Rebecca Kates, former intern at The Colossian Forum, wrote a series of blog posts for us about millennials and how they see and pursue unity. Here’s part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five of the series. She recently graduated with a masters degree in Theological Studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, and we’re thrilled to share her insights with you.
A deep commitment to reconciliation may be the difficult work that begins to bring back this generation. The past century has seen great divisions but also great pushes toward reconciliation and often, young people have been the drivers. In the 60s young people were fed up with seeing the injustices of racial segregation and persecution (something which the church still needs to face). Michael Novak commented in 1969,
Segregation is a great human evil precisely because it is a narrow prison–a prison for both groups who are segregated one from another. Each segregated group settles for less than the full range of human possibilities. Each makes a clay god out of its own “way of life” and in the name of that idol cuts human aspirations down to size until each individual is mutilated enough to fit “in his place.”
–Identity and Intimacy. In A Theology for Radical Politics (p. 40). New York, New York: Herder and Herder New York.
When we are segregated from one another, we miss out on our full potential, which is something very important to young people. Though progress has been made in some areas of our culture to bring people together, there is a great deal more to be done. Segregation pops up in many forms. We are now more than ever separated from our neighbors. We have our private suburban homes, our own yards surrounded by a picket fence. We must drive everywhere we need to go, in our own cars, bypassing any opportunity to get to know our neighbors. The very structure of sprawling cities with no urban center promotes segregation. Similarly, our church experience is often just as segregated as the rest of our lives, as churches have split in so many ways as to allow everyone to choose what accommodates them. Perhaps young people leave the church because they aren’t experiencing the full range of human possibility that comes with diversity and reconciliation. Michael Novak further comments,
To some extent, a man needs at least two communities if he is to find himself. If he is a member of one community only, the inertia of human life seems to be such that his identity is handed to him too easily; social pressures tell him who he is. But expose a man to the possibilities of another community of life and instantly psychic energies are released, confusion arises, and the germs of creativity begin to multiply in the chaos.
–Identity and Intimacy. In A Theology for Radical Politics (p. 40). New York, New York: Herder and Herder New York.
So much life can be brought to a community when diversity and reconciliation is embraced. When we are confronted with big questions we are forced to either have faith in God or give up in despair. Though falling into despair is a risk, we never fully grow into the mature daughters and sons that God has called us to be without facing big questions and wrestling with differences. Several responses in the survey discussed in the previous blogs illustrate this point:
As members of different churches we have different approaches to the ways that we live our faith. Some of the comments, prayers and discussions that sisters and brothers from another denomination can bring forward are sometimes things we would have never thought about but that truly strengthen our faith.
Challenging but worth it. I continue to choose an ecumenical life because I can’t see my life without the richness of daily ecumenism. My Christian spirituality would be poorer without it. There are misunderstandings, carelessness, and insensitivity involved, but also so much depth. I HAVE to talk about certain theological and practical differences with my friends because I can’t take it for granted that we agree (or disagree!). … It challenges me to know my own tradition better, because I get asked about things regularly. If I were only around other Anglicans, I probably wouldn’t know Anglicanism as well as I do – because other Anglicans don’t ask me questions about it!
Our culture’s response to disagreements is often to embrace relativism or to segregate in order to not have to deal with the difficulty of working together. Though this is hard work, the students who participated in trying to live together in discipleship despite having lots of big questions found it overwhelmingly worth it. Many young people want to be challenged. They don’t mind when people do not have all the answers. They want to be at peace with the discomfort that diversity can bring, and perhaps more fundamentally, they want the commitment to one another that is stronger than the disagreements between them.
Rebecca Kates, former intern at The Colossian Forum, wrote a series of blog posts for us about millennials and how they see and pursue unity. Here’s part one, part two, part three, and part four of the series. She recently graduated with a masters degree in Theological Studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, and we’re thrilled to share her insights with you.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, … and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
— Sylvia Plath, the Bell Jar
Having worked a number of years in two different college ministries and attended a variety of conferences on youth ministry, I have often heard youth ministers (myself included) lament the lack of commitment of my generation and younger. Young adults these days move from place to place; they have so many choices that many struggle so much with choosing a path that they risk not committing to anything. This is proclaimed as one of the problems contributing to young people leaving the church or the difficulty of doing effective ministry among them. Lack of commitment makes this generation difficult to reach.
While it may be true that young adults have problems with commitment, the Church has itself struggled with commitment long before this generation came to be. In order to be committed to something, a person or church must have a good practice of reconciliation when disagreements inevitably arise. Instead, when things get tough, we have seen the church splinter in thousands of different directions.
