Ideas about unity in the love of God are very important. They help us to reflect upon our own concepts of self and the way we choose to faithfully live our lives. Ideas are important components of the life of faith. So, too, are practices through which truth is comprehended in practical encounters that may have been difficult — or even perhaps nearly impossible — to glimpse by means of thought alone. Indeed, sometimes our thoughts about a thing are best formed in the context of our active lives. This has been very much the case in my experiences of unity with God, unity with my fellow humans, and unity with God’s creation.
This is certainly evidenced in the way that Jesus and the apostle Paul taught. Both made frequent reference to the sacred texts of the Bible. And both taught by means of living out the core concepts in the practices of the community of disciples gathered together. There was a clear connection drawn between teaching and application in daily life.
In exploring notions of unity with God, our fellow humans, and God’s creation — when exploring these notions among Christians seeking to live out a faithful life of discipleship — one of the best things we can do is make a commitment to seek out close relationship with all. These relationships will vary according to context. There relationships between individuals, and many levels and configurations of community. Each of these is important; and all are interrelated in God’s wish for us to actively love one another as we love ourselves.
Friendship is a means towards unity of many kinds. Joining into the mystery of getting to know and be known by another is one of the most potent spiritual practices in which one can ever engage. In choosing one’s friends, there is benefit in building relationships with those with whom it is easy to relate (drawing from similar backgrounds, culture, and language, etc.) and those with whom similarities are fewer (different backgrounds, different cultures, and different languages, etc.). Building a group of friends around us that are built upon similarities and that bridge dissimilarities helps us find both strength in ourselves and be able to navigate the difficulties that arise from reaching beyond interactions that come easily to us.
Over the course of much of my life, I have made friendships with people whose first language is different from my own, whose religion is different, who come from different cultures, and who were born into different generations. Entering into such friendships needs a real commitment on the part of both people to hold on in difficult times — because they will come. And, there will be far fewer resources available in such a friendship upon which to draw. Language will fail. Cultural norms will fail. At times, you will experience one another as so alien that you may wonder why you ever tried to have a relationship with each other in the first place. And, if you press further, sometimes you will even discover that you are alien to yourself — that you did not know yourself nearly as well as you thought. Friendship — especially with people who are profoundly different from ourselves — can be frustrating and painful. Some of the greatest heartaches I have known in my life have been experienced in the context of friendships built across differences. But the effort is worth it.
Certainly, Jesus’s own relationships with each of his disciples is built across immense chasms of difference. And there was plenty of heartache to go around with his first disciples (as I am sure there is with each of us who have followed after). Differences of expectation led to betrayal. Fear led to disappointment. But — Christ Jesus took on that risk by choice (and takes it on still) — enduring suffering for our sake, in fulfillment of the love of God that knows no boundaries (and accepts none we might try to put in the way).
When I speak of love in terms of relationship I pair it up with the word commitment. That is because love needs our full investment; the assurance that we are willing to take the hard times with the good. If Jesus’s love could not reach into death and through it, it could not have had the saving impact that it had then and has today. When we come together in relationship with one another, we need to do so with the free choice that we will stay together and not walk away. For that commitment to have its full power, it needs to be freely made, and freely affirmed in each moment.
The fruit of friendship is offered up in harvests in many seasons; and that fruit grows richer with time. When we choose to share our lives with others, opening ourselves up to growing closer in the effort, we change. Those things that initially divided us may be transformed into something that becomes shared and which eventually unites us. Those things that were obstacles that could not be transmuted are sometimes cast away. And some things are accepted as differences that can exist as things that keep us particular — even in the context of the relationship.
There is no practice of unity more important than that of making and nurturing friendships. Love cannot exist merely in abstraction. Love needs to be planted in the hearts of each other in order to live and grow.
