Born Afraid

This week I began a new chapter in my life. After 23 years I am officially unemployed. Before I jump back into the world of employment, I am going to take a couple of months to catch-up on sleep, read books slowly, and start the process of unpacking the past two decades. Yesterday I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehishi Coates. The book is written as a letter to the author’s son, a young African American boy. It is a work filled with advice, deep reflection, and personal revelation. It is Coates’ attempt to unpack the world and culture that his son was born into. To recommend it as a must read would be an understatement. Coates’ style of writing draws the reader in in and allows us to see, feel, and begin to experience the word through his eyes, an African American man.

Part way through Coates shares the story of a friend who was gunned down by a police officer. Coates reflects that “I knew Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.”

This statement shook me to the core. Not because it was a new thought, but because it was dragged off the back-burner of my life again.

One of my best friends came to Denver in 1965. He ended up on the Westside at the Denver Inner City Parish. His goal was to fix poverty in 2-3 years and then move on to some other city and fix poverty there. Three years turned into 50 years. There were changes, but it was also clear that after 50 years poverty was still a reality.

In my first week at DOOR I was confronted directly about being another white man coming to the city to save it. For 23 years I worked to overcome my stereotypes and those of staff and participants. Yet here I am in 2017 and persons of color, particularly my African American brother and sisters, still live in a world where their skin color is the primary thing that defines who they are and not the content of their character.

I am not aware of any simple or easy way to wrap this up. Part of the answer has something to do with confronting the racism in our individual souls. Change also has to happen at a system-wide level. This kind of change will not come easily. It means recognizing and confronting systems of power that value white lives more than black lives. It means moving beyond “All Lives Matter” to the real issue – “Black Lives Matter.”

Memories, Mom and Death

2015-06-19 16.42.25Mom and dad were getting ready to fly home. They had just spent two weeks with us, mostly with our boys – their grandchildren. It had been a difficult visit. My mother’s heath was declining. As she hugged me she quietly whispered, “I am just tired of being touched.” My mind drifted to a day thirty years earlier, I was 5 and my sister was 3, we went to the hospital for Christmas Eve dinner. I still remember the meal – turkey, mashed potatoes and brown gravy with green beans on the side. Each plate was covered with a stainless steel meal warmer. I cannot recall where my father sat, but my sister and I sat near the head of the bed at an adjustable table. We ate and watched my mother. She was sick, very sick. The doctors did not expect her to live. We were granted special permission to be there after visiting hours.

When my mother hugged me on that day, I was sad, but not panicked. In my mind this was just another moment of sickness. Mom and dad got on the airplane and flew home. The first hint that I was about to enter into a new normal was when my sister called me from the airport later that day. Mom wasn’t doing well; she was bleeding and nothing seemed to stop the flow.

There I was in that room watching the medical profession do everything they could to save my mother. They went about their tasks with tenderness and love. The nurse slipped quietly out of the room. For the first time since I arrived, my mom spoke to me. Her words were simple, “Don’t let them touch me, I’m ready to go home.”

Within five minutes the medication took over and my mother drifted into a restless sleep. I made my way to the nurse’s station. I called my sister, then my dad. We talked about mom’s final wishes. She had been clear with all of us – no extraordinary measures and no experiments. I hung up and spoke with the nurses, who dialed the doctor’s phone number. His voice was kind and soft, we talked about what they were doing to my mom. By the end of the call I requested that they stop all treatment and make my mom comfortable. I would not wish this conversation on my worst enemy. Within the hour the medical staff came in and unplugged my mother.

The next day I shared what was to be my final conversation with my mother. I don’t remember all the details of what we talked about, but we held hands and eventually she said, “Thank you.”

24 hours later I flew home.

Ten days after that she passed away.

 

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.

Great Again

This past week I have been in Atlanta, GA.   FTE is hosting its annual Christian Leadership Forum. I wasn’t looking forward to another week of meetings but then last night happened.  God showed up unexpectedly.  Ched Myers was sharing and in an off-handed sort of way he referred to the irony of what it would mean for the church to take seriously the call to make “America Great Again”. So I have been thinking about greatness, particularly from the perspective of Jesus.  As we all know Jesus was a radical who marched to his own drumbeat.

In Matthew 18:3 Jesus suggests that the only way to gain access to the Kingdom of God is to become like a child.  Jesus repeats this sentiment again in John 3:3 when telling Nicodemus he needed to be “born again.”

In Mark 9:35, when talking to the Disciples about greatness Jesus tied power to moving to becoming the last, the least, and serving all.

