Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Power of Thanksgiving

I am guilty of underestimating the power of Christian unity.

Perhaps this is a surprising--and rather stark--statement from someone who works to promote Christian unity. Nevertheless, I have to admit to being a doubting Thomas in at least one aspect.

A lot of folks may not realize that even those who work full-time in ministry--perhaps especially those people--often find themselves facing the all-too-common negative impulses of doubt, cynicism and sometimes even despair in the face of the world's problems. I have come to believe that this is not a deviation from the spiritual path--this IS the spiritual path. Being all-positive, all-the-time is not a realistic portrayal of the Christian life, but often those in ministry feel compelled to give that impression.

Being Christian is like being on a ship sailing across the sea. The waves, currents, storms and confusion over the map coordinates are part of the journey. Everyone wants smooth sailing, but it would be unrealistic not to prepare for some distress along the way. Those obstacles do not spontaneously evaporate once you decide to board the ship--sometimes, it is only then when they truly begin. Some people think the spiritual life means going from doubt to certainty and from confusion to clarity. There is truth in that, but the difference is now you are no longer lost at sea or idle on the shore but are instead on a journey going somewhere, even if the way is foggy and the directions are unclear at times. There is clarity in knowing there is a path and you are on it, but the storms will still come. The storms will still come.

So here is my story of confusion over map coordinates:

It is customary for Christians of different denominations to come together to celebrate at certain times of the year. Popular times include Holy Week & Easter, MLK Jr. Day, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January and Thanksgiving week. In the rural Southeast, Thanksgiving week is an incredibly popular time for this. Many church communities step out of their denominational seclusion to hold a community prayer service with other Christians. Some denominations are more likely than others to participate, but these services happen often enough to be a tradition in many towns.

My work takes me across the US Southeast, looking for signs of unity between Christians. I investigate ways Christians have found to come together, resolve differences and stand in their common witness to Christ, despite differences and a long history of divisions.

I am not sure why, but the holiday community services had left me feeling lukewarm. Sure, they are cute, I reasoned, but I was not sure what impact they had or whether they were worth the effort. They just did not interest me much. Still, they are a part of the quest for Christian unity and dutiful to my mission I sought to investigate them.

Perhaps God knew I was going to need more evidence than most people. As if to shake any doubt from my mind, my work gave me an opportunity to see what few people get to see. I spent Thanksgiving week traipsing across the US Southeast going from Thanksgiving service to service. I attended some events firsthand, witnessed the planning of others and heard testimonies of still more. The sheer experience of witnessing these events and seeing their real impact on their respective communities and on participants (including me!) has removed any doubt from my mind: When Christians find their unity amidst their diversity--even for fleeting moments--there is a power like no other. Waves of healing, reconciliation and overall good sentiment can radiate from that. Whole communities can transform.

Our time apart from each other has served to strengthen us so that when we do come together, we are much more dynamic and enlivened.
Standing room only at the Early County Thanksgiving Service
at Southside Baptist Church in Blakely, GA!
I began Thanksgiving week with a service in south Georgia. The robustly-sized Southside Baptist Church in Blakely, GA, was filled to capacity on November 22 with ushers working hard to bring in additional chairs as the congregation swelled in numbers. Blakely is as deep into the heart of the Deep South as you can go. The religious and racial harmony at this Thanksgiving service made it hard to imagine the South of segregation and hostility. 

Pastor Kenneth Cody of Wesley Chapel
AME Church delivers the message.

This was an enthusiastic service. To my eye, the participating churches were actively engaged and not just passively going along with it. Denominations were present which are not known to mix and mingle: Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Assembly of God, African Methodist Episcopal (AME), Missionary Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist and non-denominational. Preachers were both black and white, and the Catholic Hispanic choir even sang in Spanish. In these days of fear, mistrust and division in America, it is good to be reminded of how good it is when America shows its best side. Ain't that America, as the song goes--yes indeed, we can show the world what harmony looks like! No one in this crowd forgot that it is Christ who brings this community together. Christ is able to bridge divisions that would otherwise be difficult to traverse.

