Hopes and Dreams

During a recent conversation I was asked to share my thoughts about the future of the church. In a moment of personal clarity I suggested the issue was no longer about me or my preferences, rather I wanted a church that my children would attend, invest in, and support. I suspect that this kind of church will be very different from what we have now. Last week I finished reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave. I have a bad habit of skipping the appendix when I read. On this occasion I was on a plane and still had an hour of flight time left, so I continued past the official end of the book to the appendix where Douglass reflected on the expressions of Christianity he witnessed.

On April 28, 1845, Douglass wrote:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slave holding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. (Appendix)

Although these words were written well over 150 years ago, they still ring true today. There are still significant segments of the church that have chosen the Christianity of this land over the Christianity of Christ. It is at this juncture where I find hope. There are many young adults (my children included) who choose not to participate in church because of its close relationship with “this land.”

The church of this land gets to choose who participates and who has access. It gets to choose country first and God second.

The church of Christ must by definition take seriously the words of Christ. More often than not these words will put people of faith in conflict with government, popular culture, and comfortable Christianity. The church of Christ must choose our common humanity over national, cultural, and class divisions. Welcoming the neighbor trumps walls of separation.

In Douglass’s day the church of power went to great lengths to justify slavery. Today there are too many who claim faith and yet find reasons to exclude. The church of Christ is motivated by the idea that all of us share one unifying trait – we are created in the very image and likeness of God.

Hypocrisy

This past week I have been reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. His story is a gripping and powerful indictment of slavery in America. What has struck me over and over was the deep collusion between Christianity and slavery. Douglass relates a story about the conversion of his master:

“In August 1832, my Master attended a Methodist Camp meeting… and there experienced religion. I indulged in the faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves…If it had any effect on his character, it made more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believed him to be a much worse man after his conversion than before.” (Chapter 9)

Douglass also describes two pastors who prayed, held revivals, and felt it their duty to occasionally whip a slave to remind him of his master’s authority. One minister went so far as to whip slaves in advance of deserving it. These were people of faith, Christians, the same label I claim for myself. What was it that allowed people of faith, Christians, to participate in and justify slavery?

During slavery Christians became very good at molding scripture to fit their particular world view. They specialized in using passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, and 1 Peter 2:18-20. All of these passages say something about salves obeying their masters. These scriptures, when taken out of context, allowed white Christian slave owners to justify and maintain a system that denied the humanity and dignity of black people.

In my more optimistic moments I would like to think that we have grown beyond the narrow interpretations of the Bible that create spaces to deny the humanity of others. It is true that the vast majority of people who claim the label “Christian” would agree that slavery in all its forms is simply wrong and unbiblical.

I work with young adults and am constantly encouraging them to connect to a local church. By far the number one pushback I hear is that “the church is full of hypocrites.” They are tired of the Americanized versions of Christianity that seem to reduce everything to abortion and homosexuality. Once again, people of faith are molding the Bible into their particular worldview.

What about Jesus’ words to love our neighbor, including our gay and Muslim brothers and sisters? Or Jesus’ thoughts about welcoming the stranger, including those who have come to our country and do not have the correct paperwork? Or Jesus’ words about serving two masters? Is it even possible to serve both God and country?

Taking the words of Jesus seriously is never simple. We do not all see, interpret, or understand in the same way. Our family, cultural, and national backgrounds shape our view of God. It is not possible to understand God apart from what we all bring to the table.

A number of years ago a friend suggested to me that the only way to get past hypocrisy was to hold on to the possibility that I might be wrong and to hold tight to the idea that everyone is created in the very image and likeness of God.

BMWs, Whiteness, and my Christian Faith

As a young seminary student in the late 1980’s I interned at the amazing United Methodist Church in Clovis, California. For three years this church made space for me, treated both my wife and me like family, and allowed me to grow as a leader. One of my first assignments was to lead the young married bible study. We met every Thursday in one couple’s home. One of our fist decisions was to choose a book or theme. After much discussion we all agreed that we would work through Tony Campolo’s book 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. The study was going along well until week seven when we explored the chapter “You Cannot be a Christian and Own a BMW.” At least one of the couples in our group owned a BMW. It would be fair to say that the evening did not go well for me. I have reflected on that evening often over the years. If I were to lead that study again, I wouldn’t focus on BMWs. For Campolo, the BMW was a metaphor for a much larger concern. As Christians, how and where we spend our money has both moral and ethical implications. The neighborhood you choose to live in, the size of house you purchase, where you invest your retirement money, and, yes, the car you choose to purchase are not morally neutral choices.

