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April 26th, 2007

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

Looking for a vacation spot this summer? I have just the place for you. It’s a little out-of-the-way, and it’s not near a beach or anything, but the ambience can’t be beaten.

If you’re a woman, that is.

The name of this little-known resort is Longshuihu. It’s a village of about two square miles located in Shuangqiao district of China’s Chongqing municipality. Longshuihu’s colloquial name, however, is “Women’s Town.” It comes by its name honestly; in Longshuihu, Chinese tourism officials say, “women rule and men obey.”

In the traditional culture of Chongqing, women are in charge. They make decisions at all levels of society, and men are expected to obey. While things are generally more equitable between the genders there now, tourism officials have decided to use the law of “women rule and men obey” as a novelty to draw visitors to the little town of Shuangqiao. The tourism bureau will invest at least the equivalent of $26 million in infrastructure, roads and buildings in the town. They are welcoming investors from overseas, in case anyone’s interested in kicking in.

The motto of Women’s Town will be "women never make mistakes, and men can never refuse women's requests," according to Chinese media. When tourists enter the town, females would play the dominant role when shopping or choosing a place to stay or eat or whatever. A disobedient man would be punished by "kneeling on an uneven board" or washing dishes in a restaurant.

Sounds delightful. Vacation? I’m still trying to figure out how that’s supposed to be different from everyday life….

Truth be told, doesn’t it sound just a little attractive to live in a place where the sub-group you belong to never makes mistakes, and where others always have to give in to what you want? It would certainly make life easier in some ways if everyone was forced to go along with my political ideology, or theological perspectives, or musical taste, or whatever. It sounds attractive, doesn’t it, to literally create a world where you’re right, and where everyone else is either on board or out the door? I have to admit that there’s something about it that appeals to me.

There are those who would like our neighborhood, our city, our country to take shape along those lines. You hear them in the media, in the streets, in your face, clamoring for everyone to get in step with their agenda, fall in line with their thinking. Everyone ought to speak my language. Everyone ought to share the assumptions of my culture. Everyone ought to adjust to my way of thinking and living. After all, so the reasoning goes, it’s “our” country and “our” culture. Those who don’t or can’t or won’t adopt it as their own and embrace it fully are cordially invited to go somewhere else. Americans aren’t the only people to give into this impulse, of course. It seems everyone wants to create a world in which “we” are right and “they” have to fit in.

The church, however, is not to be such a world. We’re not to even want such a world.

Instead of insisting on the superiority of one culture over the other, Paul counsels the church to “be completely humble.” In place of forcing people to fit in with the dominant culture, he says we should be “gentle.” Instead of being exasperated and frustrated with the long, slow process of understanding and appreciating those who are different from you, Paul writes that in the church we are to “be patient, bearing with one another in love.” And rather than emphasizing how “they” are different from “us,” he makes the revolutionary suggestion that we “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Our world does dissension and disagreement well. There’s no trick to it, really. It’s easy to ignore or dismiss or even hate those who are different from you. The consequences are severe, and have cut deep scars across human history. But it’s easy. All you have to do is give in to your impulses for self-assertion and make no effort to understand and appreciate those who are different from you.

But as believers in a Lord who holds out his hands to all nations and who calls men and women of every language, race, and ethnic group, we witness to a different reality. We say that the differences between us don’t matter nearly as much as what unites us. We believe that the Holy Spirit, poured out into our hearts by Jesus through the will of God the Father, creates a unity between us so powerful that it transcends the most severe racial, ethnic, and national conflicts. It pulls together white and black, Jew and Gentile, Israeli and Palestinian, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, young and old. We might drive each other crazy sometimes. We might still misunderstand each other, maybe because we don’t even speak the same language. We might even argue and fight. But we bear with one another in love and keep the peace because we believe that the unity the Holy Spirit brings is a sacred thing that must not be disturbed.

Sunday, we’ll worship together at Northwest. Different races and ethnicities. Citizens of different nations. Fluent in different languages. We’ll sing of the same God made known to us all as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pray to that God, read his word in whatever language we choose. We’ll gather around the same table and share the same bread and the same cup and recall and reappropriate the same sacrifice. We’ll have in common the same baptism, and celebrate together the same hope. We don’t worship that way every Sunday (thought maybe we should), but I pray that the unity that a casual observer might assume from that worship service will exist in fact. I hope that sharing worship together will remind us of all the other things we share and of how little our differences really matter, and that it will push us to find other ways of living out that truth day by day.

It’s beyond debate that the church has not always been good at this. At times in our history, we’ve been as divided as any segment of human society. We can’t change that history. We can, however, write a different one. Starting now. Starting now, we can embrace each other as family. In Christ, after all, that’s what we are. Through Jesus, we’ve all received the hope and life and grace that we needed more than anything.

We’re really not so different after all.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

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