Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Magnificent Opportunity

On her blog comments, Viola Larson wrote: Clay I would like to see you enlarge on this, "We have a magnificent opportunity to witness to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ if we can find a way to keep Christ in the center of progressives and evangelicals." And please say exactly what you mean.

This blog has been enlarging on this subject for the past few months. So, now I will attempt to define the opportunity in front of us. The structure of this definition is: thesis, illustration, application.

THESIS:We have an opportunity to prove to this culture that those who have every reason to fear/avoid/antagonize each other can live in the love of Christ together. We can be one Body, even when we are unable to be of one mind.

ILLUSTRATION: In the early 1970's, Federal courts ordered the desegregation of schools across the USA by forced busing. In 1975, the first African-American family walked through the doors of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church. Protected and discipled by their pastor, Tom Currie, they rooted in the congregation, and soon were joined by other African-American families that were moving into the neighborhood.

As people yelled epithets at each other, whites literally gave away their homes to escape "them," stores closed, malls failed as whites "gave up" on the south of Dallas, kids-- both white and black--endured gauntlets of abuse entering strange schools they were told to attend, Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church continued to become more colorful. Sure, there were times when a black man walked into the men's room to catch the end of a "n---- in the woodpile" joke; there were people who left because "they weren't comfortable anymore," or "it's too long a drive" from where they moved up north.

As Dallas, like every other city in the US tore itself apart in the whirlwinds of social change, OCPC prayed together, worshipped together, ate together, cried together, rejoiced together. After 35 years, the congregation is still stably 45% African-American, 45% Anglo, and now 10% Hispanic as the neighborhood begins to change yet again. It is a lighthouse of hope to all who look to education as a leg up, to all who need the love of family in Christ. We are an anchor of hope and stability for those black neighbors who now fear the new folks moving in-- we can say to them, "it can be done. The blood of Christ really does cleanse all sin-- so what if they speak another language? We can find a way to be community together. We've done it before, we can do it again."

No one was asked to betray their culture; the only assimilating power was the love of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, a higher allegiance than culture or clan. In that higher allegiance, we have found not only hope for us, but for all of our neighbors-- we have found Good News that is good news to anyone with eyes to see, or ears to hear. Walk in to worship with us, and you can SEE our mission.

APPLICATION: What if we could find a way to live and worship, to love, cry, rejoice together in Christ our highest allegiance? What if, instead of dividing as this "Big Sort" set of generations prefers, we held on to one another, even--ESPECIALLY-- when we cannot agree with, or even understand one another? What if, instead of leading the yelling in this culture, we prayed with each other? What if we trusted one another because we trusted Christ, not because it was logical or easy?
SO, the next presbytery meeting you go to, (if you're like me) find someone wearing a rainbow stole, and share your heart with them, and ask them to share their heart with you-- and then pray. Look at the face of the person who is speaking ill of you and love them as Christ loves them; don't water down what you believe, but speak it in love, and expect to learn something from what you hear in return. In humility, regard the person who disagrees with you as better than yourself.

We have a magnificent opportunity to be Christ's witness in the way that we love one another. Is that clear enough, Viola?


  1. Amen and Amen, Clay! To anyone who doubts that it can be done, I hope and pray that you will attend worship at OCPC and see it in action! In my almost 75 years it is the only place I have seen people live as Jesus commands - as brothers and sisters!

    In Christ's Love,

  2. Clay,
    I am going to answer your response on my blog as well as here. I am bothered by the direction you are taking. Let me explain. And ask some more questions.

    Are you equating the problems that led to the civil rights movement, which is racism, with the difficulties in the Church surrounding the disagreements over ordaining practicing homosexuals? And if so, do you equate those Christians who believe it is unbiblical to ordain practicing homosexuals with those people who were racists. If you do make that equation, you are in a different place than I am and you are not hearing what I am saying. And, if you are not making that equation than you need a different analogy.

    I know that you want there to be unity in the Church and I applaud your wish. But there is more than unity at stake, there is also upholding the Lordship of Jesus Christ and also faithfulness to the authority of Scripture. And after all unity is only formed when there is obedience to Jesus Christ and his word, where he is Lord.

    Let me say (write) that I believe that we must all love those we disagree with, that is a given. Failing to love and care for anyone is unchristian. But there is more to be said than that.

    Whenever I read what you have been writing lately, and it is always about getting along with each other, I start thinking about the C.S. Lewis Narnia story The Silver Chair. The Marsh Wiggle is one of my favorite characters. When the witch in the story tries to overcome the children and the Marsh Wiggle with her magic powder, soothing music, and quiet seducing voice the Marsh Wiggle steps his foot into the fire so the smell of burnt Marsh Wiggle will wake them all up. It is painful but it works.

    You write, “What if we trusted one another because we trusted Christ, not because it was logical or easy?”

    That statement is a real problem. We do not trust others as we trust Jesus Christ; we should not trust others just because we trust Jesus Christ. We should trust others because of the integrity they show, and part of that integrity is their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

    During the Nazi years Bonheoffer wrote,” Trust will always be one of the greatest, rarest, and happiest blessings of our life in community, though it can emerge only on the dark background of a necessary mistrust. We have learnt never to trust a scoundrel an inch, but to give ourselves to the trustworthy without reserve.” I think this quote is right. We must love, care, hope and reach out to others. This is our calling, but we must also be faithful to His Lordship. And sometimes that means we dare not trust. We dare not agree. We must admonish and call for repentance both for ourselves and for others.

