“Wait—who is Calvin?” and other potty breaks along the road to unity

by Kristin on May 4, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by theogeo

Unity is a tough thing to write about. First of all, I’m not sure I know what it’s really like. It’s more like a destination I’ve circled on a map—it sounds like a really great place and I’ve gotten glimpses of some pictures of it, so I definitely want to head in that direction. It’s just turning out to be a rather long journey, complete with more pit stops than I expected.

As a kid, it was easy to hitch a ride with my parents, propelled by the momentum of 1970s Kumbaya. By the time I turned 18 and was heading off to college, I pretty much thought we had arrived at our destination. College was just going to be more of that, because I was going to a Christian college (chosen mostly because it was bigger than my high school and had a journalism program). I figured it would probably be a lot like the beloved United Methodist summer camps of my childhood, just with more homework. No, I wasn’t quite sure who John Calvin was, but that couldn’t matter much. Christians are Christians, right?

My “all Christians are essentially the same” mentality manifested itself in a variety of ways. I had the idea that whatever version of the Bible floated your boat was a fine way to access God’s word, that women could become pastors just as easily as men, that the greatest way to show your love for God was to love and serve the least of these, and that Christians were mostly Democrats.

Bible studies that make you cry and other realizations that all Christians aren’t all the same

Needless to say, my brown-haired, Living Bible-reading, feminist, anti-Bush self wasn’t universally embraced upon my arrival on campus. On the first day of class, my religion professor banned my Bible, making the purchase of an NIV Study Bible a class requirement. A few weeks later, a guy in my dorm Bible study made me cry after he explained predestination (and how I could probably tell I wasn’t one of the chosen ones).

I still longed for my old notions about Christian unity, but not bad enough to put a Bush for President sign in my dorm room window, or to believe that the universe was created in six, 24-hour days. Ultimately, I had a great college experience, thanks to fabulous academics and interactions with some truly wonderful people, but it was all predicated on finding others who were “like me” and hanging tight.

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s funny, now, to look back on my childhood version of “unity.” There’s a part of me that would love to take little vacations in that oh-so-simple world, where “Christians are just Christians” and everyone is all about love. It would be like slipping away to an exotic spa for an hour, forgetting all of the cares of the world and basking in a momentary reality that’s too good to be permanent. But that isn’t real unity, any more than living your whole life in a spa would be truly satisfying.

My teenager version of unity worked not because people were working hard to overcome differences and find powerful common ground, but because we were all essentially the same. The unity my progressive friends and I fabricated in college wasn’t real unity, either, even if it did provide important friendships and growth. We loved getting into intense “debates,” but the reality was that we all pretty much agreed on everything, which is why we were hanging out together in the first place.

Maybe true unity demands differences

In Ephesians, Paul shows us what unity looks like, and it doesn’t necessarily look like a group of people who agree on everything. In fact, Paul is addressing a group that includes both Jews and Gentiles, and they weren’t joining together just to play softball or start a business—they were focusing on the very thing that divided them most, and starting a church.

Surely, if they were to accomplish such a crazy thing, they’d have to start by abolishing their differences, right? That seems like a reasonable route to peace—debating every last detail (and bullying, where necessary) until everyone is exactly on the same page. But instead, Paul suggests this:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  ~ Eph. 4:2-3

It’s about humility and patience, not proving right and wrong. It’s about relying on the Spirit to bring peace and unity, not on our own skills, intelligence and strategies.

This whole faith movement was built on the principle of embracing, incorporating and celebrating differences. And it wasn’t just a nice idea. It happened. It worked. Not the way things work just because we try really hard and put all of our effort into it, but in the more mysterious way things work when we are open to trusting something bigger—the one who daily, liberally pours out grace on us to extend to others.

(By the way, this post is a part of the Rally to Restore Unity organized by Rachel Held Evans. There’s lots of great related stuff to check out on her blog!)

