23 years of being pushed, challenged, and prodded

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversity, where is the line?

I have always been intrigued by John 3:16.  As a child, the idea that God loved me, my family, friends and neighbors was good news.  Every year during Mission Week I would hear stories and watch slide presentations about how God loved people who lived a long ways away from me. I’m not sure that I ever said this out loud to anyone, but I always knew that there were people beyond the reach of God’s love.  These people were the big time sinners.  I was pretty sure the rock bands Kiss and Led Zeppelin were included in this list.  Kiss because they were ‘Knights in Satan’s Service’ and Led Zeppelin because playing Stairway to Heaven backwards a subliminal message strong enough steal a person’s soul was inserted.

Over time I became comfortable with the idea that I could define the world that God loved and sent His one and only Son to save.  Although I hadn’t studied the original languages I was reasonably sure that the original Greek allowed for this re-definition of the world God loved.  This understanding served me well through high school, college, and even seminary.

Cracks began to appear in my world view a little over 20 years ago.  I attended a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) gathering in Denver.  John Perkins, the founder, had just written a book emphasizing the three “R’s” of urban ministry - reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation.  It was his thought on reconciliation that challenged me the most.  For Perkins reconciliation had something to do with expanding my concept of the world that God loved.

Again, on paper this sounded good.  There was no question that my ideas of God’s world were filled with all manners of stereotypes and prejudices.  God had much to teach me about race, gender, economics, theology, and national origin.  This journey into a more diverse understanding of God’s world has been both terrifying and liberating.

Sometimes I can relate to the prophet Jonah, sitting on the outskirts of the city, waiting for God to destroy Jonah’s enemy but knowing deep down that God is merciful and forgiving.  Other times it is freeing to not let my faith journey be defined by friends and enemies.

This journey into an ever expanding understanding of the world Jesus died for is not without controversy.  I grew up in a small denomination, so it was somewhat natural to be afraid of people and faith experiences that understood God differently.  When it came to understanding who was and was not included in God’s world I always new there was a place for me, but could not always extend my understanding of grace to those were different.  Especially if I understood that difference to be sin.

In the past few weeks many have witnessed one well-known family asking forgiveness for the inappropriate sexual behavior of one of their children, while at the same time condemning others for their sexual orientation.  Isn’t it interesting that grace and forgiveness is demanded when a wrong is committed by a family member and condemnation is leved for just being different and outside a particular understanding of who God is?

Like me people of faith and the church cannot have it both ways.  We can either have a myopic understanding of God’s world or we can take the more interesting road and assume that the world God loves includes everyone, no exceptions.  Theology, class, gender, orientation, race, nationality, or any other way of dividing we can come up with simply isn’t important to God.

My way or the highway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

History

The other week I was at a conference. One of the speakers challenged us as church leaders to “be on the right side of history.” He then went on to reference women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. I have been thinking about his challenge ever since. On one hand I like the idea of the church being prophetic, creating spaces for those who have been excluded from the table. From a distance it seems heroic. There is also that other hand. I am part of a church tradition that was once referred to as the “radical reformation,” the Anabaptists. Five hundred years ago one of the few things that the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could agree on was that the Anabaptists should be burned at the stake. Looking back on that period, it is now easy to say that the Anabaptists were on the right side of history. Their emphasis on community, non-violence, and the priesthood of all believers are ideas that have gone mainstream and as a result have been accepted in the church at large.

The result of this is that we have become less radical and more normalized. And normalization has led to institutionalism. This in turn has led to maintaining the status quo (the institution). Although it is true that institutions create stability and help to maintain order, the downside is they do this by resisting change. This resistance can and does lead to being on the wrong side of history.

Even my radical tradition was, and still is among some groups, resistant to inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. Our acculturation has occasionally led to an unwelcoming attitude towards the immigrant. Currently we are either ignoring the sexual orientation debate or threatening to let it tear the church apart.

You see, there is a cost for being on the right side of history, especially in the church. Confronting injustice more often than not leads to misunderstanding and sometimes goes all the way to charges of heresy. Being thrown out of the church for “not holding the correct beliefs” is not fun.

