Monday we had more than 40 volunteers from 4 local congregations turn out to celebrate MLK Day with us in Hillside and Fairfield Court. We had over 300 community residents participate in these celebrations. It was wonderful to see black, white, people of means, people with limited means, urban, suburban, Christian, non-Christian all together celebrating the progress this nation has made toward racial equality as a result of the sacrifice and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Tag Archives: Unity
As I shared in my post “A Unifying Question”, I believe unity requires shared mission not a shared belief system . Once we agree on our shared mission, in the case of Embrace Richmond that mission is strengthening impoverished communities. The more challenging question becomes “How?” What methodology will we employ in order to achieve that mission? Poverty is a complex issue and there are hundreds of strategies out there for addressing the underlying issues. It is easy to get lost in what seems like a bottomless pit of need.
A few months ago, I attended the worship service at Richmond Hill. Reverend Ben Campbell’s sermon was on the story of Mary and Martha. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I have always been a “Martha” and as such have always disliked this passage of scripture. If I had not been at Richmond Hill with its contemplative spirit and had I not been in a place of personal spiritual seeking, I would have likely tuned out Rev. Campbell’s words. As he gently said “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things,” I am certain he was looking right at me.
Distracted? I guess you could say that. The needs of so many people constantly pulling me and Embrace Richmond in all different directions, stretches me and the organization to the point we can’t see what we am doing. In the past year, there were seasons when I felt like we were just running around putting out fires and for every one we put out, three more pop up.
Rev. Campbell again gently repeated the words, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” I expected Reverend Campbell to then tell us all that the only important thing was to sit at Jesus feet like Mary. I had heard the story before and that is how it always ended; me the “Martha” being scolded for not sitting at Jesus feet. I was ready for it. ”Bring it on, I can handle it”, I thought to myself.
But then he did something quite surprising. He asked “What is your one thing?” I thought it was a trick question. Wasn’t the answer obvious: We should all spend all our time in prayer and studying the bible? Rev. Campbell acknowledged my thoughts in a jovial fashion saying something like, “Some think this passage is about the contemplative life, the monks love this passage because it supports their lifestyle. However, that is not what is going on in this passage. What is going on is that Mary chose “one thing” an “excellent thing” not a “better thing.” Martha was worried and distracted by “many things” therefore she was not fully present in anything. It is not that the active life is bad. That is not the point of the story. The point is to choose “one thing” and pour all of your being into that one thing. So what is your one thing?” Now I don’t know if I got Rev. Campbell’s message down word for word but this is the just of what I heard and it spoke powerfully to me.
As you likely deduced from my blog titled “The Shadow of my Blog”, I got in a bit of hot water because of my blog titled “Ouch, that hurt!” At the time I wrote “Ouch”, I simply could not process all the pain I was feeling and as I shared in “Shadow,” I simply needed to lament.
Not only is the word lament not used in our culture, the actual practice is equally as neglected. We have become a plastic people. We are taught to control our emotions, hide our feelings. Those who express deep emotions are often labeled “emotionally unstable.” I don’t know if it is just American’s or if people everywhere have gradually sought to stifle emotion as a part of our human evolution.
If any of the prophets and many of the psalmists whose writings appear in the Old Testament were to appear on the scene today, I feel certain we would quickly commit them to a mental hospital or drug them with anti-depressants. We would suggest they have a glass of wine or perhaps a Valium. We would instruct them to only share their pain with their therapist and insist that they not “rock the boat.”
Over the past several months, the issue of depression has come up several times in our Embrace communities at all levels. It seems to me that depression has reached an epidemic level among all segments of our society; rich, poor, young, old, urban, suburban, male and female. I am not psychiatrist or a trained therapist but I wonder if by stifling our emotions if we might be emotionally damaging ourselves and others?
When I wrote the vision of Embrace Richmond in 2005, I never dreamed it would be so difficult to live out. Our vision is “a city united to embrace all who are in need; a place where people of every race, class and religious background join together to care for one another.” This is no small vision. The issues of race, class and religious beliefs have deeply divided, not only our city but our world. These are the things that have brought about wars and terrible destruction. It would be much easier to pretend these differences did not exist or to simply hang out only with people who are just like us. There are very few places in our society where this level of diversity exists in harmony. While I believe in the vision, I acknowledge that Embrace Richmond has a long, long way to go in achieving this vision.
While the issues of race and class are often the most visible dividing lines, I believe the issue of religion can be the most divisive if we do not approach it with sensitivity and intentionality. However, I also believe that if we learn to respect the beliefs of others, and focus on our common values, then our shared faith in God can be a unifying bond that can help us bridge the divides of class and race.
I think all of us would agree that respecting the religious beliefs of others is essential to creating unity across religious divides. However this is no easy task and I have fallen short on many occasions. It is not that I sought to offend, I simply forgot to take off my Christian lenses. At times, I act as though everyone around me believes the same things I believe and by making that assumption, I have unknowingly offended others.
