Together

Like most people I am glad the latest election cycle is over. I live in Colorado; we happen to be a swing state. From what I can tell, the primary benefit of this honor is to be inundated with political ads. I mean one right after the other. First candidate A says you shouldn’t vote for candidate B, followed by an ad from candidate B saying you shouldn’t vote for candidate A  Every ad had the same basic message – the other person was always evil, wrong, or sinful. Truth be told, these political candidates were simply reflecting an emerging way of being together as humans. It goes something like this, “you either agree with me or you are wrong.” And the political world isn’t unique in holding this perspective. People of faith tend to only connect, gather, and worship with others who affirm their particular assumptions and prejudices. This way of living, thinking, and being is dangerous, corrosive, and boring. We need to find new ways to be together. Does it really make us better people if we focus our interactions on those with whom we agree?

It is our differences that make us unique. It is imperative that we find the courage to embrace and even accept those whose world view is unusual. Leaning to celebrate how we are different will make us better people, Christians, and politicians.

I do not know how to fix or change the political world. But I do have hope for the church. Can you imagine attending a church where political, social, and theological differences are embraced? Where a person’s stand on any of the “controversial” issues isn’t a litmus test, but rather a reason to have a voice?

Faith and risk taking are ideas that go hand-in-hand. When people of faith only gather with others who look, believe, and think the same, the gathering becomes something less than church. When Christians divide from each other over theological or social differences it becomes less Christian. As people of faith we are called to become highly comfortable with being highly uncomfortable. This is what it means to be salt and light!

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.

Faith and Success

One of our family traditions this time of year is to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies, the extended editions.  In total it is about a 12 hour commitment.  I have yet to get tired of the story.  One of my favorite moments occurs near the end of the third movie.  A great battle has just been won, but the enemy is gathering an even larger army.  This time defeat seems certain.  As the main characters are discussing what to do next, Gimli the dwarf says, “Certainty of death, small chance of success, what are we waiting for?”  For me this sentence sums up the entire trilogy.  Success was never a given. Lately I have been reflecting on “the Call.”  What are the implications when God calls us?  When I look to Scripture it seems that the call always has a certain dangerous quality to it.  In Exodus 3, there is the story of the burning bush, when Moses is called to confront Pharaoh.  Moses does his best to get out of the call.  He is very aware that God is calling him to do something that will most likely end in his death.  Or think of Jonah, he jumps a ship going in the opposite direction.  Going to Nineveh more than likely meant his death.  His running from God was based in reality.  And then there is the story of Mary, more than likely a teen girl, being told she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.  According to Luke 1 this conversation took place between Mary and the Angel with no witnesses.  Who is going to believe the story?  According to the laws of the day an unmarried girl getting pregnant could only have a bad ending.

The call of God and security do not seem to be connected.  If we can learn anything from Scripture and the call it is that Gods calls us into uncertainty and even danger.  We have the privilege of knowing how the stories of Moses, Jonah, and Mary end, but they didn’t have that privilege.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  A Savoir to came to earth as a human, grew up, had three years of amazing ministry, was nailed to the cross, rose again, ascended into heaven, and now calls us to be his hand and feet.  This call to be Christ’s ambassador is not safe. Gimli got it right- certainty of death, small chance of success, what are we waiting for?

The Price

Last week I had the opportunity to observe an evening reflection session at DOOR.  There were 40 youth and adults in the room.  The session was led by Mari the local board chair and a Latina.  I have known her for a little over 16 years during which she has led reflection sessions for visiting groups.  Mari likes to talk about stereotypes, specifically the labels folks have about Latino, Latina and Hispanic people. It had been quite a while, over a decade, since I had observed one of these sessions.

Mari started the evening by assuring the group that this was going to be a safe space.  She encouraged them to be brutally honest and opened a space for them to ask any questions, both appropriate and inappropriate, they might have.  At this point my interest was grabbed.  What was going to be said?

The next step was to divide the group into teams of 3-4 people.  She handed out large sheets of paper and markers.  The assignment was to write down all the words and phrases that came to mind when they thought of Hispanic, Latino or Latina.  For 10 minutes there was a buzz in the room as everyone began to contribute ideas and the sheets of paper filled with words.  I could hardly wait for the reporting back to begin.