In Philippians 2:5 Paul encourages Christians to have the very same mind as Jesus.  For Jesus to complete his mission it meant giving up all of his power.

These verses are only a small sampling of what Jesus had to say about greatness.  The theme remains, being a Christian has something to do with rejecting power and embracing weakness. I have the privilege of living in the United States, a self-described Christian nation.  Can you imagine what would happen if we took greatness, as defined by Jesus seriously?

How would our foreign policy change if was saw our enemies as people whom we called to serve, love and be in submission to?  What would it mean to prioritize service to our enemies, both foreign and domestic over military power, economic dominance and religious superiority?  Cam you envision a world where we prioritize the safety, security and well-being of the immigrant, prisoner, welfare family, and the economically disenfranchised over our personal needs?  I suspect that this kind of reorientations would make America Great.  I suppose the question is both simple and difficult, do we have the courage to live this way?

Safety – 2017

Every year at about this time I write a blog about safety. As the Executive Director of an urban service learning program, I have become an expert in addressing both real and perceived concerns. One of my go-to responses is, “DOOR has been around for 31 years. During this time we have hosted over 43,000 people and we have yet to send someone to the hospital because of an interaction with the community.” Even so, violence is a concern. From my vantage point it is more of a concern for our Discerners. These are the youth and young adults we hire to lead the groups who come to each of our locations. 85% of our Discerners are local young adults of color. One of our growing concerns at DOOR has to do with the misidentification of men of color. Last year, one of our Chicago Discerners survived a drive-by shooting. He was simply waiting at a bus stop for the next bus and some young people in a car assumed he was a rival gang member. Misidentification is not just limited to gang activity. Law enforcement has been known to target young black men. We have had Discerners thrown down and hand cuffed just because they were leading a (primarily white) DOOR group.

In a little over two weeks our Discover summer begins. We have hired Discerners and they will receive orientation and training to lead our Discover program. They will help out of town visitors process their service experiences. They will lead discussions of race and racism, sometimes being the only voice of color in the room. Others will be unpacking stereotypes about mothers who receive welfare, urban poverty, and the school to prison pipeline. In the best of circumstances these are all difficult conversations. Dealing with stereotypes and assumptions about race, culture, and gender is emotionally draining. Many of our Discerners, who are 17-24 years-old, have to do this in an environment where misidentification is a looming possibility.

Please keep our staff and Discerners in your prayers as they seek to show the face of God in the city.

2017-05-11 19.12.56

 

 

 

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.

Questions and Answers

One of the great privileges of my job is walking with young adults as they process their faith, discern their vocation, and explore what it means to live a life of integrity. As you might expect, this journey is filled with questions. What do I do with the Christian faith that was given to me by my family? Is there a church or faith community that will accept me as I am? Is it possible for the Christian faith connect with my politics and social convictions? What do I do with politicians who came to be pro-life and then advocate for carpet bombing anyone who is declared an enemy? Aren’t issues like climate change, food-justice, police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, immigration reform, and race deeply Christian issues? If so, why don’t we hear about this from the pulpit? This is just a small sampling of the questions my staff and I face on a regular basis. There is never an easy or simple response. I worry that too many church leaders have spent too much time trying to simplify Christianity. As a church leader I understand this temptation. I am not sure if Christianity was ever meant to be simple.

As humans we are complex. We have the capacity to be brilliant and foolish in the same moment. We know how to sacrifice and how to be selfish simultaneously. We can open our pocketbooks for starving children around the world and callously watch the evening news as children died while trying to escape terror and war. We know how to forgive and hold grudges in the same moment.

When young adults come to me complaining about the church, people of faith, and the hypocrisy, I don’t move into defensive mode. When I am confronted by hypocrisy in my life it can either make me angry and resentful or become space of growth.

If the church is going to survive and play an important role for the emerging generation of adults it will have to confront its own hypocrisy. If done well the church will survive and remain a critical voice in a culture looking for moral leadership.

Real Life and Cancer Sucks

The seasons of Lent and Easter have always been important to me. This year has been different. Ash Wednesday came and went without me taking any notice. The only time I was reminded that it was the season of Lent was when I went out for lunch and saw fish on the menu. Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Rita and I skipped church. I cannot remember the last time I missed a Palm Sunday service. Instead we attended a funeral. I was there to support a friend whose sister-in-law died. My wife came for other reasons. The lady whose life we were remembering had passed away from cancer. A little over a year ago, within a month of my wife’s diagnosis, that she received similar news. Both faced and fought cancer with dignity and strength. Her battle lead to a memorial service on Palm Sunday.

