Unity IN diversity…

Unity…diversity. Those two words seem to be complete opposites, and putting them together an oxymoron. In fact, if we were to try, most of us would probably try something like “diversity in unity.” That version might make at least some sense…

But to reverse them? to say “Unity in diversity”? How is that possible?

I’ve been thinking about that because of a class I just recently taught…and because one of the emphases in my faith tradition is just that: “Unity in diversity.”

So what does that mean to me? It’s difficult..but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

If we separate the two words, my thoughts might go something like this:

  • Unity – working towards the same goal; being whole.
  • Diversity – being different

And when I look at those ideas, it’s kind of challenging to see how they might go together.

But there are other aspects to their definitions, according to Merriam-Webster:

  • Unity –  a totality of related parts; an entity that is a complex or systematic whole
  • Diversity – composed of different elements

When I look at those ideas, then the concept of “unity in diversity” becomes much more possible and makes more sense.

We–as a society/church/group–can be unified when we recognize that we are part of a complex system, made up of related parts. But all the parts make one. Diversity recognizes that multiplicity of those related parts.

And when we put that together as a concept of “unity in diversity,” I can acknowledge our differences in background, life experiences, understandings, and even beliefs…but at the same time recognize that there is something as the foundation of that diversity that makes us a whole.

Hard to understand? You bet!

Hard to live? Oh yeah!

There are times when it seems impossible to achieve agreement, but at those times, we need to commit to ongoing dialogue–to really work at listening to each other and not talk past each other. And at those times, it is important for us to acknowledge that our inability to agree on issues that affect each others’ lives is hurtful–both to humanity and to all of creation.

But it can happen…it can be lived, if we allow the Divine to work within us.



A place at the table…

“For everyone born, a place at the table…”

That’s a line from a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray that’s become one of my favorites. There are some challenging lines in it as well, because it calls us to consider how we interact with each other as have connect in so many ways.

The hymn is a call for justice for all…for clean water and health–those things that ought to be available to all people. A call for equality…a call for the right to live without fear…to be able to speak out and be heard. Most of all, it’s a call for building communities of “justice and joy, compassion and peace.”

do believe there’s a place at the table for all people. But–and this is an important “but”–I do not believe there is a place at the table for theologies of exclusion, discrimination, hate…

All are welcome at my table–and I do mean all. I welcome those whose perspectives I agree with as well as those I disagree with. I enjoy learning from those whose understandings are different. In the process, I may even change my own mind! At the very least, I become more clear in my own mind what I believe and why.

But while all people are welcome at my table, all theologies and political beliefs/policies are not. Theologies and policies that tell people they are somehow “less than” and not welcome because of their race, sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender attraction, country of origin are not welcome. If you hold to one of those theologies or political beliefs, you are still welcome–as long as you allow others a place at the table as well.

In 2007, scripture was brought to my faith tradition:

Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God’s shalom, invites all people to come and receive divine peace in the midst of the difficult questions and struggles of life. Follow Christ in the way that leads to God’s peace and discover the blessings of all of the dimensions of salvation.

Generously share the invitation, ministries, and sacraments through which people can encounter the Living Christ who heals and reconciles through redemptive relationships in sacred community. The restoring of persons to healthy or righteous relationships with God, others, themselves, and the earth is at the heart of the purpose of your journey as a people of faith.

You are called to create pathways in the world for peace in Christ to be relationally and culturally incarnate. The hope of Zion is realized when the vision of Christ is embodied in communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness.

Above all else, strive to be faithful to Christ’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God on earth. Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.

There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. Be especially alert to these influences, lest they divide you or divert you from the mission to which you are called.

There is a place at the table for all who wish to work together to create a community of “justice and joy, compassion and peace.”

A prayer for peace

How long, O God? How long before we realize that each life is of worth? that the world we inhabit is incredibly diverse and beautiful? that we are not just consumers but are called to be stewards?

Forgive us, God.

We have looked for ways to divide into groups that call others “less than.” We have said that some lives are not as important as others. We have ignored the beautiful diversity you have created in humankind.

Forgive us, God.

We have trashed and misused your creation. We have exploited the earth’s resources, and we have hunted some species to extinction.

Forgive us, God.

We have decided that because we are humans, we can do anything we want–and we have ignored your call to be stewards of all you have given us. We have instead consumed to excess, leaving some with nothing while others have far more than they need.

Forgive us, God.

Remind us that we are dependent on each other–that what hurts one will ultimately harm all. Help us realize that we must be stewards or we will none of us survive.

We–all of us…humans, animals, our world, our planet…all of us yearn for the time when all the world will live in peace. Give us the courage to work to make it so.


