Where will I stand?

It seems to me that a new line was crossed last week. First, two public encounters with police were caught on video resulting in two dead African American men. Then in Dallas, five police officers were gunned down. If your social media feed is anything like mine, it blew up. Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter. For each hashtag there are leaders of faith who claim their perspective is the right perspective, the Christian perspective.

As a person of faith myself, I want to know where we go from here. Standing on the sidelines and just hoping this will blow over does not seem live a viable or moral option. People are dying, and this needs to stop.

I wanted to write something last week. All I could do was stare at a blank screen.

When I read John 3:16, I discover a God who cares about all people. Jesus was sent for the world. In Philippians 2 there is a song about Jesus emptying himself of all his divinity, taking on the very nature of a servant, and dying on the cross. When asked to describe pure religion, James said it had something to do with how we care for the powerless. When Jesus was spoke to his followers about violence he talked about turning the other cheek as a creative non-violent way of resisting the power structures. This was a cornerstone strategy of the civil rights movement as led by Martin Luther King, Jr. When Jesus stood before Pilate and the religious leaders facing and receiving violence, he never lost his cool, never returned violence for violence. On the cross Jesus offered forgiveness to his executioners and an invitation to a fellow cross-mate.

I look at Jesus and try to imagine how he would respond. I see a person who loved without exception. This same Jesus knew that the only way to measure our commitment to all lives had something to do with how we treated the powerless and disenfranchised among us. Quite simply this is the heart’s cry of Black Lives Matter and all the movements that proceeded it.

This I why I choose, as I believe all people of faith and good conscious should, to stand with Black Lives Matter. It not about valuing one person over the other. Rather standing with Black Lives Matter is the most radical and Christ-like way we can demonstrate a commitment to the intrinsic value of all lives.

Rethinking the Mission Trip

Last night I watched the 40th anniversary episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL). During the show they did some looking back. Some of my favorite sketches featured Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers. The sketch was so good that eventually a movie was made. It was a tale of redemption for Jake and his brother Elwood, who go on "a mission from God" to the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up. I might be stretching history a bit, but I do find it interesting that the movie came out in 1980, about the same time that short term mission trips started to become popular. DOOR, the ministry I work for, began in 1986 as an effort to organize the growing number of groups that were coming to Denver’s Westside to do service.

The groups that arrived came with the purist of motives. They wanted to help the poor people of West Denver. These motives were where often chock full of stereotypes and assumptions. The poor were brown, uneducated, unable to do for themselves, and didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Mission trip was about giving something to the Westside that the Westside couldn’t get on its own.

Over the years we, and other similar programs, began to see the fallacy with this way of thinking and doing. By the late 1990’s DOOR adopted the tagline to “see the face of God in the City.” This was our effort to recognize that God was already present in the city. It was our way of challenging participants who talked about bringing Jesus to the city.

Recognizing that God is in the city also exposed prejudices. Just because people look different does not imply that their faith is any less vibrant or real. A person’s physical location, in our case the city, says nothing about someone’s ability to achieve educationally or think theologically.

In the last few years there has been another shift in our thinking about the Mission (or Service) trip. Why invite outsiders to the city? If all they want to do is have us reaffirm their stereotypes of urban folks, then all we are is tour operators giving the client what they want.

Where does this leave us? Well, I am a huge believer in the Mission trip. I do wish I had a different word than “mission,” but that is for another discussion. We, particularly young people, need to take these trips because there are very few places left where people are afforded the opportunity to reflect deeply on the meaning of their faith.

For the most part people of faith only gather together with those who share their stereotypes, worship preferences, theology, and understanding of God. A mission trip, when done with thoughtful intentionality, provides a place to reflect and think about your faith with those who are different. Sadly, when it comes to faith beliefs and differences we are still an intolerant people.

If you are a leader looking for a mission/service trip make sure you find a program that isn’t going to reinforce all your preconceived ideas of what mission is and what the needs of the people are. Find a program that is less concerned with service and more concerned with who you will interact with.

Finding ways for your group to sit in a circle of “differences” and be challenged will produce good fruit back at home!

Leadership

Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission. This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.