I stood in the chapel with hundreds of other mourners listening to the stories of this amazing wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, and woman that brought laughter and tears. This was a person whose definition of family was always expanding to include outsiders. Strangers were nothing more than future family members. She met her soulmate and husband at a young age and together they promised to do their marriage “right.” This couple lived, loved, worked, and laughed together. They managed to forge a marriage and life together the rest of us dream about. All the stories reinforced the fact that they managed to do marriage right.

About halfway through one of the stories the speaker mentioned that this lady met her soulmate and married in 1986, the same year Rita and I started our life together. Looking across the chapel at a husband mourning the loss of his partner in life and love was heartbreaking and sobering. On this morning I was standing beside my wife and partner of more than 30 years, and he was across the room with tears flowing down his face. I was there holding my wife’s hand, and he would never feel his wife’s hand again.

I am a self-described “theology nerd.” Over the years I have officiated many funerals. I still struggle to make sense of death. I did walk away from that service with a renewed passion for life. It was Jesus who suggested that worrying about tomorrow wasn’t worth the effort (Matthew 5:25-34). None of us are promised any moments beyond this one. On the Sunday as Rita and I walked away from a service of remembrance and celebration of a life well lived, I took my wife’s hand in mine and sent up a prayer of thanks for another moment.

Gun Violence, Part 2

Last week I wrote a blog about the violence that seems to be erupting in my Denver neighborhood. This past Sunday, the Chicago neighborhood where my eldest son lives exploded in gunfire. Of the six people who were shot, two died and four were taken to the hospital.  

I have spent much of the past two weeks thinking about violence, safety, the DOOR Network, and my Christian faith. DOOR is an urban program. We are committed to showing the face of God in the city. Most of the time we do a good job of helping visitors see and experience the amazing things that God is doing in the city.

These past two weeks have tested (and continue to test) my commitment to God’s presence in the city. Giving witness to the violence, hate, and frustration that seems to explode on the streets of our urban neighborhoods leads to some deep soul searching. Where is God? Or, better yet, where are the people of God? What does it mean to be people of faith in the midst of violence? What did Jesus mean when he talked about people of faith being salt and light?

This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in the ordination service of our Atlanta City Director. Part of the service included a reading from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The call of people of faith is to go and be present in all places and all conditions. This presence includes the call to be agents of transformation, or, to use the biblical language, to make disciples. The Christian faith has never been about passive observation. It has always been a faith that calls us to direct involvement.

So to hear my son and his roommates talk about staying, learning from, and walking alongside their neighbors was a conflicted moment for me. I felt both pride and terror.

Gun Shots

I live at the corner of 31st and Franklin. Last Saturday as my wife and I rode motorcycle to Albuquerque, NM, two people were shot in my neighborhood. According to my neighbors dozens of shots were fired. carThirty six hours later on Monday Rita and I were getting ready to go to Ross; I needed a new shirt. As usual I was taking my time getting ready. Just as I found the car keys, gun fire starting ringing out again. At first I thought it was firecrackers. From my perspective the rapidness of the firing was faster than even an automatic gun could shoot. I was wrong. Within minutes the streets were blocked again. When things like this happen in our neighborhood there is a period of everyone hunkering down in their homes, followed by a slow gathering of people on the corner. These gatherings are an interesting mixture of folks. First come the younger people, followed by the men. Then the mothers and grandmothers looking for their children and grandchildren, making sure everyone is safe. Finally, the news reporters.

After about 25 minutes of standing around and watching the police run back and forth looking for the shooter(s), the crowd started to dissipate. Before long it was just me and a couple of neighbors.

Before long one of men says, “You know the shooter ran into that house.” He points to where the shooter ran, and was probably still hiding.

My response came instinctively, “Well why don’t you go and tell the police where the shooter is.”

At this point it is important to note that I am white, the majority of the responding police officers are white, and the man I am talking with is not white. It is also critical to state that this man demonstrated no animosity toward the police. He was respectful when questioned and never said anything derogatory about the police. If anything, he was grateful with their response.

So his response to me was not what I expected, he turned and looked me in the eye, and said, “I have lived in the neighborhood for 16 years and I want to going on living here for at least another 16, so I am going to mind my own (expletive) business.”

For the past number of days I have not been able to let this conversation go. It says something about my privilege to just assume I can inform the police about someone or something in my neighborhood and assume I will not suffer from any possible repercussions.

