“‘That We All May Be One’: Faith Perspectives From a Personal Journey.”
I was spiritually formed in the spiritually rich and fertile womb of the black Pentecostal experience. I was theologically tutored in the rational-critical academics of a German Reformed Seminary. And now, for more than 25 years, I have felt called to do priestly ministry in the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church—a strange and curious pilgrimage, indeed.
However, I have felt called by God in each phase of my pilgrimage, and I have been lastingly enriched by each distinct experience. Yet, I have never figured out why God chose such a meandering path to bring me to this point: from the evangelical revivals on the sawdust floors of my father’s early tent ministry; through the ivy-covered theological halls of liberal Protestantism; to the High Altar of this great gothic limestone cathedral. In each transition there has been the painful grief of separation and the daunting surprise of new horizons. Looking back on these points of decision I have often thought of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Yes, for me the road less traveled has made all the difference. Yet, as you would imagine, there are times when I think that it would be easier to connect Ezekiel’s metaphorical dry bones than to maintain a fit between these fragile contiguous parts of my soul. But, thanks be to God! For there are also those not infrequent moments when I am so consumed by the power and practice of my calling that I actually forget that glossolalia, redaction, and incense aren’t supposed to go together. And, it is precisely in these glorious moments that the purpose of God’s peculiar design for my life and ministry has been truly revealed.
Perhaps it is because of these oddly fitted contours of my soul and the shape of my pilgrimage that I am so strongly inclined towards ecumenism—the reaching across denominational and even faith barriers—to find integrity for common ground and common work. For from the lens of my experience I tend to see ecumenism not so much as a graceful ship on a peaceful sea, the logo so often depicted as the icon of the Council of Churches. Rather, I think of ecumenism more as an albatross! Yes, an albatross. That bird with strange and awkward parts—often hideous to the eye. Yet, with less than graceful effort, defying natural probability and casual reason, it stumbles into the air, doing what God has willed it to do. It flies!! My Christian friends, gathered here today in such a great array of traditions, please remember: the Church of Jesus Christ is ultimately not about logical congruence, it is not about the neatness of polity, nor about theological orthodoxy; rather the nature of the Church is about taking flight – even awkward flight—in the name of the Lord.
Oh, the Church of Jesus Christ has so many distinct parts which seem strange and awkward. And our historic incredulity, our cultic pride in theological dogmas and worship traditions, our lack of faith in the possibilities—and yes, our sinful lack of human generosity, has convinced us that there is no way this ecumenical bird can fly. We are convinced that not only is east, east and West, west, but Rome is Rome; Canterbury is Canterbury; Geneva is Geneva; Augsburg is Augsburg; Azusa Street is Azusa Street; and never shall any of them meet. We are convinced that the Church-Ecumenical cannot fly. And so over the centuries we have literally struggled to have “talks” with those most theologically and culturally like us and have been pleased to ignore the rest.
Now, I must admit acknowledge that there have been obvious positive signs of the effects of Christ’s prayer—uniting in our diversity. One of the first and still the most significant happened almost 50 years ago, with the Congregational Christian Churches, and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches merging to form that odd body, the United Church of Christ (which service of celebration was held in this cathedral). Then there was the even more odd relationship in the 70’s and 80’s between Old line Pentecostals and the Charismatic movement in the Roman Catholic Church and many Mainline Protestant churches. And most recently we have the outstanding witness of the Concordat between the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church (My personal hope is that some day my Episcopal Church will have similar talks with a black tradition, such as the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, or the A.M.E.). These are but a few of the hopeful signs that the prayer of Jesus is not in vain; that our ancient organic disunities can be healed. That we can be one, at least in spirit and mission.
But there are other strange and awkward parts which also disquiet our confidence. These are distinctions, which have not so much to do with structure and theology, but with people; distinctions about class, sex and race. We read the vision of Paul (Galatians 3:2) that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (no racism!); in Christ there is neither male nor female (no sexism!); in Christ there is neither nor slave or free (no classism!). Yet, no matter how we merge or create collaborative dialogues, we are still so very divided by race and class; and in both black and white churches we still resist the full and equal membership of our mothers and sisters, and our gay brothers and lesbians sisters who are also members of the Body of Christ. Yes, I know that in many ways some of these parts appear to us ungainly and awkward images of the Church. But to the world we appear to be obsessed with separating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the tare, all of which is supposed to be reserved for Jesus on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 13:30, 25:32).
We may think we are preserving orthodoxy, but we are missing the powerful and obvious common ground of mission and ministry to a perishing world. For, if the truth be told, what actually distinguishes us is so small compared to the great and common mission to which we are called as the Body of Christ.
Once when preaching on this topic a listener later sent me this story of a man crossing a bridge. The story goes:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I ran over to him and said, Stop, Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
He said, “Like what?”
I said, “Well, are you religious or atheist?”
He said, “Religious.”
I said, “Me too!! Are you Christian?”
“Christian”, he replied.
“Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Protestant” he responded
“Me too” I said with growing enthusiasm.
“Are you involved in a local Protestant congregation?”
“I ‘m an organist in my local Protestant church”, he said.
I said, “Wow, so am I! Is your church the Protestant Church of God or the Protestant Church of the Lord Jesus Christ?”
He replied, “The Protestant Church of God.”
In my excitement, I exclaimed, “Me too, brother. By any chance are you Protestant Church of God, Reformed or Protestant Church of God, Orthodox?”
“Well, I am Protestant Church of God, Reformed.”
“Praise the Lord”, I exclaimed. “Is that, Protestant Church of God, Reformed 1875 or Protestant Church of God, Reformed l975?”
The man replied with great pride and glee, “I am Protestant Church of God, Reformed, 1975!”
