Probably, like most couples, before Kelly and I married, we discovered “differences” between our families:
- Different family dynamics.
- Different holiday customs and traditions.
- Different priorities.
- Different ways of dealing with conflict.
- Different expectations, spoken and unspoken.
Mostly, we discovered that we didn’t always agree about which family’s patterns and traditions were, “normal.” Of course, we both thought our own family-of-origin was “normal” one. And, we both expected – insisted, really – our family’s “normal” would become the “normal” for our future marriage and family.
One debate was about when to have the big Christmas meal, and when to open Christmas presents. In my family, that was Christmas day. But, Kelly’s family did that on Christmas Eve. By becoming a pastor, and working on Christmas Eve, I won that particular argument!
Of course, over time, we’ve both compromised and developed our own new normals for our family; a blend of both of our families-of-origin, and a fair share of our own creation of a “new” abnormal. Overtime, we’ve actually both come to appreciate some of what used to seem SO foreign.
As a pastor, when I do pre-marital counseling, I often ask a series of questions to the couples, to dig at these kinds of assumptions and expectations. Questions like:
- Whose family will you spend the holidays with?
- What are your expectations about birthdays?
- Who will mow the yard, pay the bills, clean the bathroom?
- How will you discipline children?
- How much is ok for your spouse to spend without discussing it with you beforehand?
- What do you imagine will be a typical family vacation?
- How many kids, dogs, cats do you plan to have?
- Who cooks dinner?
I remember a bride once saying she imagined her family would have season tickets to Disney, and every family vacation would be to Disney. I still remember the look on the groom’s face, to whom this was new information, and who was obviously not too thrilled about Disney!
In my opinion, there aren’t right or wrong answers to questions such as these. But, sometimes, they have deeply symbolic importance, and can lead to major disagreements, especially when we think our desires and expectations are “normal.”
Normal. What is normal? Who gets to decide? And, why are we so uncomfortable with anything that upsets or challenges our expectations about what is or isn’t normal?
The truth is, what we consider “normal” usually doesn’t have greater importance or moral value. “Normal” is just familiar; what we’re typically accustomed to; what we’ve grown up with; what seems most common. But, what’s normal to us, may not be normal to others. For instance…
- Over a billion people eat with chop sticks, not forks and knives. Which is normal?
- My Guatemalan friends eat corn tortillas will every meal. Normal?
- Most of the world’s population skin tone is some shade of brown, not white. Normal?
- Most Americans and Europeans do NOT regularly practice any form of religion. Normal?
- Globally, the median family income is under $10,000 per household. Normal?
- Three times as many people speak Mandarin Chinese than those who speak English. Normal?
- And, of course, there’s the current debate about wearing facemasks. Many in Asian countries have worn facemasks any time they had even the mildest cold, for many years. Normal?
Obviously, depending on where you’re from, where you live and who you associate with, some things will seem more “normal” than others. The question is how rigidly biased we are by those norms, and how accepting we are of different norms. Or, when something seems strange, or different to us, do we tend to judge, or reject?
For whatever reason, difference is hard for us. Too often, we equate different with wrong.
This is the problem Paul wrote about in Romans 14. Apparently, in Rome, Christians disagreed over trivial matters like diets and observing “special” days. Some believed Christians were free to eat anything. Others felt obliged to keep a stricter diet. Some Christians didn’t feel any obligation to observe “special” days. But, others took their “special” holidays VERY seriously. And, these differences of opinion – and that’s all they were, opinions – created divisions, and with division came judgment, criticism, and anymosity.
Interesting to me, the Apostle Paul, who wrote the Book of Romans, had wrestled with these issues himself. Before becoming a Christ-follower, Paul was trained as a Pharisee. Remember the Pharisees? They were the ones who criticized Jesus for not following the rules – THEIR rules. They criticized Jesus for hanging around other rule-breakers. They were the ones who connived to have Jesus killed.
Pharisees were rule-makers, rule-keepers and rule enforcers, and Paul was deeply formed in these rules and regulations. I’m sure he kept every single one, immaculately. But, after his conversion, he discovered grace, and that God’s favor had nothing to do with rule keeping. Though he was a circumcised Jew, raised on a kosher diet, he was among the first to advocate relaxing the rules for non-Jewish converts to Christianity. When he was among non-Jews, he didn’t judge them for not being Jewish. In fact, he adopted their ways and practices.
So, I suspect in this argument, Paul’s personal conviction would be that diet and the observance of certain holidays didn’t really matter, one way or another. BUT, if it mattered to someone else, Paul was happy to accept what mattered to them.