My neighbor had no vested interest in letting an armed person run around the neighborhood. For him reaching out to the police and pointing something out was even more dangerous. He felt no assurances that he or his family would be protected if folks found out the he squealed.

Moments like the one I just described are very difficult for me. I didn’t ask to be white and I cannot stop being white. It almost feels wrong to talk about a privilege I have because of my birth parents. Until I, and people who look like me, fully own that we live in a culture that values whiteness above all else, we will not be able see the kingdom of God lived out.

The Mixing

Polite people don’t mix faith and politics, or so we have been told. I understand why so many people feel this way. Both of these subjects are deeply personal. For the most part we like to believe what we believe and have no interest in changing our positions. That said, we also believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is wrong, and that eventually they will see the light. My job for the past two decades has been about asking people to think about both their faith and their politics. DOOR invites folks to come and spend anywhere from a day to a year with us. During their stay we ask people to reflect on their deeply held faith and ask if it can extend beyond a conviction to a practical response. As soon as we start talking about how to live out faith, political perspectives begin to surface.

It is not possible to move towards a public faith- the kind of faith that is committed to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner; all the stuff that Jesus talked about in Matthew 25- without talking about politics.

For example, take feeding the hungry. We have DOOR participants work in soup kitchens. If you spend enough time at a soup kitchen, eventually it becomes apparent that these ministries serve an interesting cross-section of people, not just the homeless or folks who are looking for a free ride. There are families, the working poor, children, and young adults. Eventually you have to ask why people need a soup kitchen. In time this leads to conversations about affordable housing, fair wages, education, and access to health care. All political topics.

I am no longer sure that it is even appropriate to separate our faith and politics. As Christians we hold to this unique concept that all human beings are created in the very image and likeness of God. For this reason alone everyone has worth. There is also a sense in which people of faith, are call to care for all humans.

Maybe we need to flip the language a bit. Instead of dividing the conversation between faith and politics, we should start thinking about our interactions with other people as a human issue. Any faith or political perspective that actively dehumanizes the other should be considered wrong.

This alone will not solve everything. Disagreement is part of what it means to be human. However, starting discussions with the assumption that we all have worth has potential to create a space for vigorous, yet civil, discussions.

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, Was blind, but now I see.

I am not the biggest fan of Christian music, but this song always manages to stir my soul at a deep level. I like the idea of Amazing Grace. Or to put it more honestly, I need Amazing Grace in my life. I half-jokingly shared with a co-worker that I start and end every day with, “I sorry, please forgive me.” If there was ever an award for offending people I think it would go to me. What really gets me is that I am not terribly intentional or pre-meditated about offending others, this ability just seems to come naturally. I wish I could describe how many evenings I go to bed desiring a do-over for the day or week. That is not how life works. So I find myself in constant need of forgiveness and grace.

Lately I have been challenged to think about Amazing Grace as it applies to others, particularly when someone has hurt me. I know that I am a wretch and I need a God who finds me and heals me from my blindness. So why is it that I have such a tough time dealing with the wretchedness, lostness, and blindness of others?

There is a strange hypocrisy that allows for grace in my life and demands perfection in the lives of others. The honest truth is that I do not like being hurt or disappointed by others.

According to the church calendar we are in the season of Lent, a time of repentance, fasting, and preparation for Easter. It is not uncommon for people to give up something during Lent. This year I want to give up my need to judge and condemn others. I want to find ways to make Amazing Grace accessible even to those who have hurt me.

Maybe this is the point of Easter and of the Christian faith – forgiving and loving those who have hurt us deeply.

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?

Identity – Who am I?

There is one question that has haunted me for as long as I can remember, who am I? Earlier today I had lunch with a good friend. After lunch we walked around the neighborhood he grew up in. It was memorizing to listen as he pointed out houses and parks while telling stories of friends, neighbors, and events. It was clear that his neighborhood shaped his identity.

For the past few months I have been reacquainting myself with one of the Old Testament’s greatest heroes – Moses. I think I find myself drawn to him because, like me, he had an identity issue. He was born into a Jewish slave family, but raised in the king’s court as an Egyptian. Later in life he attempted to protect his Jewish people only to be rejected. Out of fear and confusion he ran to another country and took up shepherding. You can find this story in Exodus 1-3.

Last fall during our staff gathering we were led through the Enneagram. This is a personality test that organizes people around nine different ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Over the years I have been exposed to many different personality inventories. For the most part they have played a significant role in helping me to understand how I am wired. But they all seem to fail at answering the big question – who am I?