And before I could contain myself I shouted, “Heretic!!!” And pushed him off the bridge.
Well, this may be funny to us. But the world God so loved is not laughing with us. If they are still paying attention at all, they are laughing at us. Most of our cherished distinctions seem to matter only to us, and they often seem to matter more than mission to a perishing world.
Our Lord, Jesus Christ, put it this way to his motley and contentious crew of disciples: “By this shall the world know you are my disciples, because you have love one for another” [John 13:34]. Isn’t that strange? Jesus did not say the Christian Church would be recognized or granted integrity by the world around us, because of our theological orthodoxy, the traditional uniqueness of our worship, nor by our cultural or racial or gender homogeneity. The world with which we wish to share the love of God will only know us “if—in our diversity—we have love one for another”.
Now, the word used for Love in John is “Agape”, which does not mean we must have warm fuzzies for one another, or share esthetical or intellectual taste. Rather, at its most elemental implication it is to respect one another, even with our inevitable differences, as members of Christ’s body, no matter how ungainly doing so may make us look or feel. If we are going to fly as the Christian Church we must spread our wings of faith by showing a Godly respect for one another, even where we strongly disagree.
Today the challenge of the body of Christ is increasingly even more complicated. In this new Millennium we are increasingly concerned about “interfaith” dialogue building bridges of respect and collaboration between ourselves and those of non-Christian religions. I personally believe that this is a vital ministry because there will be no sustainable global ethic for war and peace, ecology and human rights until there is both understanding and respect among the great religions.
But within the Christian community there is also a growing “intra-faith” dialogue. Think about it: much of the growth of American Christianity is from our immigrant population—many of whom have been Christian for many generations in their native lands. For example, the Roman Catholic Church is experiencing growth from Hispanic and Vietnamese Catholics; Episcopalian growth is greatly effected by Anglicans from the Caribbean and the continent of Africa; for Presbyterian’s it has been Korean Presbyterians. (How many sign on Presbyterian Churches have Korean characters that declare Korean Presbyterians own or are sharing a particular church?). The other day I passed a church under construction for expansion, whose sign read, “Arabic Baptist Church”. Arabic Baptist??
What will we do with faithful Christians in our American Churches who are not shaped by western values, but the odd but rich cultures of the east; cultures shaped by Buddhism, Islam, Shinto, Animism and so on? What do we do with those whose customs and values are not quite congruent with western liberalism; whose liturgical taste may prefer drum beats to organ music or who may wish us to learn to pray in Spanish even as they share with us in English. Yes, we sing “In Christ There Is No East or West, there is no North or South, but one great fellowship divine throughout the whole wide world.” But the years to come will sorely test the depth of that conviction. Will the world know us for our love, or for our labels and sundry conflicts of distinctions?
Some years ago my wife and I lost two very dear friends and mentors around the same time. One was a Holiness/Pentecostal preacher after the Order of Ezekiel: “Stand upon your feet, set your face like a flint and say, ‘thus says the Lord’.” The other was a high church Episcopal priest after the Order of Isaiah: “and his smoke filled the temple”. My wife commented, “Nathan, can you imagine them both in the same heaven praising God at the same time, each in their fashion?” But after more than a few chuckles, our grins turned to smiles as we remembered how the love of God flowed through each of them, out into their congregations, into their communities and even across denominational boundaries. We remembered how, by their respective ministries and programs lives were converted, injustice challenged and comfort administered to the stranger. Yes, strange and awkward fitting parts they were, distinguished by race, class and culture; but united in the mission and spirit of Christ.
As you know my goal has been to make this Cathedral known not only as an Episcopal Church, but to make indelible upon this nation and the world the image of this Cathedral as a “National House of Prayer for All People”. I have often been encouraged and inspired because that mission is etched into the fabric of this Cathedral in places such as the clerestory windows of the south transept. There all of the great streams of Christianity are represented in these windows: Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Reformed and other expressions of Protestantism. But the final window is the great “Ecumenical Window” by artist Albert Birkle, which represents the destination of the Christian Church. John Bayless and Nancy Montgomery wrote of this window in their book Jewels of Light: “Although we [Christians] flounder in our divisions, we still seek that unity which comes through the Holy Ghost.” If we allow the Spirit of God can bring us closer together.
So together with trustees, staff and volunteers, we have tried to build a ministry and reputation of genuine openness and hospitality for all people. Given the diversity of our nation and the political agenda of many, it has not been easy. Yet, as I look out into this nave on a given day and observe tourists, conferees, pilgrims and people gathered for some national event, I see the beautiful array of God’s humanity. And on such occasions I am keenly reminded that this is not my house or just the Christian Church’s house—it is God’s peoples’ house. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, secular seekers, as well as Christians are welcomed to make a claim on this house. It has been our mission that all of God’s children feel welcomed to experience in this place the generous hospitality and peace of Jesus Christ.
On other occasions, as I prepare this communion table, I am reminded this is not my table. It is not simply the Episcopal Church’s table; it is the Lord’s Table; and all Christians are welcomed to come and share with us his saving body and blood. Yet, even as I have prepared this table on any given Sunday morning I have often felt like I was in a scene from the movie, “Guess Whose Coming to Dinner?” Like today, I look out and I see black and white faces, yellow, brown, and red faces. I see Dashikis, Saris, Turbans and Kufis, mixed in with Brooks Brothers’ suits and Ann Taylor dresses. I see traditional families and alternative families. I see blond heads, brown heads, red heads and bald heads. I even see some purple hair and pink hair. How do we make peace with these disparate parts of our corporate soul? Yet, each Sunday, you come forward to this table, from every part of this Cathedral, to this table, with your hands open