Embracing Difference & Green Chili

It has been almost 20 years since I made a significant career and life change. Back in 1994 I was pastoring in a church where almost everyone looked, thought, and believed like me. In many ways this made being a pastor “easy.” For the most part my convictions and stereotypes were identical to the people in my church. We knew which political party to vote for, where to go for lunch, what neighborhoods to live in, and the best school district for our children. We all agreed about right and wrong and had a common understanding of what a sinful lifestyle was.

By the start of 1995 many of my tight definitions and convictions about faith and life began to erode. Moving from a monoculture (suburbs) to a multicultural (city) world began a change. Everything I thought I knew about God and the life of faith was put to the test. In the city I met a God, apparently my God, who wasn’t predicable and certainly had no respect for my well thought through theological conclusions or understandings. It was almost as if God was showing me God’s rebellious and mischievous side.

In the city I found myself working with people who claimed “Christianity” but held convictions that opposed what I thought where no-brainers, the basics. At first this was hard. How could someone claim the same faith as me and vote for the other party, or embrace a lifestyle I understood to be wrong? For a while I put up a fight. When I look back on it now, I sort of thought of myself as an urban martyr for Jesus. I suspect that Jesus was mildly humored by this impulse.

I probably would still hold to the martyr perspective if I hadn’t encountered green chili. Not just any green chili, but Denver west-side green chili. For those of you not from Denver, it would be money well spent to travel to Denver and sample some of this culinary delight. As a Mennonite from Canada my primary way of adding spice to food was to reach for the salt and pepper.

Green chili comes in many varieties and everyone seems to have a unique family recipe. Regardless of the recipe, it is fair to say that green chili is significantly spicier than adding salt and pepper. At first this chili was a shock to my taste buds. From a certain perspective the spiciness was sinful. Over time I came to understand green chili as simply different from the foods I had grown up with. Today this difference has become tasty and enjoyable.

Leaning to embrace and accept different foods has only served to increase my eating enjoyment. I still like the food I grew up with, but learning about other foods has expanded my world. 

I have tried to take this lesson about food into my faith world. Just because someone sees their faith differently than I do, this does not immediately make them sinners. It just means they are different. Learning to embrace and appreciate those differences only serves to expand my understanding of God. In a sense it serves to make my faith spicier. Trust me, spicy is good.

If as people of faith we can learn to table judgment and embrace difference, the Good News of the gospel would actually be Good News.

Safety 2014

Every year my staff and I field “safety” calls. This year we will host about 3,000 youth and young adults from all over North America. A significant percentage of the youth coming to DOOR are also experiencing their first trip away from home without parents. All by itself this creates anxiety. I am the Executive Director of a program that has hosted groups since 1986 and I still remember the worry of watching each of my sons go on their first trip without me. From a certain perspective it makes sense that parents would be concerned about their children’s safety. Now layer on to this the fact that DOOR is an urban missions program. One doesn’t have to be an avid CNN watcher to know that urban violence is a regular feature on the news. Earlier this summer I was interviewed by a local TV station about a gun that had been brought into my son’s school.

As a parent and urban ministry leader and resident I am concerned about safety. There is nothing about how DOOR is structured, run, or led that would intentionally put people at risk.

I am also challenged by the idea that when Jesus talked about becoming a follower, ideas like self-denial, self-sacrifice, and picking up one’s cross were always present. Safety was not Jesus’ go-to sermon. If anything Jesus emphasized the need to count the cost before choosing to follow.

I sometimes wonder that in our efforts to make Christianity attractive we ignore the difficult stuff. As a parent I find myself caught between my instincts to protect and wanting them to experience the dangerous wonder of following Jesus.

 

A glimpse into the program I oversee

Brent Davis is a Dweller in our DOOR Hollywood program. Over the last few weeks he took it upon himself to capture the thoughts of recent Discover participants while they stayed at our community house.  It’s a huge blessing, and a fun way to show how God is nudging people to break down single stories in Hollywood through DOOR. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np_JZfxfg38

 

If you are interested in participating in in DOOR, please check out our website – www.DOORnetwork.org

Service versus the Servant

In John 13 there is an interesting story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.   I can only imagine the odd feeling in the room as Jesus, the top dog, pushes back from that table and begins to wash everyone’s feet.  And then after he is finished Jesus makes an interesting statement, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.   I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” For almost 20 years I have given witness to thousands of youth and young adults who have come to the city to “do” service.  They come to metaphorically wash the feet of those who don’t have as much.

