November 18, 2013
“Inquire, please, of the former age,” Bildad the Shuhite counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9 NKJV). Job’s friends aren’t remembered for their sage advice, but in this respect, at least, Bildad nailed it. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes. By giving us a memory before birth, it offers us a perspective that transcends the brevity of our own sojourn on earth. And yet we live in a present-tense culture that all too readily consigns our forebears to oblivion, rejecting what G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead” in order to bow to that “small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
I’m especially mindful of our cultural myopia at Thanksgiving. While most of us still make time for a special meal on Thanksgiving Day before we turn on the football game or rush off to the mall to buy electronics, we have pretty much forsaken the idea of a Thanksgiving season. Who takes time anymore to anticipate the holiday, meditate on its significance, and take steps to live out its meaning? More particularly, who takes the time to follow Bildad’s advice and “inquire of the former age” about this quintessentially American observance? In a word, who has time for the Pilgrims?
I’m convinced that our lives are the poorer for it. The Pilgrims had their blind spots—as do we—but there is much in their example we can learn from. They were men and women of deep conviction, uneasily daunted, willing to suffer for principle’s sake. They loved their children, they loved the body of Christ, and they abandoned everything that was familiar to them in order to serve both. They exhibited enormous courage: can you imagine cramming 102 passengers into a ship’s hold the size of a school bus and making a 65-day voyage to a strange world? They then persevered in the face of unspeakable hardship and loss, half of the colony dying from exposure their first winter in New England. Finally, they exhibited a faith in God’s sovereignty that humbles us. What we remember as the “first Thanksgiving” was a celebration primarily of widowers and orphans. (Fourteen of the eighteen wives who made the voyage had died by spring.) That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope.
But above all, the Pilgrims understood that they were pilgrims. By this I mean that they had a clear sense of their identity in Christ. Pilgrims is one of those words that we have used so much that it has lost much of the power of its literal meaning. Today when we use the word, we typically mean simply the group of individuals who came to New England on the Mayflower in 1620. When William Bradford used the word in describing that group nearly four centuries ago, however, he used it to convey the Leiden Separatists’ understanding that they were strangers passing through a world that was not their home. We read this in one of the most poignant passages in Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford’s description of the emigrants’ departure from Leiden, South Holland, and their heart-wrenching parting from those in their congregation who would not be making the journey. Bradford wrote of the “abundance of tears” that was shed as the group said their goodbyes and “left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years.” They could find the resolve to press on, he explained (drawing from the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews), because “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
I am convinced that if we shared this sense of pilgrimage it would shape not only how we celebrate Thanksgiving, but also the way that we think about God’s blessings throughout the year. Although he didn’t speak specifically of the relation between pilgrimage and gratitude, C. S. Lewis wonderfully captured what I have in mind in a favorite passage from The Problem of Pain. Lewis observed that
I think the Pilgrims, or most of them, understood this. I hope we can too. When we know that we are pilgrims, it changes how we approach the Thanksgiving table. The feast that awaits us is a “pleasant inn,” and we are right to delight in it, but we must not let it tempt us to “rest our hearts in this world.” The food we enjoy and the fellowship that warms us are mere glimpses and shadows—a taste of things to come. It is good if they nourish and encourage us, but it is better still when they increase our hunger for a different feast, the banquet that God is preparing for those who “desire a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:16).
Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the history department at Wheaton College. He is president of the Conference on Faith and History, a national association of Christian historians, and the author, most recently, of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. McKenzie blogs on Faith and History.
Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:47 AM
November 5, 2013
by Christena Cleveland
A couple of years ago I spent several glorious weeks teaching an intercultural leadership class at a local seminary. During that time I guided the students through the biblical and theological foundations for ethnic diversity, the argument that the multiethnic church is the answer to the problem of race in America, and a mountain of data suggesting that increased diversity on a national scale should impact local church diversity. While many of the students in the class were curious and willing students, a white student who hailed from a small town in Maine wasn't convinced that this class was relevant to him.
A couple of weeks later the student approached me before class and told me that while he was praying about his call to his rural Maine hometown, he had a sobering realization. It occurred to him that he had spent the entire class dismissing the content as irrelevant to his call because he believed that his town was all white. But he had completely forgotten about the First Nations reservation located just ten miles outside of his town. As someone who had attended an all-white church and school growing up, it never occurred to him that the people on the reservation were a part of his community. Ethnic diversity had been sitting right under his nose for his entire lifetime and he simply hadn't seen it.
This realization marked a turning point for this student. He repented for being blind to the diversity around him and began studying the history, customs and language of the local Maine tribe. He's now planning to return to Maine with a revised call: to plant a multiethnic church that will work toward healing the divide between whites and First Nations people.
So many of us are like my seminary student. Ethnic diversity is sitting right under our noses but we can't see it. We've been so accustomed to homogeneity in church that we can't see that the America around us is becoming more and more diverse. So we think that homogenous churches are just fine.
But they aren't.
In my lifetime alone, ethnic diversity in the United States has increased at warp speed. From 1980 (the year I was born) to 2010 (the year I turned 30), 97.8 percent of metro areas, 97.2 percent of micro areas, and 95.6 of rural areas experienced an upward shift in ethnic/racial diversity.1 The landscape of American evangelicalism is changing too. Recent data on global migration patterns from Fuller Theological Seminary professor Jehu Hanciles predicts that in the near future, American evangelicalism will be predominantly nonwhite
I meet pastors all the time who insist that their homogenous church simply reflects the homogeneity of their community. However, when they examine their community's census data, they discover that there are significant numbers of diverse people all around them. (Want to know the racial/ethnic makeup of your community? Go to the US Census Bureau's "Fact Finder" website: factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.)
Although there are exceptions to the rule,2 the biblical mandate for multiethnic churches is clear:
- We are called to participate in the reconciling work of the cross, which tore down racial, gender and class divisions (Gal 3:28).
- We are called to love our neighbors regardless of whether they look, think, talk or worship like us (Mt 22:34-40).
- We are called to expand our culturally limited notions of brother, sister, neighbor and friend to include all members of the diverse family of God (Mt 12:50).
- We are called to multiethnic, multinational, multilingual worship (Rev 7:9).
- We are called to humble crosscultural interdependence (1 Cor 12:12-27).
The biblical mandate for diversity, coupled with the fact that diverse people are literally right on our doorsteps, makes it difficult to justify nondiverse churches. Are we going to cling to our blindness, insisting that our homogenous churches are an accurate reflection of our communities? Or are we going to ask God to give us new eyes for our community (as God did for my student) and call us to renewal, reconciliation and the pursuit of the multiethnic church?
The diverse kingdom of God is at hand. We just need to reach out and grab hold of it.
1 Richard Florida, "America's Most and Least Diverse Metros," Atlantic Cities, September 9, 2012, www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/09/americas-most-and-least-diverse-metros/3206.
2 In a perfect world the redeemed body of Christ would be a holy and whole reflection of the diverse world. Oh how I wish this were true! Given that historically oppressed groups (e.g., African Americans and immigrants) have been and continue to be marginalized by the mainstream evangelical church (and the broader American society), culturally homogenous churches composed of these groups serve as invaluable refuges for diverse people. These churches can and should go on until the mainstream church is ready to engage in mutually honoring relationships with diverse people.
Christena Cleveland (Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara) is the author of Disunity in Christ and a social psychologist who teaches at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is an award-winning researcher and gifted teacher who brings organizational experience to her efforts to build unity. She consults with pastors and organizational leaders on multicultural issues and speaks regularly at organizations, churches, conferences, universities and schools.
Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 11:47 AM