Many churches may not see this as a problem because they focus on what Chris Rice and Emmanuel Katongole in their book Reconciling All Things call a “gospel of evacuation.” This gospel focuses almost exclusively on personal piety, well-being, and individual reconciliation with God rather than a gospel that transforms people and the brokenness of social realities and history. With a sole focus on personal piety and a person’s salvation only for an eternal afterlife somewhere else, the brokenness of much of church and society can be ignored. But the good news of the gospel is to bring shalom for all of creation -people, the environment, social structures, and more. Many young adults value authenticity and will use it as an excuse to not go to church because the rituals seem inauthentic to them. What they could be rightly pointing out is that the gospel the church proclaims is not being reflected in the churches seeking out reconciliation with others. Too easily we shut out people instead.
Rebecca Kates, former intern at The Colossian Forum, wrote a series of blog posts for us about millennials and how they see and pursue unity. Here’s part one, part two and part three of the series. She recently graduated with a masters degree in Theological Studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, and we’re thrilled to share her insights with you.
Over the past several months, a group of friends and I have engaged in a series of forums regarding issues important to Millennials in the Church. Topics have included poverty and economics, environmental issues, submission in the Church, and many more. These are topics that are extremely important to the Body of Christ in the present era, but the Church is by no means unified on the answers. For these forums, young people from many different denominations have been present as we enjoyed food and drink, laughed and prayed together. Many of our participants have expressed a feeling of excitement, belonging, and rejuvenation in the midst of these conversations. How is it that in the midst of what should be contentious issues, these people have found a sense of community and belonging? What is it about these experiences that people find good and life-giving?
In my previous blogs (read part one, part two, and part three), I discussed the great potential for the Church to grow in unity. I suggested that this could be the missing factor that could draw people of my generation back to the church. The question now is what are the benefits and challenges of engaging in this sort of exercise in ecumenism?
To explore this, I turn once again to the responses of over 300 young adult participants involved or previously involved in an ecumenical college ministry, University Christian Outreach. The participants came from a variety of nondenominational churches, Protestant, Roman Catholic and various Orthodox traditions.
The participants engaged in a number of ecumenical practices including communal prayer, worship, spiritual conversations, Bible study, meals, and living situations. The model practiced here is similar to a model of receptive ecumenism where participants brought their beliefs and Christian practices from their backgrounds that could enrich and not compromise other participants beliefs and practices.
These participants had overall agreement (86.6%) that knowing Christians from different denominations had drawn them closer to Christ. How did they build relationships and what obstacles did they have to overcome?
A major challenge mentioned by participants was overcoming misconceptions they had of others or others had of them. 72.08% of participants agreed with the statement, “I had one or more misconceptions of a different denomination before meeting someone from that tradition.”
Many of the participants’ misconceptions consisted of questioning the authenticity of another’s faith in Jesus based on how the person practiced or failed to practice various spiritual activities. Many did not understand the reason behind various practices. The following responses illustrate this:
I had the misconception that Protestants were more about obeying God because if they don’t they will burn in hell forever (as opposed to Catholics trying to do it more to please God and for love). I could overcome this prejudice by spending time, praying and worshiping with them to have an experience of my own which showed me that wasn’t the case. I have been able to overcome other similar misconceptions the same say, perhaps being the most important one my relationship with Mother Mary and also the importance of the Sacraments for me.
The biggest difficulty in building a relationship with my Greek Orthodox friend was not knowing different aspects of her faith. I did not understand why she had so many icons and why she prayed with them. I asked her a lot of questions about her denomination and she explained a lot of things to me. That helped us grow closer and overcome our differences with understanding.
Some even encountered other Christians doubting their salvation or relationship with Jesus:
I was once faced with a friend’s parents and uncles having some doubts about me being saved because I was a Catholic. I had dinner at their house quite often so over time I was able to share my faith, mostly through talking about my relationship with God through Jesus and my service to church. They asked many questions so I was able to share my thoughts. It was helpful. They recognized my sincerity and dedication to evangelism and I think that helped break down some of their doubts about Catholicism or at the very least my own salvation. The whole experience showed me that they were concerned more for me than what denomination I was a part of and that was nice. They also grew to respect me. We still have a mutual respect for each other. I think there was an openness and a humility on both parts to stick to the friendship long enough to get to the point of mutual understanding and respect.
Another difficulty that was fairly common for participants was facing triumphalist attitudes from other participants or feeling proselytized:
A challenge that I have faced and continue to face is the stance of many Catholics on the inherent superiority of their church. On an emotional and intellectual level, I can feel offended or slighted by this. Here again, building relationships of trust has been key–when I have Catholic friends who I know respect me and respect my relationship with the Lord and knowledge of him, I am encouraged to be able to move forward in relationship with other Catholics, despite the overall stance that I find off putting.