The power of stories

Over the last couple of years, my spiritual advisor and I have been working with a book by Amy-Jill Levine–Short Stories by Jesus. It’s a look at the parables from a new perspective–or rather, from an old one. Levine takes us through a number of parables, helping the reader to hear them as Jesus’ listeners would have. Sometimes it’s been a challenge, because the way they have been shared or preached for many years has become so ingrained in us.

But when I have been willing to listen in new ways, there have been those “Aha!” moments–times when there are new insights…and understandings that have challenged what I thought I knew.

I’ve been reading the last story in preparation for our next meeting–the story about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). This one–at least at this point–hasn’t hit me with as many challenges to my understanding as previous ones have…but it has reminded me of the challenges I face as a follower of Jesus. Here’s a version of the story from the Complete Jewish Bible:

“Once there was a rich man who used to dress in the most expensive clothing and spent his days in magnificent luxury. At his gate had been laid a beggar named El‘azar who was covered with sores. He would have been glad to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table; but instead, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. In time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Avraham’s side; the rich man also died and was buried.

“In Sh’ol, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Avraham far away with El‘azar at his side. He called out, ‘Father Avraham, take pity on me, and send El‘azar just to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, because I’m in agony in this fire!’ However, Avraham said, ‘Son, remember that when you were alive, you got the good things while he got the bad; but now he gets his consolation here, while you are the one in agony. Yet that isn’t all: between you and us a deep rift has been established, so that those who would like to pass from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”

There are so many ways this story challenges us. It’s very easy to say that the rich man got what was coming to him–but if I delight in his eternal torment, then am I any better? And do I listen any better than he did to the way I should live?

It’s also easy to find reasons to explain why Lazarus ended up poor and hoping for help from the rich man…but the story doesn’t give any–and none are needed for the story to have impact.

I think this parable–and Levine’s “unpacking” of it–spoke so much to me today because of what I see happening in this country that I love. Safety nets for the poor and vulnerable are being dismantled…the prosperity gospel is widely praised and preached…and so many who claim to be Christian take actions that to me seem so incredibly un-Christian.

Levine suggests that

The parable ends with a cautionary note. Heed the commands to aid the poor and the sick and hungry, or you will eventually suffer worse poverty, greater pains, deeper hunger. Do not just contribute to the food drive, but invite the hungry into your home. Do not just put money in the collection plate, but use your resources to provide jobs and support for those in need. Do not treat the sick as burdens, but as beloved family members who deserve love and care. Know the names of the destitute; each has a story to tell….

[W]e do not need supernatural revelation to tell us that we have the poor with us. We do not even need the threats of eternal torture. If we cannot see the poor person at our gate–in the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the newspapers–then we are lost.

Will we listen?

Am I a Christian?

For many years, the easy answer would have been “Of course!”

Now…I find myself wondering just how to answer that question in a way that most accurately reflects my thinking. And it’s difficult.

First of all, let me be clear on one thing. I am a follower of the One called Jesus the Christ. I’m not a perfect follower…and I struggle sometimes with where I sense Jesus calling me to be and what I sense myself being called to do. But I have found in him the best example of the love of the Divine…the way to live with integrity…and the one who challenges me to do the best I can to create a world where diversity is welcomed, where people are seen as individuals and not classes to be demonized, where the worth of all people is seen as paramount–even those who seek to destroy me.

But a Christian? It depends on what you mean by that, especially in today’s political climate.

Many people I see being described as “Christian” hold values and attitudes that I find diametrically opposed to the one whose name they claim. If being a Christian means supporting policies that tear families apart with no empathy…or swallowing values in order to be close to the seats of power…or believing that one skin color is superior to all others…or that the poor deserve no safety net…that the rich are somehow supremely blessed by God and deserve everything they have–and everyone else be damned…that those whose gender or sexual expression is different from my own understanding makes them worthy of being killed…then no, I am not a Christian.

The term “Christian” began as an epithet. Then it became a positive descriptive title…and today, for many, it has again become an epithet. I would like to reclaim its positive values, but I am afraid that is going to take many, many years.

But again, am I a Christian? There’s a wonderful portion in the Gospel of Matthew that–in many ways–gives my answer. But for now…I think I’m more comfortable using an earlier description used by those who followed this path…”followers of the Way”…the way described in the passage below (Matthew 25:31-45 The Message).

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

 “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’”



Taking a stand

I’ve been thinking recently about several people: Dietrich Boenhoeffer, Irina Sendler, Oskar Schindler, Corrie ten Boom, Immaculee Ilibagiza…ordinary people who made extraordinary decisions that changed not only their lives but the lives of many others as well.

Were they perfect people? No. They were like us–they had flaws. But when they saw something wrong, they made decisions to do something about it. Would I have done what they did? I don’t know…

They all lived during extremely difficult times…times when many others hunkered down to protect themselves. Why didn’t they?

They’re not particularly household names. Many have probably never heard of at least some of them.

