Praying for Unity - Day 1 of a Mini-Pilgrimage
"Grafted into the vine, which is Jesus himself, the Father
becomes our vinedresser who prunes us to make us grow.
This describes what happens in prayer. The Father is the
centre of our lives, who centres our lives. He prunes us
and makes us whole, and whole human beings
give glory to the Father."
-- from the 2021 Resource Booklet for the Week of
Prayer for Christian Unity, developed by the
Today was the opening day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. One gift of the pandemic I've heard mentioned more and more recently is the ability to participate in church life with an even wider circle of people, thanks to so many groups and congregations increasing their online presence. Over the last year, I've "visited" churches in other states for services or prayer. I joined events with people from all over the country and the world. Closer to home, I was deeply grateful to be able to watch a cousin's funeral in a church on the other side of the state.
I don't think I personally know anyone who prefers online church and activities to being in fellowship in person, but this past year has offered opportunities that seem at least a little like what Christian unity might feel like. This sense that I might walk in anywhere and participate fully has been really wonderful.
In reality, I know things are a lot more complicated. I can see some of the shadows that lurk when it comes to the idea of fully realized Christian unity. A recent in-my-face sort of example was seeing someone carrying a huge "JESUS" flag during the recent unrest at our nation's Capitol. Politics aside, I felt a lot of unease over the differences in that person's take on who Jesus was and my own. Jesus prayed in John 17 that we would all be one, just as he was one with God, and that we would be in them so that the world would believe God had sent him.
In spite of all the great experiences I've had with believers this past year, my feeling that there's an impossibly long way to go before we're "one" made it feel especially important to participate in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Tapping again into the offerings on the internet, I joined the New Mexico Pilgrimage for Unity to observe the week with a mini-pilgrimage. I'll be sharing some of my reflections in a few short posts during the week.
This first day of this week-long observance happened to fall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. With all of the tension still brewing in our country over racism and its effects, it felt it was important to walk in a place with a connection to African American history. I chose Camp Nelson National Monument in Nicholasville, Kentucky.
Camp Nelson was a supply depot and hospital for the Union Army. Beginning in 1864, it was a major recruiting center for African American soldiers, enlisting and training some 10,000 men who had risked everything to escape from slavery so they could gain their freedom when they joined the Union army.
Many of these men had escaped with parents, wives and children. As these family members were ineligible to enlist, they were not granted freedom and were expected to return to enslavement. In November of 1864, these refugees were forcibly removed by Union troops. Cold and harsh conditions resulted in the death of more than 100, creating national attention and public outcry that resulted in the army changing its policies. At Camp Nelson, a "Home for Colored Refugees" was built. While African American refugees were not legally free, they were given sanctuary.
There were many things that struck me during my time in prayer at Camp Nelson. One was the marker for Graveyard No. 1, pictured above. I was struck by the fact that it was a burial ground for both white women and children from east Tennessee (coming to Camp Nelson with enlisting husbands/fathers to escape Confederate occupation) and the African American women and children who had come there for protection. Here were people who had come to a place with so much in common, including their desire for safety and their hope for freedom from something. Yet they had lived their lives apart, both physically and socially. I felt a real sadness at this kind of separation, and at the fact that most of my life I have rarely given a thought to all the ways it has carried forward to the present.
I was also moved by something I read from the WCC materials during my walk: “'Abide in me as I abide in you,' Jesus tells us (Jn 15:4a). An integrated life presupposes a path of self-acceptance, of reconciliation with our personal and inherited histories."
At the most basic level, this means to me that "abiding" involves accepting myself because God accepts me, even my worst parts. Among other things, it means that what came before me, any ways I knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate it, and all the other mistakes I've made do not change God's acceptance. Being held in that space, and holding Jesus as a model for what is possible when life is lived in love, is where hope lies for me right now.
It may sound like these basic understandings are something very personal and not particularly relevant to "unity," but if I am to be a whole human being, grafted into the vine of Jesus and pruned by God to bear fruit, I cannot retreat entirely into myself. My inner life is important, but so is caring about, encouraging, and honoring the wholeness of everyone around me.
The WCC materials provide an excellent illustration courtesy of Dorotheus of Gaza, a 6th-century monk:
"Imagine a circle drawn on the ground, that is, a line drawn in a circle with a compass, and a centre. Imagine that the circle is the world, the centre is God, and the radii are the different paths or ways people live. When the saints, desiring to draw near to God, walk toward the middle of the circle, to the extent that they penetrate its interior, they draw closer to each other; and the closer they draw to each other, the closer they come to God. Understand that the same thing applies conversely, when we turn away from God and withdraw toward the outside. It then becomes obvious that the more we move away from God, the more we move away from each other, and the more we move away from each other, the more we also move away from God."
"Us and them" mentality, a sense of superiority (moral or otherwise), and words of hate, anger, and fear in today's world, too often coming from Christians, move us all in the wrong direction, away from each other and away from God. A sense of our shared struggles, hopes, and needs, humility, and words of life can move us together toward God and each other.
My prayer intention this week is for a movement of the Holy Spirit which inspires Christians everywhere to speak life into this world. Will you join me and others who pray for unity this week? What are the issues which tug at your heart around the topic of unity, and how might God be calling you to be a light related to those issues?