Last Sunday I experienced another BMW type of moment. During the adult Sunday school hour our speaker asserted that “you cannot be white and a Christian.” At this point it is important to let you know that 90% of the folks in the room were white. After the initial shock wore off he went on to say, “If all you are doing is focusing on the color of your skin then you are missing my point.” Just like Campolo’s BMWs this speaker, was using “white” in a metaphorical way.

White Christianity is a faith that allows a person to talk about making things great again. It is a lens that provides a rose colored perspective of our shared history. It is choosing not to see how white Christian faith and slavery, Jim Crow, sexism, homophobia, and segregation are all part of “great again.”

White Christianity allows Christian politicians to advocate for carpet bombing the enemy while claiming to be pro-life.

White Christianity has the power to marginalize and dilute movements, by responding to Black Lives Matter with slogans like All Lives Matter.

White Christianity creates a space to claim the authority and inerrancy of scripture until it becomes inconvenient. Turning the other cheek and welcoming the stranger don’t apply when the stranger is Muslim, gay, a Democrat, or a Republican.

White Christianity is not so much about the color of my skin as it is about the power I choose to access and weld because of my skin color. The hard work that those of us with access to white Christianity are tasked with is to unburden ourselves from the need to reshape Christianity into a faith that only serves our needs. One of the more powerful ideas within Christianity is surrender. As we do the hard work of surrendering white Christianity and leaving it at the foot of the cross, something Christ-like will take its place.

A Parable

I posted this a few years ago, thought it might be worth some updating: Then I sought the Lord in prayer and asked, “Lord, I want our country to be Christian again, but this can’t happen if we just let anyone in. How much longer should I show hospitality to the stranger?

And Jesus answered, “I tell you hospitality, openness, and welcome, especially to those who are different, is the very essence of what it means to be Christian.”

You see, citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is like a chief who wanted to make sure the people living in his territory belonged. As the chief was going over the pedigree of his servant, it was soon discovered that five generations back the servant’s family came from across the ocean seeking a new start in a land free of religious persecution. Surprised and enraged the chief summoned the servant into his presence. Since the servant could not prove the purity of his citizenship, the chief ordered him deported along with his wife, children, and extended family.

The servant fell on his knees before the chief. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

The chief took pity on his servant, and gave him and his family amnesty.

But when this servant went out, he found a fellow immigrant, who had come from the territory to the south two years ago, hoping to find a way to provide for himself and his family. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “You have no right to be here; your presence is taking away jobs, draining our resources, and trampling on our Christian values.”

His servant fell on his knees. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

But the servant refused. Instead he went off to the local immigration office to report the man and his family who were then deported.

When the chief’s other servants heard what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went to the chief and told him everything that had happened.

Then the chief called the servant in. “You wicked foolish man,” he said, “I gave you amnesty, I gave you a chance, I welcomed you with arms wide open. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy on your fellow immigrant just as I had on you?” In his anger, the chief had this man, and his wife, children, and extended family sent back to the land of their ancestors.

How should we treat today’s refugees and immigrants? Maybe with arms wide open?

My Son’s Faith

As a parent one of my greatest desires is for my children to become thoughtful adults. I want them to have a strong faith, a faith they can own for themselves, and a faith that will help them navigate life’s obstacles. Last week my youngest son called me. He had a theological question. For those of you who do not know me well I am a self-described theological nerd. So being asked to help my son process a theological question sent my heart aflutter!

He was writing a response to someone’s statement about Ephesians 5:22 where Paul says, “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” According to his fellow classmate this verse was clear proof that the church should reject the temptation to allow women to be leaders in the church or family.

We talked for about 30 minutes. Then he said, “Dad, give me some time to think a write.” Here is his response:

I think the relationship between Christ and the church is a relationship about mutuality. Christ is always inviting people to himself. The choice to follow is always on the individual. To assume “authority” means dictatorship is a misunderstanding of both Paul and Jesus. Jesus is not the churches dictator not is the man ever called to be a dictator.

If we are serious about reflecting Christ in marriage than it should be a relationship where both parties have an equal say in what goes on. Christian relationships whether in the church, the context of marriage, or peers should always be mutual and invitational.

If a person is going to read Paul than read all of Paul! It doesn’t take long to discover that there are contradictions all over the place. In Ephesians Paul talks about women submitting to husbands but in Galatians Paul claims that there is no male or female in Christ and that we're all equal so how then does that fit in?

As people studying theology we can't just look at one verse and assume that we know what its saying. Look at everything, where was Paul and why did he write those things? Paul was not writing to CBC students for intro to Christian theology, 2017. Christ certainly should have authority over our lives and influence the way we do things and decisions we make, but that's just it, Jesus was about love and caring fellow humans not having dominant authority.

