While we hope these pieces are helpful and relevant whenever they are used, we do not write them to be “evergreen.” That is especially true this week. Conversations with pastors, church leaders, and church board members in diverse settings in the last several days have displayed a consistent theme. Sharp arguments over resuming in-person worship have come to dominate the attention of many congregations and their boards.
What seems to be missing in these arguments – no matter what one believes is the best approach to the challenges at hand – is an acknowledgement of the irreducible complexity of these leadership decisions, and empathy for the perspectives of those with whom we disagree. There is a Grand Canyon of difference between “it’s sure clear to me that we need to…(go in person, stay remote…)” and “I have strong feelings about this, but I also want to understand your concern, your pain.”
The New Testament – in almost every page – assumes community as the essential context for a life of faith, and just as readily acknowledges and addresses the difficulty of that life. Consider the words of Philippians 2, and what they ask of us in relationship to one another:
2 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
One of the very best things about the Christian church is that we don’t have to – and we don’t get to – make up our own rules for life together. We live subject to a set of expectations of how we are to be in community with one another. And not just any expectations, but those that are formed by Jesus Christ and echoed in the subsequent verses in Philippians 2 (which Biblical scholars believe is one of the oldest fragments of text from the early church that we have):
Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
What ‘mind’ is this passage calling us to enter into, as we negotiate the challenges of this time?
In “The Argument,” American poet Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) takes us back to one particular argument of her childhood—and how it turned on her grandmother’s understanding of God and God’s ways.
BY JANE KENYON
On the way to the village store
I drive through a down-draft
from the neighbor’s chimney.
Woodsmoke tumbles from the eaves
backlit by sun, reminding me
of the fire and sulfur of Grandmother’s
vengeful God, the one who disapproves
of jeans and shorts for girls,
dancing, strong waters, and adultery.
A moment later the smoke enters
the car, although the windows are tight,
insinuating that I might, like Judas,
and the foolish virgins, and the rich
young man, have been made for unquenchable
fire. God will need something to burn
if the fire is to be unquenchable.
“All things work together for the good
for those who love God,” she said
to comfort me at Uncle Hazen’s funeral,
where Father held me up to see
the maroon gladiolus that trembled
as we approached the bier, the elaborate
shirred satin, brass fittings, anything,
oh, anything but Uncle’s squelched
and made-up face.
“No! NO! How is it good to be dead?”
I cried afterward, wild-eyed and flushed.
“God’s ways are not our ways,”
she said then out of pity
and the wish to forestall the argument.
What is the argument that Kenyon is reminded of? What brings it to mind?
How does the grandmother interpret God’s ways to her granddaughter?
How are you, as a board, interpreting God’s ways to one another in this time?
What would it mean, in the words of Philippians 2, to be “of the same mind” in this time of conflict? To have “the same love?” (Love of what? Love of whom?) To regard others as better than ourselves?
How are you as a body looking to the interests of others?