HR | A Word from Elder Rich Pierce
Hanley Road Family:
2020 feels like a hard year
It feels like we are beset by much calamity, unrest, and uncertainty this year. For me, these days are as hectic and unsettling as 1968, when I was 15 years old. That 2020 is rising to that level reminds me of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Now that can sound fatigued and nihilistic, but I see a silver lining and comfort in thinking that nothing is really completely new. First, people have survived similar things in the past, and second, we can look back and learn. I was a child of the unrest of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Many in our congregation are young now in 2020 and experiencing a similar time.
1968 - a year of trouble and unrest
A few seismic events of 1968 which are mirrored in our sense of unrest today:
- Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots ensued across the United States. A generational leader, certainly one of a handful of leaders of the 20th century in America, was lost.
- The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive that severely tested the assertion that we could “win” the war in Vietnam. We continued to send tens of thousands of soldiers as hundreds of US soldiers came home in flag-covered caskets every month, and there was no end in sight.
- Bobby Kennedy, another charismatic leader who had become “woke” to the great injustices in America, and who was running for President, was assassinated.
- Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Rights and protections that are implicit in our Constitution were codified and detailed in law.
- On October 16th, black US athletes took a stand at the Olympics in Mexico City, raising their fists during the medal ceremony, while the national anthem played. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were condemned by the International Olympic Committee for politicizing the Olympics, and two days later, they were expelled from the US Olympic Team and sent home.
- The Presidential election became a referendum on the Vietnam War. Senator Eugene McCarthy had strong support among young activists, but Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination. Young protestors rioted in Chicago and were beat back by police.
1968 was quite a year, and 2020 does not seem far behind, and we’re only halfway through it. I don’t need to make a list; you all are experiencing it live. I’ll share some feelings my friends and I (We were in our late teens.) experienced in 1968. We alternated between “We’ve got to tear it all down and rebuild it” and “It’s hopeless; the dream of what we hoped the world could be like is dead.” “The older generation just doesn’t get it - all they want is power and money and don’t care that the world is spiraling out of control as long as they are insulated from it.” Other friends and classmates were experiencing an entirely different reality: “These people do not love their country! Shut up and sign up (for serving in Vietnam)! Our parents saved this country with their blood in WWII, and you’re tearing it down!”
Uncertainty and diversity can be an uncomfortable combination
Let's think about how today’s issues of racial justice, social isolation, and the economic beating many in our church have taken can be processed. Like in 1968, some of us at the Journey at Hanley Road will be passionate for change, and others will want to preserve things mostly as they are. This will be disquieting at best. Those passionate for change will wonder why others are not, and those who do not share that passion will have concerns for our direction. These are opportunities for the Enemy who would divide us. Let’s not do as much the church did in 1968, which was to pretend that divisions were not present or important to address. The church overall is a conservative body of people - after all we have continued to raise high the cross for over 2000 years! The church has also often turned a blind eye to current events and their impact on God’s image bearers. Whatever we choose to do, be sure that it will be uncomfortable. These are uncomfortable times.
Lessons from the early church in handling divisions
So, how should we go forward? As I looked for scripture to speak into this time in our church life, I landed in Acts 6, where in the Jerusalem church, the native Jewish widows were well cared for, but the widows of the minority Greek-speaking Jews were being neglected. Complaints arose. I wonder how all this came to be. They suddenly had different cultures thrown together. It’s certainly possible that the native Jewish leaders were not connected to the Greek-speaking widows well enough to know their plight. I guess it’s also possible that they were by nature just more invested in church members who were like themselves. Is it possible that some in the church believed “the pot is only so big, and if we give generously to the Greek-speaking widows, ours will suffer neglect”? We are seeing some divisions in our church as we become more outward-facing. Some are passionate for this engagement with culture, and others are less so. Some are probably a bit anxious. They love our church as it is - will it change so much that it’s no longer “home”? Some may wonder: where ARE we going with this? The challenges in our society are bringing things into the light now, and we find we are more different than we’d hoped. We hoped it would be easy, being in the body of Christ. Now it’s not looking like it’s going to take some real effort to be together in this season, and that’s a little scary. I imagine the congregation in Jerusalem in Acts 6 had some concern as new converts with different needs and desires were flooding the church.
As I think about the situation in the early church, it seems it could have gone several different ways. The twelve apostles came to a decision. They looked for what was right and needed and how to make it a reality. The minority widows needed better care. Acts 6:3-6 reads: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
I take a couple things from this that we may apply today. Of course, all analogies break down at some point, but this much we can take from Acts 6: there were divisions in the church that were leading to complaints. First, the church leaders decided to embrace diversity. They valued each and every believer despite cultural differences, and they believed that their faith would bind them together.
Second, they addressed the problem expeditiously with input from the congregation. Their quick reaction emphasized and communicated to the congregation that this was a matter of importance. They wanted those who would be passionate and able for this cause to spearhead it, and to model to the rest of the congregation that this was a serious need. Like today, a diversity of passions and perspectives exist in the church. At Hanley Road today, voices are raised to point out things that others are not seeing. We at Hanley Road are a diverse group, and we hope to become even more diverse, to better reflect the beauty of diversity of God’s children and to mirror our local community. Wealthy and not, female and male, black, brown, and white, young and old, conservative and liberal, social activist and social conservative can walk together worshipping Jesus and serving in their God-given strengths. We can learn from each other to see what may be hidden from us, and join together. It’s been done before.
Acts 6:7 reads: "And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
I urge patience with each other. We must trust that God is working, especially in uncomfortable times and situations. And much of that work is in our own hearts, where we are challenged to love sisters and brothers with different histories, colors, passions, wounds, needs, gifts, and areas of victory. When another seems particularly upset, can we love and care for them if their passions or ways of engaging with our society are different than ours? We can. It’s been done before.