Dear Hannah —
Yesterday I went for a run, taking advantage of the cool morning air in the middle of an unseasonably hot summer. As usual, I had my earbuds in, listening to a podcast, and because many of the sidewalks in our city have shifted like tectonic plates, I had my eyes trained downward to keep from falling.
We try to explain to others why they should care about the things we care about. What if instead we simply strained our own eyes toward the things that captivate us?
As I turned the corner to head north on Williams Street, I glanced up to see a neighbor standing in his yard, head tilted back, hand blocking the sun, eyes staring straight into the sky behind me. I slowed down, pulled out my earbuds, and craned my neck around just in time to see a majestic skein of geese flying overhead, honking encouragement to one another. Within a second or two they’d moved out of sight, and with a nod to my neighbor, I put the earbuds back in and resumed my pace.
I wonder: What if the man had tried to wave me down or pointed and tried to explain about the geese flying overhead? Likely, it would have taken me a while to realize he was talking to me or to understand what he was trying to say. I might have wondered why geese were so important to him anyway, and while I thought about it, I would have missed seeing those beautiful birds pass through the glass blue sky.
And then it got me thinking about the church, and all the issues and causes that stop us in our tracks and capture our attention. We try to explain to others why they should care about the things we care about. What if instead, like my neighbor, we simply strained our own eyes toward the things that captivate us? Do you think maybe others would see our resolve and start to look that way, too? Or better yet, when our neighbors see us gazing skyward, what if they looked up and saw it was Jesus Himself we were looking at? Do you think it would make the cracks in the sidewalk and the voices from our earbuds—in other words, all those issues we get so passionate about—fade into the background a little?
I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you that I’m not a runner, and I don’t entirely understand people who run when something isn’t chasing them. That being said, I think you might be onto something here, something that’s essential to our learning to live together despite our differences.
Paul didn’t seem at all concerned about whether the Christians in Rome understood each other.
It reminds me of what the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome. You probably remember that they were a very noisy bunch, always clamoring on about their issues, insisting that everyone else needed to be just as worried about them as they were, waving their arms and demanding that others see things exactly the same way they did. Unlike your geese who honked encouragement to each other, they honked division and judgment.
What’s funny to me, though, is that Paul didn’t seem at all concerned about whether they understood each other or convinced each other of their positions. Instead, in chapter 14, he told them to look up—to remember that they all are servants of the Lord and that His voice is the one they should be paying the most attention to. I’m not sure how it all worked out. Obviously, such differences still exist, but like you, I do wonder whether we spend too much energy trying to get other people to understand us instead of simply being captivated by what God’s called us to.
I’m so glad you pointed us to Romans 14. Because the reality is that even while we’re all looking up at God (to continue with metaphor), we’re often seeing things differently.
I remember this past Fourth of July when we gathered with friends to watch fireworks. Just before the sky turned dark, we saw this strange floating light. What was it?
“It’s a drone,” one friend said. Made sense to me, because I knew there was a photographer in town who often used a drone to capture aerial photos of local events.
“There’s another one,” one of the kids said, and I looked harder, because two drones seemed unlikely.
“I think they’re paper lanterns,” another friend said when a few more appeared.
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” I chimed in, watching as the southern sky filled with the tiny lights just above the treeline.
It wasn’t possible for us to know for sure, but as Paul urged in Romans 14, each of us saw what we wanted to see and were “fully convinced in [our] own mind” (Rom. 14:3). But this is where it gets tricky, because as much as Paul calls us to honor our conscience, he says caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ is more important. In this way, Paul says we should “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Rom. 14:19). In other words, if insisting the “drone” was a Japanese lantern meant causing my sister to sin, then I needed to let it go.
That’s how it happened on that July Fourth night: We didn’t try to convince each other of what we saw. Instead, when the darkness settled, we all “oohed” and “ahhed” together over the fireworks that lit up the night sky. The beauty exploding above us was something we could all agree on.
What about you, Hannah? When was the last time you saw something very differently than those around you? Did you eventually find a way to pursue the things that made for peace?
I think we’ve all had to interact with people who saw things differently than we did at one time or another. But honestly, I worry that these kinds of experiences are becoming less common. Our society celebrates personal choice and is built in a way that lets us avoid any kind of interpersonal discomfort. Left to itself, social media ensures that we interact only with stories and people we already agree with. If we choose, we can live in an ethnically and socially homogeneous community, where everyone we shop with, go to school with, and play with looks exactly like us. And if we don’t like our church—if it’s too restrictive or too progressive—well, all we have to do is find a church that fits us better.
If we choose, we can live in an ethnically and socially homogeneous community, where everyone we shop with, go to school with, and play with looks exactly like us.
I worry that if we don’t fight this current trend, not only will we be become isolated from others, but we’ll also miss important opportunities for spiritual growth. If we never press through the difficulties that come from difference, our muscles of love and peace will atrophy. For me, a lot of this kind of growth has happened within the body of Christ.
My husband Nathan is a pastor of a small country church. When we moved here, we decided to buy a house and put down roots regardless of what happened in the church. We’ve had some really hard times since then: Our preferences and expectations for how to “do church” don’t always line up with the congregation’s. My husband and I are politically moderate while most of the folks are blazing red. My work is more academic, while the majority of our congregation were happy to leave formal education behind with high school.
