Celebration in a divided world

October 18th, 2022

That They May Be One

As Jesus prepared for his own death, he prayed for his disciples and all the people who would come to love and follow him throughout time.

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:20-26)

In this prayer, Jesus names the one sign and wonder that will convince our neighbors that the gospel is trustworthy and true. What is that sign and wonder? It is a public demonstration of the love that binds Jesus and the Father together, which now binds together all who love and follow Jesus. Whether we like it or not, whether we feel it or not, whether we know it or not, we are all bound together in Jesus’s heart. To live in that truth is to present to our neighbors an alternative vision for life on planet earth, one in which all the old divisions caused by sin, all the phobias and isms attached to embodiment, geography, economic status, politics, and nationality, are healed. In our current situation, the vision of a community that models the new creation may seem like an impossible dream. Yet the new creation here, now, in our mortal lives and not just in heaven someday, is what the gospel is all about. Jesus has already shown us the way of transformation.

What is the method God has given for the transformation of the world? How do we do this? By living the great hymn of self-emptying that Paul quoted in his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave. (Philippians 2:5-7)

By becoming self-emptying communities of Jesus followers who live, work, and serve for the flourishing of our neighborhoods. By reflecting within our communities of faith the healing of every sinful division that fractures our society. By finally, for the first time in history, sustaining in real life the extraordinary vision that the apostle Paul described in his letter to the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).

God’s way, the spiritual way, is simple but not easy. In order to cultivate the kind of community that Jesus prays for in John 17, we must die to many things. We have to give up—day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment—our little fiefdoms, our petty preferences, our exaggerations, our bigotry, our resistance to mercy, our vindictiveness, our craving for attention, our hiding from our own gifts and call, our narcissistic visions of church, our disrespect for ourselves and one another, our bland cooperation with whatever is easy, our laziness, our lack of self-awareness, our active and passive aggression, and our religious violence. There is so much more that could be said. Paul summed it up as “the works of the flesh,” and by “flesh” he meant self-serving behavior that harms both self and others.[1]

The Greek word translated “flesh” is sarx, a multifaceted word that in this context means flawed human nature that is prone to wrong choices. Robert Robinson captured the meaning of sarx perfectly in the third stanza of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”[2] What the world needs from the church in order to know that the gospel is true and real and worthy of their lives is for us Christians to own, name, and repent of our love of sarx and then to choose to be communities that answer Jesus’s prayer in John 17. We must do this for the sake of our neighbors and for the sake of our own souls.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What are the societal divisions that seem to be most pressing in your own neighborhood? your town or city?
  2. In what ways does your faith community struggle with the fragmentation that is found in wider culture beyond the church? How does your faith community resist the fragmentation? Are there ways that your faith community accommodates the fragmentation?
  3. As you imagine your faith community becoming more of a self-emptying congregation that helps its members’ neighborhoods flourish, what are some of the opportunities for ministry? What are the obstacles to this ministry? How might the congregation move toward overcoming the obstacles? What are the next steps?
  4. Jesus prayed that his followers in the future would love one another in the same way that Jesus and the Father love each other. How might Christians who have different theological views find practical ways to become more loving and supportive of one another?
  5. Throughout this book we have examined the ways and reasons we can practice the spiritual discipline of celebration throughout the challenges of life. How can our way of being in a divided world cause God to celebrate? 

Islands of Sanity

Margaret Wheatley, an expert in organizational behavior and systems change, writes compellingly about what is needed during times of massive systems change within society, which is precisely where we find ourselves today. According to Wheatley, as our society devolves into further fragmentation, violence, and death, what is needed is for people of wisdom and spiritual discernment to form small communities that exist as “islands of sanity” amid the chaos. These islands become beacons of hope and a vision for a better future so that a new society can emerge from the wreckage of the old.

Yet the formation of these islands of sanity, or communities that exist for the sake of others, is not guaranteed. Such communities require a particular type of leadership that is oriented away from what the apostle Paul named as sarx. Such leaders are spiritually attuned, grounded, self-aware, authentic, and willing to pay the price. They are self-differentiated and nonanxious even in the midst of the anxiety of systems change.[3] Margaret Wheatley, who is not writing from an overtly religious perspective, describes asking this question every time she meets with global leaders to discuss seemingly insurmountable problems in their contexts: “Who do you choose to be for this time? Are you willing to use whatever power and influence you have to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere?”[4] These are precisely the questions for us Christians as we consider the call to celebration in the midst of a divided world.

Available from MinistryMatters

Civility and Celebration in a Divided World

One of the toughest challenges facing our society today is loss of capacity for civil discourse over matters that concern our nation. An example of this problem is lack of civility in our institutes of higher education, on college campuses, even in graduate schools and yes, sadly, even in theological seminaries. What is civility? Does civility, as its detractors claim, hamper intellectual freedom? Quite the opposite. Civility is the ability to engage in lively, vigorous debate in which people interrogate a range of perspectives about any number of issues while maintaining a respectful climate in which the discussion takes place, whether in real time and physical space or digitally. Civility rejects demonizing those with whom we disagree. Civility refuses the cowardly and cruel practices of bullying, online character assassination, undermining others’ credibility with narrative “spin.” Civility eschews the use of innuendo, threat, manipulation, and other tactics that are all too common among knowledge workers in shame-based departments and schools.