Christ invites us into relationship of choice and mutuality and that ought to be how the marriages we enter in reflect.

When it comes to the topic of women in leadership I believe we have been living in a society where the male bias has dominated for far too long. God is not just father but also mother. Her love extends to everyone and I believe She is changing the world to a place where women need to hold just as many leadership positions as men do and the idea that there needs to be a "man" of the house is passing way. Some of the most brilliant pastors I know are women and I wish for a world where there's more of that.

As have reflected on this conversation, it began to dawn on me how significant his DOOR experiences had been, particularly his Dwell year in Miami. For Quinten his time as a Dweller gave him a space to work out his faith for himself.

If you are a parent, grandparent, or mentor to a young adult reading this- know that a gap-year away from college and home may be the greatest gift you can give to your young adult.

Beautifully Complicated

Last week my wife and I drove from Denver, CO to Hesston, KS. The majority of this drive took place on I-70. We left at 5 AM and the first few hours of the Colorado portion of the trip were in the dark. As the sun rose I began to notice billboards, both the homemade and professional versions. Many of these signs proclaimed something about the Christian faith:

Abortion stops a beating heart

You will die, then meet Jesus

Where will you go when you die?

Jesus is real

Smile, your mom chose life

Then there was the coffee break moment. As we approached the one Starbucks between Denver and Hesston, there was a “White Jesus” floating in a wheat field.

Rita and I went to Kansas to attend a funeral. A friend had lost his battle with cancer. He had just turned 40 and left behind a wife and two children. A few years earlier his sister, a mutual friend, and I drove our motorcycles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and back. It was an adventure that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Now I was driving I-70 reading one liners about a Christian faith I claim, and wondering why my friend was dead.

If we were traveling to Kansas for any other reason I doubt I would have even paid attention to the billboards. These signs and their attempts at reducing the Christian faith to a one liner that could be read as cars passed by at 75 miles per hour began to feel offensive.

Christianity at its best is a deeply complicated experience. On this particular day my feelings towards God were not at their healthiest. Children need their parents; why would God allow a father to die before his job was done? Grandparents and parents should not have to attend the funerals of their grandchildren and children.

We arrived in Hesston and made our way to the church. Hundreds of people came. As I silently watched the family come in my internal questioning of God only intensified. About halfway through the service my friend’s wife and siblings came to the front and shared the story of his life. In the retelling of my friend’s life story, a story of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and radical love also emerged.

Later on as more stories were told over a meal, I began to reflect on this Christian faith I cling to. The truth is I have moments where God and I are on the same page, followed by moments where I wonder if God is even present. There are times when I think I have my Christian ethics figured out only to be confronted with people of faith who don’t see the world like I do.

The Christian life, when lived honesty and without one-liners, is complicated. At its worst it is frustratingly complicated and at its best it is beautifully complicated, but always complicated. As much as I want to make it simple, God keeps complicating everything.

Individual or Community

There are moments in my life that I remember with amazing clarity. One of these happened in 10th grade. An evangelist from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had come to town. This was such a big event in our small town that the local churches had to rent the high school gymnasium. Wednesday was “youth night,” which meant no hymns. A night of contemporary Christian music followed by a sermon for young people. I still remember Mrs. Davis approaching David and me before the service began. Apparently God had spoken to her and we were supposed to go forward at the end of the service. She then proceeded to lead David and me to the second row. To this day I cannot recall anything about the service other than when the preacher asked the congregation to sing “Just as I am.” For three verses Mrs. Davis stared at us; by the fourth I went forward. Eventually the preacher called the spiritual counselors forward. Soon there was a hand on my back and we were lead into a special room just off the gymnasium. The walk was excruciatingly long. I wasn’t quite sure why I went forward, other than to avoid the wrath of Mrs. Davis.

Once we were in the room I sat across from my counselor. He asked why I came forward; again, I cannot recall what I said. The end result was that I heard about four spiritual laws and prayed for Jesus to forgive my sins.

That night shaped my understanding of faith and Jesus. Christianity had something to do with my sin life. If I accepted Jesus, then I would be made clean and could spend eternity in heaven. This idea was and still is comforting. To know that God desires to forgive my sins is life-giving and freeing. To this day I find hope in this message.

As I grew beyond 10th grade this understanding of sin and salvation began to feel incomplete and small. There is a significant element to sin that is structural. And the “I just need to confess my sin to Jesus” approach doesn’t adequately address this.

Racism doesn’t just come forward at church, pray a prayer, and go away. Corporate greed that has decimated family farms, emptied retirement accounts, charged outrageous interest rates, and chosen profits over health care doesn’t disappear after a prayer.