Lately I have begun to wonder, does this passage call followers of Jesus to service or is there something more going on?  Doing is certainly important.  Giving a cup of water, visiting the prisoner, or feeding the hungry are things that Christians are called to do.

It seems to me that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was more than a “yearly” act of service.   His actions that evening were simply an extension of who he was – a servant.   In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself and taking on the very nature of a servant.

The dirty little secret about “doing” service is that the temptation to retreat back into privilege is intoxicating and overwhelming.  There is an entire Christian industry that has grown up around servicing this cycle.  It goes something like this: go on the annual mission trip, have your heart broken by the need, have your faith stretched, commit to making changes, go back home, begin the process of allowing the service experience to slowly fade into a distant memory, reengage your privilege – from how money is spent to only worrying about me, myself and I- then get ready for the next service trip and repeat.  The danger of this cycle is that it leads to a Christian faith without substance.

When Jesus called his disciples to wash each other’s feet, it was much more than a call to do.  It was also a call be.  Who we are is much more than what we do for a week.  The call of Jesus is to become a servant to all.  In some circles this is referred to as the upside-down kingdom, a kingdom where power comes from being a servant.  While it is possible to do service and retain privilege it is not so easy to be a person of privilege and a servant at the same time.  Even Jesus had to empty himself.

Why DOOR?

This is that time of year when youth pastors and ministry leaders start to plan their spring or summer mission trip and college seniors start to wonder about life after graduation.  The program I oversee offers options for both of these groups.  Our Discover program provides opportunities for groups of folks to serve and learn in the city for anywhere from a day to a week.  Dwell, our year- long program, is geared towards young adults who want to spend a year living in community, serving in a local helping agency, and exploring what the call of God on their life might be. We are not the only people who offer these kinds of programs.  One of the questions I get asked on a regular basis is simply, why DOOR?  This is always an interesting question to try to respond to.  I have friends that run similar programs and in the for-profit world they would be considered competitors.  But in the ministry world we are “co-laborers.”   Trash talking is not appropriate!

With this in mind, why DOOR?  Here is my list:

  1. When you come to DOOR you support local jobs and benefits.  We prioritize hiring local staff; we tend to shy away from “importing” leaders into our cities, believing that each of our locations already has the leadership necessary to run a successful program.
  2. When you choose DOOR you are intentionally favoring uniqueness in an increasingly generic “mission and service” market place.  Each DOOR city is watched over by a local board comprised of folks who love their cities and want participants to have an honest, healthy, and safe experience.
  3. DOOR works to create safe spaces where everyone can share their faith journey and together we can come to a new and more enriched understanding of the kingdom of God.  This is not always comfortable or easy, but the Christian faith is so much more than the boxes we try to fit it into.
  4. DOOR is a place where local pastors, ministry leaders, and artists are asked to speak into your experience while participating.  Local voices add authenticity and realism to your time with us.
  5. The programmatic fees you pay are reinvested into the local community.  We actively prioritize local suppliers, restaurants, and staff.  All of this helps to keep your fees and fundraising dollars circulating in the local community longer thus helping to strengthen the financial stability of everyone.
  6. DOOR starts with the assumption that God is already in the city.  This is an asset-based approach.  When one approaches ministry and mission from an asset-based perspective the inherent dignity of everyone is preserved.

If you are considering or know someone who is leading a service/mission trip or wanting to spend a year living in an intentional Christian community please consider DOOR.

Judgment

Ministry and judgment seem to go hand in hand.  I am not sure this is healthy or right, but it is reality.  It would also be nice to say that I have managed to stay above the judgment fray, but that would be less than truthful.  It still bothers me when I feel like I have been or the work I do has been judged.  After 19 years of leading an ecumenically diverse organization, judgment is just part of the employment package. I have been described as liberal and have been written off as a conservative.  To some I am too pro-life while others only think of me as pro-choice.  Jesus freak and Universalist have been used regularly.  If I spend too much time thinking about these labels a type of schizophrenia sets in.  However, if I am honest with myself all of the labels fit.

After 19 years of interacting with Christians of all stripes I have become convinced that judging and labeling each other is mostly a silly activity.  The God of Scripture is not easily definable.  Choice, life, exclusive and inclusive all help to describe God.  Yet Christians have used these terms and others to define who is not on God’s side.

