Sylvia Wright loved to listen to her mother read poetry to her when she was a young child. In particular, she loved hearing her mom read from a book of poems and ballads from 1765, entitled Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (I’m sure we read this same book to our kids when we weren’t reading Batman or the latest issue of The Hockey News). In any case, Wright particularly love the sad ballad of the Earl and Lady Mondegreen which begins with these lines:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray
And Lady Mondegreen.
Makes you feel sad all over, doesn’t it? I mean, it was bad enough they killed the Earl, but to do in Lady Mondegreen, also—well, that is inexcusable! Shockingly, many years later, Wright found out that there was no Lady Mondegreen! She had misheard the line. Instead, they had slain the Earl Amurray “and laid him on the green.” As a result of this discovery, Wright coined the term “mondegreen,” meaning a word or phrase that results from misconstruing a statement or song lyric. We have many examples, from “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” (actually “’scuse me while I kiss the sky” from the song, “Purple Haze,” by Jimi Hendrix), and “There’s a wino down the road—I should have stolen Oreos” (actually, “And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls” from the song, “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin) and “You made the rice; I made the gravy” (actually, “You may be right, I may be crazy,” by Billy Joel). Bottom line: we mishear things all the time. It happens. The question is: how should we respond when it happens?
The funny thing about the church is that it is made up of people who are very different. For instance, we have Republicans and Democrats, employers and employees, financially-secure and financially tight, engineers and artists and, let’s not forget, men and women. More than any other group, we are “a fellowship of differents” (a term used by Scot McKnight). And that makes being a part of the church difficult. But from the very beginning, God’s plan was to take very different people and put them in one body with the intent that they should become one. We see this theme in Ephesians (“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” – Eph. 2:15-16). We see this theme in Romans (“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” – Rom. 14:13). We see this theme in Galatians (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” – Gal. 3:28-29). We see this theme in 1 Corinthians (“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” – 1 Cor. 1:10). In other words, the church has always been a home where its members are greatly divided on numerous issues, except for the most important: they all believe Jesus is Lord.
So, what do we do when we disagree strongly about how we see the world? I would like to suggest three things.
First, we must embrace differences. Where else in the world do we get to talk about such important matters without fear of jeopardizing the relationship? Where else can we hear the perspective of someone far different from our own without fear an argument is going to break out? Where else can we express our ideas and have them welcomed even if they aren’t necessarily accepted? The church has to be a place where we can love, accept, honor and value each other even while we don’t agree with each other. In God’s way of thinking, diversity is a very, very good thing.
Second, if we are serious about honoring our brothers and sisters who differ from us, we should seek to find out more. In today’s contentious environment, we often want to sidestep disagreements quickly or to show our disagreement immediately. It might be better to ask for more information so that we can find out why the person feels the way they do. Even when someone makes what others might consider to be an inflammatory comment, it might be wise to ask why they hold such a position. Let me share a rather “safe” example. At presbytery, the name of our church is seen as a little “soft.” Most churches carry their Presbyterian name proudly and see it as a mark of their sound reformed heritage. Meanwhile, here we are, “River’s Edge Community Church.” It sounds to some like we are selling out our distinct heritage to be more broadly acceptable to both churched and unchurched people alike and might be more “open” when it comes to the Confession, Catechisms and strict Reformed theology. In the minds of some, we are that “Community church” in Reformed clothing. But there is a story that goes with that choice of name. We had many Chinese friends as part of our church in Canada. One dear woman went to work every Monday excited about her faith and having gone to church, but when she was asked what church she attended by her associates at work, she would say, “I can’t remember its name.” This went on for weeks upon weeks, and her Canadian friends would always laugh at her for not being able to remember the name of the church she attended the previous day. After a year of this painful exchange every Monday, she came to us to apologize for not telling her workmates where she went to church. And then she said, with tears rolling down her cheeks, “I love our church and want to tell them where I go, but I can’t pronounce ‘Presbyterian.’” I promised myself, then, I would never put our international friends in such a bind in the future by having ‘Presbyterian’ in our name. And that is the reason we are called, River’s Edge Community Church. If we are serious about honoring our brothers and sisters who differ from us, we may want to take the time and in humility ask them to tell us more about their position. Oftentimes, there is a story of hurt involved that unpacks all sorts of things. We’re back to Bonhoeffer’s statement: “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
Third, we should consider that behind many of the choices (but surely not all) are theological choices. Many Christ followers choose to be Democrats because they feel the Democratic Party best aligns with the values of Jesus, especially in terms of caring for the poor, advocating social justice, leaning more towards peaceful solutions and generally being more compassionate. Many Christ followers choose to be Republicans because they feel that the Republican Party best aligns with the values of Jesus, especially in terms of moral choices (abortion, death penalty and homosexuality), defending freedoms, advocating the local church as a force for good in society and generally promoting more conservative (family) values. One side picks one set of values. The other picks another. But both do so on the basis of their theology. Now, it is also possible that both sides see certain sins as “killing America,” but they would disagree what those sins are. So, perhaps besides embracing our differences and asking to find out more about why we make the choices we make, we need to talk about how we are interpreting the Bible. Bottom line: we all pick and choose. Maybe we need to ask each other why we pick and choose what we do and take those reasons to heart.
Now, you may read all of this and hear me singing, “You may be right, I may be crazy!” But I assure you, God’s design for the church is unity (not uniformity); and for that reason, we must deal with our differences and hear each other’s heart in these matters. Maybe, we can learn from each other. Maybe, we will be encouraged in our own views. Or maybe, we will agree to disagree even while we agree to love each other. All I know is, this has always been God’s desire for his church, that we who gather, while being different in many different ways, may become one. Let me close with the quote I used last Sunday to conclude our sermon. It is from Rachel Held Evans, and I think she said everything I have been trying to say in this blog in two simple sentences. She writes:
“On a given Sunday morning I might spot six or seven people who have wronged or hurt me, people whose politics, theology, or personalities drive me crazy. The church is positively crawling with people who don’t deserve to be here . . . starting with me.”
That’s describes us perfectly! We differ in politics, theology, personality and a host of other things that all combine to drive us all crazy. But it is not our church. It is God’s church, and we are only members of it because of unmerited grace. And therefore, we need humbly to put aside our differences, invest ourselves in loving one another in all things and hold fast to the one thing we all have in common: Jesus is Lord.