men, one who spent his life in the theater. The mother and father of the boy, and the partner of one of the men, spent nearly all weekend by their swatch of quilt, sharing with visitors the lives of loved ones cut down way too early.

There were too many tears and hugs to count that weekend. It was somber and sacred and my naïve 20 year-old world was rocked by it.

And then it happened. On Sunday, on top of a hill adjacent to the quilt, a large group gathered. They had come to protest the quilt display and brought their bullhorns. For what seemed like hours they shouted that loved ones were in hell and if the living didn’t repent they would be as well. A burly looking man paced back and forth carrying a large wooden cross on his shoulder. Eventually they were pushed away.

I didn’t know much about Christianity at the time nor did I understand worldview or the nature of protests. But I did see wounded hearts singed by bizarre, hateful words. My heart bled for those guarding their loved ones patch of quilt and for those visiting. The juxtaposition of compassion and sorrow to hatred twisted up in my heart and took root. That evening my partner and I joined rally hosted by ACT UP. There were more tears, anger, and an electric kind of energy. I was hooked.

Today I sat under a teaching from someone I should see as a spiritual leader. From my perspective he tackled a sensitive, much-debated issue recklessly. In the wake of the service I realized I could never introduce many of my friends to the Christian faith through this church. Jesus would be obscured. The teaching would stumble, alienate. I felt alienated.

The negative today taught me something: The path I take in sharing my faith is sure. It avoids the potholes of unessentials within the Christian faith and focuses on what truly matters, that of relationship with God through Jesus, grace and eternity. Let God tackle the thorny questions.

But it’s not all negative right now. These past couple of years have been filled with ministry done right—and that has driven me to higher ground and caused my faith to grow.

Several years ago, a mentor dropped me from the rolls during an especially dark time spiritually (I was a tough customer)—and every effort to find discipleship was thwarted. Now I have both a terrific mentor and discipleship. Where once my persistent questions were met with bewilderment or indifference, I’m now treated with kindness and grace is extended more than I deserve. I also work alongside people who selflessly pour out their lives for others day after day. Watching ministry in the hands of these people has infused much-needed positive into something that has been largely driven by the negative. And because of this I am a more effective, balanced, and passionate witness for Jesus.

I do know this fact:  My heart has been broken over the years and like a quilt it has been patched together—only now it’s more expansive. It is a large, imperfect vessel for God’s compassion.

Have you thought about how much of your calling is birthed from pain or negative experiences? And how much is impacted by positive experiences and interactions. Maybe it’s all jumbled up. I trust wherever it comes from God uses it for His glory.