Where does this need to judge and condemn come from?  Maybe we need to be a little less exclusive in our understanding of who is in and who is out.  What would happen if we started from a place of openness?  I think the Apostle Paul says something similar in I Corinthians, “and now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”

Tension

This summer almost 3,000 youth and young adults will descend into one of our six DOOR cities and participate in a week of service, mission, guided reflection, and learning. For the most part everything will go well. Participants will go home with a new appreciation of the city and how God is working in the urban world. Lives will be changed, hearts will be softened, and negative stereotypes will begin to crumble. For over 20 years I have had the privilege of giving witness to what happens when people begin to see the world from a new perspective - a perspective which includes people who look different, think different, eat differently, and worship differently.

Sometimes I wonder about the process of getting participants to this space. So much about mission and service projects is about bringing something to a people or place that they couldn’t get on their own. Years ago there was a mission project in Denver that welcomed incoming groups with the slogan, “Welcome to Denver, Denver needs you!” The more I thought about this the more it bothered me. Denver needs you? Really? If these groups didn’t come to Denver would Denver have fallen apart? Weren’t there already local churches, pastors, and laity in Denver serving?

The temptation in recruiting participants into the DOOR program is to talk about the city in a negative light. After all why would anyone go on or support a mission trip where the service location was talked about positively? According to Robert Lupton there is a certain amount of ego satisfaction going to places where we will be viewed as frontline troops placing ourselves in the gap between the grace of God and evil forces that threaten to take over. This perspective does have a certain heroic quality, but it isn’t accurate.

The city is an amazing place. It is true that bad things happen and the needs are great, but this is only a minor part of the story. It is in the city where God is gathering all the peoples of the world. Old divisions like liberal, conservative, Presbyterian, Baptist, White, and Black just don’t matter as much. For urban people it is much simpler to define each other by what is held in common than what is different. People who participate in DOOR do help out and that is greatly appreciated, but this is far outweighed by the lessons that urbanites impart to our DOOR participants.

Courage

During last Sunday’s sermon the pastor referred to Matthew 16:24, where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers then they must be willing to deny themselves.  This is one of those passages that is easier to just skip.  It is much simpler and less confusing to talk about a religion that teaches us to be good “Christians” rather than to engage a faith that asks us to abandon an entire way of life. Self-denial has never been a favorite sermon or bible study topic.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously have the potential to disturb the status quo and the status quo is comfortable.  To be honest I like things to be comfortable, predictable, safe, and secure.  These are the foundations of an uncomplicated life.

Self-denial removes me from the center.  It may even move my family, church, community, and country from the center.  According to Jesus, self-denial naturally leads to cross-carrying and cross-carrying leads to aloneness.

Jesus carried the cross 2,000 years ago because carrying the cross was what needed to be done.  Without the cross there could be no Easter and without Easter there could be no resolution to the sin problem.

When Jesus calls his followers to cross-carrying it is a call to courage.  It is a call to stand-up for truth even when no one else wants to hear the truth.  It means exposing and naming the powers that have neutralized the church’s prophetic place in the world.

When we name racism as a current sin, we risk our popularity.  When the church declares that we need a president of color because another white man will just reinforce the worst of our prejudices and stereotypes, we risk being called non-Christian.  When the church stands up against the raping of the environment just for cheaper fuel, we risk being called extremists.  When the church stands for the stranger and alien in our midst, we risk being labeled unpatriotic.

Friends, this is the call of Easter; a call to self-denial, cross-carrying, and truth telling.  It will not be easy.  It will not make you popular and you may end up feeling very alone.  Know this; we serve a High Priest, Jesus Christ, who understands.

Service

Is service something you do or is it something you receive? At its simplest the answer is yes.  It is possible to do acts of service and it is imaginable to be the receiving end of an act of service.  When push comes to shove most of us believe that it is more honorable to be on the side of doing.  Acts 20:35 has become a rallying cry of sorts, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

The result of this is we are not always comfortable the idea of service being something we receive.

In my line of work I deal with this regularly.  People come to DOOR expecting to “do work.”  Don’t misunderstand me everyone gets to do lots of work, but not all the time.  Service also includes listening to another person’s story or just sitting quietly on a park bench with someone watching the clouds float by.

I realize that sitting and listening stories do not make for great service trip reports.  That is too bad.  Folks back home want to know what you accomplished.  How many people did you feed?  What did you build?  Who all heard about Jesus for the first time?  These are all important questions, but they should not be the only questions.

