That They May All Be One


NOTE : On Sunday, June 21, I'll be speaking at Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, whose senior pastor is the Rev. Dr. Ken Carter. Providence is spending the "Summer in the Psalms," encouraging all members to read through the psalms with the help of their pastoral staff, guest speakers, and a variety of resources including Twitter ("summerpsalms") and Facebook (search for "Summer Psalms"). I'll be sharing from my book Connected during the educational hour. Come join us if you can! For more information, visit the church website.

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. About a dozen years ago I found a several-hundred-member email list that focused on the life and work of Jack Kirby, one of the all-time great comic book artists. Through that list has come some wonderful long-distance friendships over the years, with people such as a Pulitzer-prize winning author in Berkeley, CA, an art teacher in Asheville, NC, an Army Corps of Engineers communications manager in Huntington, WV, U.S. Postal Service workers in New Mexico and Nebraska,  a comics artist in Great Britain, a government worker in Australia, and many others. I’ve even met a few of them in the "real world" several times, and it just seems we've known each other for years.

Spinning off that list came a second email 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, an 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, works for a media ministry, and has written religious books, 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. Some stormed off the list mad, others found their friendship stronger despite disagreements.

One of the issues that bubbled up frequently in the list discussions—one you've no doubt encountered yourself—is the incredible splintering of the Christian faith into so many denominations, sects, and independent churches, each of which does things differently or holds widely 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 Gray Temple Jr. once 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 part of 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 that email list with that incredibly diverse group of people who ended up caring personally about one another. I hope it happens here at 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.