Then it began.  Some of the words were positive – family values, good food, salsa (both dip and dance), and passionate.  Other words were more neutral – brown hair, short and Spanish speaking.  Then there were the references to famous people – Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, George Lopez, and Selena.  In the midst of all of this there were a lot of words and phrases that could be described as hurtful- illegal, lazy, wet-back, and the list could go on, but I am choosing to stop.

Throughout the entire time Mari listened, received what people said and never reacted negatively.  My interest shifted from interested to wonderment.  This wasn’t the first time Mari had led this session.  I do not think she could count how many times she has led groups through this exercise over the past 16 years.  Allowing them to express their stereotypes and then gently letting them know that Hispanic, Latino and Latina people are humans created in the very image of God.

Last week I was reminded that sometimes I ask staff, board members and volunteers to do some very difficult things.  Helping people to see beyond their privilege, gender, race and economic status is a calling, a difficult calling.  I am so thankful for people like Mari who find the strength to help people like me understand the breadth and depth of the Kingdom of God.

Diversity, Culture and Christianity

Several weeks ago I wrote about diversity in our Sunday morning churches. I acknowledge this is one of those ideas that sound good on paper. The notion of us putting aside ideas, convictions and beliefs which divide us seems to be a reasonable request, at least initially. The struggle for many is that church also represents a significant source of cultural identity. It is this connection to identity that creates a rub. The way I view the world, understand God, and work out my moral convictions are deeply personal. Being told to simply ignore this for the greater good is not an easy pill to swallow. For some, laying aside differences that divide means admitting that deeply held convictions may be wrong, misguided or no longer helpful. For others it means giving up theological comfort. I do not know of many people who go to church to engage in theological debate with their pew-mates. They may be critical of the church down the street, but fellow church members are seen as co-laborers in the fight for ‘our version’ of who God is and what is right.

At what first might appear to be a more benign level church, is often a place of social comfort. The potlucks overflow with ‘known’ comfort food, or an agreed upon ‘newness’. The style of worship fits within a commonly held set of norms. The congregation knows when to stand up, the appropriateness of clapping, and when to use ‘amen’. When people get invited over to each other’s homes for Sunday dinner the host knows if serving alcohol is appropriate.

I travel a lot, and as a result I have the privilege of attending many kinds of different churches. In some it is customary to be welcomed with a kiss on the cheek, while others find a handshake provides more than enough intimacy. When I preach some congregations ‘require’ a suit and tie, while at another jeans and a polo shirt are more than formal enough. Some congregations believe the Holy Spirit works best through an 18 minute scripted sermon, while others expect a 45 -60 minute spontaneous Spirit-filled sermon.

Making space for diversity, especially in the local church, will not be easy thing to achieve. 2000 years ago the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians laid out a vision for the church, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This dream may require a reimagining of culture and convistions.

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.

Really?

Last night on my flight home I finished reading Marcus Borg’s latest book, Speaking Christian.  As is typical, this book was provocative, thoughtful and edgy.  Borg has a way of making folks take a second look at many of our deeply held Christian assumptions.  In the concluding chapter he took edgy to a whole new level.

“The combination of being Christian and American creates a very ambiguous situation.  We are the most Christian country in the world – and yet we are the world’s greatest military power… Not surprisingly, the United States Air Force is the most powerful in the world.  More surprising is the second most powerful air force: the United States Navy…  Though our national motto is “In God We Trust,” clearly what we really trust is power, especially military power.”

My initial reaction was, “Really?  We have the number one and the number two air forces?”  That sounds ridiculous at best and wasteful at worst.  How can we as a country justify maintaining the top two air forces in the world while cutting things like education and social programs.  It just seems wrong.  Can’t we be content with just having the top air force in the world?

The real question, especially for Christians, is not about being number one and number two.  It is a question about what we trust and who we serve.  After all, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.”   This is a verse that is easier to ignore than to deal with.  Is Jesus just taking about money?  The verse ends by saying you cannot serve God and wealth.  Or is Jesus saying something more?  For example, can you serve both God and country?  Being a believer has something to do with putting our faith and trust in God.  Is this really the case for American Christians?  When things go bad where to we turn?