The biggest challenge I had was with some Eastern Orthodox. Though I adored many of their theological views, I often find dialogue strained by some of their exclusivist views on the Church. I found some EO believers who were more willing to believe that I, as a non-Orthodox Christian, am in the Church, but my heart was still broken about the majority who do not believe I am truly in the Church of Christ. Nevertheless, when I found out their willingness to be friends, and see the image of God in me, as well as their refusal to say I am bound to hell and that they were more than hopeful for my salvation, I found peace. It took listening, and it took humbling on my part to realize that our languages and worldviews are very different, but I am thankful we can at least all see God in one another.
[Challenges arose] when he/she was more interested in his/her doctrine and converting me than in Christ’s will!
Though some complained about people assuming they had triumphalist attitudes:
A lot of people assume that being a Catholic, I am not ecumenical, am arrogant about my tradition, and think all others are wrong. I find this a common misconception that people have towards Catholics. Sharing my testimony and about my relationship with Christ helps people see that it is not our tradition that defines us and the boundaries and characteristics about our relationship with Christ. Also telling them that I very strongly believe and encourage ecumenism is helpful.
Many, however, found the attitude of downplaying the importance of differences to be challenging as one respondent put it: “A frustrating notion that there are “no big differences”. Though many people found that they learned something from a Christian of a different denomination, the majority still believed that theological differences are important and that they are part of the tradition they believe is best. These sentiments are illustrated in the following survey results:
57.68% agree or strongly agree with the statement, “My church could learn from the doctrines of a different denomination.” 21.16% disagree or strongly disagree. 21.16% neither agree nor disagree.
61.17%, agree or strongly agree with the statement, “My church could learn from liturgical practices of a different denomination.” 18.56% disagree or strongly disagree. 20.27% neither agree nor disagree.
64.51% agree or strongly agree with the statement, “Theological differences between denominations are important.” 13.65% disagree or strongly disagree, and 21.84% neither agree nor disagree.
62.88% agree or strongly agree with the statement, “I am part of the denomination that I think is best.” 9.28% disagree or strongly disagree. 27.84% neither agree nor disagree.
The survey also sought to answer the question, “what practices can Christians engage in to foster unity? Which practices are the least helpful?”
A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
It’s easy to overlook or diminish the Christian practice of hospitality. After all, it’s not flashy, not usually very public, and not likely to appear on a meme that’s shared thousands of times on social media. But if done faithfully, it can be one of the most effective ways to orient our homes and hearts toward the kingdom of God.
In this week’s lectionary, Paul introduces us to Lydia, who he and his friends stumble upon when seeking a place of prayer on the Sabbath. She hears the Good News, is immediately captivated, is baptized (along with her entire household), and then insists that the traveling party stay with her family while in Thyatira.
Lydia’s first response to hearing the gospel is baptism. Her second is openness to these strangers. The two go together: we know Lydia received God’s hospitality because she now extends it to others.
How often do we link our baptismal identity with hospitality? When presented with a need, are we quick to open our homes and hearts? Or are we more likely to stay behind the comfortable walls and protective screens of our homes and phones?
God calls us to something deeper and richer. He invites us to respond with vulnerability and receptivity to the needs of others so that we might participate more deeply in the very life of God.
What would it mean for us to put this into action? What stranger do you need to invite into your life? How might we become the kinds of people who respond to situations like the refuge crisis with, “Yes! Come stay with me” instead of “Someone else will take care of it”?
While I’m still far from becoming such a person, I have been privileged to participate in God’s hospitality through the work of The Colossian Forum. We’ve seen over and over how receiving “strangers” in kindness and love often germinates into friendship and communion with one another and with God. This story in Acts reminds us that living as a disciple means responding to God’s hospitality by participating in it in all aspects of our lives.
My prayer this month is that our initial response as Christians when we encounter people who think and act differently from us would be to offer the hospitality that God first and still shows us.
This post is excerpted from our May prayer letter. To receive the prayer letter in your inbox, click on the button below.
My time at The Colossian Forum is coming to an end, and I invite you to pause with me, grieve what no longer is, celebrate what God has done over the past few years, and look expectantly to the future.
For me, working at The Colossian Forum has been an incubation space where I have been graced with a freedom to try new things, learn, and experience vulnerable community. Catching our vision for a transformed and renewed Church has provided me a new perspective that I will continue to carry with me: where conflict is opportunity, disciples are made in community, and the importance of spiritual disciplines in the path toward reconciliation.
The practice of praying with my co-workers each morning is one way I have experienced grace and gratitude–gifts that have formed me into the kind of co-worker and wife that is more patient and less fearful.