Today on campuses, individuals and groups act out hostilities against one another in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading professional journal for people who work in higher education, has published dozens of articles in recent years on topics such as faculty incivility; faculty bullying of colleagues and students; administrators and faculty who were harassed and driven from their posts because of clashes between student expectations of safety over against freedom of speech by invited lecturers; academic freedom used as an excuse by tenured faculty for creating a hostile work environment against untenured, minority, or female colleagues; students demanding to have trigger warnings before lectures and designated safe spaces where they will not be challenged by others with opposing views.[5]

Restoring the art of civility will be essential in order to save educational institutions from self-destruction. Without skill in civility, future leaders will not be able to lead negotiations toward justice and peace. The world will become increasingly violent. Thus one of the most pressing questions for those of us who are leading innovation in higher education is how to model and teach the art of civility in the core curricula. Writing for Edutopia, Daniel Levitin describes an innovative new program, Minerva Schools, at the Keck Graduate Institute of Claremont Colleges. “Preparing to succeed in an era of uncertainty requires developing your intellect, building your character, and learning practical capabilities,” states the banner on the school’s website.[6] At Minerva Schools the learning experience is designed to produce leaders who practice civility as a way of life explicitly to make the world a better place:

So that they can succeed in this interconnected world, we teach our students to develop a sensitivity to different cultural norms as well as an ability to work with people from very different backgrounds, with varying viewpoints and experiences. Much of this is woven into the fabric of our student body; our students come from more than 60 countries and a wide range of socioeconomic, ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. Through these experiences, Minerva students learn to evaluate the ethical and moral consequences of their decisions and to try to make the world a better place for the sake of doing so—not because they might get recognition.[7]

Beyond emerging innovation within academia, programs that foster positive social change such as The People’s Supper are gaining traction even as society spirals into worse chaos and fragmentation. The People’s Supper is a structured dinner with conversation that reminds me of table fellowship as practiced by Jesus. By gathering people with radically different backgrounds, views, political commitments, races, sexual orientations, and religions around a dinner table with carefully developed conversation practices, The People’s Supper teaches practices of hospitality, deep listening, and nonviolence. It helps people form genuine relationships while breaking bread. “Social change moves at the speed of relationships. Relationships move at the speed of trust,” states the banner on their website.[8] While not an overtly religious organization, The People’s Supper programs are being used increasingly by congregations, theology schools, and other religious organizations in order to reclaim their forgotten practices of deep listening, genuine hospitality, and speaking from a heart of love.

The New Creation

As we move further into the twenty-first century, the kind of miracle that will draw postreligious, nonreligious, and anti- religious people into a life-giving relationship with God will be signs and wonders of reconciliation. Our neighbors need to see, in the church and in our neighborhoods, intentional processes of reconciliation specifically between all the groups in which toxic religion has fueled hate and violence. To put it bluntly, our neighbors need to experience love in action, from us, for their sake. It is time for us to be filled with the Spirit of Christ, which will then “[become] flesh and blood, and [move] into the neighborhood,” as The Message states in John 1:14.

Explaining what kind of attitudes and actions will create this kind of future, the apostle Paul wrote these words:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-20)

This is the ultimate form of celebration for followers of Jesus—to serve as ambassadors of reconciliation, to be full participants in God’s mighty work of making all things new. Every thought, word, and deed that opens ourselves and others to God’s reconciling, re-creating love pushes back the powers and principalities, sings the dead to life, and drives gloom away with glad tidings of great joy. So it is that our anthem of celebration echoes the joyous words of Isaiah 61:10-11:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

Questions for Reflection

  1. How have you experienced or witnessed polarization in your own social context? How, if at all, has it affected your faith community?
  2. When you think about eating dinner with people with whom you have strong disagreements about religion, politics, or morality, what do you feel? What do you imagine would happen?
  3. Think about the binary labels conservative and liberal. How do these labels limit ourselves and others and contribute to incivility?
  4. What might be good ground rules for a discussion in which people hold very different views yet conduct themselves with civility?
  5. How does the practice of civility lead to celebration?
  6. What is the relationship between civility and love of neighbor?


Excerpted from The Healing Practice of Celebration by Elaine A. Heath. Copyright © 2020 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Galatians 5:19-21 and elsewhere.

[2] Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), no. 400.

[3] For an excellent resource on nonanxious, self-differentiated leadership during systems change, see Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury, 2006). A fine little animation that summarizes this book may be found on YouTube: Mathew David Bardwell, “Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership Made Simple,” November 10, 2010, https://www.you tube.com/watch?v=RgdcljNV-Ew.

[4] Margaret J. Wheatley, Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2017), Kindle edition, 11.

[5] For just a small sampling see Karin Fischer, “College Founded by Yale and National U. of Singapore Cancels Program on Dissent,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 18, 2019; Megan Zahneis, “I Don’t Think We Should Be Afraid of Protests: Marquette Faculty Members Speak Out Against Policy Requiring Approval for Demonstrations,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 29, 2019; and Terry Nguyen, “I Was Sick to My Stomach: A Scholar’s Bullying Reputation Goes under the Microscope,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 30, 2019.

[6] https://www.minerva.kgi.edu/.

[7] Daniel Levitin, “A New Model of Higher Education,” Edutopia, June 22, 2018, https://www.edutopia.org/article/new-model-higher-education.

[8] https://thepeoplessupper.org/.

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