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A few weeks ago, my husband and I preached a sermon on unity. We did it together, a sort of Huntley/Brinkley approach; a unique experience for us and likely for the congregation, to be sure.
Despite our commonality, as indicated in our identical Myers-Briggs designation, we have different approaches to life, diverse philosophies and often obviously opposite tastes in reading material. It was in the midst of those diversities our unity was apparent.
Our challenge was mutually understood. Our decision to try the unusual approach was shared. The results of our choice are yet to be determined.
Upon returning home, I received a message from a woman whom I both admire and respect, a Benedictine nun whose reputation as a writer, thinker, speaker and definitely a challenger, is known worldwide.
Sister Joan Chittister wrote: “Unity is more than solidarity and more than uniformity. Unity, ironically, is a commitment to becoming one people who speak in a thousand voices. Rather than one message repeated by a thousand voices, unity is one message shaped by a thousand minds.”
I read it and thought, “Whoa, this is really something to ponder.”
This is a message that cannot be restricted to church communities struggling to be what they are called to be; the people of God, the family of God, branches on the Vine. This is a message for all humanity; all of us who are trying so hard to know and understand each other.
It is a challenge, most pointedly, for those of us who live in a nation that calls itself the United States of America.
We tend to speak in a thousand voices, but our message is not unanimous. It does not sound the clarion call of unity.
It is not “the kind of unity that is born out of differences and becomes the glue of a group. [That unity] has four characteristics: it frees, it enables, it supports, and it listens. A group that is genuinely unified is a group that has freed every member to be themselves. In fact, the truly united group knows that every idea, every voice, counts in the process of idea formation.” Uncommon Gratitude, (Liguori) by Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams.
I have been in groups that reflect that unity. They are truly awesome. Listening is not a skill so much as it is a practice. Discussion quickly becomes dialogue as each person recognizes the truth another has to offer, learned differently, experienced differently, but shared lovingly.
Laughter infuses the air. It is the laughter born of joy in each other’s presence. There is no ridicule, no “laughing at” but only “laughing with.” Time flies when we are together, when we are in the naked now, as Richard Rohr phrases it.
I leave knowing I have been blessed. I also leave with a degree of sadness that this blessing is freely offered and too quickly denied by God’s people, by we who proclaim that liberty and justice is for all and then categorize those who constitute that all-ness.
It seems that we, the people, are reluctant to open wide our hearts, minds, and arms. We fear a universal embrace lest it diminish our personal possessions.
We do not believe that this kind of unity is freeing for all. Somehow, the liberty others may receive is perceived as an intrusion on our own. The empowerment given to another is seen as a lessening of our own powerfulness. The support offered to the needy erodes our personal strength.
Listening to stories of impoverishment, alienation, isolation and injustice threatens our ability to hear our own heartbeat.
We do not seek out differences so that we might honor and respect them. We continue to seek out those who agree with us, whose opinions reflect our own, whose biases affirm ours, and whose judgment coincides with the one we hold dear and true and choose to impose.
We are not united, as one nation, under God. Perhaps, our problem lies with the last two words of that sentence: under God.
The unity we need to seek, the differences we need to discover and reveal, are found only when we exist as a nation living under God’s reign. It is only when we surrender our strongly held but universally limited ideas to God’s will that we will begin to know unity. It is then that we will start to grow as a people, together.
When I feel the bondage of an enslaved person, I will be journeying with them to freedom. When I suffer the pain of a rejected person, I will begin to understand compassion. When I respect someone else’s truth, I will be on the road to veracity. I will also be honing my own integrity and authenticity.
No doubt it is a daunting voyage. It is the stuff of faith, hope and love. It is the ground on which mercy stands and peace flowers. It is essential to our humanity.
If we ignore the command and demands of unity, we do so at the risk of losing who we are as human beings. We will have entered the terrible kingdom of humanity’s inhumanity, a place where God ceases to reign.
I cringe as I type those words. They are harshly challenging ones. I know how often I fail at my own flimsy attempts at unity. I also know that God loves me more for my efforts than for my successes.
I know I must keep trying to listen, support, empower, and free others to speak truth fearlessly. I must continue to applaud their efforts, to love them for those efforts, not solely for their successes.
I know I must pay close attention to the words I pledge as I face the flag of our nation. Those words cannot be uttered by rote memory. They must be learned by heart. They must enter the heart of my being, of my life.
I must also heed God’s word carefully. I must not let that word lie fallow on the pages of a book. When I hear, read, and see the scriptural plea, the dying desire of the God-man, I cannot walk away. “Let them all be one, as you, Father, are one in me and I in you.”
Whether it is about our nation, our state, our neighborhoods, our church communities, or our families there is but one message shaped by a thousand voices. Are we listening? Do we care?