More often than not it seems like the church has turned its back on structural sin. It is easier to have a gospel that is only me and Jesus. Focusing on structures is hard work. It will disrupt our lives, interfere with our comfort, and push our faith out of the church and on to the street.

Jesus came for humanity, not just the individual. Our Holy Scriptures are about the people of God. Justice isn’t just for me, it is for all. The church needs to be about revival for all and prophetically confronting sin at every level.

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.

A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives. What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

My way or the highway

I am a follower of Jesus, an Executive Director of a national ministry, a student of theology, and an occasional pastor. For the last two decades my underlying motivations and curiosities have revolved around two biblical ideas. The first, Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom of God could be a reality on earth as it is in heaven. And second, that God so loved the world. As it turns out these are attractive ideas and passages for most Christians. It could be argued that the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16 are the most universally recognized parts of scripture. The attractiveness of these ideas begins to fall apart once we start asking questions. What does the world, and particularly the church, look like when it lives in such a way that heaven and earth are the same? Who is all included in this world that God so loved?

I doubt that it is possible to fully answer these questions in one blog, especially when the church has been trying for 2,000 years. The journey towards loving the world that God loves and living on earth as in heaven can be painful and upsetting, mostly because God doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for our values, rules, or theology.

One of the ways that people of faith have dealt with these passages is to “help” God with the definitions and procedures. It usually goes something like this: yes, God sent God’s Son for the whole world, but if you really want to be included then you need to pray the right prayer, believe like we do, and follow our rules for being a Christian. Living on earth as in heaven means you have to accept “our” understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

I understand why we create rules for living and statements of faith. It helps us to make God more palatable and manageable. Quite frankly it is simpler to be together and worship together if we are all the same. This need to define and contain God is an ancient practice. In John 8 the religious leaders bring a women caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment. Their motives were pure, they wanted a faith that honored God and followed the rules. Jesus just didn’t have the same need for rules designed to control God. For the most part fundamentalism grows out of an honest desire to do right by God. The problem with fundamentalism is that it quickly leads to a “my way or the highway” mentality.

I am part of a denomination that is working through its understanding of sexual orientation. There are those who say if you don’t agree with me, then you are wrong. This is just another way of someone saying I have figured out the box that God belongs in and if you don’t agree with me than you clearly don’t know who God is.

This brings me back to the Kingdom of God on earth and the world that God loves. Whenever people of faith have attempted to define and limit what this is they have gotten themselves in trouble. The truth is that the image of God that we all reflect presents a pretty diverse portrait. Like the apostle Paul, all of us are looking at the Kingdom of God through a glass dimly.

I make no claims to fully understanding who is and is not included, but I suspect that living on earth as it is in heaven means that I need to be open to including, worshipping with, and loving even those with whom I disagree.

Progress – yes and no

For me October is always a month of reflection; by the end of this month I will have completed 20 years at DOOR. My conference minister regularly reminds me that people and institutions become what they pay attention to. It was December 2004 when I began paying attention to something different. In many ways this something different was and is tied to the words in Jesus’ prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The journey began in 2003. When recruiting for a new Denver City Director there were no applications from people of color; the scenario repeated in the search for a new Chicago City Director a year later. In both cases extremely well qualified individuals were hired. But what did it say about DOOR and our commitments to diversity that we were unable to attract even a single candidate of color for these positions?

If DOOR was going to become a “multi” ministry, we were going to have to begin paying attention to different things. With a great deal of naiveté I wrote the following reflection/vision statement:

 As we think about DOOR in 10 years, part of that dream includes a transformation of the ethnic make-up of our City Directors. We are not saying it is wrong to hire Anglos, nor do we want to fire any of our current staff. Our current City Directors are some of the finest and brightest people with whom one could ever hope to work. We do, however, want to think about how and with whom we replace outgoing City Directors.

As DOOR looks down the road 10 years, it is our desire to develop a plan that would enable us to identify, train and hire City Directors who are from the urban minority community. It is important to recognize that for a plan like this to be successful our current set of City Directors will have to own this vision.

The goal was that by 2014, 51% of full-time DOOR staff would come from the urban minority community.

Well, its 2014, how did we do? Today, ten years later, 50% of our full-time staff and 72% of our summer Discerners are persons of color, and our local boards are no longer dominated by white men. The changes at DOOR are real; however we still have much to learn.

You see, in 2004 we were primarily thinking about diversity through the lens of race. The other forms of diversity - theology, class, age, orientation, and gender- were always important, but there was a sense in which these secondary diversity issues. In the last few years it has become increasingly clear that to limit “diversity” to one particular aspect, in DOOR’s case “color,” leads to an incomplete and potentially twisted understanding of the kingdom of God.

