Tag Archives: Unity

Non-Essential Liberty

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

The local gathering of Jesus’ followers to which Wendy and I belong has been growing steadily in the years since I began regularly joining for worship and serving in the community. What has been interesting is that the growth is largely coming from other local and regional churches and gatherings who have been slowly fading and even shutting down. The result is that among our community of believers we have a growing, yet increasingly diverse, population who bring with them a host of different traditions, beliefs, customs, and worship practices.

What I’ve observed among the leadership and staff of our community is that the attitude has not been a black and white “This is our way and we don’t do it your way” type of attitude. Rather, I’ve observed an open attitude asking “What can we learn from the richness of all these other traditions?” The result has been a fascinating and unique experience. A traditionally “mainline” church operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit typically found in gatherings labeled “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal.” A contemporary-style worship service that incorporates pieces of ancient liturgy and generally follows the ancient church calendar. A gathering that most casual observers would label “modern evangelical” and yet during the week many in our community pray the ancient, Divine Hours. During Lent you’ll find members of our community journeying through the Stations of the Cross. The whole thing has been less “either, or” and more “both, and.”

As I read today’s chapter this morning it struck me that Paul wrote to a fledgling gathering of believers in Corinth who were experiencing their own melting pot of diverse backgrounds and belief systems. The Christian faith came out of a typically rigid, black-and-white religious system of Judaism. Yet in Corinth there would have been believers who had come from pagan backgrounds and  knew nothing of Judaic traditions or beliefs. There would have been intellectual Greeks who were mostly steeped in philosophy and had little practical understanding of any religion. The result was a clash among the local gathering of Corinthian believers. Good Jews were horrified at the notion that the meat on their table may have been once sacrificed in a pagan temple. The former pagans and those who weren’t raised in the Jewish tradition couldn’t quite understand why, on Earth, it was that big of a deal.

Paul’s wisdom was the adoption of a “both, and” spirit rooted in Jesus’ law of love. Those who rolled their eyes at fellow believers from Jewish tradition (who couldn’t handle the idea of meat sacrificed to idols) were to respect their brothers and sisters who were. If the Abrahams are coming over for dinner do the hospitable thing and keep it kosher. Those of Jewish tradition were to respect that not everyone was raised in their life-long, black-and-white religious traditions. It’s not the same for them. Take off the Jr. Holy Spirit badge. Let it go. Take one for the team. Love one another in the diversity of our consciences and convictions.

I believe St. Augustine nicely summed up what Paul was getting at a few centuries later: “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity (i.e. love).” Whether or not you care that your rib-eye had been butchered in the Temple of Apollo is a matter of individual conscience. It’s a non-essential. Love and respect those believers in your midst who come from different backgrounds and may not believe the same way you do.

This morning I’m grateful for the diverse group of believers with whom Wendy and I regularly worship. From the “frozen chosen” believers from mainline backgrounds to the former Roman Catholics and all the different forms of baggage they carry to the Charismatics who spiritually bring in da noise and da funk. I admittedly don’t always understand, nor fully appreciate where they’re all coming from. We just shrug our shoulders, keep an open mind and spirit, and love, love, love, love, love. When it comes to stuff like this I always want to live, learn, love, and operate in “non-essential liberty.”

Everyday People Making a Difference

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
Acts 6:6 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus as a young person, it so happened that my sister and a handful of other young people from our mainline Protestant church had made similar decisions. Excited about what God was doing in our lives, we had some great ideas about how we could share the good news. We thought it would be cool to do a series of meetings over a weekend with live music and to invite a good speaker that people would want to hear. So, we took our idea to the pastor and educational administrator of our church. Our idea was shot down immediately.

This was the first of many run-ins I’ve had along my journey with institutional churches. Most traditional, institutional churches have been historically hierarchical (and patriarchal, as well). Authority is given from the top-down, and power is dispensed and brokered just as it was among the temple priests and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day; Just as it is in almost any large institution. My friends and I were shot down because we were just kids, our idea was not approved by the denominational institution, and the speaker we wanted, while highly educated and capable, wasn’t credentialed in our particular denomination.