I know my evangelical Christian sisters and brothers are getting very uncomfortable, they are thinking “But I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of the name of Jesus!” I am in no way suggesting a kind of Universalism. What I am wondering is if there is a way for us to each be true to our own beliefs while still respecting the beliefs of others?
I am a Christian, every one knows that. I make no attempt to hide that fact. Embrace Richmond was founded on Christian principals and values and is sustained by the prayers of my Christian brothers and sisters. I do not want to underestimate the role our shared faith in Christ has played at Embrace.
However, even among Christians we often fail to recognize that we all have different theologies (ways of understanding our faith). Some believe that the primary reason Christ came to this earth was to save us from the wrath of God and eternal damnation; while others believe Christ came to this earth as the tangible presence of the living God so that we could come to know God more fully through him. Some emphasize Christ’s life, some his death, and some his resurrection. For some its all about a “personal relationship”, others the “saving of souls” and for others it’s about “redeeming the world” or “ushering in the Kingdom of God.” Some focus on the “sin of man” and some focus on the “grace of God”, some on the “word of God” and some on the “life of Christ.” All of us know that even among Christians, we don’t agree…thus the vast number of denominations. We will never achieve unity by trying to reconcile all these differences or by coming up with some unifying “statement of faith” that we all agree on.
However, with all the many things that divide us,I have seen individuals from vastly different understandings about faith grow to love and respect one another and each others beliefs. I think often we offend out of ignorance of about what others believe. This ignorance exists because we don’t make space for honest conversations about faith. If we always assume everyone agrees with us,they will not feel safe enough to share that they think differently. This is especially true if we present our beliefs as “the only way of understanding God.” This simply perpetuates the ignorance about what others believe and prevents honest conversations. To create this safe space we must acknowledge that none of us are God…none of us know everything there is to know about God…there is room in all our theologies for a margin of error. Honestly, I would not want to worship a God that could be fully understood and defined by man. Would you?
Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” is an interesting read. I especially liked his analysis of the “lenses” we use when we look at Jesus. Some view Christ through the old testament, some theologies view Jesus heavily through the Apostle Paul’s lens. McLaren argues that Paul viewed Jesus through the lens of his day, the Greco-Roman world view which was influenced by Plato and Aristotle. Most western Christian’s view Jesus through the theology of Augustine. All protestant Christians are heavily influenced by Martin Luther’s “solo scriptura”. The list of “lenses” is endless.
Having grown up unchurched, I see the church through the eyes of an “outsider”. I have spent time in seven different denominations and thus have been influenced by the lenses of these denominations, I have dear friends from every specter of the Christian tradition. I read extensively and thus have adopted the lenses of those I have read. It is impossible to read the bible, or reflect upon our faith without bias. If you have only been in one tradition or have only experienced one version of the Christian tradition, I believe it is even more difficult to see these blind spots.
This past week six very devout Christian women read a chapter of scripture and spent time praying about what the passage meant to us personally. Everyone of us interpreted the same words out of the same Bible passage completely differently. So who was “right”? I don’t think “rightness” is the point of reading scripture. The passage spoke to all of us through our own lenses and met each of us where we were. The key is allowing space at the table for everyone to agree to disagree and fostering a spirit that allows the scriptures to speak to everyone where they are.
McLaren argues that the place to start is to view Jesus through the gospels. That is the reading of Jesus that is the clearest, least contaminated by human lenses. I love reading the gospels in my parallel bible which lines up the passages that are similar side by side. By reading the same story in different gospels, you also come to see that even the gospel writers had their own lenses, their own target audience, and their own agenda. Ask any devout Christian and each of us will name our favorite gospel. My favorite is the Gospel of Luke because of Luke’s strong liberation emphasis. What is sad is that we even argue about which gospel is the “best”.
My prayer is that we stop trying to prove ourselves or our positions as “right” and begin to simply see them as “different” or “right for us.” I don’t want to stifle religious conversations, I think our world is hungry for safe places to explore spiritual questions. I simply want us to engage in these conversations with the utmost respect for everyone at the table and I think context is important. If everyone at the table happens to be Christian, we need to respect the diversity of the Christian tradition but can find common ground in the person of Jesus. If we do not know the beliefs of everyone at the table, then we need to respect the diversity of religion in general and find common ground in the loving God who created us all. This does not mean we have to be shy about our own beliefs, but that we simply need to acknowledge that our way of understanding God is not the only way of understanding God.
Brian McLaren’s blog is very interesting. In a post titled, “On Emergent”, McLaren reflects on the diversity of voices present in the emerging church conversation which is trying to define what the church of the future might look like. McLaren writes “The process is awkward and messy at times…. the key issue is to stay at the table when you’re hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.”
This is my prayer for those of us in leadership roles at Embrace; that we would stay at the table, seek to understand one another, be willing to be made uncomfortable, forgive when we are hurt and above all seek not to offend but instead seek unity while respecting our diversity. It will not be easy, but I believe this is the unique call of Embrace Richmond.