DOOR is both a tolerant and intolerant organization. On one hand we are open to participants who “don’t get it,” but on the other we do not have a whole lot of tolerance for people who are content to live out their racial prejudice or stereotypes. What happens when we expand this tolerance-intolerance tension to issues of religion and orientation?

Mother’s Day

While most of the people I know celebrated Mother’s Day on May 11, I waited a week. It was 11 years ago on May 18 that my mother passed away. To be honest May Mom18 has never gotten any easier for me. Time does not seem to heal all wounds. I miss my mom a whole lot. For years people have told me that she is in a better place. On one level I can accept that sentiment, but there is a whole other side of me that completely rejects the idea. It was almost 20 years ago at the Christmas dinner table that my Mom wondered aloud if she would ever become a grandmother. At that point Rita and I had been married for eight years; apparently we needed to produce a grandchild. Without going in to all the details, Christmas dinner the following year included a grandchild and the following year we added a second grandbaby.

My mother loved her grandchildren and my boys adored their grandmother. There are memories I have of my mother and boys that are as strong today as the moment they happened. I can still see the four of them (grandpa included) playing Chutes and Ladders for hours on end in a cabin on Prince Edward Island. There were the summers my parents came to Denver in their motor home and every morning I would watch the boys sneak out the house and into the motorhome for breakfast with grandma and grandpa.

When grandma died, my boys cried a whole lot. Then 11 years went by. The other day I asked one of my boys what he remembered about grandma. He was quiet for a while and then said not much. It almost broke my heart.

Is grandma in a better place? The answer is complicated. I am glad her suffering is over. My mother was never a healthy person and towards the end of her life things became increasingly unbearable. I remember the day when my prayers switched from “God please heal her” to “please take her home to be with you.”

Why is it that God didn’t answer the first prayer but did answer the second? My youngest graduate’s high school this month. For the most part he grew up without grandma Balzer. On this particular week I am not happy with God. My boys are better people for having had my mother in their lives, for that I am thankful. But her time with them was far too short and memories have faded, and that makes me sad and even a little upset with God. Is heaven really a better place for her? She still had work to do here, especially with her grandchildren.

A little over 11 years ago I wrote this as a tribute to my mother:

Today is a day about remembering, with honor and love, the life of my mother, Bertha Balzer. And if I am going to be honest – I have to tell you that this is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

How does a son memorialize his mother? What do I say that will be of encouragement to you - family and friends?

Earlier this month my sister Sharon and I were able to visit with mom about this service and she had her own ideas about how this memorial should be conducted. She did not want this to be an unhappy occasion, but rather a celebration – a celebration of a life well lived.

When I asked mom how she wanted to be remembered without hesitation she said, “As a person who loved people.” For the past three weeks, I have had the opportunity to reflect on this and I would have to agree – my mother was a person who knew how to love.

Just ask my father – for 40 years their love for each other blossomed – in spite of mom’s health. It almost seemed that as mom’s health declined their love for each other grew. As I have struggled with this meditation, I wish I could give some clear-cut reason why my mother had to suffer so, but I cannot. I cannot explain why suffering exists in a universe created by a loving God. But the same God who loved the world enough to give us Jesus also knew my mother’s pains and sorrows.

This sanctuary is full of people who have been touched by my mother’s love.

As a sister, she always spoke well of her siblings and she adored her nieces and nephews. Visiting relatives was always a priority. 

She became a nurse because she wanted to care for people, not just their bodies – but their souls as well.

As a mother, Bertha knew what it was to love so deeply that tears would often well up as she spoke about and prayed for her children. The house was never as important as the people who occupied it. And work never took precedence over family. For Mom family was much more than blood – once you were in there was no way out. 

As a friend Mom knew how to find the best in people. I cannot recall my mother ever saying an unkind word about anybody.

In her role as a “pastor’s wife” Mom knew how to support her husband – not as a tag along, but as an equal partner. For Mom the calling was not just Dad’s, but theirs. She knew the key to ministry, you could see it in her face, feel it in her touch, and experience it in her presence – she loved people - unconditionally. She knew how to put people at ease. When someone needed to talk Mom knew how to listen. When compassion was required Mom knew how to weep. She knew that being a help-mate meant helping others find and experience a loving, caring and compassionate God. It meant helping her husband, children, and grandchildren in the battle for their faith. It meant being a rock to cling to in troubled times. My mother knew that strength was more than muscles – it was an inner spiritual fortitude – nurtured through a life of prayer. Her love was something that strengthened everyone who came in touch with her. 

