A few Saturdays ago, on a bracing morning in downtown Chicago, a Reformed pastor quoted Bruce Springsteen to me in a little Catholic chapel. I felt as close to the Kingdom of God as I have in a long time.
The Spirit moved quietly, surely among the few of us gathered for a writers’ retreat. We recognized tones of grace, and a grasping for glory, in the lyrics of a man who once bought a guitar and learned how to make it pray.
In the moments before and after our rock and roll devotional, I passed small-scale portraits of saints I doubt I’ll ever pray to or adopt. And yet I long to know more about their faithful footsteps through this world, to hear testimonies from those who experience solace in their company. Gathering a few particular pieces of a much greater puzzle, my thoughts turned to unity—and how I once misunderstood it.
Straining to see my twenties, I confront a shameful reality. Purity, not unity, commandeered my thoughts. Any theology that felt even remotely foreign or suspect produced hives in hard-to-reach places. My discomfort manifested itself not in outrage or quarreling; instead, my eyes would drop to the ground, and my feet would step out a slow, steady Midwest shuffle toward the nearest exit. Fearing theological germs, a contamination by association, I beat my retreat and baptized myself for the millionth time in the words of those I considered right and true.
Fearing theological germs, a contamination by association, I beat my retreat and baptized myself for the millionth time in the words of those I considered right and true.
28-year-old me would no doubt shift his weight from one foot to another standing on that chapel carpet. Or I would feel the need to conclude any account of my experience with a few of my Protestant bonafides and a verbal shedding of anything that might cause alarm—or give me second thoughts.
The 38-year-old version of me sensed something special in that humble room as several Christian traditions showed up to shake hands over a few significant grains of truth. Tasting a bit of cosmic communion on my tongue, I remembered that, yes, the road to Jesus is narrow. But the tent God raises for his children feels surprisingly large from the inside.
The difference a decade makes: Now I read, follow, learn and converse beyond myself and my immediate circles. People within different denominations or spiritual movements.
People whose churches I might never attend, but who display the fruit of the Spirit in undeniable, compelling ways. People who make me thankful for, as Rich Mullins put it, a wideness in God’s mercy I cannot find in my own.
I mention this growing definition of community not to sound noble or even open-minded, but because some days my faith depends on it. Perspectives offered by anyone with whom I share the cross and table allow me to see an awesome God from new—and often ancient—angles.
Perspectives offered by anyone with whom I share the cross and table allow me to see an awesome God from new—and often ancient—angles.
A faith cultivated only by those who react, think, and worship just like me stops short of the manifold wisdom of God Paul preaches in Ephesians 3. I need other believers—even those I fear might be wrong about meaningful matters—to bring fullness and flesh to my image of God. Without their presence, I miss out on knowing something about what he’s like. I hope that my life, someone who is no doubt wrong about critical matters, offers the same.
Christian unity is never a zero-sum game, and I’m sad it took me a decade or so to see it. Perhaps we need time, time to lay foundations and feel at home, before leaving the front yard to spend time at the neighbors’ place. Author and historian Jemar Tisby once noted that, with a fortified faith, we need not fear spending time in the company of saints with whom we occasionally or often disagree.
Or maybe my former immaturity distinctly kept me stuck in the starting block, meters from a more generous orthodoxy. Either way, I thank God for brothers and sisters who reveal new depths and details, and for the minute length of holy ground they’ve helped me gain.
My gratitude still rests on those who debated, and even died, on behalf of the faith. May I never take for granted members of the early church councils, the Christians who cast their lot in with the always-reforming, those who reform the church even now with their calls to protect sexual-abuse survivors, divest from cultural whiteness, and embrace the weightier matters of the law. Clarity and change never come cheap.
Unity costs something too. Coming together, finding something lovely and praiseworthy in one another, might cost us our right to be right. We might spend a few degrees of confidence to gain mystery and nuance. Unity cost Jesus something too. The blood he shed and, at history’s darkest moment, the absence of his father adds up to a toll we must never overlook.
The reality of the unity established by Jesus widens our frame, helping us find contours of the Kingdom of God in something as big as the book of Revelation, as small as an unassuming chapel tucked into Chicago’s Lincoln Park. In light of Jesus’ sacrifice, we must circle back to one question: Do we fight so hard for lowercase truths that we deny the capital letters won on the cross? One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.