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Imagine hearing this message on a friend's answering machine: "Hello. We're in the middle of a family fight right now. Leave your name and number at the beep and whoever wins will call you right back."
If there had been telephones in the first century, you might have gotten that message from 1st Church, Corinth. The Apostle Paul's first letter to that congregation tells us that those Christians were in a knockdown, drag-out tussle. Maybe someone there heard the old adage that anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.
Some joker said once that church fights are the nastiest because the stakes are so low. They didn't mean that Christ doesn't matter. Rather, they meant that compared with Christ, nothing matters as much.
I am always amused when I hear Christians pine for the good ol' days of the early church. They have romanticized it, whitewashed it. Some have conjured a mental image of the early church as peaceful and pure and unified. The Bible tells us otherwise. And that is good news because, you see, there are biblical examples of how to achieve unity amidst diversity.
Consider first-century Corinth, shaped and molded by nearby Athens in that capital city's bygone glory days. A remnant of that past lingered in its diverse and educated people. Imagine, then, a young congregation in such a place. People in the Corinthian church were staking their claims not first with Christ but with individual leaders. Some strutted about belonging to Apollos, some to Cephas, some to Paul. The battling groups were about more than their leaders, though. They were struggling to understand and to follow Jesus, a perplexing task for any beginner.
Now, some preferred a learned, philosophical approach. Others were drawn to the message of the new freedom Christ had brought them. And still others were passionate about whether Jews could become good Christians, and, if so, how?
Well, Paul got wind of these storms and sent a letter of comfort and challenge to the young church. The letter is comforting because Paul reminded them of their unity in Christ. It was challenging because Paul refused to let them perpetuate lesser differences which threatened that unity.
Paul is challenging us still, you know, especially now, with mainline Protestant denominations in the throes of theological turmoil. So many Christians have entered the fray that some denominations may be frayed beyond repair.
You might know the issues: sexuality, biblical authority, social justice versus personal salvation, how we will name God, and it is certainly impossible in a single sermon to say much of anything helpful, let alone thorough, about even one of these concerns. And yet, there is something else dividing us, something subtle yet profound. It is a wall that goes largely ignored and certainly understudied. And the wonderful news is that of all the boundaries that blockade our unity in Christ, this wall is most surmountable. We can scale this wall, you and I.
This wall is the generation gap-or generation gaps, to be more specific.
We have entered a brave new world, you and I. In 2,000 long years, the church has never before been like it is today. In the last century, life expectancy leapt over 30 years. The Apostle Paul could not have imagined a congregation with as many 80-year olds as 8-year olds.
Greater age diversity is a gift to the church, but also it is a challenge. The relationships between 8 and 80 year-olds are less and less instinctive. And one reason is that technology is so rapidly changing our lives.
My young daughter, at age three, could turn the computer on, choose her software, load the CD, run and exit the software, and then turn the computer off. I'm not sure my parents can do that yet!
A stroll through any technology superstore would dizzy any Rip Van Winkle asleep for a mere 30 years. He would confront a foreign language: CDs, DVDs, digital video cameras, MP3 players, Gameboys and Walkmen, personal computers, all-in-one printers/faxes/scanners. Next, sit this Rip Van Winkle in a new car. He would be similarly disoriented: advanced braking systems, unleaded fuel, a global positioning satellite directing the driver to her next destination.
The faster technology impacts our lives, the more quickly our lives-and thus the topics of our conversations-change.
And our church pews are filled with people separated by greater and greater ages. Now, we are further divided by technological experience as well, and this makes a conversation between 8- and 80-year-olds increasingly challenging. It also makes such conversations increasingly important.
I could easily go on to describe why and how generations came to be so different. A quick mental catalog of 20th-century events reveals instantly how history could produce people with such contrary instincts: World Wars I and II, the Depression, the Cold War, Woodstock and Watergate, OPEC embargoes and the Iranian hostage crisis, assassinations and civil rights and the Challenger explosion and now September 11. It should come as no surprise that we perceive the world so differently. It should come as no less a surprise, then, that we carry those perceptions to our faith.
