23 years of being pushed, challenged, and prodded

November is an important month for me. It is my New Year. In August of 1994 I joined the ranks of the unemployed. Three months earlier I had submitted a resignation letter to the church where I was working. As I look back on that time it seems clear now I wasn’t being very strategic. My wife was pregnant with our first child, due in September. She was employed, so we would find a way to figure things out. Finances would be tight but we would make it. That plan made sense until September when Rita received notice that she was going to be laid off. By October we were new parents of a baby boy and unemployed. It was a stressful time. On November 1, 1994 the local DOOR board hired me as the new DOOR Denver director. I never imagined staying at DOOR for more than 5-7 years. Here I am 23 years later, still at DOOR. Both our boys have only known me as a dad who works for DOOR.

For me November is a month of reflection and evaluation. When I look back over the two plus decades I have been at DOOR there are a number of reasons why I have stuck around.

I get to work with a group of people who are always challenging me to reexamine my stereotypes and religious prejudices. DOOR’s staff and board leadership come from all kinds of backgrounds. We have the “decent and in order” Presbyterians, the peaceful Mennonites, a Quaker or two, a few Pentecostals, some inspired Lutherans, and more than a few folks just trying to figure out where or if they fit into the denominational landscape. That is only one way to describe DOOR. We are women and men; Americans and immigrants; theologians and artists; gay and straight. We also hold many racial identities- African American, White, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Caribbean, and Asian.

One of the major benefits of working in a diverse environment is the inherent permission to examine, reevaluate, and question my faith perspective. Prior to DOOR, I was a pastor. As a pastor one of the unwritten requirements is to have a solid unshakable faith. While other people could question God, it was my job to be the steady reassuring voice. Over time this began to destroy me. My primary reason for resigning in 1994 was a complete loss of faith in God.

I came to DOOR because I needed a job and the bills needed to be paid. What I have received has been so much more than a source of income for my bills. DOOR became a place where God became real. There is a freedom in pursuing a faith and a God who has no respect for my stereotypes. Working alongside people who do church differently (read: anyone who is not Mennonite) has been enlightening. Praying, laughing, and crying with people of different sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, and theological perspectives is a contestant reminder that at best I see through a glass dimly.

For too long people of faith have confused “one way” with “everyone better go the same way.” What I have begun to uncover after 23 years is that each of us is a unique individual made in the very image and likeness of God. And God, in God’s grace and mercy, has helped me to walk my path, my one way.

Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

A white issue

Two years ago I was asked to join the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) advisory board. SCUPE is a ministry committed to educating leaders to revitalize congregations and community organizations to transform cities towards becoming just, inclusive and peaceful communities in accordance with God’s vision for the world. This particular board gathers twice a year to hear reports and dream about future possibilities. During the Advanced Latino/a Theological Education (ALTE) Program report a person made the thought-provoking comment that fundamentalism is a white person issue. Normally I would have just ignored the statement but Martin Marty, a well know writer on the subject of fundamentalism, was in the room and he didn’t raise any objections. For those of you who have heard the term but are not really sure what fundamentalism is, here is a quick refresher. It stresses the infallibility of Scripture in matters of faith and morals and as a historical record. These are the people who get stressed out about the theory of evolution.

I am not sure that I grew up as a strict fundamentalist, but it certainly shaped my view of God, the Bible, and the kind of choices I needed to make in life. It is never fun to discover that deeply held commitments are more a matter of culture than a universal Christian understanding. Facing this reality is uncomfortable and has the potential to be disruptive. We all want to believe that our Christian understandings are culturally neutral. Quite simply this is not the case, and never has been the case.

Our understandings of God are always culturally influenced. One of the only ways I know of moving beyond my particular culture is to put myself in places where other cultures and understandings have a voice. This isn’t easy. For many of us difference has and continues to equal sin. Allowing for difference can very quickly become uncomfortable. How do people who believe in a literal six day creation worship together with those who understand evolution to be true? Evolution versus creation is child’s play when put alongside questions of sexual orientation. Difference is not easy.

Can you imagine a church where difference is celebrated? Being with a group of believers who hold wildly different understandings of who God is and how God works? Potentially uncomfortable, certainly messy but also freeing.