I realize that it is not easy to go to church with people whose beliefs are radically different than the traditional way. If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different. It is the only way we can find our way back to the right side of history.

A white issue

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

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

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

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

A Christian One-Liner

The other day I was involved in one of those controversial Christian conversations.  As our discussion was wrapping up this person said to me, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin."  Then we hugged and went our separate ways.  This one-liner was not new to me.  As a matter of fact I have heard and used the exact same phase for years. I have probably even uttered it from the pulpit. This time the conversation was a tough one and the phrase did not sound so spiritual.  You see it was the first time I had ever been the target of the line.  To him I was the sinner that needed loving and my prayerfully considered convictions were the sin that needed hating.  Quite frankly it did not feel good to be on the receiving end.  I had been judged to be a sinner.  His love for me, in spite of my sin, did not make me feel any better, respected, or accepted.  I would not be whole until I quit sinning.

I have done a lot of thinking about loving the sinner and hating the sin.  It is one of those statements that sounds good; so good that many of us might even wonder why Jesus didn’t have the wisdom to use it himself.  I could just imagine Jesus as he looked a Peter after the third denial, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The problem with loving the sinner and hating the sin is that it shifts power.  It is an attempt at becoming God.  When I say love the sinner, hate the sin in essence I am saying that I have God knowledge.  I have the ability to name who sinners are and what sin is.  Granted there are times when this seems obvious to all.  Pedophiles and murders are two groups of people that come to mind.  However, most of us live in a world that is much less stark.  As much as many of us would like Scripture to be crystal clear on issues of war, patriotism, sexual orientation, speaking in tongues, hell, heaven, and many others, it isn’t clear.

When believers differ from each other it is tempting to name that difference as sin.  The temptation is especially strong when we believe that we have Scripture on our side.

I remember going to church and being told that drums were a sign of the Devil and that women were not gifted in leadership.  These opinions were held fervently, leaders believed they had God and Scripture backing up their beliefs.  I am glad that the church had the courage to grow beyond those convictions.

I do not know where we are going to end up with the big discussions of today, but I do know that if we keep naming those who are different than us sinners we won’t have the opportunity to see where the spirit of God is leading us.

Imperfect

One of my regular prayers to God goes something like this: “I just want one year to be the perfect year, a year when everything would go according to the plan.  All of my personal and work related budgets would be met; a 10% surplus would be a nice bonus!  In addition I would like all the DOOR evaluations to come back with glowing comments and no suggestions for improvement.  My theological reflections and opinions would be received with open arms.  These reflections would be turned into a book which in turn would become a best seller.  My staff would start from the assumption that I could do no wrong. And finally my computer would be free of bugs and viruses.” God has not granted this prayer request.  I am not perfect, the people around me are not perfect, and it is only on rare occasions that things work according to the plan.  Learning to live with imperfection actually becomes a life skill.  There are even people who tell me that dealing with let-downs and the unexpected is what develops character.  Apparently everything being perfect doesn’t say much about who we are as people; trials, tribulations, and imperfections are the things that make great people.

Here is my question: If this is true for individuals is it also true for the church?  Why is it so important to develop statements of faith that seem to require everyone to think and believe the same way?  Why can’t the church be a little more imperfect?  I am part of Mennonite Church USA.  We are starting to tear apart at the seams around the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  Some people, and I am speaking specifically to those in leadership, believe that unless we can agree on what the Bible says about this subject we cannot worship together.  From my perspective, and I need to own that it is my perspective, this seems like the pinnacle of spiritual immaturity.  It is the imperfection and differences of opinion that create character and integrity.

There is a story in John 8:1-11 about a woman caught in adultery.  The leaders saw this woman’s imperfection but had no ability to see their own imperfection.  Both the leaders and Jesus wanted the same thing- purity.  Their approaches were so different.  The leaders literally wanted to kill any impurity they found.  Jesus wanted everyone to be more reflective about their own status.  Reflection creates a space for difference and difference allows for character development.

If we are serious about our status as the bride of Christ, then let’s become much more comfortable with difference and imperfection; maybe even embrace those who hold positions about theology we radically disagree with.