TCF, thank you for all the ways you’ve poured into me and given me new ways to use my gifts to serve others. Leaving this family is like being in a space between stories, as most seasons of change are. Despite the discomfort of this current space in my life, I’m hopeful that the Lord’s plans for myself and The Colossian Forum’s future will unfold with a sense of joy and awe at His incomprehensible love.
I leave you with these two quotes:
“So please, if you are in the sacred space between stories, allow yourself to be there. It is frightening to lose the old structures of security, but you will find that even as you might lose things that were unthinkable to lose, you will be okay. There is a kind of grace that protects us in the space between stories.”
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Jeanna Boase served as our administrative assistant here at The Colossian Forum for over three years. She is finishing her MA counseling degree from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and will be taking a full-time course load this summer. We look forward to seeing what doors open this fall as she wraps up her final class. God’s blessing to you in this new adventure, Jeanna; you will be missed!
Rebecca Kates, former intern at The Colossian Forum, wrote a series of blog posts for us about millennials and how they see and pursue unity. Here’s part one of the series and part two. She recently graduated with a masters degree in Theological Studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, and we’re thrilled to share her insights with you.
The forum model that The Colossian Forum teaches is another form of ecumenism. The task of The Colossian Forum is to testify to the truth that in Christ all things hold together. That all things hold together in Christ is something with which Christians agree. Through being united in this truth we can seize conflicts as opportunities to learn and experience how it is true that God is in control, is merciful and wise. Therefore we need not segregate ourselves from anyone who is different or disagrees with us the way the church so often has done. The freedom that we find in the truth that Christ holds all things together enables us to use our interactions as training grounds for growing in the fruit of the Spirit. Though we don’t all agree or like each other at all times, we can still achieve a form of unity under the guidance of the Spirit.
Why is this relevant right now? It is particularly relevant to me as a young adult living in a postmodern society. I often hear that young people are leaving the church in droves. I have been to so many churches that are on campaigns to bring my generation back by trying to be more appealing, oftentimes by attempting to incorporate more elements of popular culture into the services and church life. But what I think this generation is so tired of is the division and break-down of church community. Many churches do recognize the breakdown of community and try to rectify it, but oftentimes they fail to realize how deep the problems are and do not go to the extent of seeking reconciliation of churches and church members along political, economic, racial and theological lines.
Witnessing and experiencing deep reconciliation is something that could draw disillusioned young adults back to the church. In the Fall of 2013 I conducted a survey of over 300 members and graduates through age 30 of the ecumenical college ministry that lead the prayer meeting where I had my Revelation 7 moment. My goal was to learn about these students’ ecumenical experiences of getting to know Christians from different denominations. (The term “ecumenism” as it is used here means simply people from different Christian traditions practicing unity in various capacities.) The overarching consensus was that while there were challenges to practicing faith together with Christians from different traditions, it actually strengthened participants’ faith rather than weakening it. In response to the statement, “Knowing Christians from different denominations has drawn me closer to Christ,” 86.6% of respondents either agree or strongly agree. Similarly, 85.42% of respondents either agree or strongly agree with the statement, “praying and worshipping with Christians from different denominations increases my faith.”
In a time of anxiety on the part of the church over the engagement of the Millennial generation, it seems that there is an important counter-narrative to be told. Is it possible that it is disillusionment over division rather than apathy or boredom that drives young people from the Church? Is it possible that this hole in our witness is an opportunity to revitalize and build a more just Church that more fully shows the unity of the Body of Christ? The results discussed above show the passion that young people can have when Christians of different stripes seek to worship in unity. Could this passion translate to a revival in the Church? My next blog will further explore the experiences of these young people, revealing both the blessings as well as the challenges of seeking to live together despite our differences.
Rebecca Kates, former intern at The Colossian Forum, wrote a series of blog posts for us about millennials and how they see and pursue unity. Read part one of the series here. She recently graduated with a masters degree in Theological Studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, and we’re thrilled to share her insights with you. Look for more in the coming weeks!
Despite the disagreements, it seems that the church has made progress. After centuries of deep division, the 20th century saw great advances in ecumenism. The Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches issued a common declaration in 1965 to erase the mutual sentences of excommunication from 1054. The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999 expressing agreement on many points of doctrine regarding justification, which largely initiated the Reformation. The World Council of Churches was created in 1948 and has initiated many bilateral and multilateral dialogues among many denominations.
Advances in unity have occurred not only among church theologians but also among lay members. The church has come a long way, as Jacques Callot’s picture, “The Hanging,” reminds us. For much of history, Europe was divided in gruesome conflicts in which differences in Christian theology played a part. The church for the most part has laid down her physical weapons against each other.
