“That they may be one…. that WE may be one…”
I stood with friends on the street above listening to the heartfelt strains of Amazing Grace rising up to us from the River Walk below. Perhaps a hundred or more had made their way — crowding into the patio of the Bier Garten in San Antonio for “Beer and Hymns” — one of the culminating events from our time together at the Festival of Homiletics. We hadn’t planned to go, knowing that only a fraction of the 1800 preachers who had gathered for the week would find room. Still, for a moment, my heart joined in as I listened to the boisterous voices of brothers and sisters I had sat alongside in those last days: Presbyterians and Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ and more. We were one, for a time, in all ways that mattered. One in our hunger and in our hope. In our struggle and in our joy. One in a faith which binds us to Christ and to each other. A unity which was surely represented in that joyous singing, which, for a little while, was there for all the world to hear — or at least that part of the world which paused on the River Walk in San Antonio on Thursday night.
Perhaps we experience this unity best in song for music can be rooted in a kind of muscle memory which goes deeper and maybe stronger than our theological articulation. And that is as good a place to start as any, it seems to me, at we wonder at what it is to be ‘one’ as Jesus and the Father are ‘one.’
For unity does not come easy these days, does it? For oh, a few days ago I sat next to a Disciples of Christ pastor from Phoenix — a city which lies at the front lines of that which tears at the fabric of our unity. For it is so that conversations about immigration there are so much more than conversations. Indeed, she spoke to me then of how her congregation is divided along political lines and of her struggle to serve as pastor to them all. I resonated with her words knowing that I serve the same ‘place’ — though thousands of miles away and where the presenting reasons for our division can perhaps be more easily ignored. For now.
No, unity does not come easy these days does it? And yet, it is so that it never has. In fact, just this morning I opened up the Chicago Tribune to an article entitled, “Before Roe v. Wade, Chicago Clergy Helped Women End Unwanted Pregnancies.” Indeed, we are reminded in this piece that this particular debate, leading to division among the faithful, has gone on for as long as any of us can remember and still does. Even so, in these days, unity somehow seems harder to find than ever. It is easier to label and attack or avoid and retreat to commiserating conversations with those who think like I do, whose world views are much the same as mine. Indeed, I paused a few days ago on a high school classmate’s Facebook Page. Her father has just died. She will be traveling home to bury him in the days to come. But I found I had to work hard to see beyond the angry, divisive rhetoric of many of her other posts to remember one whose present grief is as real as any I have ever experienced and probably a whole lot like my own at one time. I had to work hard to remember what binds us together rather than what clearly separates us.
And yet, it is important to remember that the unity Jesus speaks of now is not necessarily uniformity. Rather it is one that binds us together across our differences. All of our differences. And yet one hardly knows where to begin. So maybe it is not such a bad thing to start with the common joy of a shared hymn. Perhaps music can begin what little else can do as we find our voices and know them to blend with and even complement those who stand beside us. For such music is itself prayer, is it not? And in such ‘muscle memory,’ maybe we also can remember other things which hold us together: our common hopes for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren. Our confident yearning for lives of safety and opportunity. The need we all have for hope — in this life and beyond. Indeed, such singing may not be the answer, but it is a start, isn’t it? Both sign and promise of all that God holds with us and for us now and into an unknown future?
At least that is where I am starting this week. For if we can sing together, as one, maybe soon we can talk together, pray ever more deeply together, dream together, hope together, work together. Maybe then we can begin to reflect the sort of unity Jesus prays for today.
- What do you think? As we seek to explore, experience, understand and build upon our Unity in Christ, does it make sense to begin with shared hymnody? Why or why not?
- What does it mean to you to be ‘unified across our differences?’ How have you experienced this? Or have you?
- Jesus speaks of this unity as a kind of ‘protection?’ He doesn’t say from what, so you and I are left to fill in the blank. From what might this unity protect us? For what might this unity protect us?