I remember sitting in a class on 1 and 2 Corinthians in college and realizing for the first time that God designed the church so there would be unity amongst diversity. I think then, I mostly saw that truth in the context of spiritual gifts – that he dispersed differing gifts to each member of the body for the benefit of the whole. Of course, that’s a big part of it. But, I don’t know that I really caught a glimpse of and began to experience the full benefit of a church living in true gospel unity until these past few years.
I Can’t Grow Without Them
When we first came to CBC, we were eager to get involved in a community group. From the beginning, we loved the close fellowship the small group format afforded. It provided a quick way for us to get assimilated in our new church home. It didn’t take me long though, to love community group not just for the practical reasons of friendship and opportunity for service, but because I realized that I honestly couldn’t grow spiritually without it. And I mean that – I couldn’t grow spiritually without community groups. That’s a bold statement, so let me explain.
It has been said that Christian people are often educated far above their level of obedience. In fact, many churches follow an educational model of ministry that views its purpose to be primarily about teaching – Sunday School, Sunday Morning Worship, Sunday evening worship, and Wednesday evening service. Obviously preaching and teaching are vital. In the New Testament, Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the Word.” But, our functioning as a church goes beyond sitting in a pew and gaining more and more knowledge. James warns us, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says!” At some point, we have to start connecting the dots between what we believe and how it effects our lives on Monday morning when we’re late for work, angry at our spouse, and overwhelmed by our to do list. If we aren’t applying God’s Word, James says we are in danger of being deceived. Deceived about what? Well, deceived about what we really look like spiritually. Deceived about our maturity and our growth in Christlikeness. And that’s where I was a few years ago. I was well educated and versed in the Scriptures, but lagging behind in some significant ways because I wasn’t equipped to skillfully apply God’s Word to my life and wasn’t benefiting from seeing others do it too. So I needed the application oriented nature of community groups to spotlight those dark corners of my heart that I didn’t really want to deal with. But when I heard others humbly working through how fleshing out a certain truth from the previous week’s sermon applied to them in their specific situation of widowhood, single-parenting, stressful work circumstances, or different ethinic context, the Holy Spirit chipped away at my pride and kept me from deceiving myself into thinking I’m not a desperately wicked sinner with a lot of baggage to boot too. And that environment created a humble, interdependence among us.
I’m thankful for a church where it’s safe to be a sinner. I have needed the people in our community group these past years. I’ve needed their struggles, their transparency, and their gospel determination to grow. I have needed the benefit and sharpening effect week after week of living closely with people whom I have little to absolutely nothing else in common but Christ. I trust I am a more mature Christian now because sharing in their life experiences has had a completing effect on me and my spiritual perspective.
After a tearful prayer time during our last meeting a few weeks back, I looked around as people started to disperse. Jan was gathering plates and cups to throw away. Dave was taking out the trash and telling me he used the last trash bag, even reminding me I needed to get more by leaving the empty box on our counter. Carol was in the kitchen shutting off the oven I had absent mindedly left on for the past hour. I saw the beauty around me of a body selflessly caring for each other and realized we really were functioning like a family. We have spent the last several years together learning each other’s preferences and carrying each other’s heavy loads and it has made us love each other more than ourselves. That’s true gospel unity.
I Can Sing Harmony With Them
We have been blessed to have the Taylor family as part of our community group for about 3 years and they have added a deeper dimension to our gathering. Hope became a fast friend and we have shared suffering and sins, triumphs and trip-ups more times than I can count. We’ve wept bitter tears because we know too well that life is a battlefield even starting at birth. But we’ve rejoiced in great healing grace since, although we aren’t there yet, he’s taking us there. And I’ve confessed to her any step forward I take in my sanctification is with a limp. She knows what I mean. She been around my heart a time or two and loves me still and keeps raising the banner.
She’s of African decent with some Native American ancestry represented too. And in addition to everything else we’ve discussed, she and I, along with our community group as a whole on occasion, have had very candid conversations about ethnicity. So, Hope, my precious sister and dear heart-to-heart friend, this is for you.
Piper says he prefers the term racial harmony over racial reconciliation. And I have to agree with him. But what that doesn’t mean is that the majority culture sings the lead and the minority culture finds the harmony. Girl, you’ve taught me that and I hope by now you can hear me in the harmony. Better yet, I hope you know I can play the background.
I was against racism before I met you. But you have given my fight against racism a face. Employees on the elevator can’t ask you if your mammy put your hair in braids and expect me to take it. I’m not on their side just because my skin matches theirs. All our blood runs red and you and I have more in common because his red blood has run all over us. And so I listen and learn what it’s like to be one of the only African American families in a white church. I hear Thabiti say, “It seems to me that the one thing my fellow White pastors routinely underestimate is the tremendous social and psychological costs African Americans pay to be a part of non-Black congregations.” And I know you’ve counted the cost, my friend. You’ve taught me just as eloquently as Jasmine that black people aren’t just black, but cinnamon, and chestnut, and bronze, and their eyes aren’t just brown and their hair texture isn’t just coarse.
So I’m proud when my baby girl draws a picture of an African American with hazel eyes and when she asks if your kids are her cousins. And some people say Christianity isn’t about unity of the ethnicities, but if it’s not about that what in the world is it about? Because the last I read, the gospel is being preached to all the nations so one big diverse throng will be gathered before Him on that glorious day when some will realize they might do away with affirmative action but God has never needed it. Guess we better get used to harmonizing because in heaven the Lamb is all the glory and we’ll be playing background together with all of our fair and taupe, cinnamon, ebony, and beige hands raised to Him. And we’ll cry:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10)
We’ve already started, you and me and Matt and Andre, Carol, Jim, Wes, Jan, and Daynah, Marcy, Mark, Phil, Nancy, Kim, Dave, Amanda, Betty, Liz, and Rachel. And although our song is about to have an interlude, there are more people he has in this city for you guys to reach and for us to reach in our new one. There are more barriers of sins like racism and self-centeredness that the gospel is going to obliterate because that’s how powerful it is when we are on our 1-1-6. And I can’t wait until we are reunited and can see how our family has grown! Then we’ll be in our true home that he’s preparing for us all – not in Michigan, not in Florida, but in heaven. Maybe Dave will still be taking out the trash and Carol and Jan will be helping in the kitchen. Regardless, there won’t be any parting there, no sad good byes to share. And together we will be with the Lord forever!