life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

café dolce (three): homogeneity...

About ten years ago, after I left pulpit work for fulltime education employment, my wife and I began to search for a church to attend. We tried to stay where I had been preaching, but honestly it wasn’t a very good fit even when they were paying me to say what I said. Rather than cause confusion or division if I said anything (or total implosion if I didn’t), we decided to look elsewhere. Our intent was not to stay in our denomination for several reasons.

You need to know at this point that I grew up in Los Angeles. My best church friend in junior high and high school was Mexican-American. My next best friend at school was 100 percent Winnebago Indian. In later high school years, I developed a close friendship with the quarterback from Duarte High School in Compton. He was African-American. One of the deacons at our church was African-American. I grew up where the barrio met the ghetto and traveled the city bus from 1970-1972 to Florence and Vermont, about a mile or so from where the Rodney King riot started.

So I have always been attracted to diverse churches and communities.

I remember visiting a large Baptist church in Bakersfield when we were on the church hunt. It is an up and coming place and some of the pillars of our community attend there. I remember looking around the large sanctuary filled with people, then leaning over to my wife and whispering, “It looks awfully white in here to me.” Since I’m Caucasian, that might sound like an odd statement. But I truly felt out of place. I do need to tell you that we have friends who have since moved to that church who are of color. They hired her on staff. Go figure! I’m not criticizing that church at all. We have other friends as well who go there, and we know some of the people on staff. But when we visited, it just wasn’t right for us. It felt to us a bit exclusive.

Well, God didn’t want us to leave our denomination anyway, something I’m still not happy with him about at times. And I didn’t have the time, energy or emotional strength (not to mention the call of God) at that time to plant the church that I’ve always wanted to plant. So he put us at Central Church.

Central Church is diverse and that diversity is expressed in our racial, socio-economic and even religious makeup. The choir director at the high school my kids went to visited our church several years ago. Recently he remarked to my wife (who is his accompanist) that ours was one of the most diverse churches he has ever attended. He’s from the Bay Area, is quite progressive and loves teaching multi-ethnic students when it comes to education. He thrives in that environment with kids on the margins. So I guess that’s a high compliment.

The reason I bring this up is that several weeks ago my daughter, Becca, who is interning in children’s ministry at a medium-sized church in north Fresno reflected on the makeup of the church she is serving. She has been there long enough now to realize that for that church (which is a fine church with a fine staff doing some fine ministry, by the way), some people fit there and some people don’t. She has looked around, so to speak, and found things quite homogenous. And she is not comfortable with that. I told her that she was raised in a church with a great gift of diversity and that not all churches are like we are in that way. Even we struggle with our homogeneity in worship style and don’t take best advantage of all of our gifts.

But I wonder at this sometimes. What is it with our homogeneity? To say that it’s natural is probably so obvious it doesn’t need to be said. Human beings have a tendency to group and exclude, sometimes to the point of genocide as seen in Rwanda. That is part of the nature of human beings. But what of the supernatural? Does that call us to something without question more difficult, but higher and better as well?

All of this ought to call us to be very cautious and hesitant to draw lines. I’m not just talking race here. I’m talking any kind of lines. Culture and heritage are equally divisive. Or language. Or socio-economic status. Or, how about this? How many times have we divided over religion or denominational flavor, hermeneutic, theory of inspiration, atonement, control, etc. Maybe our homogeneity is inevitable. But I don’t think it is good. It calls us to associate on the basis of commonalities that may be rooted in something other than God rather than on the basis of our universal humanity called into one by the Spirit of the indwelling Christ.

Perhaps it is a perpetual problem against which we must strive. If the kingdom as described by Jesus was topsy-turvy from what the world, and especially the religious leaders of the day, thought in Jesus’ time, perhaps it is the same today. Paul certainly had the same problem with the churches he planted back in the first century. Jews and Gentiles. Romans and non-Romans. Men and women. Slaves and free. Oy! What a mixture!

What problems! What headaches!

What potential!

Diversity brings great opportunities for the in-breaking Kingdom of God. In my opinion, the church is the poorer for ignoring it in all its varieties.

Grace and peace!



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