The thing I find fascinating in reading through the book of Acts is this early, dynamic explosion of faith. Thousands were choosing to follow Jesus, believe His resurrection, and give everything to what had become a “movement.” But it was different than the institutional Temple where it began. The Temple divided people. There was a section for women, a section for Gentiles (non-Jews), and a section only for priests. The followers of Jesus, however, met together. Everyone met together, ate together, and prayed together whether old, young, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, or priest.

In the institutional, hierarchical Temple, only priests and approved teachers of the law had the authority to do certain things. When the Holy Spirit pours out in and through the followers of Jesus, suddenly the “unschooled, unlearned” believers began teaching and speaking with spiritual authority. Signs and wonders began to be displayed through all believers, irregardless of education, age, gender, tribe, or social standing.

In today’s chapter, a man named Stephen is described as having performed many signs and wonders. He speaks in a synagogue and, filled with Holy Spirit, argues circles around the institutional lawyers and teachers. Stephen wasn’t one of the twelve. He wasn’t an original apostle. He was just another member of the “Body” of Christ. He was simply an every day believer, filled with Holy Spirit, ministering to people whenever, wherever he could.

Last night there was a meeting at our house with brothers and sister from among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Those who sat around our dining room table are going to be teaching in the coming weeks. There were two pastors from our local gathering’s staff, but there was also a banker, a diesel mechanic, a corporate middle manager, and a small business owner. Everyday people, male and female, older and younger, classically educated and not, all together using the gifts of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Greatest Commandment so the Great Commission can be fulfilled.

Jesus’ mission was never about building or protecting an institution. It was about every day people connecting with God and loving others so that anyone and everyone can make the same connection.

Cropped Hair and Holy Kisses

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him….”
1 Corinthians 11:14 (NIV)

For the past few weeks I’ve been giving messages about traditions here in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. By traditions I mean those social behaviors or events that a group of people adhere to that are tied metaphorically to a larger meaning. It might be a event or person to memorialize, a teaching or command to follow, or something that brings identity and belonging to a particular group.

For 2000 years those who follow Jesus have had many different rituals and traditions. Those who carry out these traditions can be quite dogmatic about the necessity or right-ness of their particular tradition. Conflicts and division among different groups of Christians have been quite common occurrences over time as one sincere group of Jesus’ followers says “Ours is the right and biblical way to hold this tradition” and another sincere group of Jesus’ followers says, “No! Our way of holding to and observing this tradition is the right and biblical way!”

Typically, groups will point to scripture for heir final authority. The truth is, traditions ebb and flow over time and culture. Take today’s chapter, for example. Paul clearly instructs that women should always have their head covered when they “pray or prophesy.” For the better part of 2000 years women have followed this tradition. A few weeks ago I referenced our local costume shop in a post, where you’ll find hundreds of ladies hats from the early-mid 20th century because women in town always wore hats to church. But, that tradition has changed in the past 60 years in our culture. The tradition no longer carries the meaning that it once did for us.

We pick and choose the traditions we wish to keep. Jesus never said to abandon all of the Jewish traditions and festivals, in fact His example was to observe them. Yet that fell out of fashion as the Church became more and more Roman and the Jewish people fell out of favor late in the first century.

Paul also says in today’s chapter that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This verse was harped on by the professors of a Bible college I attended one semester. The college had strict, dogmatic rules about how male students should cut their hair based on this particular verse. It was their tradition, and they strictly observed it.

Funny thing. Paul ends his letter to the believers of Corinth by instructing them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The school administration seemed to ignore this particular command and tradition. Not once did one of my professors pucker up when I walked into the classroom!

