unity is our weakness

A billboard caught my eye last week. The driver kindly stopped so that I could take a photo - although I could tell that he wondered what I was doing. He was insistent on stopping in front of the neighbouring billboard - but, no, this is the one I wanted:


It is the conflictual relationship between word and image that draws me into this billboard. The words proclaim (almost) that 'unity is a strength'. But the image suggests that unity is a weakness in the construction of this billboard - because they did not work together to get it right.

But as I've lingered with this disturbed image, it still teaches me a lot about unity.

There is absence
Some panels are missing. This happens in practice as well. Many think that unity is just a function of the love shared among us - but it isn't. It is also about truth (of the gospel) shared among us. This is one of the enduring lessons from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the biggest crisis ever to face the church. Unity was preserved, even deepened, because James worked to ensure that there was a victory for love and a victory for truth.

There is chaos
Some panels are in the wrong place. Some are even upside down. This happens in practice as well. Unity needs some order and clarity, some gentle structure and cohesion. Panels and paint, images and words ... these need to work together, each playing their role in maximising the message of the billboard. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 comes to mind. The human body has a unity, but only as each part fulfills its role.

There is separation
The way the people are cut up is particularly troubling. This attitude lacks dignity. It ceases to treasure people. This happens in practice as well. The mind returns to Genesis 1 and the way human beings are image-bearers of the divine ('in our image') - but before that truth is even uttered, the divine as a unity and as a creative team is asserted ('Let us'). And so, as divine image-bearers, we are designed for the unity which defines the Trinity. The billboard needs to have people linking arms if word and image are to align their messages.

There is foolishness
The billboard proclaims a strong unity.  This happens in practice as well. It is a dumb thing to do. As soon as you wave this flag, it has a way of fluttering away from your grasp. It is not wise to draw attention to unity in such bold ways. Pray for it. Plead for it. Pursue it. But then let it slip in through the backdoor. Let its reality creep up and overwhelm you, as you get on with living the John 13 brand of servanthood, the 1 Corinthians 13 brand of love, and the Philippians 2 brand of humility.

There is deterioration
The billboard is crumbling. Paint is peeling. Nails are rusting. Dents are appearing. This happens in practice as well. Unity becomes weary and worn, as it succumbs to stress. Everywhere I go people speak to me of their context, as if it is unique. I listen as if for the first time, with empathy - but, in reality, it is often something I've heard before. Big Corruption - Poor Infrastructure - Bad Leadership - Crazy Traffic - etc etc ... these conspire together in the society (and sometimes even in the church) to undermine unity.

There is irony
This billboard sits in a context.

It is in a city (Kohima) where there is a tennis court, a few turns in the road from this billboard, that marks the very spot where the westward advance of the Japanese in World War 2 was halted. An easily forgotten story of sacrifice and heroism, punctuated by the unity of purpose that the fiercest battle engenders.

The site of the Battle of the Tennis Court, 'Britain's Thermopylae'
That city is in a state (Nagaland) which has the highest concentration of Baptists anywhere in the world. But as the arrival of the gospel recedes with the generations, the advance of nominalism and the arrival of Malachi-like challenges is everywhere to be seen ... and 'unity is our strength' becomes a quality which the church needs to embody. May it be so, Lord Jesus.

nice chatting

Paul

Comments

wardyoude said…
I was reading in Ezekiel this morning, and I realised the NZ church has largely failed to be a watchman like Ezekiel was to the backsliding Jews. Our country is going down the plug hole and our church is not warning of the consequences of turning our back on God. Would seem to me your blog be drawing a comparison with that billboard and the church?
Paul said…
I feel your pain. I do.

It is interesting to ask where the relevance lies when comparing Ezekiel & 'backsliding Jews in exile' with NZ church & NZ country. I think you see the NZ church to have an Ezekiel-role within the NZ nation (who are a bit like the Jewish 'nation' in exile). But I wonder if the point of comparison might be a bit different. Rather than comparing nation with nation, why not compare people of God with people of God? So now the NZ church does not speak the Ezekiel message, but receives the Ezekiel message. My hunch is that it is first the NZ church that should feel the heat in Ezekiel's message, not the NZ nation. The 'warning' is primarily aimed at the people of God - an (exiled) nation back then, but a church today.

What do you think?

The NZ church still has a warning role, as you say. But it is not that useful a role if nobody is listening. Churches need to give themselves to becoming 'contrast communities', being distinctive with distinction, having a brand of goodness that attracts people, intrigues people, makes people curious and draws them nearer. As that is more securely put in place, words of warning to the wider world may be heard more readily and effectively.

good stuff - thanks

Paul

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