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.”

The Voice

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

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

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

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

Bounded and Centered

A few years ago while taking a class on evangelism I was introduced to the notion of “Bounded” and “Centered” groups. These were two very different ways of understanding salvation. The “Bounded” people were interested in knowing standards, rules and procedures for determining who is saved and who isn’t. Visually this way of thinking could be represented by a circle. Those on the inside are part of the kingdom of God and those on the outside are the non-Christians. There is a sense in which this desire to know the rules is what got humanity kicked out of the garden. You can read about this in Genesis 3. The “Centered” folks are most concerned about the direction someone is facing or moving. For these people you are either moving toward or away from the center. This is the drama that plays out in Acts 10 where Peter comes to the realization that all people who seek Jesus, including the Gentiles, are included in the Kingdom of God.

I must admit that I have a strong affinity with the “Centered” approach. There are “risks” with the centered approach. The clearly defied rules for membership (salvation) blur. It may mean opening ourselves up to the possibility that God works in ways we don’t approve of. Taking this line of thought to an even more radical place, it may mean that God fully accepts and includes people we don’t approve of.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11 Paul challenges the reader to put an end to childish ways. We need to move past the mentality of Adam that caused him to listen to the serpent and attempt in vain to be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. Quite frankly that didn’t work out so well for him and it hasn’t worked out well for the church.

Putting away childish things means finding the courage to move past old ways of operating. It means being open to the possibility that who the church excludes misses the heart of God. Declaring who is in and who is out is both immature (childish) and out of sync with the heart of God.

The perfect excuse

One of my favorite sayings in Scripture comes from Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” It just oozes with stability and predictability. In a world where change is the only certainty, these words are like an oasis of calm. I have also met some folks, Christian leaders in particular, who use this verse as an excuse to never change opinions or moral stances, especially about faith issues. Before you get angry with me, can you imagine a church that still accepts slavery as normal or even acceptable? And slavery is but one issue that the church and its leaders have had to back-track on. I grew up in a house where dancing, drinking and going to movies where all signs of a person without a “real” Christian faith. Years ago my denomination felt that only baptism by immersion was acceptable and the idea of women in pastoral leadership was unpalatable. Today I can hardly imagine a thoughtful Christian still holding to these convictions.

The surprising part of opening ourselves up to the God of Scripture, the One who never changes, is that our need to change and adjust becomes more pronounced. Church history is full of stories where people got God wrong. In Acts 10 and 11 we read about Peter and how he comes to a new awareness that Jesus is not the Savior for just the Jewish but also for the Gentiles.

The need for us to change is most pronounced whenever we start to exclude others from the faith or ask them to change and meet our standards for what it means to be a believer. There is an amazing side benefit to opening ourselves up to change. The stress of staying aware of who should be excluded is overwhelming. When we open ourselves up to the possibility that the kingdom of God is wider and deeper than a particular set of convictions a freedom and joy emerges.

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.

Making Friends

Book reviews are not a normal part of my blogging life, but last week I received a book entitled, “Making Friends among the Taliban.”   It is written by Jonathan Larson, an amazing story-teller and former chair of our DOOR-Atlanta program.  In it he tells the story of Dan Berry who on August 5, 2010, was murdered along with nine other members of a medical team in a remote region of northern Afghanistan. This is not a story of a senseless death, but rather of a life lived to its fullest.  Dan spent 30 plus years becoming a part of the Afghan landscape.  He was someone who seemed to have figured out how to be fully Christian in a place where Christianity, especially the western version of Christianity, is viewed with suspicion and apprehension.

From a certain perspective Dan was the wrong person to represent the Christian faith.  He lived without deadlines, communicated poorly, was easily distracted, liked to stop and smell the roses, viewed dangerous situations as simply obstacles to overcome and enemies as potential friends and allies, and thought the best places to visit were always sketchy and somewhat seedy.  You could say that Dan lived on the edge and therefore the manner in which he died was not all that surprising.