As much as we like to wax self-righteous on being obedient and scriptural, the truth is that followers of Jesus have spent 2000 years following an ever-changing set of traditions and rituals that have ebbed and flowed over time. We can deny this fact and cling to our pride and rightness, or we can humbly embrace that traditions may hold their meaning for a particular time and place only to be released and then, perhaps, rediscovered again. We can let these things divide us, or we can seek to respect and honor the metaphor and meaning others find in traditions and rituals that are foreign to us.  Perhaps God might use them to help me find meaning I’d not before considered.

This morning I find myself praying an ancient prayer (a traditional prayer, mind you) given to us by St. Francis: [I paraphrase], “Help me to be less about being understood and more about being understanding.”

Diversity, Unity, Liberty…Love

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40 (NIV)

Along my journey I have attended worship gatherings across a diverse spectrum of Jesus’ followers. I’ve worshipped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and at small rural churches in the middle of Iowa cornfields. I’ve participated in worship at raucous Pentecostal meetings and in the relative silence of a Quaker Meeting House. I’ve worshipped with fellow believers in the African American community, in the Arab Israeli community, among the American country club set, among native Americans on their reservation, with homeless in urban shelters, in suburban mega-churches, and among small groups of believers meeting in their homes. I’ve worshipped with children at camp, the elderly in nursing homes, and some version of almost any Christian denomination you can name. As I recall all of these memories, I am a bit amazed at the veritable plethora of worship experiences I’ve had with other followers of Jesus across my lifetime.

I have always been what traditional believers would regard as a “non-denominationalist.” I choose to love and fellowship with any who follow Jesus, no matter what brand of Christianity they hold onto. I have long followed the wisdom of St. Augustine who taught: “In the essentials: unity. In the non-essentials: liberty. In all things: charity.”

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of believers at the very beginning of the Christian faith. There were no long standing traditions. There were no well-established rules. Organizational structure is loose, at-best. Worship was a bit of a free-for-all. To this chaos, Paul attempts to bring some sense of order. After laying out his basic thoughts on structure, he sums it all up with: “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

This morning I am thankful for the wide range of experiences I’ve had with followers of Jesus in all sorts of cultures, sub-cultures, social strata, and faith traditions. I’ve appreciated every one of those worship experiences in one way or another. I may have disagreed (in some cases, quite strongly) with some non-essential doctrines of the faith, but I still loved hanging out to share laughter, conversation, and stories over a meal with them. And, I respect our differences. Diversity can teach all parties in relationship an increased clarity of self, a greater perspective of others, and an expansion of love.

The Implosion of Evil

merry and pippin held by orcsWhen Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. Acts 23:6-7 (NRSV)

One of the themes I have noticed in epic literature over the years is that evil tends to implode from within. In the Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin were able to escape from their captors in large part because of the infighting between the orcs Mordor and the Uruk-Hai of Isengard. Likewise, the reason Sam was able to rescue Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol was because all of the orcs killed each other. Factions of hatred have a hard time uniting.

I was reminded of this as I read today’s chapter. The Jewish council had two main factions who disagreed on theology and who seemed to hate one another more than they hated Paul and the followers of Jesus. The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death or in the spiritual realm while the Pharisees did. Paul, seizing on the opportunity to stir up the on-going debate between the two factions, sided loudly with the Pharisees and got the two factions arguing (orc-like). The Pharisees were suddenly defending Paul as an ally and the Romans were forced to rescue him from the ensuing tumult.

Today, I’m reminded that Jesus command to love others, even our enemies, has powerful consequences far beyond the spiritual health of our own souls. The power of love to unite is one of the most powerful weapons we have against evil.

Different Times, Same Human Challenges

source: kurt-b via flickr
source: kurt-b via flickr
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Acts 15:36-41 (NRSV)

On occasion I will run across fellow believers who hold the early church with high esteem and want today’s church to look and behave in the same way. As I mentioned in my post the other day, I think it’s a bit silly to presume that it is even possible in most respects. Today’s chapter, however, reminded me of a couple of things:

The early church wasn’t perfect nor was it some kind of utopian organization. Read between the lines and you find that the entire period was marked by controversy, politics, arguments, and interpersonal conflicts. Today’s chapter starts with a controversy (i.e. should circumcision be required of all followers of Jesus) that broils into a debate among factions. Those Jesus followers who were of the Jewish sect of the Pharisees were vocal pro-circumcision. The Jesus followers who were non-Jewish Gentiles (and really didn’t want to go through the pain of a very intimate surgical procedure for no good reason) were passionately anti-circumcision.