At the Second Vatican Council Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint took ecumenism a step further and declared that it is the duty of every Christian to seek unity,
The Council calls for personal conversion as well as for communal conversion. The desire of every Christian Community for unity goes hand in hand with its fidelity to the Gospel. In the case of individuals who live their Christian vocation, the Council speaks of interior conversion, of a renewal of mind. – Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sum, 15.
With this call, for many Christians ecumenism (seeking Christian unity in some form) is now not only for church leaders, but for every Christian. There are many ways Christians can do this. Many charities and groups have been formed among members of different denominations. For some, the model may include coming together around the ‘least common denominator,’ as in members of different denominations will not bring any of their differences into the community and only what people share can be expressed. On the flip side, another model might be that people can bring into the community whatever difference they want and people who disagree with those practices or differences simply ignore them or practice a relativistic attitude towards it.
A model that fits more in the middle ground might be what John Paul II in Ut Unum Sum calls an “exchange of gifts.” An exchange of gifts is more than simply exchanging ideas in a theological dialogue, but rather finding ways for each member to complement one another. Avery Cardinal Dulles points to a conference in 2006 at Durham University as an example of this,
Conducting an experiment in what the conference called “receptive ecumenism,” the speakers were asked to discuss what they could find in their traditions that might be acceptable to the Catholic Church without detriment to its identity…Unlike some recent models of dialogue, ecumenism of this style leaves the participants free to draw on their own normative resources and does not constrain them to bracket or minimize what is specific to themselves. Far from being ashamed of their own distinctive doctrines and practices, each partner should feel privileged to be able to contribute something positive that the others lack. – Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Saving Ecumenism from Itself” in First Things, no. 178 (December 2007): 23-27.
In this model of “receptive ecumenism” or the “exchange of gifts,” groups do not need to find the least common denominator between them, but rather different members of denominations can bring things unique to their tradition, so long as it does not contradict another denomination’s beliefs. An example of this might be in an ecumenical setting, an Orthodox participant may not bring into the setting the practice of using icons in prayer, but could bring some of her practices of fasting.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
John 20: 19-21
Easter has come and gone. The Risen Christ stands victorious over sin and death, yet the disciples are still trying to make sense of things—much as we are, all these centuries later. Can it really be true? If so, what does it mean?
In the midst of the political and social unrest after the events of Holy Week, the disciples holed up together, afraid, unsure of their future. When Jesus mysteriously appears to the disciples in that locked upper room, the first words he says to his closest followers are “Peace be with you.” In our churches today, we often reduce the opportunity to “pass the peace of Christ” into a quick handshake and “g’morning” (wondering if there’s hand sanitizer close by).
But the peace of Christ offered to us is so much more. In the chaos following the first Easter, Jesus appears to his disciples and gives them a precious gift: peace.
Anxiety and worry are ever-present today. On the news. In our churches. In our homes. It can be crippling. But the Lord calls us to be present with him and take the holy peace that he gives freely to us.
After offering that costly peace, Jesus shows the disciples his wounds, wounds of death that he has overcome, and they rejoice in the fact that Jesus has risen indeed. Then Jesus offers peace yet again, but this time follows it with a call to action. As the Father sent him, so also he sends us.
It makes sense if you think about it: when we are crippled by fear, worry, and anxiety, we cannot actively embody Christ in our world. But once we accept and receive the freely-given peace that Christ offers, from that place of being present and fully trusting the Lord, only then are we sent to do Christ’s work in our world, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In our work at The Colossian Forum, we intentionally carve out moments of peace and worship throughout each forum. These moments of peace remind us that the core of this world, despite all appearances, is peace: a peace that has overcome all of our fears and conflicts and divisions. Because of the peace that Christ offered us, we are made—the deepest and truest sense—at peace with God and with one another, even if we happen to disagree about a particular divisive topic.
In those moments when we utter, “peace be with you,” we participate in the deepest truth of the world, the truth of God’s own inner life now extended to us through Christ’s body. Full of God’s own life and the reconciling power of the Spirit, we are now sent into a fragmented world with something to say: Peace be with you.
This post is excerpted from our April prayer letter. To receive the prayer letter in your inbox, click on the button below.
We have three small but noteworthy items to share in the life of The Colossian Forum:
2015 Annual Report
The Colossian Forum had a busy and fruitful 2015, and you can read about it in our annual report. We’re entering a season of growth and are so grateful to God and to all of you, our partners, to carry forward the message that all things hold together in Christ (Colossians 1:17).
Chris Brewer named Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Visiting Scholar
Chris, our manager of church partner development at TCF, was named a visiting scholar for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids. While a visiting scholar, he plans to explore how divisive issues in Christian communities might be addressed in and through the worship practices of the church. Congrats, Chris!
The Gathering Place webinar
Earlier this week, Michael Gulker presented a webinar on “Conflict as Opportunity” for The Gathering Place, a ministry of the Mennonite church for youth leaders. You can watch the webinar here as Michael unpacks learning to fight like Jesus in the age of Donald Trump.