3 Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5 One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. 6 Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. (Romans 14:3-7, CEB)
Paul’s point? YOU may not feel convicted about what you eat or don’t eat. Fine. That’s what you should do. You may or may not feel obliged to observe certain rituals. Fine. You do you. But, don’t judge someone else’s convictions. If someone else feels compelled to adjust their diet or perform certain rituals to honor God, respect that. Don’t judge it.
Also from Romans 14…
- 10 Why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God.
- 17 God’s kingdom isn’t about eating food and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever serves Christ this way pleases God and gets human approval.
- 22 Keep the belief that you have to yourself—it’s between you and God.
About twenty years ago, Kelly and I went with a group of Pastors to South Korea, to visit some of the largest churches in the world. During our time there, our group was divided among local Korean pastors, to visit the homes of members. Kelly and I don’t speak Korean – that was a challenge. And, everything in Korea is small – I’m not. And, it’s customary to take off your shoes when you enter a Korean home – but, I mostly wear lace-up shoes, which was awkward. Koreans sit on the floor. Even then, me getting up and down from the floor wasn’t graceful. In Korea, it’s customary for guests to bring a gift for the host. We were never sure what to take.
The whole thing felt awkward, strange, uncomfortable, and sometimes comical. It certainly wasn’t “normal.” But, it certainly wasn’t wrong! It was an education! And, it was important that we honor and respect our host’s culture and tradition, as much as we could.
So, why all this talk about what’s normal or not? This summer, we’re talking about connection; ways we can be more connected with God, others, and ourselves. As we think about our connections with others, sometimes we become disconnected over the most trivial, insignificant things… even at church!
Even here at First Church, we can be divided. We have two different styles of worship, and strong, opinionated views about which one is the “right” way to worship are often voiced. Is there a wrong way to worship God? We’re divided into different Sunday School classes, with different emphases and theologies. We have different attitudes toward LGBTQ persons, and we’re part of a denomination that will likely divide over our acceptance or unacceptance. We have different politics. We have different ideas about the church’s vision and mission, and what we should be doing for our community. We have different ideas about what kind of future we should work toward.
And, as you know, many of us aren’t bashful about expressing our opinions! Yet, with all of our diverse ideas, opinions and practices, First Church belongs to ALL of us. We’re all one big family. We’re united by one common faith in one great God – even if we approach that same God differently.
Who is right? Who is wrong? Who’s to say? Who cares?
I think Paul’s point is to not let differences divide us. While we may not agree with each other, and while we may not practice our faith in the same ways, we can minimally accept and tolerate each other. Or, we can take the greater, Christ-like step to honor each person we encounter, and maybe even learn from them. Think about the way Jesus treated the Samaritan woman at the well, or the Roman Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his dying servant – different people, outside of the Jewish culture and faith, honored by Jesus, recipients of God’s grace.
And, by the way, have you ever thought about how radically different Jesus was than we are? He not only lived 2000 years ago, he was ethnically and religiously Jewish, and followed the customs and traditions of the Jewish people. He spoke Aramaic. He was from a poor, working class family. As far as we know, he never married or had children. He didn’t look like most of us – he certainly didn’t look like the Europeanized-pictures we saw in Sunday School! I’m guessing, in more ways than we can imagine, the real Jesus of history was a different from us as anyone could be.
I can’t help but wonder, if we really got serious about serving our community, or about really opening our doors to the kinds of people Jesus spent time with – tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, formerly demon-possessed, the poor – if we would embrace them, or if we might struggle with the differences they would bring to our church.
What if First Church became more ethically diverse? Did you know the largest growing population in Orlando is Spanish-speaking? What if First Church became younger? Don’t you think a younger congregation would bring different ideas about what Church should be? What if we started attracting openly broken people, who need loved, acceptance, and healing? What if poor people felt welcome here?
Would we be more fixated on our differences, and let them divide us, or form spiritual connections with different and diverse persons? I’m personally convinced the future of the church can’t be homogenous groups of people who have the same-color, same-socioeconomics, same-politics. The future of the church has to reflect the diversity of our communities.
Our founder, John Wesley, once asked, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
The point of today’s message, and the whole “Connectability” series, is that we all need connection – with God, and with people. But, as much as we need people, there seems to be so much that drives us, unnecessarily, apart. And, sometimes, what separates us, is just a matter of style, or preference, or taste. The message today is that different is just different – not wrong, not immoral. Difference doesn’t have to divide or threaten us. In fact, connecting with people who are different might actual make us better humans, and better Christians. It might make us more like Jesus.