Her desire to have grandchildren was made crystal clear to Rita and me 10 Christmas’s ago when around the dinner table my mother, my timid mother, lamented that she would die before she became a Gramma – talk about “loving” pressure. In her role as Gramma my mother demonstrated new depths in her ability to love. Kyle, Quinten and Lillie will forever be shaped by Gramma Balzer’s love for them. 

The words of the country music song say, “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it’s what you leave behind you when you go.” My mother, Bertha Balzer, chose well. She chose people over programs, family over work, prayer over business, and love over things. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest is love.” 

This morning through tears we have gathered to say good-bye. It is hard to do this. I don’t know what Christmas without mom is going to be like. But we must say good-bye. And we must keep hold of the many wonderful memories we have of her. We can celebrate the fact that she lived her life well. That she touched so many - so deeply.  

Bertha, a mother, a wife, a sister, an aunt, and a friend is now at peace. She has fought the good fight and has run the race to the finish line. God has now welcomed Bertha into a new heavenly home – a place where pain and poor health are no more. 

Today I am reminded of the biblical story of Enoch a man who was known for two things – he walked with God and never died. Scripture says that God translated him directly from life on earth to being in the presence of God in heaven. 

A young girl was once asked by her Sunday school teacher to tell the story of Enoch in her own words. She said, “Well, Enoch and God were good friends. And they used to take long walks in Enoch’s Garden. One day God said, ‘Enoch, you look tired. Why don’t you come to my place and rest a while?’ And so he did.” In a sense God has said the same thing to my mother: “Bertha you look tired, you have run a good race, you have been faithful to your calling – why don’t you come to my place and stay and rest?” 

So let us rejoice in the life of Bertha Balzer and know that she is at peace! Amen.

 

 

 

How to win a Christian argument

Have you ever found yourself passionately believing something to be true, but unable to convince others of your truth?  Frustrating, isn’t it?  I have found that the frustration level dramatically increases when talking about faith issues. Faith convictions and beliefs tend to be sacred.  Changing or adjusting these beliefs is often seen as back-sliding or drifting from the truth.  Encountering people of faith who hold different positions while at the same time claiming to be “Christian” can be stressful.  Why can’t they read the bible correctly?

Right now the denomination I am part of is in a fierce debate about ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  There are entire churches and conferences talking about leaving the denomination.  From their perspective a clearly discernable line of sin has been crossed.  There is scripture to back this all up.

Equally as fascinating is the other side.  The church is finally figuring out that all people should be included in the full life of the church.  For them a clear line has also been crossed.  Interestingly it is in the exact opposite direction, the church is moving from sin to righteousness.  Like the other side they have scripture to back up their position.

What I have discovered in the various debates, discussions, and arguments I have been part of is the first person to say something like “Scripture clearly says…” wins the debate. To my embarrassment I need to own that I have used this tactic myself.

I think we use this tactic because as people of faith we desperately want Scripture to speak clearly to the big issues of the day.  I am just old enough to remember when people of faith were convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was Satan’s music, or when drums in church, drinking, and smoking.  I live in Colorado; currently there is a whole lot of conversation about marijuana.  Believe it or not Jesus never addressed the subject of legal pot.  What was he thinking?

Framing theological arguments in such a way that those who don’t agree with us are wrong is probably something people of faith need to avoid.  It embarrasses me that church leaders so quickly move to absolute positions.

Learning to live with difference, even when that difference is seen as sin by some, might just be a sign of Christian maturity.

Mission Statement

Lately I have been part of a number of discussions about mission statements.  DOOR, the organization I lead, has a tag line, “See the Face of God in the City,” and we have a Philosophy of Ministry, both of these have helped to shape and guide DOOR for the past number of years, but we still need to develop a mission statement. According to one of my colleagues, a good mission statement clearly defines the services to be performed and the compassion driving the people who provide those services. The best mission statements are clear, memorable, and concise.

I have a friend, Anton Flores, who leads a ministry called “Alterna” in La Grange, GA.  He has done much to influence my understanding of Scripture and the call of God.  His take on Exodus 3:7-8, is fascinating.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”

In this passage we gain insight into how God approaches ministry.  I cannot help but think that a mission statement tied to God’s approach to doing ministry might be a good starting point.

In this passage God lets Moses know four things:

  1. God has observed the misery of his people who are in Egypt
  2. God has heard their cry on account of their taskmasters
  3. God knows  their sufferings
  4. Because of all of this God will come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…

Is it possible that this passage provides a model for engaging in ministry?  Before ministry can happen we must see the need - kind of obvious.  Many of us trip up after seeing; it is almost instinctual to jump from seeing to fixing.  It usually goes something like this: we go on a mission trip, see the hungry children, and immediately start a hunger relief program.  It is interesting to think that this is not how God works.