The Spanish choir of Holy Family Catholic Church,
with Fr. John Brown in center.

"We enjoy the opportunity to do this together," says Pastor Duane Littlefield of Zion Freewill Baptist Church, speaking at the service. "We are Christians serving one God. God's not Baptist, he's not Methodist, he's not AME, he's not any label. Serving together we can accomplish so much more than we ever could working against each other, as has been the case sometimes."
A Catholic, a Methodist and a Lutheran walk into a church in east Tennessee...
L-R: Fr. Steve Pawelk, Pastor John Teffeteller and Pastor Paul Kritsch.
The next day, I attended a Christian unity service in east Tennessee. Many churches fill the hollers and towns of Union County, but they have a long history of keeping to themselves--even among churches of the same denomination. Still, the Thanksgiving Service is on its 5th year as the partnerships deepen among participating congregations. Case in point: The Methodist and Catholic congregations have been participating since the initial year, and this year they combined into one joint choir. A newly established Lutheran Church rounded out the leadership, but members from over 11 churches were in attendance. People are hungry to come together and celebrate. Speaking of hunger, when the plans for a potluck did not come to fruition, the assembled crowd spontaneously decided to reconvene at the McDonald's across the street to continue the celebration. It was hard to tell the strangers from the long-time friends in this crowd. God is good!
No potluck? No problem! McDonald's is across the street.
This is moveable feast.
To round out this series, I was in west Kentucky in the town of Guthrie the following day. Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, Missionary Baptist and Methodist churches participated. Many of the pastors in this part of the state are working hard as leaders in the community to be a positive light. This community will be featured in an upcoming blog post, because the overwhelming hospitality shown to one congregation after its church building burned down is a story that deserves to be featured in its own right.

A handshake which symbolizes the community Thanksgiving in Guthrie, KY.
Fr. Frank Ruff in center.

People tell me that the rural US Southeast is "mission impossible" when it comes to religious and ethnic reconciliation. Whether that is based on stereotypes, truth or some combination of the two, the image remains. Yet, I have seen some of the finest examples of the miracle of the unity of God's people in these very places. In some of the most segregated towns in America, these services bring black, white and Latino together to embrace, both literally and figuratively. In a religious climate of isolationism and a long history of mistrust between whole denominations as well as individual congregations, disparate churches find ways to stand together.  Offering praise, worship and thanksgiving to an all-loving, merciful God is certainly one thing all Christians can do. I have found that people genuinely want to be a whole, reconciled community. In each service, collections were also taken up to support the local food banks and other works of mercy. In these small towns, many folks already know each other quite well and those personal relationships matter a great deal in their desire for unity.

The three services above--from south Georgia to east Tennessee to west Kentucky--are only a very small snapshot of the kinds of events taking place all over.  People in community after community have testified that the walls come down in their town when the Body of Christ comes together like this. You can feel it.

The challenges of Christian unity can be immense, and often it can be hard to know where to begin. Catholic priest Fr. Frank Ruff urges people to start with what is possible, doing what they are already doing. He refers to the Lund Principle and defines it this way: "Christian churches should do together what they can do together and only do separately what their convictions require them to do separately." Giving Thanks to God is something all Christians can universally agree to do, so that makes Thanksgiving week an ideal time to come together. 

I saw the presence of Christ in these gatherings--not just in the people and their faith, but in the work of Christ reconciling all back to Himself. Christ was not just a person but a verb--an active presence. He was known to me not just in the people but in the "breaking of the bread" between these people. I should have realized that when two or more are gathered in his name, that he would be there, full of grace and surprises, and that he would multiply our efforts and send ripples far beyond the horizons of our limited vision.

It took me a while, but like Thomas, when I finally recognized Christ, I found myself saying, "My Lord and my God!"

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