Rebecca Kates, former intern at The Colossian Forum, wrote a series of blog posts for us about millennials and how they see and pursue unity. She recently graduated with a masters degree in Theological Studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, and we’re thrilled to share her insights with you. Look for more in the coming weeks!
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” — Revelation 7:9-12
On the island of Patmos, almost 2000 years ago, St. John the Apostle saw an amazing vision of Heaven where people from every tribe, nation and language gathered in unity to worship the Lamb, the son of God. I remember the closest I ever felt to experiencing a moment like this here on earth. While I was in college, the Holy Spirit inspired a group of a hundred students from a multitude of backgrounds and across the denominational spectrum to worship the Lamb together. Despite the fact that so many of us would be going to different churches on Sunday morning – Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic – in this moment we were able to set aside our differences and all acknowledge the worthiness of our God in praise. I remember stopping in the middle of this prayer meeting, looking around me and sensing in this time of worship a sweetness I had never experienced before.
Scripture attests to this sweetness that I experienced. The Psalmist declares, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) Jesus states, “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:19-20)
Why is it so special when Christian brothers and sisters come together in unity? Why does Jesus say that he is in their midst? Why has this experience been so rare for me and many others?
The answer to this last question is sadly all around us. It is the nature of sin to divide humans from one another. Even in the church we are divided politically, economically, racially, nationally, and theologically. Jesus commands that we love our enemies and yet we already struggle so much with loving even fellow Christians if they are from a different denomination or race or class. We live in a society where it is easy to not be committed to one another. It is easier to divide and segregate rather than the hard work of living together through thick and thin.
Growing in the virtues required for unity takes work. It takes regular maintenance and building of habits that often go against the grain of our sinful nature. But to not work towards unity is to ignore what was so dear to Jesus’ heart in his last priestly prayer on Mount Gethsemane: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21)
There is a sweetness in unity because unity does not come from homogeneity. Homogeneity is sameness not unity; it takes diversity to create unity. Unity is the bringing together of parts that are different into one without losing the uniqueness of each piece. The image of Revelations 7 shows that diversity is not erased but rather celebrated. When all our diversity aims toward the same end of praising and glorifying God our Creator and Redeemer, it is a mosaic with different pieces that form one beautiful image.
Many of our differences however have to do with what we believe to be true and right. Our beliefs about God and the church matter. At some point one Christian will be wrong where another is right. So what did Jesus mean when he prayed that his followers be one? Followers of Christ cannot even all agree on what it means to be one.
TCF’s Rob Barrett recently kicked off the series How to Stay in Conversation with “the Other Side” at the Do Justice blog. The series aims to help how to communicate about contentious issues in ways that build up the body of Christ, and we were thrilled to contribute to this important conversation.
Listening to Christian brothers and sisters certainly helps us understand where they’re coming from. Often we even start to sympathize with them. But what do we do after we start to understand someone we disagree with?
Many suggest that tolerance should be our goal. Difference is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but we allow space for others to chart their own course. Tolerance preaches agreeing to disagree, leaving each other alone.
But we at The Colossian Forum believe that Christians are called to something much better—and more difficult—than tolerance. We belong to Christ and to each other. We share a common life, which Paul likens to a body (1 Corinthians 12). Many of our differences are intentionally given to us by the Holy Spirit so that we can build up Christ’s body (vv. 7, 11). Our differences aren’t inconveniences to be tolerated, but gifts for our overall good. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” (v. 21). The eye doesn’t tolerate the hand. It loves and serves it.
But eyes think differently from hands. A healthy body coordinates its members across differences. We must listen to work together.
Thanks to our friends at the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice + Christian Reformed Centre of Public Dialogue for hosting us on the Do Justice blog!
Our winter 2016 newsletter is hot off the presses. Read about our Colossian Way pilots, dig deeper into why we dig into divisive issues, and some other updates about what’s going on in our fifth anniversary year.
Want to receive our newsletter? Let us know and we’ll add you to the list.
“Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” –Psalm 32:5
As our country is ramping up for a presidential election later this year, we see and hear many campaign ads trying to capture our attention (and vote) by featuring candidates and their sound bites. Most everyone will admit there’s a fair amount of image management in the world of politics with TV ads, for example, showing a candidate’s family on a joyful picnic in the park, not the real world of loud arguments and icy silences that happen in many relationships.
As Christians, we’re not immune to image management either. We can all likely remember a revelation shared within our church family that illustrated the hidden life of a brother or sister. And, moreover, who among us can’t recall a time when we’ve changed our behavior or hid our attitude before stepping into church or a gathering with other believers?