How, then, are we to keep from being single-minded disciples of our own generation? How can the church be so unified as to welcome equally all persons regardless of their generational experience?
Paul's answer races across time. It heralds a promise as true today as it was then. Just as Christ has no part in our petty our divisions, so, too, is Christ the single hope for the church's unity.
So let me suggest some ideas for you to consider as you work for a unified church.
First, providence does not lie. Therefore, embrace your experience. Claim your place in time. How many times have you heard others say-maybe you've said it yourself-"Oh, I was born 10 years too late"? Or "I was born 10 years too early"? Sometimes such comments are throwaway lines. We don't really mean them, and, yet, sometimes they can reveal a deeper dissatisfaction with our place in time, a longing to be part of another generation.
Friend, God made you on purpose, for a purpose. God set you upon this earth in a given time, at a chosen place, because God has something specific and important for you to be doing. There is woven through all our lives the thread of divine direction, pulling us always into a more excellent cloth. We are far wiser to spend our spiritual energies searching for our God-prepared task than in longing to be younger, or older, or different. As Anne Lamott says, "God loves me just as I am."
Second, unity in Christ does not require uniformity. If we can embrace our own time, we can invite others to embrace also their places in time. This is required if we are each to find acceptance and affirmation within the church. After all, God calls each generation to specific tasks in this ongoing experimental community of faith.
So be yourself. And let others do the same.
Third, let's keep everybody happy, part of the time. Congregations should strive to be genuine intergenerational sanctuaries of grace. Everyone should be invited and included, no matter when you were born. In worship, for example, our style should be varied enough to include the senior citizen, whose worship expectations were formed in the 1930s or 1940s.
And yet worship can also excite 20-year olds, whose spiritual expectations are different. In fact, they are still being formed and informed. If everyone is happy, part of the time, we can strive toward a graciousness of spirit. When singing a new hymn I don't care for or when participating in a traditional liturgy that does not speak to me, I can remain calm and quiet, thankful to God because I know that someone in the sanctuary is even then speaking to God is his native way.
And if worship can be truly intergenerational, so can every other area of church life: education, fellowship, stewardship, even the church's committee life. Congregations that span the generation gaps will encourage a broad variety of faith and action, and the reward will be an enrichment only possible through cross-generation fertilization. I mentioned a moment ago that Anne Lamott says "God loves me just the way I am." But Lamott adds, "and God loves me too much to let me stay this way." God uses people of all ages to change us.
Finally-and it won't surprise you to hear a pastor say this-Go to church. Many of the Boomer and Xer generations have grown frustrated with the church. Trust me, I understand. Organized religion, we call it. (Although I always chuckle when I hear that term. I'm a Presbyterian, after all, and it doesn't feel all that well organized!)
You may be surprised to discover that you need the church. Well, why? Because it is the church which has held for you the message and promise of Christ. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, it is within the church that God holds Christ's disciples in unity. You might bump into Jesus on your own, but you will not grow into spiritual maturity on your own.
So, if you're not involved in a church, come on, give it a shot. There's no church like a home church. Challenge us, but don't abandon us.
What Paul said still holds true, after all. Our true unity is not found in the personality of our leadership, not the philosophy of our congregation, not our denominational label. Our true unity comes only from the Christ, from Christ crucified.
As a committed part of a worshipping community, we discover a unity which transcends our diversity. In church, God liberates us from ourselves and joins us to others, because, after all, we are so very desperate to be more than individuals.
So, hear this good news: the message of Christ is timeless, and it is also timely.
When we concentrate on Christ crucified, God can hold our families and our families of faith together.
Will you pray with me?
O, Parent God, from generation to generation you have placed us in our mothers' wombs and placed us in time and space for your reasons. Help us to embrace your providence and to invite others to do the same. And then use our unity to heal the rifts in this broken world. Amen.
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