Don't Hold Back
Coming Together Around Our Father’s Table
I never could have dreamed how God would make me a father.
I have shared in different settings how my wife, Heather, and I struggled with infertility for many painful years. Believing that we couldn’t have children biologically and that we were called to raise a family, we adopted our first son, Caleb, from Kazakhstan. Two weeks after returning home with Caleb and still adjusting to being parents, we found out, to our shock and surprise, that Heather was pregnant. Apparently what happens in Kazakhstan doesn’t stay in Kazakhstan. Within nine months, Joshua was born, and we were a family of four.
The dream expanded when, three years later, we adopted our first daughter, Mara, from China. Three months after that adoption, again much to our astonishment, Heather was pregnant again. Our third son, Isaiah, came along soon thereafter, and we became a family of six.
Years later, Heather and I were joyfully content until a dinner date one night when the subject of adoption came up in conversation. We hadn’t even planned on talking about adoption that night, but by the time we gave our waiter the check, we were in tears and smiling, believing God was leading us to adopt again. About a year later, we were matched with a child in an orphanage overseas whom we’ve named J.D., and for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, we are still waiting to bring him home.
In the meantime, Heather and I were both reading Psalm 127 one day in our alone time with God, and we each sensed God calling us to bring another child, specifically a baby, into our home. So we started another adoption process, and months later we received information about a mom who was soon to give birth to a baby girl and desired to place her with a family for adoption. We were told that this birth mom already had a name picked out for her daughter, which was slightly disappointing because Heather and I had always said that if God gave us another girl, we would love to name her Mercy. But this obviously wasn’t going to keep us from moving forward in this process, so we got to know this birth mom, and do you know what name she had chosen for her child?
This beautiful baby girl was two days old when she came into our care, and she officially became Mercy Platt as I was finishing writing this book.
When I sit down with my family for dinner, I think back to the times when Heather and I begged God for children and wondered if he would ever answer. Then I look around the table in awe and think, I didn’t even know to ask for this. I never could have pictured this family portrait that God has painted.
Yet here at the outset of this book, I want to give you a glimpse of a family that is much larger, far more beautiful, and infinitely more unimaginable than my own. It’s a family of sisters and brothers with different facial features and skin colors. They think differently. They live by different social norms. They come from different backgrounds and nations. If you were to see the people in this family assembled anywhere in the world—say on that field of dreams in Iowa or out on the Serengeti Plain—you’d think, What on earth could such a wildly different bunch of people have in common?
Imagine yourself around the dinner table with them in my country. See the faces of two Christian teenagers from wildly different church and cultural backgrounds, enjoying each other’s company. See the believer from a predominantly Muslim country who recently became a U.S. citizen, talking to a Baptist war veteran who serves in law enforcement. Keep going around the table to a twenty-six-year-old Pentecostal social activist living in shared housing, laughing with a retired conservative Presbyterian lawyer. Sitting next to them is a Christian immigrant from Central America, just arrived with no documentation, who’s passing the potatoes to a MAGA Facebook group leader who became a Christian in central Florida. What in the world could have drawn all these people together?
The answer to that question is the most important thing they could ever have in common. Each of them has the same heavenly Father. Each of them has been adopted by God through the gospel, and they’ve all been welcomed into his family as his sons and daughters. And out of the overflow of his surprising love for them, they possess a supernatural capacity to show surprising love to one another.
This family is called the church, and if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re part of it. You’re seated around the same table. And you’re not just part of this family in the here and now. You and I will be part of God’s family forever.
But today, before we reach eternity, we need to have an important family conversation. It’s going to be difficult, but it needs to happen.
Are you ready?
Our church family is sick. Particularly the part of the family that makes its home in America.
Instead of enjoying one another’s company at the table, encouraging one another, and loving one another in word and deed, we’re caught up in a cultural climate that makes us quick to accuse, belittle, cancel, and distrust one another. Even more than being divided, so many sisters and brothers (i.e., so many of us) are hurting and feeling hurt by one another. So hurt, in fact, that many are leaving the table, while multitudes of outsiders see our table and want to get as far away as possible from it.
But, brothers and sisters, shouldn’t we want to be made well? Shouldn’t we long to experience what it means to be part of an unexplainably glad family before an unimaginably good Father?
“THAT THEY MAY BECOME PERFECTLY ONE”
Jesus is the master of unity, and he brought together a band of very different personalities to prove the point. In addition to calling uneducated fishermen—blue-collar types kept out of socially elite circles—he called Matthew, a wealthy tax collector who cared so little about political allegiance to his own country that he collected taxes for their Roman oppressors. On the other end of the spectrum, Jesus called Simon, a Zealot from an occasionally militant anti-government movement. Can you fathom it? Members of the extreme right and the extreme left—essentially political enemies—spending every waking moment with one another?
I’m sure it wasn’t always easy, but it worked. They learned to put up with one another. They learned to lay down their lives for one another. This kind of togetherness is what Jesus wanted for them. Unity was his vision for their future. In fact, in his final prayer for them before dying on their behalf, he prayed that they would stick together and show the world a supernatural picture of his love (see John 17:20–26).
Ultimately, they did just that. They started the church, where the differences among new disciples only multiplied. They were women and men, rich and poor, young and old, slave and free, Hebrew and Hellenist. Gentiles started joining in droves, and Jews hated Gentiles. Yet once Jewish disciples truly met Jesus, everything changed. Paul, an ethnic Jew and by his own admission a Pharisee of Pharisees, spent his life loving and sacrificing for people he once abhorred.
In the end, ethnic Jews, wealthy Romans, and impoverished Gentiles from all kinds of pagan backgrounds were joined together in the family of God. Jesus had prayed that they would stick together, and they did. As a result, the message of the gospel spread throughout the world. That’s why you and I are here today. And if we can model the way of those who’ve gone before us, if we can embody Jesus’s prayer for unity today, then we’ll play our part in passing on the gospel for generations to come.
Despite Jesus’s prayer for unity, we’ve discovered all kinds of reasons to divide his family into opposing camps, and the emotional and spiritual fallout is proving ruinous. We’ll talk more in the next chapter about how we divide into different churches based on the color of our skin. But we divide over more than skin color. We divide politically. Research shows that a majority of churchgoers prefer attending church with people who share their political views, and few attend services alongside people with different political opinions. We divide theologically over differing views on spiritual gifts, the end times, modes of baptism, and leadership in the church. We divide stylistically over different perspectives on music, service length, church décor, and a plethora of other preferences.
To be clear, it’s not necessarily bad to hold different views on these things. After all, I don’t expect every Christian in metro Washington, D.C., to attend the church I serve, a church where we do things in a particular way based on particular convictions. I praise God for gospel-proclaiming, Bible-believing pastors and churches across our city (and around the country, for that matter) who do things differently based on different convictions, and I want them all to reach more people for Jesus. But just because we don’t all attend the same church doesn’t mean we can’t all walk together in Christian unity.