The more I read and study Scripture and assimilate those holy words into my soul, the more I explore and discover about the unfathomable love and grace of our Father, the more I preach and teach and sing and pray about our King and his eternal Kingdom, the scope of which pushes our imagination to its very limits, the more I’m convinced that denominational lines that divide his Holy Church must sicken our God. Our King who prayed for our Christian unity the very night he was betrayed, our Christ who destroyed all the barriers between God and mankind and between all men and women when he died on the cross, our God who spoke through the prophets and his servant Jesus to foretell the great banquet feast when “every tribe and language and people and nation” will be gathered together on that last day, our Lord who is reconciling all people to himself and has ordained us all as his ministers of that reconciliation, must be nauseated at the historic line-drawing and fellowship-testing and debating and dividing that have characterized us as his children.
What a refreshing wind of Holy Spirit life we experienced together Sunday night at the first “4 Amarillo” Thanksgiving service! What an unflinchingly strong statement about our four churches’ refusal to be divided by insignificant issues, preferred practices, or pet peeves! What an undeniable witness to our city of the unifying will and power of the Prince of Peace who transcends all of whatever differences may keep us apart! What a foretaste of glory divine! What a spectacular preview of what is to come on that day of glory!
Boy, was Sunday night significant. Highly significant.
Yes, I know, for years now we have worshiped with other kinds of Christians in a variety of settings. I’m sure you have, too. At retreats and conferences, youth rallies and Bible camps, before and after service projects. No doubt we’ve all prayed and read Scripture together around sick beds in hospitals and at funerals of loved ones without checking who’s in what denomination. We’ve crossed denominational lines to sing and pray together for a long time now. But there is something different about that ‘sacred hour” in our worship centers on Sunday. If you think about it, generally it’s what happens during that worship hour that divides us. The ways we sing and pray, the particular methods we use to baptize and commune — this is generally where we debate and put up walls, where we draw our lines of fellowship.
Most of us have always been able to worship God with Christians from other denominations at a wedding or a patriotic gathering or down at the homeless shelter. But Sundays in our buildings are different. Theologically, of course, that’s a bunch of hooey. Practically, though? Like it or not, it’s true. Sundays in our worship centers are different. It’s that last piece of turf we’ve never surrendered to the grace of God. It’s the one thing we hold on to in order to protect what distinguishes us from other Christians, instead of emphasizing the countless ways we are just alike. Sunday is different. And if we’re truly going to embrace the will of our Christ as expressed so clearly in his prayer for unity, if we’re going to practice what Jesus says so plainly is a foremost method of reaching a lost and dying world, we’re going to have to express our one-ness with all his followers in worship.
We did it Sunday night. Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and us CofC’ers. For almost 75-minutes on a freezing cold night in Amarillo, we did it. Our God was praised. His people were edified. And the city is taking notice.
Again, I may take another post or two to sort it all out. There’s a chance we could do a lot of processing together in the comments section of the blog. That would probably be preferable. But in an effort to continue the post-service debriefing that’s been happening around here since about 7:15 Sunday night, allow me to share just a couple of the more than 50-emails and texts I’ve received from our own Central members in the past 48 hours. I won’t attach their names to the comments, because I haven’t asked any of them for permission. But here’s a sample:
“God has used this to set me free from the bonds of the old confused thinking I grew up with… like, why do we think we (CofC’ers) are the only ones following God’s ways, when my friends and family worshiped differently, but all seemed OK with me, from what I was taught, and more importantly the Christian example they gave me??? Last night all I could do was praise God and thank him for what he is doing. I will say, it has been a long time coming!!! Thank you!”
“I cannot seem to articulate the warm, emotional experience that we had. It took my family 1.5 hours to drive in due to the ice, but we were not going to miss this historic restoration act! Yesterday was so effective in helping me to emotionally release so much of my legalistic baggage from my true, old school Church of Christ rearing in the late ’60s and ’70s.”
“What a night! What a special gift for the four churches to move forward and grow together. The powerful theme of unity and oneness in Christ came through loud and clear. You reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous theme for ending the cold war, ‘Tear down this wall!’ Tonight, there was NO wall! We were all one in spirit!”
“Thanks so much for articulating our feelings so well.”
“I cannot wait until we all worship together again. I think this is the beginning of something really big — I can just feel it!”
“Tonight was a great blessing to many. I hope it felt as good as you hoped and dreamed it would.”
For more than ten years now I have been praying that someday my children would be able to worship our God together with Christians from other denominations on a Sunday. I’ve begged God that, whether my children are my age and have kids of their own or whether they are old and gray, they will get to experience on earth the kind of unity with other disciples that we’re going to experience in eternity. To realize over the past year that it might actually become a reality in my lifetime, that I might actually get to experience it myself with my wife and kids, has been a tremendous blessing. To actually be the one preaching when the dream came true was an unexpected honor I did not deserve nor will ever forget. It was far better than I had ever hoped.
To those of you who were there Sunday night, I would encourage you to share your thoughts and feelings by clicking on the “comments” at the top of this post. To those of you who were not there, whether you live in Amarillo or somewhere else in the world, I’d like to get your reactions, too.
I’ll write tomorrow about the sermon, about preaching it in that historic setting, and about the spirit of the room on that incredible night. Then, depending on how things go this weekend, I’ll try to find time before Sunday to reflect on our morning service here at Central with Howard Griffin from First Presbyterian.
I don’t know where this is headed. I’m not sure what this turns into over the coming months and years. But I do know it’s significant. It’s important. In our post-modern, post-Christendom, post-denominational world, it’s more important than ever. And I’m so eternally grateful to belong to a church that is determined to jump into these kinds of expressions of faith and grace like Central.