The church, then and now, is made up of fallible people who inevitably find themselves in conflict. Today’s chapter ends with Paul and Barnabas having a such a sharp argument about whether to bring John Mark on their trip that they part and go their separate ways. Paul had written John Mark off because of an earlier falling out (Where was the forgiveness?) and Barnabas wanted to give J-Mark a second chance. It appears that there was no sweet agreement and reconciliation. There was no idyllic conclusion of unity. There was anger, sharp argument, and division. That sounds like every group of Jesus followers I’ve ever been a part of. So,  maybe we’re more like the early church than we sometimes realize.

Today, I’m reminded of things that change and things that never change. Daily life, work, and culture have changed drastically in the last twenty years let alone the past 2,000. At the same time, our human challenges of love, kindness, understanding, reason, acceptance, and reconciliation have never changed. They simply takes on new guises in changing times and places.

Related Bozos

Source: Peter Bakker via Flickr
Source: Peter Bakker via Flickr

Adam, Seth, Enosh, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah. 1 Chronicles 1:-3 (NIV) I thought we would follow the history of David from the book of 2 Samuel to the book of 1 Chronicles. If you’re reading along, you’ll notice a big difference between this book and the one we just finished. The books of Samuel read much like a biography in which the author is trying to tell the story of a person (in this case, David) from beginning to end. Chronicles is more of an official government record which chronicles the history of the kingdom and the monarchy. The royal scribe, traditionally believed to have been Ezra who lived and wrote his Chronicle about 500 years after King David’s life, begins his record of the kingdom with the beginning of human history and connects the dots through the ages. We’re in for what you might consider a dry couple of chapters of genealogy, but there are some important spiritual nuggets buried in the endless lists of names:

  1. We all come from the same place. The chronicler’s list begins at the beginning with Adam, and even modern science has proven that, genetically, we all come from the same woman. We can speculate and argue endlessly about exactly how things happened, but after reading through God’s Message a number of times I’ve come to the conclusion that God, as a storyteller, was not concerned about telling us exactly how thing happened (because, ultimately, that’s not the point) but why things happened (because, ultimately, that’s the whole point).
  2. Even our enemies are family. As we read through the list in today’s chapter we stumble over a few references to Israel’s traditional enemies such as the Philistines, Moabites, and Edomites. And yet, even the kings official record revealed from the beginning that they were all distant relatives. In fact, we all are. This may not make a huge difference with regard to world politics, but I think it should make a huge difference in my personal view of others.

I find it fascinating that Jesus did not concern himself in the least with the political issues of his day. Whenever the topic of earthly kingdoms and politics arose, Jesus always changed the subject to the Kingdom of God. At the same time, Jesus radically chose to talk to and relate with those whom his contemporary culture had raised him to believe were unworthy of his time and consideration: women, tax-collectors, prostitutes, Romans, Samaritans, etc., and etc. I believe Jesus looked at these people and saw, not the human differences between them, but the similarities. He didn’t see “different” people physically, politically, culturally, ideologically, or morally. He saw people who were fundamentally the same in human and spiritual terms. As I like to say, we’re all just bozos on the bus trying to find our way home. Jesus understood that, and didn’t discriminate what kind of bozo one person was over another.Today, I’m thinking about the ways I continue to divide and categorize people in my mind and heart. I’m repenting of my attitude, and heading into the day choosing to see each person as just another bozo like me (who is related to me as a matter of fact) and who is worthy of my love and consideration. Today, once again, I’m trying to be more like Jesus.