I have an interesting family. My immediate family consists of two adults, a flock of energetic kids, a dog, a cat an a handful of birds. One of the birds, whose name this week is Chiquita, has recently taken for herself the position as head of the household; she has learned how to work the lock on her cage, and she gets herself out and flies around the room from time to time. I figure it’s good exercise for her wings, not to mention her heart.
We’ll come back to her shortly.
My extended family gets together often, to celebrate whatever is handiest for celebration, and it’s not infrequently that we have fifteen or twenty people gathered in my parents’ house, and when we gather, the house if filled with laughter and energy.
As you might imagine, there’s a lot of talk. Most of it is about family things or community things, or peoples’ lives, and it’s an expression of care for each other. We tend to steer away from the three social unmentionables: politics, religion and sex. I appreciate avoiding the latter conversation, but I am intrigued by the former two. We have a huge spectrum politically in our family, and a fair breadth religiously as well.
One brother-in-law has a position working for a liberal politician in a liberal community, and he seems to have political and religious beliefs to match. The other one gives the impression of being a right-wing republican and religious fundamentalist. My problem is that both are brilliant men, better thinkers than myself, and both are gentle and well-spoken – well, most of the time.
When I listen to my conservative brother, I hear opinions like “Why are we surprised that so much is going wrong with our schools when we’ve banned prayer, banned any discussion of God or of right and wrong and encouraged kids to do whatever they feel is right”, and I understand his point: there is an absolute right and wrong, and his name is Jesus, and when we lose sight of him, we lose direction in our culture.
Then my liberal brother opines about how morally evil our culture is because of the inherent disrespect for the poor and weak among us, and I remember how God values the poor, and I understand his point: a religion or a politics that ignores the poor cannot be morally upright no matter how many bible verses they quote.
An over-simplification would say this:
1) The liberal church says, “You can’t love God if you don’t care for the less advantaged folks.” It’s about mercy. For example, the abortion issue is about people who are victims, people who are in a bad way and need some help getting out of it.
2) The conservative church says, “You can’t love God if you don’t live right in relationship to God.” It’s about right and wrong. From this perspective, the abortion issue is about taking responsibility for your actions, and about killing babies is not a good solution.
Neither quotes James, but they could: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
I don’t really like conflict or relational tension, and I see a fair bit of it when our family has these conversations, but I can’t get rid of this feeling that they’re important dialogs. If I take the traditional conservative position, then I need to either dismiss my liberal family members as irrelevant or uneducated – and they are manifestly neither – or I must admit a flaw in my position and in the logic that I use to defend it. The same is true if I hold to the traditional liberal position: there are some good-looking truths on the other side of the aisle, and I need to either abandon my traditional liberal position to embrace them, or I need to dismiss both those truths and the godly men and women who hold them as religious kooks. That doesn’t work for me.
James seems to have it right: there are two halves to pure and undefiled religion:
1. Helping widows and orphans (having a heart of mercy for disadvantaged folks), and
2. Keeping myself unspotted from the world (making right choices and living in right relationship with God).
I know a bunch of churches that preach the necessity of being right with God. If you were to press them, they’d acknowledge the need for mercy to the poor, but in reality, far more of their church budget (and their sermon content) is invested in “right wing” values: evangelism, moral choices, particular moral evils in our society. And I know several churches who are so invested in the homeless, in the rights of women, or of social outcasts, or of the victim-of-the-week that they seem to overlook the necessity for salvation by faith, or the reality of eternal judgment.
This is where I come back to Chiquita, our little escape artist. It seemed to me that God brought her to my mind as I was thinking about these things. When she makes her escape from the cage, she spends the next several minutes working hard to break the sound barrier flying around our living room, flapping furiously to keep out of our reach if we try to put her back where she belongs.
I felt that God was saying that His church has two wings. We tend to emphasize one wing or the other: So many of the left-winged among us have declared forcefully that if we don’t love the poor, we can’t love God, and they’re right. And the right-winged among us have emphasized that if we don’t live according to God’s standard of right and wrong then our love for the poor is empty works, and they’re right, too.
Just like Chiquita can’t fly furiously around the room with only her left wing or her right wing; she needs both wings to fly. With just one, she’d flap furiously in little circles, and those watching would either laugh or weep.
We, the church, have been stupid. (This is my blog, remember, and my opinion!) Most of us, and most of our churches, have focused on one wing or the other, and we’ve so completely missed a good portion of what’s on God’s heart. Why do you think it is that the groups with the most of God's power (as in healings, signs and wonders) are the groups with both wings in action? If we stay in a “one wing dominant” position, we too will flap around in little circles, while hell laughs and heaven weeps.
So what do we do? My recommendation is this: figure out which wing you identify with (that shouldn’t be very hard, really). Don’t abandon it, but make plans to add the strengths of the other wing into your life and ministry. If we're part of a bible-believing, then we need to get involved personally with feeding the poor or helping the homeless, or something similar. If we're part of a socially-conscious gathering, then we need to add a focus on the gospel in evangelism or missions, or the like.
Come on, folks. We need both wings to fly.