Last Sunday, in some church somewhere, during Prayer Time, a football fan asked the community to pray for his team, who was playing a playoff game later that afternoon. It was a BIG game. If his team won, they’d go to the Superbowl.
An innocent request, right? But the pastor was, for once in her loquacious life, rendered speechless. Do we really pray for sporting event outcomes? Many in that congregation somewhere suggested that the oddly speechless pastor had on occasion prayed for a certain college football team. Her response (once she found her words): “In public?”
I’d like to relate the story that came to my—I mean, that pastor’s—mind when the football prayer request was made.
In his senior year at a Catholic high school, Bill Huebsch’s football team—miraculously, it seemed—made it to the championship game. “On the morning of the big game,” Huebsch writes, “I decided to go down to the small chapel [at school] and ask God for victory. I wasn’t exactly sure God behaved in this way. I wasn’t sure God intervened directly in high school football games, but I really wanted to win and I thought I’d … cover all my bases. What could it hurt?
“So I headed down to pray. But as I pushed open the door of the chapel, I was horrified to find that the entire opposing team was already there! They beat me to it! They had asked first, and besides, I was all alone and they were all there; I could see there was no hope!” (1) Cut to this past Tuesday. Tuesday I attended a small gathering of interfaith spiritual leaders at Temple Kol Emeth. Sitting across from me was Richard Burdick, pastor at Unity North down the road. When he introduced himself, Richard acknowledged the grief of Falcons fans, then announced with glee: “I’m a 49er through and through!”
Which, of course, raised significant theological questions: Were Mr. Burdick’s prayers more effective than mine? (…if I had prayed, that is…) Does God like the 49ers better than the Falcons? Or more troubling, Do the Unity folks have a more direct line to God than we do?
The Game Day Prayer Dilemma faced by pastors across the globe illustrates well the sticky wicket of theological diversity: Which team has a better connection to God? Which faith has the more accurate description of God? Did the Falcons really lose on Sunday because God prefers the 49ers (or because I wouldn’t pray for them)?
Today we get that great “Mr. Potato Head” text in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. “If a foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” “And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose.”
And why? Because “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Just as our physical bodies need the diversity of their parts to function well, so does the body of Christ need the diversity of its members’ unique gifts to function well.
…and not just our gifts for singing and preaching and organizing.. This community also needs our gifts for seeing God in diverse ways.
True confession: I hate conflict. I hate it a lot. It makes me nervous! Theological conflict makes me especially nervous….because I’ve seen just how much damage people at theological loggerheads can do to each other…and to innocent bystanders. When you have to be right about God, when you can’t accept that other people have their own pictures and understandings of God, then—every time, every time—people get hurt.
Which is why in the past, conversations about inclusive language for God, about the most accurate image for God, about just what God does and/or causes in the world have frightened me. Please! No more casualties in theological warfare! Recently, though, I’ve begun to realize that true debate, really open conversation with each other about God is actually a good thing.
Our theological diversity here at Pilgrimage is part of what makes this such a strong community. What we hold in common—belief in a loving God, who accepts everyone, in particular—is are important. What makes us really strong, though, is our ability to listen to each other and to learn from each other, especially when we don’t agree.
Despite the rabidly polarized rhetorical world we live in, nothing—no idea, no reality, no issue—is black and white. We don’t learn more about an issue—or about God, for that matter—by digging in our heels and becoming defensive, or by doing battle with the opposition. Because the truth doesn’t lie with one person! It lies somewhere in between people, in the conversation, in the back and forth.
Which is why diversity of thought and theology is so important in a community of faith. We aren’t here to tell people what to think about God. We’re not here to proclaim the right way to think about God. We’re not here to debate and battle out our beliefs about God. We’re here to listen to each other and to learn from each other and, in our listening and learning, to gain a broader and a deeper understanding of the God we love and worship.
A 19th century poem by John Godfrey Saxe describes the necessity of theological diversity as well as anyone. Hear now “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
That’s the importance of theological diversity in any community of faith. Because God is God, no one person, no one church, no one faith, can know God completely. We only get a bigger, deeper, and more accurate picture of God when we listen to each other’s descriptions of and experiences of God.
Which is why meetings like the one I attended on Tuesday with spiritual leaders from a variety of faiths are so important. No one of us has a complete picture of God. Our picture of God only grows clearer as we talk with each other and learn from each other about the one God we all worship, each of us from our unique perspective.
It’s a lesson Bill Huebsch learned that day in the chapel at his school. He writes, “I did finally go into the chapel that morning, still intending to ask God for victory. I knelt down, realizing I was in the heart of the enemy, aware that I was the only one from [my] team who was present. The senior captain [of the other team] was leading a prayer.
“But he wasn’t praying for victory! He was praying for charity, for fairness, and for an honest game. He asked God for the inner strength to be a humble winner—or a graceful loser—and he prayed that, in the final analysis, our lives together in our community would be made more joyful, that our brotherhood would grow stronger from this contest on the playing field. He took the wind out of my sails!
“I learned something that day that I’ve never forgotten. God is love, and the one who lives in love, lives in God and God lives in him or her. God’s power affects our inner lives, our hearts, and we affect the world. God’s intervention, if we can call it that, is an intervention of love in our inner lives. We need but open our minds and hearts to it.” (Huebsch, A New Look at Prayer, 6) And, I would add, to each other.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
One Body with Many Members
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.19If all were a single member, where would the body be?20As it is, there are many members, yet one body.21The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,23and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member,25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.