Thank you for the invitation to speak about unity……which can be a challenge in today’s world. We are blessed to live in a community where people live together with mutual acceptance and goodwill, affording one another the freedom to pursue one’s financial, educational, social, religious, and other goals. On September 11, 2001 when tragic events unfolded in New York, I was far from home and immediately felt fear and anxiety on behalf of my community and friends and neighbors who might encounter anger. I prayed for our community and set out to demonstrate my solidarity with others whom I knew were as shocked and appalled as I was by the events we observed.
There are forces at work in the world that would disrupt our freedom and goodwill. Sadly, some of them use, even abuse, various religious traditions to justify their own desires and drive wedges between people. To live out of shared values and mutual acceptance, I suggest that there is one way to pursue unity that can draw us closer together as neighbors and friends and enable us to stand firmly against any who attempt to drive wedges between people.
A friend shared these words of wisdom years ago: “We give as much of ourselves as we can understand to as much of God as we can understand.” Our respective traditions share a profession of faith in the God of Abraham and submission to God’s will as key tenets of faith. In the ancient religious text of the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 1, verse 18…..God says, “Come, let us reason together.” In this call to reasoning together, I believe that God is inviting us to find common ground with one another and with God himself ……to explore the ways in which we are alike, the ways in which we find ourselves united, not only with one another in common aspects of life, but more importantly united with God, too.
The starting point for unity in faith, in life, in community…..lies in how we express and live out the revelation of God’s character among us. From that starting point we can already find many things in common….love for family, appreciation for beauty in the world, protection for our children, the desire to live in peace, and celebration of God’s generous provision, and more. Certainly one point of unity is that both Muslims during Ramadan and Christians during Lent develop a deeper connection with God as we pursue holiness through prayer and fasting. This invaluable activity not only pleases God, but transforms us into individuals that can live in “successful unity”, mutual respect, and genuine concern.
When I was in my 20’s, I had a friend who, when she talked about God, it was with fear and dread. She grew up hearing about God’s fearsome might, his judgment on humanity for sin, what her religious tradition called the “ fire and brimstone” aspects that focus on guilt, fear, and judgment.
I, on the other hand, grew up in a loving fellowship that talked about God’s grace, love, and compassion. And the amazing thing is that we were both raised in the same Christian tradition barely 150 miles apart. However, I wondered at times if we even knew the same God. Her God was a fearsome transcendent God- exceeding human understanding, commanding reverence, far above, other than and distinctly separate from His creation.
The God I knew was an imminent God- very near, dwelling in the heart of believers, knowledgeable about all I think and do, lover of one’s soul, revealed in the self-sacrificing incarnational Christ Jesus who hears and responds to those who call on his name, prince of peace, comforter, teacher, counselor, and guide.
There are Scriptures in holy texts that describe God in terms that are transcendent as well as those that describe God as imminent and personal ….. God is not one or the other…..but rather God is both/and.
My friend feared God so much that she kept as far away from God as she possibly could, expecting to be judged, punished, or struck dead for her sins.
I, on the other hand, had so little fear of the patient, loving, forgiving God that I had little respect for God’s authority and commands. Each of us knew only part of who God is. And both of us suffered because of that shortsightedness in not having explored more fully the whole of who God truly is. One ancient religion is said to have had over 3000 names for God, each one revealing God’s character, attributes, titles, or ways of relating to his creation. I have been told that the Muslim faith has 99 holy names of God, each one also revealing an aspect of God. In my study of the names, attributes, and characteristics of God, I have listed over 600 of them in the Christian religious texts and continue to learn more all the time. The more I study and invite God to reveal himself in the fullness of his ways and according to God’s timing and his purpose for my life, the more I am astounded by how magnificently great and exquisitely personal God’s revelation is to us. And the more God reveals himself, he also reveals things to me about myself, about the potential for extravagant generosity and extreme selfishness that exists in the human heart, even my own heart, and about how I am to relate to others.
Because of God’s greatness, he is capable of being whomever and whatever is required to meet the needs of humanity as a whole and of us individually as we seek to know God and live in relationship with him. In seeking to know and obey God, we will come to know one another and find ourselves in harmony not only with one another, but also, all of us in harmony with God who created each of us.
By accepting God’s invitation to reason together we can experience and offer to others world -changing unity……that reveals truth and the fullest knowable character of God that humankind can discover.
When beliefs about God depart radically from the points of unity we agree on about the revealed character of God ..then spiritual honesty demands that such “outlier views” of God be scrutinized and relegated to the category of “not-of-God” . Persuasion must be brought to bear by people of faith and goodwill to constrain such outlier views. That is exactly what the Christian faith has had to do in recent centuries over issues like slavery, rights of women and children, racial equality, and more. Hate-filled and violent sects like the Westboro Church have been marginalized and neutralized by faithful Christians who recognize that sect’s heresy and defilement of God’s character. As we come together to know God, ourselves, and one another better, God guides us into the transformations that are necessary to present the truth of who God is and live in accordance with God’s will for his creation.
For Christians, the ultimate character of God is defined as “Good”…..meaning in the best interest of others, showing God’s loving desire for all of humanity to be conformed to his own character and will and to dwell eternally with him. God is also defined ultimately as “Sovereign” and is therefore capable of redeeming all things so that they come into harmony with his good will for creation.
Knowing and desiring God…….beginning with his Goodness, his Sovereignty, his Transcendently Cosmic scale and power, and his imminently personal intimacy in the heart and mind of those who seek him ……If we come together, and reason together, not about our respective cultural traditions, or about political systems, or even the worth of values expressed by kings and kingdoms of the world, but about the very character and nature of God, we will find unity. The key to success in seeking unity with one another lies not just in seeking common ground only among and between ourselves, not in our affiliation with a group or nation of origin, not even in our mutual acceptance, but in all of us….each of us…..desiring and seeking unity with the One True God who alone can bring us together.
We are sharing tonight in our Muslim neighbors’ spiritual celebration… and the values it represents. May all of us, however we celebrate our spiritual lives, individually and in community, look to the One True God and how he is revealing himself to us. We will find in those revelations our common heritage and our shared future. For it is in knowing God more fully that we will come to know one another better, and in doing so, will discover the unity that God and we desire. Thank you and may God bless us all as we pursue peace and unity.