God doesn’t ask us to make all of our shortcomings and sins public, but he does instruct us that we are not to hide our sin from him. The act of confession is key to an open and honest relationship with the Lord. We have the gift of forgiveness already, but the confession of our sins helps us move away from image management toward the truth about who we are: sinners redeemed by God. Furthermore, when we our cease image management and confess our sin to others we testify to the bountiful mercy of a God who set aside his own righteous image to bear our sinful image on a very public cross.
Confession helps us become who we are called to be before the Lord – his witnesses. And when we’re fully present and honest with Jesus, we are most fully ourselves. Confessing not only our sin, but also Christ’s redemptive Lordship over our lives allows the fullness of this witness to naturally overflow into other parts of our lives. Confession, then, allows us to move beyond image management of election season into the Lenten season death to all false images and to the true hope of our glorious resurrection with Christ on Easter Sunday.
This post is excerpted from our March prayer letter. To receive the prayer letter in your inbox, click on the button below.
As part of engaging our thoughtful audience in areas of cultural engagement, conflict resolution, and deeper discipleship, we’re starting a new series here on the blog called Recommended Reads.
Each of our staff members will take turns sharing things that have piqued our interest. There are many varied interests represented on our team, and we’re excited to share those passions and insights with you, and give you a chance to get to know us better.
So look for Recommended Reads here on The Colossian Forum Blog the last week of each month. Enjoy!
The Friendship of Opposites
Like many, I was surprised to hear of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passing away so suddenly. This article from The Washington Post explored the friendship of Justice Scalia and Justice Bader Ginsberg, and there were many great parallels with our mission here at TCF.
In particular, this made me hopeful, “for Ginsburg their public friendship also made a statement about the court as an institution: that it was strengthened by respectful debate, that it could work no matter how polarized its members were.”
It’s tough in our increasingly polarized world, but if justices from different ideological sides can forge a friendship and use respectful dialogue in the highest court of the land, we can certainly do the same in our faith communities.
Working Better and Smarter
I am always looking for tips to work more efficiently and productively. I’ve read countless articles, taken quizzes, downloaded recommended apps, dutifully filled out prioritization plans, and tried setting goals for the year and the day. 98% of the time it was a complete and utter failure.
Well, guess what? Work productivity is directly tied to the types of people we are. This article was illuminating in defining and outlining your personal productivity style (and yes, there’s a quiz). I’m also making my way through the book Working Simply, by the same author, Carson Tate.
A looser time management schedule works for me (I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique at work and have been much more efficient and less overwhelmed) and now when I find my energy lagging, I go for a quick walk outside. It’s been tremendously helpful, and hopefully it will give some insight and encouragement to you as well.
We’re thrilled to introduce you to the brand new website for The Colossian Way! You can visit it at www.colossianway.org and read more about wicked problems and Christian virtues, and see how they fit together. There’s a fantastic video for you to watch (and share, if you’re so inclined), plus stories from the groups piloting The Colossian Way in their churches and schools.
We invited ten groups to pilot The Colossian Way, a series of curricula that enables small groups in churches and schools to face into a divisive topic like origins or sexuality in an effort to move beyond diversity, holding truth and love together.
More specifically, the goals of the curriculum are to:
- Pursue truth by engaging difficult problems
- Practice loving God and neighbor amidst difficulties
- Witness the body of Christ held together
The pilot groups include: All Soul Church (Knoxville, TN); Calvary Christian Reformed Church (Wyoming, MI); Campus Edge Fellowship (East Lansing, MI); Fellowship Reformed Church (Holland, MI); First Baptist Church (Jackson, TN); First United Methodist Church (Mechanicsburg, PA); Front Range Christian School (Littleton, CO); Pillar Church (Holland, MI); Sherman Street Church (Grand Rapids, MI); and Southside Vineyard (Wyoming, MI).
Over the course of the next five months, you can read their stories at www.colossianway.org.
This week, TCF staff members enjoyed a sneak peek at the new book The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson. This opportunity included an insightful Q&A with the authors at a gathering sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
In their book, the authors intentionally work to connect justice to the heart and character of God, and show how such a connection gives hope and lays the framework for tangible practices to help believers grow their passion for justice.
The authors note, however, that like many things born out of passion, it can be a challenge to move a fervor for justice to something sustainable in our Christian walk. The Justice Calling, therefore, gives guidance for grounding this passion in the spiritual practices of lament and Sabbath rest, and invites readers to engage with key biblical concepts such as righteousness, flourishing, and sanctification. The book also contains an especially riveting section on being saints and not heroes.
The authors invite us to change questions of justice from, “What can we do about immigration, poverty, human trafficking, caring for creation, etc. within our church?” to “What would it look like for our church to flourish in the midst of engaging these issues?” This subtle shift in framing invites believers to integrate the work of justice into the fabric of their church versus treating it as something separate, outside the normal currents of the community.
