By Rhesa Storms
My morning glance at social media often resembles a life-coaching session. Between headlines about politics and opinions about the politicians can be found several self-improvement titles:
“Find Your Passion”
“Know Your Home Decorating Style”
“Describe Yourself in Three Characters”
“Your Fall Fragrance, According to Your Meyers-Briggs Type”
Self-improvement articles are enjoyable, even a bit addicting. It is wise to know what makes us tick, what gives us joy, and the gifts we possess. I suppose knowing what perfume someone with an ENFP personality should wear has some value. Our media does run the danger of becoming an incessant drumbeat of M-E, however. Even our news, delivered via Facebook and Twitter, comes tailored to our individual interests.
I love the church because participation in church pushes back against a self-oriented culture.
I work for Orchard Group, an organization that helps new churches get started in cities around the world. I recently attended services at one of our new churches, Miami Church in Florida. That Sunday was a highlight of my year.
Much of the speaking was in English, but a good amount of singing and prayer was in Spanish. My grasp of Spanish is poor, but the people’s joy in God and enthusiasm in worship was evident. I attempted to read and sing alongside them, grateful for their wholehearted inclusion of me, despite my rudimentary Spanish skills.
That Sunday was a vivid reminder: God’s kingdom is full of songs of praise in languages not my own.
I love the church when the church moves across racial lines and cultural backgrounds, and when it bridges misunderstandings. Unity in Jesus is one of the greatest gifts the church can give our world. Scripture tells us Jesus has destroyed barriers between people and the artificial dividing walls that breed mistrust (Ephesians 2:14). The church doesn’t perfectly embody this unity (yet). We must persist.
Imagine the discomfort of some of the first Christians! Peter ate food that not only was unfamiliar, but abhorrent to his cultural heritage. If Philemon welcomed the slave Onesimus back as a brother in Christ, surely he risked the displeasure of a few wealthy friends. Philip baptized an African man who would, at the very least, be considered an outsider because of his sexual identity.
The early church consisted of insiders and outsiders, the oppressed and oppressors. It is crazy business—this building the kingdom of God, this church of Jesus followers. God’s Spirit is too big for us to be content with the comfortable.
Seeking to Understand
My husband, Brent, and I meet weekly with a small group from our local church in Brooklyn, New York. This group is made up of people with a wide variety of skin tones and life experiences. Some are doing well financially; some scrape by. Some were born in this country; others came at later points and stayed.
In the midst of studying Jesus, we have had honest conversations about privilege and oppression and cultural preferences. These friends have allowed me to ask hard questions. Our conversations have led me to confess long-held assumptions.
We don’t always agree, and we don’t always understand each other’s perspective. But when we pray for each other, we are reminded that God’s grace is present by serving each other, by listening, and by seeking to understand.
One delightful aspect of having African-American friends is the variety of greetings. It’s easy as a woman; hugs are relatively straightforward. For Brent, the improvisation of fist bumps, hand slaps, and hugs with a firm pat (or two) on the back create some hilariously awkward moments. I’m convinced our friends like changing it up just to see what Brent will do.
I’ve been known to botch a few cheek kisses with Orchard Group’s European church planters. It’s humorous when you think this is a “one-cheek” kiss occasion, only to realize halfway through—oops!—this is a “two-cheek” kiss occasion.
Brent and I have laughed at many a greeting gone wrong. Fortunately, our friends realize we’re likely to mess up. It’s not a bad thing to feel a bit off-balance for the sake of someone else. It opens us up to trust in our friends and not take ourselves too seriously. It’s humbling to realize that for many, their days are riddled with uncomfortable experiences due to anything that marks them as “other.”
I love the church because the church is the strongest push against the constant cultural promotion of my own myopic self. God is more powerful, more awe-
inspiring, and more breathtaking when he is seen and experienced through the lives—and cultures—of others. Jesus’ sacrifice is more astonishing when we get to witness him change people who have committed themselves to him.
Paul reminds the Ephesians that in Christ our minds are renewed (Ephesians 4: 22, 23). Maybe we can include our preferences in that renewal. We can hold those preferences and even our opinions loosely, allowing the possibility that maybe God might want to change us and not just them.
If the work the Spirit is doing in our hearts doesn’t sometimes stretch us and make us a little uncomfortable, creating room for people not like us at the table, maybe we have forgotten the wildness of the grace that would include even us in the first place.
Rhesa Storms serves as director of communications with Orchard Group. She helped start Harbor of Hope Church in New York City.