But my husband and I committed ourselves to this community. So even when we are tempted to leave, we know we have to make it work. We have to push past our personal perspectives and let something deeper unite us. This doesn’t mean the differences go away or that we don’t have uncomfortable conversations. It also doesn’t mean that God might not move us on to a different ministry someday. What it does mean is that our personal discomfort is not the measure of unity, nor does it relieve us from the responsibility to seek the good of our neighbor.
It’s hard, though. If there’s one place you want to feel relaxed and at home, it’s the church. Has your church experience been similar in any way?
I guess the simple answer is that my experiences have been similarly different. For most of my adult life, I’ve been part of large suburban megachurches. And because I’ve moved a few times, I’ve been a member of several different churches over the years. So in that way, my experience is quite different from yours and your commitment to one church in a small rural community.
Our personal discomfort is not the measure of unity, nor does it relieve us from the responsibility to seek the good of our neighbor.
However, even in my giant multi-campus congregations, I’ve encountered the same differences and divisions you described in your small country church. How we “do church” doesn’t make everyone happy, either—including me sometimes. From paint colors to music styles to cultural issues, it doesn’t take more than a casual listen to hear differing opinions among those sitting in the pews. And I don’t know if this is true in your church, but sometimes the smaller issues raise the most ire. (I recall a certain controversy over carpet in one church I attended, which very nearly split the congregation.)
One way I try to remain in fellowship with those I disagree with is to try to see things from their point of view. But listening isn’t something a lot of us are good at, and listening for understanding is harder yet. Too often we take the easy way out, creating caricatures of the people on the other side. If we’ll listen for understanding, though, we’ll more than likely find important points of agreement. We might discover, for instance, that we all care about unwed mothers, or we all want to protect our children, or we all crave authentic worship on Sunday mornings.
But I think there’s a more important element at work when we talk about maintaining unity in the body. It goes beyond how we “side up” on issues; it has to do with our fundamental connection to one another. In his book Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, James Calvin Davis writes, "In the practice of forbearance, Christians do not create unity; we confess it." In other words, unity is not a choice. It’s a reality.
And don’t you just love that old-fashioned word forbearance? It has in its definition the ideas of tolerance, patience, endurance, even resignation. Isn’t that what it really takes to remain in the church and to live in unity with those who are different from us?
"In the practice of forbearance, Christians do not create unity; we confess it."
Earlier, you said that you and your husband “committed” yourselves to your community and your congregation. That sounds a lot like the language of marriage, another kind of unity that becomes less a choice and more a reality once the ceremony is over. But even in marriage, the husband and wife don’t abandon everything about themselves to become completely new people on the day of their wedding. Instead, they come as fully formed individuals, made in God’s image, joined together to help each other become more like Christ. If only we would be able to see the church this way, to see that we actually make each other better when we bring all of ourselves (including our differences) to the task of “being” Christ’s body.
So, I guess that leaves us with this, Hannah: What does unity really look like on a regular Sunday morning, when we’re sitting in the pews next to people who may actually be quite different than us? And maybe more importantly, what does unity look like on a regular Monday morning, when the world is daring us to act exactly like everyone else: angry, demanding, self-interested, and ready to leave if we don’t get our way?
The more I think about it, I believe we do know how to live at peace with each other. We just don’t want to. Instead of forbearing with one another, we want to take the easier route of self-interest, self-righteousness, and self-protection. And the reason I believe we know how to live at peace with each other is because we do it all the time—with those we love.
What’s important is that Christ’s body doesn’t turn on itself, that we don’t react violently and aggressively even when we disagree.
Think about this: When my youngest son was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with tree nut allergies. As soon as I found out, I began to educate myself, to learn about why and how allergies work, to read food labels, and to plan how to keep him safe. The funny thing is that I never thought twice about it—even when it limited my own freedom. I don’t resent his body for not being able to tolerate what I can tolerate. I don’t get angry with him for having a physical sensitivity. It all just comes naturally to me because I love him. I go out of my way to understand how his body works and protect him because he is my son.
So I wonder whether, as we identify ourselves more with each other in Christ’s body—that is, as brothers and sisters in God’s family—we might begin to love one another the way He loves us. And then this love will lead us to protect them the way I protect my son: to listen to them, to learn why they respond to certain triggers, to learn their history and their personal sensitivities. And then to share our own with them.
The body of Christ isn’t so unlike our human bodies. When all is said and done, tree nuts themselves don’t harm my son; his body’s reaction to them does. In this same way, I don’t think our personal differences are as important as we think they are. What’s important is that Christ’s body doesn’t turn on itself, that we don’t react violently and aggressively even when we disagree.
But this requires a power beyond ourselves, a shot of spiritual epinephrine, if you will, that stops our natural reactions. Maybe something like what Paul describes in Ephesians 4: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3 NIV).
So I suppose, when all is said and done, we need to pay both less and more attention to each other. We each need to keep our eyes so fixed on what God has called us to that our differences seem inconsequential in comparison. But we also need to remember that God has called us to love our brothers and sisters as ourselves—to love them so well and so thoroughly that we happily shoulder inconveniences for them. Our differences may never go away, but then maybe they don’t have to, especially if our love grows stronger as we wrestle through them. And maybe, now that I think of it, maybe that was the whole point in the first place.