Building upon friendship, another practice of unity is to build relationships with communities; with groups made up of individuals. I stress the recognition of communities as being made up of individuals because one’s relationship with a community cannot exist in relation to the group only. Points of connection are made with individuals. Thus, relationship with a group also means building friendships within that group. Again, as with individual friends, our relationships with communities are strongest when we make relationships with some who are more like us and some who are different from us. Each will provide challenges and supports that complement one another as they come in contact with us. For Christians, it is important to have a vital relationship with a Christian community. In this context you can support one another by asking relevant questions to deepen one another’s discipleship and comforting one another as you face challenges that go with a Christian life. But, just as a Christian is called to go out into the world to love all of God’s children and all of creation, it is an important aspect of Christian discipleship to reach beyond their immediate companions in faith to establish and cultivate relationships with other Christian communities and communities not formed around a Christian identity. This latter kind of community can be sorts that are drawn together in other understandings of faith or even communities that have entirely different organizing purposes (such as a neighborhood, a group of workers, a business association, a group of professionals, etc.). While it is very important to build relationships among people of different faith perspectives, it is also important to remember that there are other ways in which humans come together.
Again, there are challenges that will accompany every relationship we build with communities. Loving others requires a willingness to live through discomfort, disappointment, and even suffering. Again, our commitment needs to be something we make freely and which we choose anew in each moment.
Another practice of unity I want to mention is one that moves us beyond the human into relationship with God’s creation more broadly. In recent decades, it has been common for Christians in many traditions to speak a lot about the importance of creation in a life of faith. Yet, too often that speaking takes on little by way of substance beyond the abstraction of ideas. God creates in this world all forms of life and, whether we choose to recognize it or not, our faithfulness to God also places upon us the challenge to love the creatures that God calls good. As with other challenges found in the effort to live in the unity of the love of God, we need to draw close to one another and create a space where love will grow between us, making the bridge for our relationship with each other.
I think that friendship is the starting-point for building healthy and loving relationships with other creatures. Many people already do this in their relationships with creatures they have chosen to share life with — cats, dogs, fish, houseplants, gardens, and trees. Some anthropomorphize these relationships and some do not. But, however we conceive of the basis of our relationship, when we take care of another creature, when we look out after its interests, we are cultivating seeds of love. This is also experienced by some people in the context of relationships with creatures who do not live their lives in our homes, in our gardens, or in our yards. Some people build meaningful relationships with creatures they encounter in the woods when they take their walks, in the water when they spend time on lakes rivers, or the sea, and so on.
In my own life, I had an experience that moved me greatly when I went out into Massachusetts Bay several years ago. I had never given much thought to whales. Having grown up far from where whales live, I spent much time in nature, but the ocean was an unknown place to me. On that morning in early autumn, I went out on a whale watch boat mostly looking forward to seeing the Boston Harbor Islands and the coast of the Massachusetts North Shore. When the first whale made its appearance that day, a Minke whale far off in the distance, I did not feel especially dazzled. But then a Fin whale came close to the boat with her calf. The Fin whale is second in size only to the Blue whale; and her baby was early in its life at a sizable eighteen feet in length. Mother and calf came up along one side of the boat and nearly everyone on deck went to that side to look as they came within a few feet of the hull. I was at the back of the crowd and could not see much. Then, I had an intuition to go to the other side of the boat, where no one else was standing. At that instant, the calf dove down and people were waiting for it to come back in sight next to its mother. But, a short moment later, it came up on the other side of the boat right near me. It made eye contact with me and I was rendered speechless. For a few seconds that seemed to draw out into a very long moment, its eye moved to keep contact with my own. I saw in that eye a depth of intelligence that was at the same time alien to me and somehow familiar. Here, I realized, was a child of God every bit as much as am I. That one moment of fleeting encounter with a citizen of God’s creation — as much of a relationship as I can practically have with a Fin whale — was enough to change my whole conception of whales and of the creatures of the sea. A spring of love for those who live in the ocean rose up in me then; and it is a spring that lives in me still. In practical terms, I have encouraged them to grow by expressing love for the residents of the seas through changing my choices to take their needs into account. That is expressed in choices I make for products I buy, taking the time to retrieve wayward plastic before it flows off of land and out into the waves, etc. These may be small things when seen from one perspective. But they are the sorts of small things that draw me (and us) closer in a harmonious relationship with beings of God’s creation.
Over the years, my experiences of relationships with individuals, communities, and creation have done much to challenge me and help me to grow. Perhaps God has also used me as a means for growth for those who have been in relationship with me. What I know is that my ideas have been shaped and reshaped by the intersection with experience. Practices of living shaped around God’s hope for our unity in love are powerful enough to transform us so that we more perfectly love as Christ loves and live as Christ lives.