After seeing the need it is important if not critical to hear the stories.  Listening comes before doing.  As we listen and share stories the possibility of knowing each other emerges.  It isn’t until we know each other that a space for doing is created.

Can you imagine how this type of approach changes almost everything about service, mission and the statements we develop?

Church

A Facebook friend and “former” member of a church I pastored a few years ago shared the following status, “I’ve got nothing against God; it’s his fan club I can't stand.” Statements like this make me sad. Personally I am a huge believer in the church. Quite frankly I do not know how I could be a Christian without the support of a home church. But neither am I naïve. Too often the church is not a healthy place. On August 22 a local newspaper, Denver Westword, ran a detailed story of a pastor who seems to be using grace as a way to justify his moral failures. In his wake there are a series of women who have been hurt and even terrorized. Beyond the moral failures of leadership there are the moral judgments. Too often the church has been a place of condemnation and judgment. Over the course of history the church has managed to find “justifiable theologies” to condemn almost everything. African Americans were seen as less than human, non-white immigrants could be part of the family as long as they stayed on their side of the border, women were not fit for leadership, and people of various orientations were not and are not admitted.

In some senses the evidence is overwhelming. The church of today cannot be the church that Jesus envisioned when he appointed Peter as the rock upon which the church would be built.

The church is so much more than “judgment” and “moral failure.” Today, August 28, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. was a product of the church. His dream was rooted in a connection to a community of faith.

Since 1994 people of faith have been gathering at the US-Mexican border to celebrate “posada sin fronteras.” This is a celebration where the church comes together to say no to walls of division and yes to a bond that is more powerful than political boundaries.

Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and author of Tattoos on the Heart, tells the story of how people of faith - the church- can change the destiny of those the world has given up on.

The church is still a powerful agent for change. Yes it gets tripped up from time to time. The news media and social media will play a role in keeping the church and its leaders accountable. This is good. My hope and prayer is that people will not abandon the church because of its sins, but rather chose to hold the church accountable. When the church is accountable, it is also prophetic. Prophetic gives way to hope and change.

Next week

I did it again.  I have agreed to lead a seminar about privilege.  Two years ago at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Pittsburg I led this same seminar – “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race.”  Once again I have been tasked, this time in Phoenix, with leading a discussion on White Privilege, the ultimate “elephant in the room” topic. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world, one in which people are judged only by the content of their character has not yet arrived.  I have the privilege of leading a ministry that is diverse in almost every way diversity can be used.  We are young and old –actually I prefer people with life experience and those without; men and women; American and Immigrant; conservative and liberal; married and single; white and colorful; athletic and couch potatoey; high church and earthy church; straight and gay.

Quite honestly I find this this level of diversity to be prophetic, chaotic, affirming and draining all at the same time.  As the person charged with giving leadership to this organization, I am oddly qualified to talk about privilege, especially at it pertains to being male, white and tall.

Admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color is uncomfortable.  The level of discomfort increases when I think about the people I work with.  I want us to be equal co-laborers in the kingdom of God.  In this context privilege is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona, where I will be presenting this seminar, without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born white and will die white, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by white privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for white people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

10 years

Have you ever experienced a moment when your perspective changes forever? The birth of my children and death of my mother fit into this category. Another similar moment happened on my first day at this job. We were at one of the helping agencies DOOR partners with, almost 20 years ago, and I was being introduced as the new DOOR city director. It was a time when I was full of all kinds of "creative" ideas for making DOOR a more effective urban program. Then one of the ladies, we will call her Christine, to whom I was being introduced stood up, walked around her desk, came right up to me, looked me up and down and said, "so you are the new DOOR director (long pause), don't tell us anything until you have been here 10 years." After which she turned around, walked back to her desk and went back to the work. Later on we became good friends, but that first day and the advice she gave have haunted me ever since. In one sentence Christine put me in my place and began a process that reshaped my understanding of mission, service and the role of people who come to participate in these acts. I can best explain it this way. On my first days of work I believed that I had been called to urban Denver to make a difference. Children were going to be tutored, the hungry were going to be fed, houses would be repaired, the homeless would be loved and everyone would be grateful for the changes I was engineering. Until I met Christine those dreams and visions seemed God ordained. What I had forgotten is that Christianity is about relationship. Relationship, in its purest form, is always mutual. My “day one” vision wasn’t mutual; it was paternalistic. At best paternalism stinks; at its worst it destroys communities.

