Celebration and reform are not mutually exclusive.

I was chatting with a future pastor last week, a smart undergraduate with a passion for theology and Jesus, and somehow we got onto the subject of the culture of the Church in America--what's working, what's not, what to celebrate, what to reform and correct. And it struck me, later on in the week as I listened to my pastor* speak to a group of women ministers, that celebration and reform are not mutually exclusive--that we can celebrate unity, listening and love while we seek to reform divisive practices, heal deafness, and erase fear.

(Unity and Division)
That same pastor recently observed that we're living in a time in our country where we introduce ourselves and then, figuratively speaking, ask the question, "What side are you on?"  This is Brene Brown's point in Braving the Wilderness: there's so much that divides in our culture; what is there that can keep us connected? In the Church, we form boundary lines over theology, practice, gender, alcohol, tongues-speaking, dress codes, politics, who we let in and who we let out. There are times I marvel that Jesus thinks he can hold us all together and how it seems that parts of us, like limbs on a body, will grow gangrenous from division and fall off.

But then there're the three Baptist or Baptist-roots pastors in my city who have become my friends, ministry colleagues, occasional coffee meetings, and encouragements to me, even though they are part of a denomination or tradition that does not affirm women pastors. One told me, before I planted CityChurch, that he celebrated anyone who wanted to share the love of Jesus in our city.  That, friends, is unity. And it's not just us: coffee meet-ups and conversations are happening between different kinds of Church folks all across this country. Sure, they're not broadcasted by FOX or NPR but they're happening. Dialogue, empathy, care for the poor and the voiceless, recognition that Christ is our life-source, our commissioner, our Lord in all that we do.

(Listening and Deafness)
I'm a fence-straddler, y'all. If I was an octopus, I'd have my six arms and two legs wrapped around eight separate listening posts at once because I want to hear what's said by the LGBTQIA community, by black people, by documented and undocumented immigrants, by #metoo, by law enforcement, by NPR, FOX News, Christian radio, by liturgists and pentecostals and mormons and Muslims and neo-Hindus and Buddhists. I listen because peacemaking and reconciliation are in my blood. (If I understand, then can I help?) And I can tell you--with certainty--that the Church in America isn't always listening to its own members or to "outsiders." It turns out that its members are as guilty as anyone else about making assumptions about Those Who Are Different. For instance, sometimes when #metoo says--We're broken. We hurt. We want justice--the American Church hears: We hate men. Sometimes, when pro-choicers say, We're afraid of the government dictating what can and can't happen in our bodies when our lives are on the line, the American Church hears: We want to murder babies.  There is so much tragically lost in translation.

But then, there's the American Church that is listening. There is the American Church with powered antennas picking up on the voices of people who will experience the Church's love only when their voices are heard and understood, when the nuanced storylines of their lives are seen and honored rather than forced into formulaic narratives. There's the American Church writing books and doing podcasts and sending money, organizing movements and amplifying voices so more of the Church can hear and understand the heart of the problem for, for instance, women who say they feel they have no choice.

I have a friend who went to Israel so she could listen and be part of reconciliatory conversations between Palestinians and Israelis. A few years later, she took some vacation days and spent it bearing witness south of the border when the refugee caravans began flooding in. And she let us know about it, let the rest of us see and hear through her eyes and ears, bearing witness to the importance of the humanitarian treatment of precious lives. She listened.

If we understand, then can we help?

(Love and Fear)
American Church people are some of the  most loving, patient, sacrificial, generous, hospitable people I have ever known, the most like Jesus I have ever seen. Its members took in teen-aged me for family dinners and birthday parties and sleepovers and coffee dates when my family was fragmented. Its members visited me when I was sick,  stood by my bedside in a hospital, watched my children, cleaned my kitchen, moved my belongings across town, fed me, nurtured me, counseled me, made space for me.

And yet it turns out that its members are, after all, people. Called to a divinely inspired love of God and neighbor, yes, but often blinded by prejudice, deceived by foolish thinking, misdirected by us-versus-them ideologies and bad theologies. Its members are, after all, people in process of becoming--like Jesus, like Love. Depending on the stage of the journey, you'll see more or less of Love.

When I have to explain the worst behavior of its members to myself--the shouting, the picketing of funerals, the signage indicating hell-as-final-destination--I am reminded of the disciple John's words: There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear. It makes sense, then, to think that the American Church's most scary members are those most afraid, those least in touch with Love. In their fear--of God? of punishment?--they terrorize, they punish, and this looks like hate.


Writers of the New Testament describe the Church as a body in process, in the same way that its members are in process, on a journey--one of leaving behind and taking up, one of putting to death and coming to life. And so when I look around and I see this dark-and-light, unity-and-division, this listening-and-deafness, this love-and-fear, it's indicative of where the Church--or this American pocket--is on its journey, and it's a macrocosmic version of tensions inside any local church and inside of any one believer, inside me.

I and so many of my people are still figuring out what it looks like to major on majors and minor on minors, bonding over the central core message of Jesus and letting peripheral issues fall away. We're still figuring out how to put to death fears and prejudices and judgments. Still learning how to listen and love and speak and exercise silence. And getting it wrong all the time. In trying to reconcile, we may alienate. Despite all our listening, we may not speak up or out at the right times. And despite all  our love, sometimes we're afraid.

My hope is in what happens when people stay connected to Jesus--source of all nutritive wisdom, strength, healing, humility, sacrifice--Jesus who celebrates and reforms us if we'll let him lead us like the Good Shepherd I believe he is.

*Even pastors have pastors. Mine comes in the form of my network superintendent.