By Becky Memmelaar
“For just as the body is one and has many members,
and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,
so it is with Christ.” — 1 Corinthians 12:12 (NRSV)
Although the Apostle Paul was writing directly to the church of Corinth, his words are clearly applicable to our modern day Quaker meetings and churches. If we were totally truthful, we would have also to admit that it is has been a very long time since the Religious Society of Friends considered itself unified in anything, let alone to be one in Christ.
Paul’s comparison of the church to a body and his illustration of how individual parts are necessary to work together speak to my condition. In August of 2011, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then I’ve gone through multiple tests, scans and blood tests — each holding its own scare. These tests revealed I also had Lupus. This season of testing brought to light the need for the cells of my body to work together. Some of my immune system cells needed to attack the breast cancer, and others needed to stop attacking my joints. For health and wholeness it was imperative that my body mounted a unified assault on cancer, but not overcompensate and begin an assault on itself.
As individual members of our meetings, churches and denominations, we need to do the same. The church needs all the parts to stop attacking each other and to work together for good.
Truth be told, attack is what we normally do in disputes. When the way we think is best isn’t followed, we often question the motivation, the faith or intentions of others. We question the integrity of leadership. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite pastors and authors, writes, “As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.” Think of the wars that have been fought protecting God. Think of the divisions caused by people protecting their understanding of God.
Yet, if asked, most would express the desire to live in unity with others. Unity, by definition, means unbroken, but as humans who profess Christianity and as Quakers we come together from our own sense of brokenness. How can a group of flawed individuals come together and create wholeness?
Unity is like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Each piece is shaped and colored uniquely. God knows our similarites and differences and carefully fits the pieces together to form a grand illustration of his grace. The problem is that we don’t get to see the “big picture” of the completed puzzle on a box top. Yet, the Apostle Paul reminds us that each person is an essential part of the body, each holding a part of the big picture. No one is more valuable or important than another.
It is easy to forget that each person is a puzzle piece of the big picture. We forget that sometimes those with questions prod us to new answers. God created us to be in dialogue with each other and with God. We forget that the fresh winds of the Spirit draw us to new pictures.
For example, even though slavery was permitted in the past, and some justified the practice by asserting it was condoned in scripture, today we know without a doubt that slavery was and is a blight on humanity. With contemporary issues we often cling to the past. We cling to what we were taught in our childhood or last week rather than ask and listen to God for answers. One of the most startling things I learned in seminary is that Church History is the study of splits in the church, and that reformations began when people began studying scripture for themselves.
George Fox is said to have known scripture verbatim. This may be a bit of a stretch, yet, if you’ve read his journal, you know that most of his sermons consist largely of scriptures parsed and woven together. Even though he read and valued scripture, he allowed the fresh winds of the Spirit to guide him. He disagreed with and broke with many of the traditions of his day, some of the most notable being, having women as ministers, “hireling” pastors and not swearing oaths.
In preparation for this article, I used a Bible search engine, www.bible.oremus.org. About halfway down the page is a bar where a word can be entered to begin a search. There were several citations for the word unity. However, as I carefully began to examine the passages, I discovered very few corresponded with the common understanding of unity. This search engine is designed to pick up the word even if it is a part of another word, and it took me a minute to realize that unity was a part of words such as: opport-unity and comm-unity.
Imagine that: unity is contained in the words, opportunity and community. I wonder how many opportunities are forfeited when we cannot come to any sense of unity. We know that we forfeit community as we whittle ourselves down into like parts.
Our recent election has illustrated the breakdown of community in the United States. The election process has created a mean-spiritedness among the political parties. Americans have become absolutely vitriolic in their opinions of political matters. Candidates can’t seem to voice an opinion without speaking negatively about their opponents. Guests on TV talk shows yell at each other, making no attempt to listen to the other side. Debates become about which side can most intimidate the other, or which side can project the best showmanship.
As a nation, we’ve stopped listening. We’ve stopped valuing differences; instead we value only those who emphatically agree with us. It seems to me that the runoff from lack of community falls on our churches and meetings. We let our politics shape our faith, rather than our faith shape our politics. Our divisions become integrated into our body of faith. Each cell is fighting for its own survival, rather than working together for good.
From my personal experience, when cells stop working together, two things happen: they become cancerous and they create an autoimmune disease, the purpose of which is to attack healthy parts.
How can we find our way back to unity from brokenness and division? If I knew that answer, I’d be a bestselling author appearing on TV talk shows. What I do know is that my greatest challenge in life is to take my faith outside of the box in which it was presented to me and examine it carefully. I was gifted with wonderful parents, Sunday school teachers, pastors and professors, all of whom taught me well. They inspired me to study, to think and to question. I have been inspired by very conservative friends/Friends and by very liberal friends/Friends. Agreeing hasn’t been the basis of our friendships, love has. We’ve found ways to work together. Love opened the door for opportunity and community. Sometimes, when we were at our best, we recognized that our motives were pure, just the lenses through which we viewed life differed. North Pacific Yearly Meeting wrote in its 1993 Faith and Practice:
However, [Quakerism] from its inception has offered both a critique of many accepted manifestations of Christianity and an empathy with people of faith beyond the bounds of Christianity. Some Friends have placed particular emphasis on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while others have found more compelling a universal perspective emphasizing the Divine Light enlightening every person. One of the lessons of our own history as a religious movement is that an excessive reliance on one or the other of these perspectives, neglecting the essential connectedness between the two, has been needlessly divisive and has drawn us away from the vitality of the Quaker vision at its best.
What a statement of truth. When we ignore scripture or the leadings of the scripture, we cease to be Quakers and become something else. We begin to speak of spirituality and ignore our Christocentric roots. When we begin to speak of the authority of scripture alone, we ignore our history of waiting together and listening for the voice of God. Our opinions lead us to draw lines in the sand, and we begin to value our own understandings and devalue the understandings of others.
The Holy Spirit draws us into one body, one beautiful picture, created by God. The Spirit draws us to work together as cells of a healthy body work together for healing and wholeness. Our God continues to create and recreate this day and every day. If only we could allow the fresh winds of the Spirit to blow new life into us and to open us to the opportunities and communities that await.
I pray that God will breathe new life into you as an individual and into your church or your meeting. May God bring you new opportunities and communities as you seek the unity that only God can provide.
Becky Memmelaar has been pastor at First Friends Whittier in Whittier, California since January 2010. She completed her undergraduate work at Guilford College and her Master of Divinity at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She and her husband are the parents of four children and grandparents of seven with the eighth due in April. She is the daughter of Max and Avis Rees and the granddaughter of Russell and Mary Rees.
1 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.” http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/71455.Barbara_Brown_Taylor