    This part that you have written I agree with, “Look at the face of the person who is speaking ill of you and love them as Christ loves them; don't water down what you believe, but speak it in love, and expect to learn something from what you hear in return. In humility, regard the person who disagrees with you as better than yourself.” But I can only regard the other person, any other person, as better than myself because Jesus Christ is my only righteousness. I am a sinner but his grace has covered me. So I must also pray, hope, proclaim that his grace will lead the sinner away from her sinfulness even if that offends. Even if that means the world will be offended. Even if that means the unity within the Church seems to be torn asunder, although truly the unity of Christ's true body is always there.

  3. Viola,
    The difference when you are writing about Civil Rights and what I am saying is the difference between third-person voice and first-person voice.

    I'm not writing about abstractions-- I'm talking about the fear/hate/anger that divides individuals. Fear/hate/anger are not abstractions-- they are real violence. What motivates them may be different, but the result is the same. The tension in Dallas, in our neighborhood, was real. This people at OCPC lowered that tension, and found out that there was common ground IN CHRIST, yes in Christ-- on which to stand. How do you know that that ground does not exist now in our present tension? How will we ever know unless we can lower that tension?

    You are concerned with ends; I'm concerned with means. I am as concerned with HOW we do what we do as I am with WHAT we do. That is all that I have been saying. I CAN speak TRUTH in LOVE-- it can be done! Means determine ends-- violent means, even used to reach good ends, will in the end pervert the good they mean to achieve.

    As Frank Page so beautifully put it, "I'm against abortion; I'm just not angry about it." I'm suggesting that if we could not be as angry about what we stand for, we might find out that there IS enough ground to stand on, and wait for God to judge. I don't believe that that means I've caved; you may, but that's up to you.

  4. Clay,(I have put this on my blog also)

    I am not writing about abstractions either. I understand that your Church experienced tensions and more because of the civil rights movement, and that is good because people who did not want to go to Church with someone of a different ethnicity needed to change. There are plenty of Scriptural references that insist that we are one in Christ.

    However, I believe you are writing about apples and oranges and I also believe that your analogy is a poor one for at least two reasons. First, if all of those in the Church had not at some point agreed that all ethnic groups should be members as well as leaders in your Church it would have stayed a racist Church. Second the sin of practicing homosexual sex is not the same as being of a different ethnic group. One is a sin the other certainly is not.

    This is not to say that we should not be loving and kind to those who push for the ordination of practicing homosexuals. But it is to say that it isn’t a problem of unity between the two sides but rather it is a problem of obedience or disobedience. We cannot be in unity if one side’s view of the authority of Scripture is less than biblical or their view of the Lordship of Christ is faulty. And the fact of the matter is no matter who is right or wrong on this and several other issues such as Christology the divide between us within the PCUSA is very great and one can only call for kindness and civility between the two sides. But in my mind to call for unity is to call for compromise. That is why I asked you to say what you meant by your original statement.

    “We have a magnificent opportunity to witness to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ if we can find a way to keep Christ in the center of progressives and evangelicals.” How do you keep Christ in the midst of two groups who often do not share the same view of Jesus Christ or his word?

    And even if we did how would that view of Jesus Christ be a witness to anybody? It isn’t about unity with progressives it is rather about loving others no matter what.

  5. Viola--
    You are the one talking about unity. I have not. OCPC was not unified for a long time; a sort of quiet truce held. Two different groups held different views of what the future of the whole would be, and they struggled to wait to see what would unfold-- that took 30 years. And both sides turned out to be wrong.

    I am not advocating for unity-- I am advocating for a cessation of open hostilities. We keep Christ in our center, we stand in the center, then Christ stands in the center with us. We do not trade evil for evil, we trust the God of history, and we preach the Gospel. Let the progressive preach as eloquently and as forcefully as he/she can. To trust the God of history is to trust that God is not mocked-- what you sow, that you shall reap.

    There is no discipline in this Body. To sit in the mud and demand it is to demand that God change the course of history. We are where we are, and there is no persuasion possible across this divide.

    OCPC's witness for 30 years was simply a willingness to stay-- certainly not united, but not openly hostile, either. What would have happened if, as this culture divided 150 years ago, the churches had not? Not that they would have agreed with one another, or that the division was not real in their midst-- but that they refused to allow open hostilities between Northern and Southern Christians. You say "one can only call for kindness and civility between the two sides" as if that is not something difficult, significant, or counter-cultural. I would hold that it is all of these, and more. It is all that I am calling for.

    Yes, that's idealistic, but who are we if we are not a people who strive to be our utmost for Christ's highest? That I will fail, I count as a given. I'm told to speak, I'm not told that anyone will have ears to hear.

  6. Clay,
    I do agree that it is "difficult, significant, [and] counter-cultural." And also our only option--and that is not to say that there might come a time when the split will be complete--but hopefully there will instead be renewal. Thanks for dialoguing with me.