Dietrich Boenhoeffer was a German pastor during World War II. He saw the glorification of Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party as a danger to the Christian church–and preached loudly and strongly against the church’s cooperation with the Nazis. To counter the nazification of the German church, he started a movement that ultimately became known as the Confessing Church. He had opportunities to live safely abroad, but he felt that his calling was to be with his people…to lead them in opposition to what he saw as fundamentally evil. He eventually became involved underground activities against the Nazis, culminating in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler…a decision that led to his capture, internment in a concentration camp, and ultimate death at the age of 41. Do I agree with everything he said and did? No. I think that some of his theology was flawed–but at the same time, he saw the danger in the church becoming an arm of the government and did what he felt necessary to try to bring the church back to its mission.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish nurse and social worker. Hallmark made a movie of her story–The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. When the Nazis came to power, she began doing what she could to help isolated Jews–offering food and shelter. But when the Warsaw Ghetto was created, she saw the future for Poland’s Jews–a dark future–and began doing what she could to change that. She (and others) began smuggling children out of the ghetto, finding them safe places to live until they could hopefully be reunited with their parents…a hope that could not be realized. She was eventually captured and tortured–her legs and feet fractured–but she did not give up names of her compatriots. Although she was sentenced to be shot, she was rescued and remained hidden until the war was over. At a time when the Nazis were creating hatred and division–creating propaganda that called the Poles to see their Jewish neighbors as “other” and “less than,” Irena saw them as people who needed help.

Oskar Schindler has become known to us through the movie Schindler’s List. He wasn’t a particularly nice person–an opportunist and a rather shady businessman. But something got to him, and he ended up being an unlikely rescuer of Jews, using them as factory workers in various situations…giving them the opportunity to survive. I don’t know that I would have liked him. I know I would not have liked some of his activities…and yet, somehow he was touched and instead of simply feathering his own nest, he used his connections to save some who were seen as “other” and “less than.”

Corrie ten Boom was the unmarried daughter of a Dutch watch maker, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church whose story can be found in The Hiding Place. When the persecution of Jews started, she and her family started hiding them, because she saw that persecution as injustice and as an affront to God. She and her family believed in a principle that also guides my faith tradition–the worth of all people. Their actions ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of Corrie and her sister Bessie in a concentration camp, where Bessie died. Other family members also died as a result of their actions. After she was freed from Ravensbruck, she began traveling to countries that had been impacted by the war, trying to bring reconciliation and healing. She found herself coming face to face with her own biases when a former guard asked for her forgiveness–and she was only able to do that through the grace of God. In many ways, I like her…but could I lived through what she did with the trust and confidence in God that she had? I don’t know.

Immaculee Ilibagiza is definitely not someone most of us have heard of…because she lives in a part of the world that is outside most of what we are familiar with. She was 23 years old when the Rwandan genocide began. People who had been friends and neighbors began to see each other as sub-human and turned on each other in a murderous spree that lasted months. Immaculee was sheltered by a local pastor, along with seven other women. They lived in a 3×4-foot bathroom for three months, hearing the murders going on…hearing neighbors on the hunt for people they wanted to kill. When she was finally able to come out, she discovered that most of her family had been killed…many of them by a man who had been in their home as a friend. When he was tried and found guilty, she was given the opportunity to respond to him–and she chose to respond with forgiveness. She tells her story in Left to Tell…but I wonder…how? How does one find the strength to forgive someone who has killed your whole family? Could I have done that?

I have been fortunate in that I have spent most of my life living in safety. I have not had to worry about how others have seen me…I have not had to worry about family members being killed. I have not been looked at as “less than”…

And yet I’m living in a time and situation where that is true for many people. So what is my responsibility? How/when do I take a stand? I consider myself an ordinary person as did these people. Yet their faith called them to what could be seen as extraordinary decisions and they could not be silent in the face of injustice and cruelty…in the face of some being seen as “less than”…so how can I?




A prayer for a new year


We stand at the threshold of a new year. The days stretch before us…clean, bright, waiting for whatever we will write on them. That is both an exhilerating and a frightening prospect; will we write things that will support others…bring us together? or will they be filled with division and hate?

There are so many possibilities!

Grant us the willingness to walk in the path you have called us to…a path of healing, of hope, of wholeness. Give us strength to persevere when things and people around us would conspire to call us to take the easy way.

Help us to look at those around us with empathy…to be willing to give others the benefit of the doubt…to listen with open ears rather than our preconceived notions. May we see you in the faces of “the other.”

Most of all, as we move into the future, give us the courage to truly mean this prayer…to live it, not just say words that disappear into the air.

It will not always be easy. But you promise to walk with us–and we claim that promise as we move into this new year.

We pray this in the name of the One who showed us how to live. Amen.