Sunday, September 6, 2009

Let all the people praise thee…

What was your first job? Mine involved newspapers. My mother had a paper route for a few years; her way of contributing to the family income as a ‘stay-at-home’ Mom. And sister Shannon and I would assist from time to time, crowding in the van to hand Mom papers as she drove. We didn’t get paid, of course. We were just helping out the family. What did get Shannon and me rolling in dough, and thus what I consider my ‘first job,’ began one fateful Thanksgiving. Joe (the boss) asked Mom if Shannon and I would help around the paper warehouse that morning, since Thanksgiving papers are HUGE. He’d pay us 50 bucks if we stayed from 2 AM until 6, and since we knew Mom would’ve dragged us along with her anyway, we jumped at Joe’s offer. Apparently, we done good. He asked us back every Sunday for a couple years. The hours weren’t ideal. But for a teenager, staying up past 3 AM without getting into trouble and getting paid was pretty cool. Jealous?

In August 2009, one of the Disciples of Christ founders quit his first job, with no clue what was next. This was Thomas Campbell- Irish immigrant, lapsed Presbyterian minister, and father of Alexander Campbell (another early Disciples leader). A week ago, I enjoyed a presentation that commemorated Thomas Campbell’s daring decision to quit his first job (in America), and it was beautiful. A performer dressed like you might imagine a Christian minister in 1809- top hat, tails, bowtie both big and awkward. He acted like Thomas Campbell, booming voice with a thick accent. And the story he told, in celebration of its 200th anniversary, is one of Disciples history’s most important.

Stop me if you’ve heard it before. The story goes that Campbell first settled in Pennsylvania. The local Presbyterian association invited Thomas to join, and helped him find work teaching and preaching in that area. But soon Thomas, with all the idealism of immigrants on the early American frontier, came under sanction. He’d served Communion to folk who weren’t Old Light Secessionist Presbyterians, and thus, he’d transgressed church expectations. His choice, then, was A) get back in line or B) quit. Having no prospects beyond faith and hope that he might continue serving God, Campbell quit. He’d decided that all those church schisms he’d seen in Ireland, Scotland and now America were terribly beside the point. Jesus had prayed for his followers, “that they may all be one (Jn 17:21),” and Paul had claimed there is but “one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph 4:4-5).” So with some friends, he worked at restoring Christian unity, based on a simple truth that transcends all theological experimentation- Jesus is Lord. In August 1809, he published these thoughts in his Declaration and Address. When it came out, Thomas’ resignation was final. And the “Christian Movement” began. He famously wrote, “The Church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally and institutionally one,” and he meant to make that happen!

In hindsight, such unabashed idealism seems naïve. The church remains divided because people need different pathways to approach God’s Holy presence. And this will continue, in one form or another. But the original fervor with which our movement’s founders believed that dissimilar people can and should work and worship together remains impressive, and challenging. Do you seek, in your life of faith, to unite with others? Do you enjoy learning from folk whose language of faith is vastly different from yours? When confronted with conflict or divisiveness, do you strive to overcome by relying on what unites us? Are you tempted to forsake unity for comfort or sameness?

I imagine we answer those questions differently at different points. This week, may we reflect on our founders’ convicting passion for Christian unity, and let it inspire us to try things bold and new. And remember what Thomas Campbell reminds us of- the foundation of all unity- in the final words of the Declaration and Address, quoting Psalm 67:5, “Let the peoples praise thee, O God. Let all the people praise thee.” Amen. In all things,

Grace and Peace,