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  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Awesome post. I find that spending physical time with other people is the best way to work on unity, but that verse from Ephesians is so essential in keeping the bond of peace in those interactions. I don’t expect to find “unity” with all of the people I run into on Twitter or Facebook or blogs since we’re not actually living with each other and have an understanding where each person is coming from and we’re just dropping bombs from our experiences on one another without any kind of context or prior experience. That’s why I have a small group full of Republicans, Democrats, Calvinists, and Arminians who love and support each other, but it’s quite different from online interactions.

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Great post. My favorite chapter in the Bible dealing with this type of stuff is Romans 15.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Of course this is wonderful, Kristin. Thanks for sharing your journey, and the reminder that unity is more like a destination circled on a map. Great image.

    Did you catch Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents Dinner? He killed it. Here was one of my favorite jokes: “You know what the rest of Americans call an evening spent sitting next to another person with wildly different political views? Thanksgiving.”

    Substitute “Spiritual views” for “Political views” and it’s still true. The word “Thanksgiving” is also an adequate translation for “Eucharist.” I give thanks for all my friends around the table. In fact, I’m just happy to be seated there.

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    i love everything about this. picturing you at a conservative christian college, for one (!), but also your wisdom:

    “My teenager version of unity worked not because people were working hard to overcome differences and find powerful common ground, but because we were all essentially the same.”

    “they weren’t joining together just to play softball or start a business—they were focusing on the very thing that divided them most, and starting a church.”

    humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, peace, YES. more of that, less of me. you are wise friend. thank you for this–and the reminder that it’s been done before, through the power of our gracious God.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jennifer

    Oh. Wowza. So much here. I would love to see this developed, for real. I want more of the story, and not because I already love you! Unity somewhere other than a softball field, for the purpose of loving God and advancing His Kingdom? Some days I think it will never happen, and other days, I catch a glimpse of it, as if a spirit in my periphery. When I turn my head to gaze full on it, whoosh, it seems to be a bit of smoke. But I KNOW it was there.

  • http://silly-bear.com Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell

    I recall being the moderate in disguise with liberal leanings on an UBER conservative Christian college campus. Not sure how I survived, but I did. I love how our definitions of unity change over time, evolve, and expand with our personal development. Lovely post!

  • http://sheilainafrica.wordpress.com Sheila

    Great post. It’s good to be reminded of that scripture. I serve every day with Christians who are conservative and liberal – we are all across the board. And its true – we love one another… until some idea or doctrine comes up, and division sets in. Oh how we need to come to one another in humilty and above all love!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ed, you’re right about spending time with people. When we only know a tiny bit about a person, it’s easy to be annoyed or even angry at them, but the more we spend time together, the more the complexity of the person’s life comes through, and helps us to develop compassion. Your small group sounds great!

    Shawn, thanks for stopping by! Romans 15 is definitely one of those chapters worth reading regularly.

    Ray, I missed the White House Correspondents Dinner this year, but I love the Thanksgiving joke and the way you tied a biological family at Thanksgiving dinner to a Christian family around a Eucharist table. So true and so moving. If only we could all be a little less concrete about who we’re celebrating with on a Sunday morning, and use our imaginations to include a much broader family.

    suzannah, it is a pretty funny picture–the 18-YO clueless, naive me walking around with the “wrong” Bible and political views. :) In some ways it looks like a whole lot of wandering from one extreme to another, not getting to any real unity, but now I can see I was “in training” in some very important ways.

    Jennifer, it’s funny that you said you’d love to see this developed, because as I was writing it, I felt like it wanted to be two or three times the length of a blog post. We’ll see. Anyway, I love how you described every so often catching a glimpse of unity that dissipates when you try to look right at it. Exactly!

    Sarah, I think one of the interesting things about being in a college situation like we were is that it gave us a chance not only to know people who were similar to us yet very different, but it allows to experience being “other”–the one who doesn’t fit in. We tend to pick churches and friends, etc we DO fit with, and I think it’s good to know what it feels like being the “other” for a while.

    Sheila, sometimes I don’t understand how love can be so big, but can so quickly be set aside when differences become apparent. I see it all the time, too! I guess that’s why it’s so important that we keep asking the spirit to help us do the parts we struggle with on our own. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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