There is another perspective from which to hear this story.  Here was a person who knew the power of friendship.  Dan was willing to go to extraordinary measures to be a friend.  The title of the book hints at this, the Taliban was never his foe.   Like Jesus, relationship always took precedence over rules, policies and regulations.  For Dan everything was negotiable.  Being able to respect and understand all sides of any issue allowed Dan to be a peacemaker where peacemaking seemed impossible.  I cannot help but wonder how different our world would be if Christians choose to value relationship over conversion - not because I am against conversion.  So often the desire to convert becomes the barrier to seeing the other as a child of God.  For too many people, especially Christians, conversion is code language for you need to become like me.

One of the lasting legacies that Dan Berry has left for the church is new possibilities for being authentically Christian in a world where religious violence, mistrust and intolerance seem to be increasing.

The Church

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to work with church leaders and members from many different faith traditions.  Some come from very structured church communities while others come from less formal more Pentecostal contexts.  There are churches that see the Bible as one of many holy books they would turn to for advice, while others come from traditions where the Bible is viewed as the inerrant word of God and the only Holy Scripture that should be consulted.  The labels people of faith give themselves and each other are telling as well - Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, etc. After almost two decades of interacting and leading all these different “Christian” groups I find myself fascinated by the similarities between the extremes.  Take for example Scripture.  Both Liberals and Conservatives require a high degree of “Selective Reading” in order to maintain their understanding and reworking of the Christian faith.

My more liberal (or progressive) brothers and sisters don’t really like the Apostle Paul.  They seem him as a sexist and homophobe.  More often than not their approach is to simply ignore Paul and focus on Jesus and his message of Grace.

My more fundamental (or evangelical) brothers and sisters have so confused American Civil religion and Scripture that they can no longer tell the difference between the two.  Take for example the “life issue.”  The vast majority of conservatives are both pro-life and pro-war; at best this is an oxymoron.

I cannot help but wonder what it would mean for the church to take Scripture seriously.  Conservatives would have to give up their sexism, homophobia and need for violence.  Liberals would have to give up their eliteness, smugness and educational arrogance.

Here is the good news.  Every week DOOR hosts multiple church groups, representing a wide spectrum of the Christian faith community.  It is true that the church leaders sometimes judge and condemn each other, but the youth have very little interest in finding reasons to divide.  They are interested in a Christian faith that moves beyond posturing, politics and rhetoric.  For them faith is about taking Scripture seriously, loving God and loving neighbor.  When this happens walls of division become unimportant.

Don’t you believe what the Bible teaches?

The other day I was asked to sign a petition.  It had to do with one of those burning “Christian” issues.  At this point you need to know that I am not going to name her issue, as naming it would shift the focus of this blog to the issue. My standard response to petitions is that I am a Canadian and probably shouldn’t sign.  Most people let me off the hook at this point.  In this instance I was once again let off the hook, but before she went on to ask for more signatures she proceeded to lament to me about the state of Christian belief in this country.

“Why can’t people just believe what the bible teaches?”  For her the Bible spoke clearly to her issue.

I have thought about her statement for a while now.  Like her I believe that Bible is clear about some things.  For me loving God and loving neighbors are at the top of the list, but once we get past these two subjects clarity quickly fades.

Think about all the things that divided Christians:

There are many believers who defend a literal six day creation. However, Christians were among the first to suggest that we need to understand the Genesis stories symbolically.

Christians are among the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Christians are among the strongest opponents of these conflicts.

Think about the current debates over gay marriage and women’s right to choose. It is Christians who are the strongest supporters and opponents.

Then there is the healthcare debate.  You can find committed followers of Christ across the “what should we do” spectrum.

Taking Jesus and Scripture seriously does not always provide clear-cut answers.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to accept people of faith who fundamentally disagree with you and your understanding of the truth.  That said, authentic Christianity always allows for the possibility that my particular understanding of the issue might be wrong.

The Future

I am always a little skeptical when people start trying to predict the future.  At best it is foolish and at worst manipulative.  For example, I have been predicting that the Broncos will win the Super Bowl for the last 10 years.  If you are a follower of football, you are well aware of my predicting ability.  If you are not a follower of football, all you need to know is that I am 0 for 10. A couple of weeks ago I was part of a conversation about the future of the church.  Somewhere in the middle of our discussion the following prediction was made – the day of churches running existing programs or starting new programs is over and the era of the movement has begun.  Initially I blew this comment off, but in the weeks since this theme has continued to surface in other conversations.

