When Times Are Hard
It is tempting when times are hard, when wounds are deep, and when differing perspectives have evolved over many generations of distance, ignorance, and even belligerence, to think that God’s precepts for relationship no longer apply. It’s easy to rationalize that in this situation and under these circumstances, the rules may be bent, if not disregarded altogether. But it is not so. God has called us to an all-enduring love that refuses to fail (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). True love—as biblically defined—is all in; no matter who or what or when or where or how hard or how long. I’m not saying that this is easy, or would always be my first choice. I’m too sinful for that. Nevertheless, it is the will of God. And it is in keeping with the love of Christ Jesus our Lord who—in his great love—was all in for us; all the way to the cross (1 John 3:16; 4:7-11; Ephesians 5:1, 2). His was a “no matter who or what or when or where or how hard and how long” kind of love. And it still is.
As for me, I think I am in the most difficult “no matter who, what, when, where, or how hard and long” period of my ministry. Understand: I am not saying that this current moment is harder than other moments that some of you have had. In fact, this is not even a “moment” for lots of people; it’s a continuation. It isn’t a “season”, recently started and, hopefully, soon to end. Rather, it is another sorrow overlaying countless others that have gone before.
Still, I would say that this is the most challenging moment of ministry that I have had in 38+ years. I have never experienced a time so deep in its pain, so prolonged in its duration, so diverse in its opinions, so raw in its emotion, and so potentially damaging and defining in its effects. Our nation and (far more importantly) the Church are in the throws of Corona-adversity, bone-aching lament, and severely racialized counter-positions. And caught up in it all, Christians are being pitted against each other through one post, pulpit, and pontification after another.
If we do not do better by raising a courageous voice and response, and engaging in determined dialogue leading to Gospel-empowered understanding, empathy, justice and peace, we will create divisions even deeper than before. If we do not channel anger and fear into conversations that take on the real core issues before us, we will miss our moment. And instead of this being a crisis leading to truth and grace, it will become a demonic wedge, driven in all the deeper by our stubborn resistance to listen, learn, and act (James 3:13-18). Digging in our heels, and insisting that our way, our narrative, our conclusions, and our insisted-upon end results are infallibly right—without mutual respect and love governing it all—will leave the Church right where it has been for centuries; only more so.
But This Is Really Hard
As a pastor it is my calling to proclaim truth, herald the gospel, do justice, and seek peace. By and large, that is your calling, too. None of this is easy, and all of it is hard. I pastor a church on the doorstep of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Risen Hope Church (RHC) is to my eye—I will say it without hesitation—the most beautiful place on earth. I have never seen anything more exquisitely lovely than when this church family is gathered. More than two hundred people representing 25+ ethnicities are part of the family. We enjoy diversity in leadership, in style, in clothing, in worship, in age, in music, in preaching, in song, in celebration, in occupation and economic condition, in just about everything—with lots more to learn and live out together. RHC is a living breathing pulsating organism of Christ-centered faith and multi-colored and cultured worship. As I say; the most beautiful sight on earth.
But watch out for our politics, our partisanship, our platforms, our through-the-week approach to everything from food, to family, to music, to dance, to laughter, to how to “Amen” a preacher, to how we define (or have experienced) justice, to how we have (or have not) received and responded to life’s opportunities. Focus on these things and you will discover diversity even greater than the multi-variegated shades of our skin. Come to find out: there’s not a single monolithic white or black or brown way to look at things. While there are distinct cultural flavors to us all, the truth is that each viewpoint is represented by diverse people—which makes it all the more interestingly beautiful. And hard.
So what are we to do? The disagreements are often so strong, and are rooted so deeply in personal life-experiences, and/or cultural narratives that, except in matters of explicit Bible clarity and authority (which are as many as we need, though probably not as many as we would think or want!), full agreement is a pipe dream. It isn’t going to happen. Not now. Not here. Not fully. I am not saying that we should stop talking, or wrestling with hard issues of justice and mercy. But I am saying that we are going to have to be satisfied with something short of closure and agreement. To think full agreement will happen is naïve. Perhaps even worse than naïve, it may be damaging; since it sets up unrealistic expectations that are sure to end in crushing disappointments.
Besides, full agreement might actually stunt our growth. I suspect that God intends our diverse, strongly divergent opinions to accentuate our beauty. Perhaps we were meant to be different—and sometimes radically so—to balance and enhance each other; to be mutually beneficial streams of grace-enriched humanity flowing into each other’s life, transforming us into something more stunningly beautiful than we would otherwise be. Perhaps God meant for folks who can’t stop worrying about abusive police officers to worship alongside of other folks who can’t stop worrying about angry protestors. Perhaps our differences—even those held deeply and doggedly—are part of the extreme makeover plan God has in mind to turn all of us sin-uglified believers into a Beautiful Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27).
In this light, is it possible that we’re trying too hard to agree on everything? Obviously there are many biblical essentials in which we must agree and unite. But maybe we are meant to disagree on a lot of other things so that together we might become something different. Something better. Something all the more beautiful than we are now. But if that’s the case, we will all have to learn how better to live in the tensions this creates. And that is where the “one-anothers” of Scripture come in.
Recovering the One Anothers
Yesterday, someone suggested that I address some basic elements of Christian love and life; and she made passing reference to the one-anothers of the New Testament. This insight was as light to me. For those unaware, the New Testament includes a series of “one another” commands that embody essential Christian love, as practiced in the redeemed, multi-ethnic and many-cultured Church. Commands like “love one another”, “be kind to one another”, “bear with one another”, “forgive one another”, “comfort one another”, “admonish one another”, and many more appear time and again in the New testament. Each of these expresses what love needs to look like in the Body of Christ, in a fallen world, among still sin-marred-and-messed-up believers. What this means is that the Christian life rightly lived is more than a one-on-One relationship with God. It is a one-on-one another-on-One relationship with others in God. It’s not just personal. It is communal. It is not just me and God; it is we and God. And that’s true even when pandemics hit, protests continue, offences mount, and griefs abound.
So here’s the plan. Once or twice a week for the next several weeks, I’m going to post a reflection on various one another commands of Scripture, in the hope that we can recover these basics—and find application while in the furnace we now share. I hope you will join us as we seek to adorn one another in this present crisis with the beautifying grace of God in the gospel.