What Christine was trying to tell me on that first day in her own special way was that mission, service and ministry don’t make much sense apart from relationship. In her mind it would take at least 10 years for me to understand the community and at least 10 years for the community to learn to trust me.

I realize that we live in a world where everything happens quickly from overnight shipping of goods across the world to fast food. Telling people that patience and time are needed to accomplish anything almost sounds antiquated. So I will risk it and sound antiquated – if you want to serve then hang out a bit, get to know us, earn the right to speak into our lives and together we will make a difference.

The Sanitized Mission trip

DOOR began hosting short-term mission/service groups in 1986. We were one of the first programs in the country to do so. Since that time the annual mission trip has become part of the life cycle of many if not most churches. Programs have sprung up all over the USA and around the world dedicated to filling this growing desire to participate in the annual short-term trip. When I think back to the early days of this movement I am sometimes embarrassed by all the things we did wrong. More often than not we came into communities of need “knowing” how to fix all the problems. The good that was accomplished was often overshadowed by the paternalistic, racist and arrogant attitudes people came with.

I am glad to report that DOOR has learned from its past. We understand that God is already in the city. Before we can talk about bringing God into a community we first must understand where God already is. When it comes to differences we have learned that different is just different. People worship differently, eat differently, look different, come to faith differently, and express themselves differently. All of this is OK and a demonstration of the breadth and depth of the kingdom of God. When it comes to service, mission, and ministry, if it isn’t mutual then it probably isn’t something God is calling us to. This journey has been mind-blowing and faith-expanding.

There is a new trend that has me worried. I call it the sanitized mission trip. The desire to serve is alive and well. There is a recognition that ministry must be mutual. This is good. The problem is that we want mission and service to happen in a Disneyland type of atmosphere. We want an experience as long as it is safe and sanitized. Here is the rub. Experiencing different neighborhoods, cultures and people can be intimidating and even unpredictable. This does not always feel safe.

In 1992 I took a youth group to South Central Los Angeles 45 days after the riots. Just before we left on that trip I met with the parents. All of them were nervous. Many thought we should cancel the trip; some even pulled their children out of the trip. In spite of this a smaller group of us still went on the trip. Was it safe? Certainly not by “Disneyland” standards, but it was transformational. During this trip we discovered that the news media got some things right, for example a riot occurred. At the same time it got many things wrong. We discovered a South Central LA that was full of parents who wanted a good life for their children, street venders who could produce meals that five star restaurants would have trouble competing with, homeless people who wanted to talk, and merchants who wanted customers.

Was our trip safe? In one sense the answer is yes. No one had to go to the hospital. In another sense it was a very dangerous trip. We all walked away from South Central with a new pessimism for how the media reports the news, especially in urban communities. In addition our understanding of the kingdom of God was forever changed. At a personal level I came back to Denver and joined the board of a program called “DOOR.” A few years later I became the City Director for Denver and a few years after that our family moved from the suburbs to the city. Because of that trip, everything changed for me and my family.

If we ask safety questions to avoid silly and irresponsible behavior then I am all for asking the questions. Otherwise I am not sure that “safety” and “mission/service trip” belong in the same sentence. The call to deny ourselves and pick up the cross simply doesn’t create space for a sanitized mission trip.

Why?

I am writing this entry from my front porch.  Across the street a family is gathering,  mostly to support each other.  Earlier this week Hector (not his real name) was rushed to Denver Health Medical Center.  He had slipped into unconsciousness. His liver is failing and unless he gets a new one he is going to die.  Hector is a father of four; the youngest just started kindergarten at the school down the street. I met him the day I moved into this neighborhood, 14 years ago.  He likes to talk – a lot!  He is a good neighbor, father, worker and husband.  It is obvious that he adores his family.

On its own this is one of those situations that raise all kinds of “God” questions - Why would you allow this to happen?  Is this really just?

But there are other complicating factors as well.  You see Hector does not have “documentation” that allows him to “legally” live in this country.  The direct implication is that he is not “qualified” to be on a transplant list.  I realize that immigration is an extremely contentious political issue.  But watching this scene play out across the street and in front of my eyes moves the discussion from a disconnected political debate to a deeply personal reality.

Hector is going to die and leave behind a family that needs him, simply because of where he was born.  Somehow this makes him less worthy – less human.  Can this be moral, right or just?  Especially in a country that regularly claims to own the moral high ground.

The more I study Scripture the more the theme of “inclusion” emerges.  How we treat the stranger and alien says something about the quality of our faith.

I am not a politician.  I still believe that this is one of the most amazing places to live.  But we can be better and we can do better.  One of the first steps is choosing to welcome, include and allow access to all levels of services to the strangers and aliens among us.