The Voice

If you have arrived at this post because you were looking for information on NBC’s “The Voice” you may as well stop reading.  I am a fan and cheer for anyone from team Blake, but I want to reflect on another voice.  I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home.  For the most part I have good memories from my childhood. However my understanding of faith and God was shaped by a lot of rules and a tremendous amount of guilt.  For example, Christians didn’t dance, go to movies or listen to rock n’ roll.  We believed in a judgmental God who would one day come back to “rapture” the faithful.  Men were called to leadership in both house and church while women could teach children’s Sunday school and be quietly submissive.  When pre-marital sex led to pregnancy the “girl” would meet with the elders and then disappear for a few months. Apparently all of these pregnancies were immaculate because the male participation was never discussed.  Divorced people could be forgiven but rarely achieved more than second class status.

In a strange sort of way these rules and others like them created a space of predictability and stability for me. When everyone played by the rules everything was good. That was until I started experimenting with “sin.”  I still remember going to my first movie.  It happened because I went to a friend’s overnight birthday party and the next morning we all went to the Saturday matinee.  I chose to go to the movie rather than home.  It was a spaghetti western; I was both thrilled and racked with guilt.  Before long I was attending movies on a regular basis.  The story of my first high school dance is similar, only this time I was the yearbook photographer and I “had” to attend the dance to get some pictures.

Through all of this there was “the voice”, it kept whispering to me, reminding me of how I was abandoning my faith.  Initially I was convinced it was the Holy Spirit convicting and condemning my sinful actions.  Over time I came to understand that this voice wasn’t so much the Holy Spirit as it was the culturally trapped and twisted version of my faith.

One of the most difficult tasks people of faith engage in is separating cultural norms and preferences from the good news of the gospel.  This tension is only heightened when diversity increases.  The norms of my youth worked to a certain extent because most everyone shared a common cultural background. This is no longer the case for me or my family.  Diversity is the norm.  Everything is different.  Difference is challenging.  It is especially challenging when it comes to faith.  I live, work, and worship with people who claim to worship the same Jesus I do.  Some of these folks have a similar understanding of the rules that I had in my youth, while others push every boundary I thought I had and some boundaries I was unaware of.  That voice has never left, it still whispers, asking if I have crossed the line into unrighteousness.  It is a constant battle to not give in and an intentional choice to walk confidently into the vastness of the kingdom of God.

Diversity on Sunday Morning

This past Sunday, Easter 2013, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about diversity in houses of worship. Apparently 9 in 10 churches in America have no significant racial diversity. Not a big improvement from 1956 when Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. When almost every other segment of society has embraced differences and diversity why is the church so resistant to change? In the evangelical world there are white and black understandings. When it comes to social issues there are the progressive churches, those open to LGBTQ people, and there are the conservative churches, the hate-the-sin-and-love-the-sinner people. Denominationally there are Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, African Methodist Episcopal, non-denominational, emergent and anarchist varieties. There is high church and low church. Peace churches and Patriotic churches. There are traditions that make space for women in leadership and churches that call men to retake their God-given headship. There are house churches and mega churches. From what I can tell everyone thinks they have "the" correct understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This is not a blog intended to persuade you to my particular understanding of the Christian faith. To be honest my goal is simpler and possibly more radical. My thoughts go all the way back to my time in seminary when I participated in a church planting class. The entire course revolved around one central idea - the Homogeneous Unit Principle. In short this principle says that churches will grow when you bring people together who look the same, believe the same, are of the same economic status and hold a similar world view.

When I look at much of the church today the truth of this principle is certainly born out. People want to worship in spaces where they will feel comfortable. I understand this desire; I am just not sure if this desire is particularly Christian.

From what I have observed the Homogeneous Unit Principle tends to benefit the powerful. In its most dangerous form the powerful, read Conservative Christian Church, assumes it has the right to speak for everyone, including God.

Now, back to my proposal, when it comes to the life of the church we need to understand the Homogeneous Unit Principle as appalling evil. Christianity was never intended to be a gathering of people who are exactly the same. It sort of flies in the face of the children’s song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Paul’s image of the body, Jesus disciples, and the entire book of Acts are a few other examples that highlight the wonderful diversity of the Church.

Imagine with me for a moment. What would happen if progressives joined conservative churches and conservatives joined progressive churches? Not with any agenda beyond recognizing that we are children of God and have much to learn from each other. Can you imagine suburbanites worshipping in urban churches and urbanites being welcomed as full members into suburban churches? How about Catholics worshipping in Mennonite congregations and Mennonites participating in the life Southern Baptist congregations? Understanding develops empathy and empathy creates a space for conversation, conversation opens the door to conversion and all of this leads to a Christianity that changes the world.