My passport says that I am a Canadian, but I have spent my entire adult life in the USA. The ordination certificate on my office wall says I am a Mennonite, but I attend a non-denominational, Pentecostal leaning, Hispanic church. I have friends who think of me as an evangelical while others say “not a chance, he has gone off the liberal deep end.” For the past two decades I have lived in a neighborhood that some would describe as “the hood,” but I grew up in northern British Columbia and I am not even sure what “the hood” means.

I am a white, straight, Christian male. People have pointed out that this means I am a person of great power. I get to go through life without much fear. For example, I am a green card carrying immigrant, but because of what I bring to the table by simply being born white I do not have to fear expulsion or exclusion.

From the outside I am a person of power and privilege. But when I am alone I do not feel this power and privilege. Rather there is a deep sense of confusion. My time on the West Side of Denver, my neighbors, and my church have influenced and changed who I am. The changes have been life altering; I no longer feel at home in my white, Canadian, Mennonite culture. At the same time I am not a person of color. I appreciate Pentecostalism, but it is not me either.

I cannot help but wonder if the greatest need for western culture is more social martyrs, people cut off from their roots, background, and culture. People destined to be strangers in a strange land. After all, isn’t this the point of Philippians 2:6? Paul talks about Jesus giving up his identity, power, and privilege. It was only after giving it up that salvation could become a real possibility.

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.

Defining Moments

Abraham Lincoln had a defining moment at Gettysburg when he began his speech, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…” Martin Luther King, Jr. had one August 28, 1963 when rallied a nation with his dream.

President Bush had a less than stellar one on May 1, 2003 when he stood on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

In my city of Denver, quarterback John Elway had his moment on January 25, 1998 when he led the Denver Broncos to their first Super Bowl championship, beating the defending Green Bay Packers 31-24.

Defining moments are interesting and memorable events. They can cut two ways, either reminding us of courage and greatness or of foolishness and failure. I suspect that all of us desire the first and fear the second.

The truth is all of us are more than one moment in our lives. None of us should be defined by a single event. Each of us are far too complicated to be defined by a single act, whether great or foolish. There is an interesting human tendency to elevate those who have done great things to a god-like status and demonize those caught in foolishness.

Although we are at the front end of 2017, it seems that this is going to be a year of giving space for a fuller story. I don’t want to be a person who defines and pigeon holes others based on a particular moment, whether that is a moment of greatness or of intense foolishness.

Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, reflected, “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

In 2017 I want to be a person who knows what it means to both give and receive Amazing Grace.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

My favorite line in the Lord’s Prayer is “on earth as it is in heaven.” The idea that Jesus wanted this life on planet earth to be a reflection of heaven has been a source of hope for me. I might go so far as to say it is the basis of my conviction that humanity is moving towards an ethic of kindness, inclusion, and generosity. Then November 8, 2016 happened. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, this past election cycle uncovered and exposed some of the darker sides of humanity. I have friends and co-workers who are legitimately afraid of what might happen to them. Over the period of a few hours on that Tuesday judgment, hate, and fear was normalized. In my city of Denver a swastika was recently spray painted on the door of a local elementary school. The news regularly reports about re-empowered hate groups.

Have we taken a giant step backwards? My initial reaction was a resounding yes. I am beginning to wonder if that is really the case. Is it possible that the only thing that changed on November 8 was the shattering of my insulated world?

Hate, misogyny, judgment, and distrust didn’t just suddenly emerge on November 8. On that night my privileged political perspective was given a reality check. In a sense I had a 2 Kings 6:17 moment, where Elisha prays that the eyes of his servant would be opened. In that particular case the servant saw the armies of God. In my case I have been reminded that the world is larger than my particular echo chamber.

Can I, can we, still take seriously Jesus’ words – on earth as it is in heaven? Yes, now more than ever. It is time for people of all faiths to demonstrate to the world that we can respect each other, that we can live together without resorting to violence. It time for the church to be about inclusion, not just the politically correct type of inclusion but a radical inclusion that takes seriously the humanity of everyone.

My youngest son is in Bible College. I have enjoyed reading his papers and watching him struggle with his own faith. Recently he was asked to write a reflection on a passage in Galatians. He chose Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In his reflections he wondered what Paul might have written if he were around in 2016. My son thought it would go something like this:

There is no longer Christian, Jew or Muslim,

There is no longer straight, gay, queer or transgender,

There is no longer liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; American or foreigner,

For we are all humans created in the very image and likeness of God.

This election exposed some scary things. It is now time for people of faith to start being the hands and feet of Jesus. Just maybe we will all be around to witness heaven right here on earth!