The Justice Calling also reiterates that the church is designed to be a place of deep formation that sends people out. The role of the church is not merely to receive spiritual information, network, send, and equip, but to imaginatively form us. Our work here at The Colossian Forum is based on a similar vision and we are grateful for the way this book invites us to renew that call.
As we begin this season of Lent, you might consider traveling with this book over the next 40 days. We believe it could be transformative for you and your community as you consider how to live into the Lord’s call for justice.
A reader’s guide for the book is also available providing more insights and helpful questions for each chapter.
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18
As we move into the season of Lent during this bleak mid-winter, we’re reminded of the stark reality that despite all of our résumé virtues, our lives are symbolized by decidedly unremarkable ash.
God forms us from ash, and we become ash when we leave this earthly life. All of us have this same end. Yet, Jesus transforms our ash in the laying down of his life for us in the distant and yet very present Easter. His doing so gives us both the ability and courage to lay down our lives not just for Jesus, but for his body as well. We do this knowing that ash is not our final destination, but the opportunity to witness to the overcoming of death.
Here at The Colossian Forum, we believe that the laying down of our lives in the midst of conflict creates a space for God to do a new thing. When we trust that all things do hold together in Christ, the transformative work of the Holy Spirit helps us lay down our lives and in so doing, new creation sprouts from the ash.
That is our prayer for the 10 groups piloting The Colossian Way curriculum right now. We invite you to read some of their stories here.
Thank you for joining us on this journey of transformation and hope. Please pray with me during this upcoming season of Lent as we look for ways to lay down our lives.
This post is excerpted from our February prayer letter. To receive the prayer letter in your inbox, click on the button below.
We’re always humbled here at The Colossian Forum when God uses our mission and ministry to spark hope in unexpected ways.
In a world with polarizing political debates, tense family dinners (even if we can play Adele’s Hello at opportune moments), and churches divided on key cultural topics, it’s tough to see through the mess to the hope that Christ provides.
Here’s a few recent snippets from our interactions with people here at The Colossian Forum:
A guest at our annual Christmas Open House took advantage of the whiteboard walls and the question “What was an ‘a-ha’ moment for you in 2015?” to share this message of hope:
A New Testament professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Nijay Gupta, shared a blog post written by Rob Barrett (our director of forums and scholarships at TCF). You can read the original post here. Dr. Gupta said:
Last year my New Testament introductory course devoted 1 3-hour session to the topic of Paul and sexuality. I knew that it could be a very tense discussion, with students with polarized views. My goal was not to pontificate on the subject but to find ways to think about the discussion in new ways, especially concentrating on the pastoral task in the discussion.
After I read Rob’s blog post, I was touched by the thoughtfulness of his reflection and the way it “humanized” the conversation. Despite our theological differences, we are all humans trying to help other humans. Rob reminded us of that. We read the blog post out loud and I allowed a few minutes for students to process the blog post in small groups. I think it set a good (pastoral) tone to the conversation.
To all of you who’ve invested in us—through your donations of time and money, through your prayers, through your brainpower, through your word of mouth—we thank you for helping shine God’s hope in a world hungry for light and truth.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
This past weekend, our dear friend and colleague Craig Schrotenboer’s youngest daughter Chelsea Overbeeke unexpectedly passed away. Chelsea suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage last Thursday and died early Sunday morning. She is survived by her husband Anthony in Bozeman, Montana.
Our hearts ache for Craig, his wife Sherry, and for the entire Schrotenboer and Overbeeke families as they mourn Chelsea. Please join us in praying for Christ’s peace to envelop this dear family as they are filled with sadness. Pray for wisdom and compassion as they seek the grace and strength to move forward and adjust to this new reality.
Funeral arrangements are pending. If you’d like to send your condolences to Craig and the Schrotenboer family, please address it to Craig Schrotenboer at The Colossian Forum, 940 Monroe Ave. NW, Suite 140, Grand Rapids, MI, 49503.
Throughout the Bible, believers are called to pray. It’s an essential part of our relationship with God, where we communicate, worship, and seek God’s face. Here at The Colossian Forum, we start each day by praying through the lectionary as a staff. It’s a tremendous opportunity to center, focus, and connect with God and each other.
Prayer is an important practice that deepens our relationship with Christ and is at the heart of personal and cultural renewal. Because it’s so essential, we curated a list of helpful prayer websites that we want to share with you. We hope these sites will help you experience a more joyful and fruitful prayer life this new year.
If you have a favorite or helpful prayer resources you’d like to share with us, please do so in the comment section. We’d love to hear what works for you!