Did you take time to hang out and shoot the breeze?  Did you hear faith stories that challenged your understanding of God?  What stereotypes were broken because of the encounters you had with other people?

Someone once told me that Jesus spent 30 years just hanging out before he started doing acts of service.

Our good intentions, our need to fix problems, our willingness to act first and learn second are not always well received by those who are on the other end.

I am in no way suggesting that acts of service are inappropriate.  But taking time to know and understand the recipients of our good intentions must be the first step.  I suspect that doing this will have a dramatic impact on how we go about serving others.  When this takes place Acts 20:35 will ring true at a deeper level, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

If I could influence your fall schedule

** This post is and excerpt from an article that I am writing for http://ymtoday.com It is that time of year when youth workers of all types start laying out the fall schedule.  Everything from parent meetings to bible studies, from retreats to fundraisers needs to be creatively pieced together.

I would like to petition that one more item be added to your list.  In November take some time to reflect, relive and reminisce about the summer mission trip.  Then send those reflections to the leaders of the place you visited.  It helps programs like DOOR reinforce what we are doing right and make needed corrections.

At DOOR, we have the privilege of connecting with groups as they plan their trips.  We walk with participants as they experience the week.  Occasionally we get completed evaluations from groups.

What we very rarely see or hear about is the longer-term learning.  For most people it takes at least a couple of months, sometimes years to fully appreciate and understand what took place on the trip.  Taking some time in November to remember and recall what happened and what is still happening will give some insights into how youth in your program learn.

What you hear may surprise you.

Don’t make any decisions on next year’s spring or summer trip until you have gone through this exercise. 

Back in my days as a youth pastor some of the programs I gave the worst evaluations for ended up providing the experiences that most influenced the youth.  It just took the youth and me a while to process what happened.  Working through the cultural bombardment of a service project is not always easy.  Getting past agency staff who rubbed you wrong takes time.  First impressions can be right 50% of the time but that still leaves a significant margin of error.  Time can help you and your group to verify or correct those impressions.

I hope you take the time to go through this exercise.  When you do, feel free to let me know how it went!

Wait

“Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.”

These were the first words that Patricia said to me after we had been introduced. It happened during my first week at DOOR. Larry, my predecessor, was taking me around Denver and introducing me to the various agency coordinators and leaders I would be working with in my new role as the DOOR director.

Patricia was the administrative assistant to the director of the Denver Inner City Parish. It would be fair to say that she was a person of strong convictions. To her, I was the latest in a series of white men who had come to Denver’s west side to try to do some good.

Her words were hard to hear, because I did want to make a difference. Being told to hang around for 10 years seemed like a waste of time.

After all, I had been to seminary, was well-read on urban issues, and I had a natural inclination to fix things. I wanted to work for justice and be a voice for the voiceless. It didn’t make any sense to waste away my abilities for 10 years.

Patricia’s words have been ringing in the back of my mind ever since that first day. I have come to understand this advice as being challenging and good.

I give leadership to a program that promotes short-term experiences. People come to our DOOR for anywhere from a day to a year. One of the biggest battles we face is with participants who—like me—want to make a difference. After all, they have taken time out of busy schedules to take part in DOOR. They don’t want their time or money to be wasted. I understand and respect this.

There are times when short-term volunteers can make a huge difference. Those who went to the Gulf Coast to rebuild following Katrina come to mind.

But for the most part, authentic ministry takes time—lots of time.

One of my closest friends is the pastor of the Denver Inner City Parish. He has been a part of Denver’s west side since 1965. He came to Denver from Elgin, Ill.; working on the family dairy farm was not in his blood. As an 18-year-old he escaped to Denver to attend college. It was during his first semester at Denver University that he began to develop an interest in the west side. Before long, he found himself on the organizing committee for the parish.

44 years later, this kid from a dairy farm in Illinois has become the people’s pastor on the west side. He stuck around and earned the right to speak into the lives of Denver’s westsiders

Every time someone participates in DOOR, I feel a tension between their desire to make a difference and the time it takes to earn the right to make a difference. I am not sure that this can be resolved in a few easy steps. As a matter of fact, I want participants to feel this tension.

Vital, significant ministry is not instant or quick.

Mutual trust takes time.

There is no swift way around this.