Judgment

I bought a new bible last week. Cokesbury is closing all its retail stores so now is a great time to get a great deal on a new bible! This whole process of looking for a new bible sent me down memory lane. I still have the bible I used as a teen. On the inside cover I found the following quote:

“No two Christians are exactly alike, some wear their hair quite long, others wear it fairly short, some Christians have black skin, others have skin that is yellow or white; some Christians have little education, others have graduate degrees; some Christians are poor, others are rich; some Christians enjoy using guitars and drums in church, other are opposed to using any instruments.”

A day or two after purchasing my new bible I was part of a phone conversation where the person on the other end of the line declared that I was clearly not a Christian. He then proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer over me not once but multiple times. I must say it is interesting to be thought of as a person without faith.

This experience has caused a lot of reflection in my own life. Not about my commitment to Jesus, but about how many times I have questioned some else’s faith or commitment to their faith simply because it did not reflect my commitments.

I am known for telling people that God does not come to us for permission. We, humanity, are not the gatekeepers for God. Declaring someone outside of the kingdom of God has never been our responsibility. Allowing God to be God is not easy or comfortable. If you are like me you want God to be on your side. I would like to think that my values line up with God’s. This is what the church is called to do, remind us of God’s values. The struggle to be as radically accepting and inclusive as God can be disturbing.

In my work I get to see and work with Christians of all stripes. There are the patriots and those who call us to a global citizenship. I have worked side-by-side with pro-life and pro-choice believers. Some believers are convinced that the rapture is coming and others see it as the greatest scam ever pulled on Christians. This list could go on for quite a while. Here is my point, for reasons that are only known to God Christians don’t always agree. Our disagreements can seem quite significant. These disagreements should never be cause for declaring that someone is outside the kingdom of God.

How would Christianity be different if we started with the supposition that everyone is a child of God; that each person’s beliefs, political positions, immigration status, and citizenship are simply inconsequential?

Evangelism

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is entering into theological discussions with our summer staff.  I especially like these talks when I am the one doing the pushing.  It becomes less fun when I am pushed. This past week in Atlanta one of our worship leaders suggested that the secret to evangelism is becoming that which you wish to save.  My initial reaction was mostly dismissive.  It is a helpful way to avoid rethinking and it gives me time to come up with a strategy to regain the upper hand.

The farther away I get from the conversation the more I have become convinced that my negative reaction to his thoughts had to do with the nagging suspicion that he might be right.  The potential implications of this are seismic.

This means that evangelism is something other than sharing the four spiritual laws or getting the person to pray the sinner’s prayer.  Becoming that which we wish to save speaks to identification and relationship.  Isn’t this what Philippians 2 is talking about- a Savior who gave it all up to become like us, human.   Jesus entered into relationship with humanity and could identify with the human predicament.

What does this mean for us?

Does evangelism among the poor mean becoming poor?

Can we cry with those who are crying if we ourselves have never cried?

Can you do multi-cultural ministry and live in a mono-cultural neighborhood?

To be honest, I am still thinking through the implications.  I sort-of want him to be wrong.

Becoming is costly.  It may mean stepping out of a comfortable world.  Authentic evangelism is much more than a brief encounter and a short prayer.  It has the potential to impact where I live, how I spend my money, the church I attend and who I spend my free time with.

Assumptions

There is an ancient proverb that goes something like this,“When two minds agree one is redundant.” Yesterday I started reading Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins.  I must admit that I bought the book mostly because of all the controversy surrounding its release.  People are concerned that Rob has walked away from core Christian beliefs.

Since I have not finished reading the book, it would be irresponsible of me to weigh in on Rob’s “theological correctness.”

I am, however, fascinated by all the waves this book has created.  Why is it that the Evangelical community gets so stressed out anytime someone questions the “core beliefs?”  What is so wrong with rethinking assumptions?

A few years ago I was part of a Bible study. One evening we discussed God’s heart for the poor.  About half way through the evening one person had finally had enough and declared, “I don’t know exactly where it is in the Bible, but it tells us that God helps those who help themselves.”   There are people who believe that God helps those who help themselves, but to assume that Scripture supports this idea is wrong.  The better Biblical argument is that God helps those who can do nothing for themselves.

Is it possible that what we assume the Bible teaches and what it actually teaches is not always the same thing?  Western culture has done a good job of marrying things like God and country or health and wealth to God’s favor and blessing.  Untangling the Christian faith from culture is never easy and always uncomfortable, mostly because it challenges assumptions and dearly held core beliefs.

When core beliefs and convictions are questioned maybe the best response is to listen, reevaluate and rethink.  Being labeled a heretic is not always bad; I suspect that Jesus wore that title from time to time.