Recognizing the dangers of predicting what the future holds, it is still interesting to think about where the church is heading.  What does it mean to move from program based church to a more movement orientated church? Is this a good thing?

Programs can tend to be top down, control orientated and overly structured.  At their worst programs are sterile inauthentic structures intended to bring people together in predictable ways.

As I have reflected on the idea of “movement,” images such as organic, shared leadership, bottom up, low structure, and highly flexible come to mind.  These images have an inviting and inclusive quality to them.

I do not know if church and denominationally run programs are going to disappear in the next decade, but I do like the idea of moving from program to movement.

Defining Church

When does a gathering of people become more than a gathering?  More specifically, when does a gathered group become a church?  And who gets to define what a church should look like?  How critical are committees and ordained staff in defining church? According to scripture, when two or three are gathered Jesus is there.  Not one word about a building committee, ordained bishops or youth ministry.

Have we made church too complicated?

At a practical level it makes sense to conduct ourselves decently and in order.  It is empowering to have a set of rules.   It also helps us to define who can be in and who is out.

The downside to tightly defined rules for what makes a church a church is that it leads to legalism.  Jesus, the head of the church, was not known for being a legalist.

When we put the power to decide what makes a church a church in the hands of a committee, it is at best disempowering and at worst discouraging to new creative expressions of church.

Is there a downside to shifting the responsibility of defining church from conference (leadership) to the group requesting membership?  I suspect this kind of shift would be empowering and freeing for everyone involved.  Instead of having to insure that a procedure was followed, time would be spent listening to stories and figuring out how both sides can come together.  Relationship would take precedence over procedure.

Having a more open approach to defining church has the potential to radically reshape denominations.  This may make some people uncomfortable.  That said I believe the benefits far outweigh the costs.

You might be Wrong

One of my co-workers forwarded me a blog about writing blogs. There were 10 great tips. I wish that I could recall each of them, but I deleted the email and blog address. The one suggestion that stuck with me was the need to focus. Apparently, Blog writers that do well stay focused on their subject matter. I am supposed to be writing about “Seeing the face of God in the city.”

As I write this entry, 2009 is coming to a close. It is a good time to reflect. If I could only share one learning with you it would be this: you might be wrong…

I grew up in a faith culture that demanded certainty. We needed to know who was and was not a Christian. In and of itself, this is not bad or wrong, but more often than not the litmus tests were culturally biased.

In my world, Christians were people who didn’t drink, dance, listen to rock and roll, get tattoos, or wear blue jeans to church. Men never grew their hair long and women were submissive. Every Christian I knew looked like me and had the same values. It never occurred to me that these rules and assumptions weren’t part of God’s plan for God’s people.

Some of you are probably appalled that someone could grow up with this kind of faith. Others are saying, “You got off easy, we had way more rules.”

One of the most difficult things that Christians are asked to do is untangle culture and faith. That is what the Apostle Paul was trying to do in 1 Corinthians 8. Some thought that eating food sacrificed to animals was wrong; others thought it was OK.

We no longer talk about food sacrificed to idols, but we do have our issues, don’t we? We are not always good at separating our cultural convictions from our faith. Some of us would like to believe that our cultural understandings and our faith are the same. They are not.

Living in the city has forced me to emerge from my narrow, culturally defined faith. I know Christians who drink, dance, listen to rock and roll, get tattoos and wear blue jeans to church. (I have even been known to preach a sermon while wearing blue jeans.) God is not concerned about the length of a person hair or if it is a man or a woman who leads the church. After all, God has a reputation of ignoring the outward appearance, and choosing to focus on the heart. Worshipping with people of different class, social and racial backgrounds have expanded my understanding of the depth and breadth of the Kingdom of God.

I do not have a perfect track record with keeping resolutions, but in 2010 I want to hold more loosely to my faith convictions. Not because God is wishy-washy, but because I am not very good at separating my culture from my faith.