Praying for Unity - Day 2 of a Mini-Pilgrimage
"Merciful God, you have shown us in Christ that we are one in you.
Teach us to use this gift in the world so that believers of all faiths
in every country may be able to listen to each other and live in peace.
God of peace, God of love, in you is our hope!"
-- from the 2021 Resource Booklet for the Week of
Prayer for Christian Unity, developed by the
World Council of Churches (WCC)
The second day of my mini-pilgrimage, I chose to walk at Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Pleasant Hill was the site of an early 19th-century Shaker village. The Shakers were known formally as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing and got their name for their ecstatic worship practices. Founded in England in 1747, the group made their way to America in the 1770s.
The Shakers were considered a Utopian society. Their communities were built around ideas like communal ownership, celibacy, and simplicity. They were pacificists. Their work ethic was reflected in maxims like "hands to work and hearts to God," or "do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow." Men and women lived and mostly worked separately, but they practiced equality in all aspects of life, including leadership. They opposed slavery and practiced social equality.
Walking part of an old turnpike that went through the village at Pleasant Hill, in the quiet of a beautiful sunny day, it was easy to imagine Shakers working fields or tending cattle on the other side of the stone fence I passed. I reflected on people who live on the edges or outside of what is considered the "norm."
The Shakers would have been considered pretty weird - or at least, very different - in their time. Some of their outsider status was intentional. They sought out rural areas for their villages, for instance, so as to avoid the evils associated with big cities. They wanted to live a life apart from "the World" so as to create a sort of heaven on Earth.
Some of their outsider status was tied to how they were perceived. They were mystics and eccentrics. An early leader who brought the movement to America, Mother Ann Lee, was believed to be the second coming of Christ in female form. In England, they had been mobbed and stoned. Even some of the earliest members to come to America ended up in prison for some of the their beliefs.
And yet for the persecution and attention they may have been subject to for being different, they lived relatively peaceful, Godly lives. They didn't live like the people of the World, whom they would have considered to be the real outsiders, but neither did they completely shun them. The World was a market for goods they produced. They gave of their surplus to the poor. They shared their inventions without patents. They strove for perfection, but they didn't seem to expect or require that from others. This allowed them to settle in and operate as a community without serious ongoing abuse.
On the heels of my last post, where I wondered about how people can understand Jesus so differently, a friend shared a podcast episode on the topic of spiral dynamics (a model for how people understand and respond to the world around them). This gave me a lot to think about in terms of unity and how it could even be possible among Christians who are relating to Jesus and God from so many different perspectives.
In the end, I think the prayer excerpt at the beginning of this post is key. It references people of different faiths, but it could be just as important for people between the various denominations of the Christian faith to put into practice. I don't have to agree with people who have a different take on what Jesus stood for or the details of his ministry. I just need to listen and live in peace.
Like most things, this is easier said than done. Even as I typed, I thought, "I don't even have to listen to them." But one of my take-aways from this day's reflections on the Shakers would be that completely isolating myself from those I don't agree with is not a good strategy.
The truth is that there is tremendous benefit from listening. Listening (in whatever form that takes) moves me from assuming peace is not possible to a place where I have learned enough to see a path to peace. Even in my own experience, I've found neither internal nor external peace is really possible in my life if I shut myself completely off from anything beyond my own way of thinking. Scripture lays out our unity with others as God's desire and plan, and Spirit can teach us to recognize it and live it if we're willing to be open.
My prayer is that God would help me be more aware of how I respond to ways people live out their beliefs and understandings differently, to seek understanding through listening, and to consider ways I can contribute to living peacefully in my community, my country and the world. What speaks to you in the prayer excerpt? What are other ways in addition to listening and living in peace that we might experience the gift of unity with others?