I have a confession to make, and it may shock some of you.
I am probably a liberal.
Oh, I know that this is shocking because I hide it so well, don’t I? I really hate being labeled, but it’s the world in which we live.
I say “probably” for a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t necessarily call myself a liberal. It’s how others have described me, but I also try not to let that singular and very loaded term define me.
The other reason is that the definitions of these labels varies greatly from person to person, state to state, or region to region. In South Carolina, I am a liberal. In Pennsylvania, I might be a moderate. In New York, I might be a conservative. In the Pacific Northwest, I might be a right-wing radical. It’s all relative to the lenses people use to view you, isn’t it?
But I live in South Carolina. It is my home. It is the people and place that I love, and I am called to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a calling to do so, with all of the good and the bad and the baggage and stereotyping (which annoys me to no end) that comes with it. Yeah, I complain about my state; but I don’t want to hear it from those “carpetbaggers” on the outside (tongue partially implanted in cheek here). So, for now, “liberal” it is.
Here’s the thing: I am called to pastor in a place that doesn’t have many pastors who are labeled as “liberals”. I pastor a wonderfully strange church where there is tremendous diversity in almost every aspect of life, including our views of Christianity.
We have black people and white people in our church. We have older and younger people. We have political liberals and social conservatives. We have people who are Southern Baptist, others who are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and still others who really don’t care much either way. Some people struggle financially, while others seem to be doing okay. We have people who battle poverty, mental health, and addiction.
The one thing we don’t seem to have–at least not that I can see–is anyone that is super-rich, at least not in a financial way. We pretty much work for a living, and don’t seem to have many people just waiting on the will to clear probate. However, if anyone who is in that category would like to add another layer to the church, we would be thrilled to have you.
And therein lies both the hope and the problem. Our church “pillars” are Faith, Love, Unity and Diversity. While those sound very good, they are four elements that sometimes struggle to live together. As long as we are willing to open our arms to welcome those who are different, we will have struggles.
Diversity is difficult. We all bring our own lenses, our own baggage, and our own vision for how to live with all of those perspectives. It’s much easier to live in similarity than to live with contrast.
Some say that opinions are like bellybuttons: Everybody has one. Yes, I chose the clean version of that phrase. But for Baptists, opinions are more like the hairs on your head: Everybody has a bunch of them. Make that a very diverse group of Baptists, and you can multiply that x2, at least.
At times, it is disheartening to live in the difficulty of diversity, not to mention trying to be a pastor through it. Some days, I wonder if it’s even possible to maintain the idea of unity AND diversity. There have been a few days when I’ve decided that it may not be worth it, even if it can be done.
Then, I remember that faith and love come before the unity and diversity. And I remember that the promise of Christ is not ease of life and convenience, but “Take up your cross and follow me”.
Disagreeing with one another? Differences in opinion and perspective? That’s a pretty light Cross compared to a lot of people in the world. While people may get mad and frustrated and even discouraged, we are called to live in faith and love first and foremost, as a way to help us find unity in our diversity.
It would be easier if we all just agreed or found ways to avoid the uncomfortable subjects of faith and society. But that’s not Augusta Heights. We’re not big enough for each group to find its own little pocket of support and avoid everyone else. We look each other in the eye every Sunday, and we have to learn to live together.
It is also farcical to think that UNITY should mean UNIFORMITY. We don’t have that in scripture, in the early church, or in the modern church; and the notion that we do is a front at best. It’s not about creating sameness, but finding a way to keep Jesus above and over even our differences.
I am reminded that the disciples followed Jesus together. That group had a rich tax man and working-class fishermen. There was a murderer. There was one who was prejudice against Nazarenes. There was a big mouth, a couple of hotheads (named “Sons of Thunder”), a cynical skeptic and perhaps the world’s worst back-stabber. Yet Jesus spent most of his time with them, ate his last meal with them (INCLUDING the back-stabber).
He challenged them to find a mission and a hope that was bigger than their differences. How can we have a community in Christ that is not willing to do the same?
Sure, life would be a lot easier if everyone just agreed with my “liberalism” and we could all have the same point of view. But that wouldn’t be REAL life, that would be FantasyLand. And it would not be preparation to reach a world that is full of diversity.
I am called to pastor all of these people, even those who may get the label of “conservative”. That means that I have to think about how I express my beliefs and what forum I use to express them. It means that I have to think about not only what I say, but how I say it. And that’s not a bad thing at all! It holds me accountable and keeps me from thoughtlessly pressing Send. I am grateful that I live in community with those who disagree with me, because they give me additional lenses with which to view the world. Those are often very important, Christ-centered lenses.
If we dismiss those who disagree, then we are essentially refusing an opportunity to move towards spiritual maturity in our walk of discipleship. I have come to the conclusion that spiritual maturity is becoming a rarity to the point of crisis. Living with those who disagree with me–on politics, scripture, Christianity, or culture–pushes me to think and develop a maturity as both a disciple and a pastor.
So thank God for our diversity! The road of discipleship is supposed to be difficult, and diversity makes it that much more so. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s wrong. By attempting to follow the “road less traveled”, I am convinced that God is challenging us to be better disciples and a stronger community.
Thank you to my friends and community that differ from my views. You make me better, and challenge me to BE and DO better in all things.