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The Lenten season has ended. Christians are in the throes of Easter bliss. Resurrection is the name of the game. It calls us to a new awareness of life and love experienced as church.
I’ve been pondering those words for a long time. What does it mean to call myself a religious person, a Christian? What does it mean to gather as church? Is it a Sunday-only party celebrated with those who share a common understanding of God? Is it an exclusive club whose membership is limited to those who follow the rules and regulations, who proclaim a specific doctrine or dogma?
These questions led me to consider the highly successful Lenten Luncheon worship services sponsored annually by the Greater Shallotte Ministerial Association. Held each Wednesday of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, the lunches precede a time when prayer, song and listening are paramount.
Men and women from a number of denominations gather in a different church each week to hear a message delivered by a preacher who is not the pastor of that particular church. Obviously, the point is to experience and reverence both our commonalities as people of God and our different approaches and understandings of God.
Over the course of many years, I daresay this has consistently been the largest local gathering of folks from various denominations coming to pray and enjoy the companionship of the people of God. It is more than edifying. It is an expression of hope and trust that we can be one in the Spirit, one in the Lord, with one faith and one baptism. It is a sign ecumenism can work well, if we are committed to unity in the midst of our differences.
The hymns are not always familiar ones, but everyone listens, learns and sings heartily and prayerfully. The Scripture readings often challenge both the preacher who delivers the message borne in God’s word and the folks who hear and heed it.
I have been deeply moved by the sharing. As I listened to other comments, I knew my observations were on target, and it gave me hope church unity could be achieved.
The questions also led me to return to the beginning of each year, to the month of January. They caused me to reflect on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that occurs mid-month. Unlike the gatherings that occurred during the six weeks of the Lenten season, the seven days designated for specific and deliberate prayer that all God’s people be one, beginning with all who call themselves Christian, seem to go unheeded and certainly unattended.
Locally, one Sunday is selected as a time when the various Christian denominations would join in one place to pray for unity, to ask God that we be knitted together in the midst of our diversity.
Each year, the Greater Shallotte Ministerial Association tries to facilitate this amalgamation. Each year, the numbers in attendance are few, mostly composed of members of the host church. The enthusiasm, rooted in a desire to be possessed by God, visible in the Lenten Lunch worship services, is sadly missing. Ecumenism falters, if not fails.
As the date approaches and worship material is ordered, local ministers ask what can be done to raise the consciousness of God’s people. Why are we not excited about the prospect of praying as individuals in one community of faith, no matter what our denomination? What is keeping us apart, distinct, and separated from each other?
Is it fear...or bias...or judgment? Is it contentment with our own ways, our own understanding of God and religion? Is it that we are discontent and mistrust common worship? Could it be, as someone recently opined, that we need a common enemy to force us to unite?
I have no answer to those questions. I can only ponder them, wondering when we will accept the courage and wisdom God offers us so we can address the challenges together.
I can only continue to pray that our eyes, minds, and hearts—our spirit—will be opened to the wonder of being one people in God. I can only hope we will soon recognize what we have lost, sadly in the name of God, by misunderstanding the meaning of being set apart. I can only hope we will one day recognize what we have lost in the process of trying to gain closeness with the Divine.
Interestingly and providentially, I stumbled upon the memoirs of a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Dianne Ortiz, O.S.U. I found it on a bookshelf in the library at Seaside United Methodist Church. I finally completed this disturbing and challenging book about the ordeal she endured at the hands of the Guatemalan government, and the injustice that followed in the investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In her epilogue, Ortiz offers words of wisdom that may well apply to the dilemma of church disunity. At the least, they serve as encouragement and space for expectation.
She begins by quoting Graham Greene: “Life is absurd. Therefore, there is always hope.” She reminds the reader that Jesus, in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, accepted what a boy offered, five loaves and two fishes.
“He didn’t complain or despair. He gave thanks to God for them, however insufficient they seemed, and he started passing them out.”
She continues the message: “Take what you have, in an attitude of thankfulness, and give what you have, in an attitude of faith, and it will be enough. It will be more than enough.”
Those words give me hope. They tell me those who gather in unity, on any occasion, in an attitude of thankfulness and those who give, who share who they are and what they have, in an attitude of faith will be enough to change hearts and minds.
Those words tell me the few who come together to pray each January are sufficient. However, they also tell me that the many who opt not to come may one day recognize they have much to give, and much to receive.
We all need to share the five loaves and two fishes we have been given. If we do not share them, all will starve.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.