Monday, August 21, 2006

Celebrating our differences

One of the many interesting opportunities the internet offers is the ability for a group of people--diverse geographically and otherwise--to come together and discuss certain topics and issues using mailing lists. Several years ago I found a several-hundred-member list that focused on the life and work of Jack Kirby, one of the all-time greatest comic book artists. Through that list I’ve developed some good friendships, with people such as a Pulitzer-prize winning author in Berkeley, Ca., an art teacher in Asheville, N.C., a writer for the Army Corps of Engineers in Huntington, W.Va., postal workers in Roswell, N.M., and Alliance, Neb., a comics artist in Great Britain, a member of a Pink Floyd cover band of some note also in the U.K., and many others. I’ve even met a few of them in the real world, and it seemed we’d known each other for years.

Spinning off that list came a second mailing list devoted to discussing (and arguing and fighting about) religion, God, the Bible, and related issues. The topic came up on the Jack Kirby list and started a major brouhaha, but since it was essentially off topic there, a different list was developed to continue the conversation. Joining us were an incredibly diverse assortment of believers and non-believers, some Catholics, lapsed and otherwise, and odd bunch of Protestants, a Latter Day Saint or two, and a number of people who never had religious training or experience but either were interested in thinking about it or enjoyed arguing about it.

As an active Christian who has been to seminary and works for a media ministry, my colors were obvious to the group. The discussions tackled just about everything that’s ever come up over the centuries—creation and evolution, the inaccuracies of the Bible, the supposed arrogance of Christianity as the only way to God, etc. It was fun, challenging, and certainly stretching to both mind and faith to engage is such discussions. The process helped me evaluate some of my own positions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who did. Even so, nobody was ever really converted, one way or the other, to my knowledge.

One of the issues that bubbled up frequently in the list discussions—and you’ve no doubt heard it elsewhere—is the incredible splintering of the Christian faith into so many denominations, sects, and independent churches, each of which does things differently or holds varying beliefs, and some claiming to be the only true way. This seems to make Jesus’ prayer in John 17 a complete failure: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

Yes, Jesus was praying for the unity of the church, but I don’t think he believed unity meant lockstep conformity. As my friend and rector, the Rev. Canon Gray Temple Jr., explained, Jesus’ band of disciples—including a few grizzled fishermen, a leg-breaking tax collector, a political zealot, and other assorted personalities—was hardly a model of unity, if by that you mean absolute conformity.

I don’t think Jesus expects his followers to look, speak, or behave like one another. That may seem an attractive goal in some sense, but it’s not authentic. It only serves to make us feel artificially safe from having to make hard decisions and grapple with difficult truths. God created us with different personalities, interests, and opinions. And that may be why there are so many denominations and churches: so we all can find one we feel at home in and challenged by and serve others through. God draws people together by the Spirit and gives us courage to accept each other, enjoy each other, and learn from each other--despite our differences.

This can happen. I’ve seen it. It’s even happened on the mailing list with that incredibly diverse group of people who ended up caring personally about one another. The church is still a work in progress, but we are united in God through Christ. And that makes it a shining jewel with many, many facets.


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