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.

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.

Rethinking the Mission Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Together

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

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

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

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

Progress – yes and no

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Fatigue

Have you ever found yourself eavesdropping on other people’s conversations? Every once in a while I catch myself doing this. Generally it happens at a coffee shop when the people next to me are chatting a bit too loudly. It doesn’t always happen at coffee shops. The office is also a fertile location. In the course of a day it is not unusual to hear half an exchange or walk in to the middle of a discussion. Once people realize I am present one of two things happens (a) the topic changes quickly, or (b) the conversation just keeps moving forward. One of the special things about the staff who work for me is that they are about as diverse a group as can be found anywhere. As you might imagine the conversations can become quite animated and intense.

“White people fatigue” is one of those topics that our staff and board members of color talk about on a regular basis. When I first overheard folks talking about this I didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. Mostly I saw it as a way to blow off steam or make a challenging reference simply because I walked in to the conversation. I am slowly coming to see this perspective as erroneous at best and demeaning at worst.

White people fatigue is a real condition. It is time that (we) Anglos begin to own the pain and frustration that is too often visited on our brothers and sisters of color. With this as background, I want to offer some ideas to consider:

  1. When it comes to defining diversity too often it is white people who get to say what diversity is and isn’t. I have found this to be an interesting issue for the more progressive (read liberal) folks. For many reasons, both good and bad, this is the group that has defined the extent and limits of “true diversity” – whether it be about skin color, theology, class, gender, or orientation. As you might imagine this is interestingly ironic. To add even more irony to the situation when people of color do not accept these progressive Anglo ideas as to the nature and extent of diversity, it is people of color get written off as immature or uneducated. This creates fatigue.
  2. The “you’re my best friend” pressure. Being everyone’s best “Hispanic” (or Black, Asian, etc.) friend can be taxing. The truth of the matter is, best friendship takes time, lots of time. When a cross cultural element is added it is probably best to assume that it will take twice as much time. When white folks pressure people of color to be friends, stress and fatigue are natural outcomes.
  3.  The “I get what you are thinking.” Again, really? I have lived in a Hispanic neighborhood for 20 years and attended a Hispanic church for 10. One of the important lessons I have learned is that it is best not to assume anything, particularly that I would understand how and why someone believes and acts the way they do. When we assume that we understand the other, particularly people of color, we disrespect their culture, background, and history. These assumptions create fatigue.
  4.  The pressure to understand popular culture, at least white popular culture. This includes quoting lyrics from current songs to reenacting a scene from The Princess Bride. As Anglos we have the privilege of assuming that everyone else relates to, knows, and appreciates our particular slice of popular culture. Quite simply this is misguided. I don’t know many people of color who fixate on old Seinfeld episodes or current story lines from The Big Bang Theory. It creates fatigue when Anglos expect everyone to understand their particular cultural references but rarely take the time to understand other cultures. When we don’t understand a broader world it demonstrates both privilege and ignorance.
  5. Don’t assume that to be Hispanic (African American, Asian American, etc.) implies that a person holds to a particular set of cultural norms. Expecting a universal Black, Hispanic or Asian “experience” is ignorant and small minded. These types of expectations create fatigue and anger.

What can be done?

  1. Diversity is what its name suggests, a whole bunch of difference. Just because that difference isn’t the kind of difference you approve of doesn’t make it wrong, evil, or less diverse. Don’t think that you have the complete picture of what diversity is and is not.
  2. Don’t assume that friendly equals best friend or even friend. Sometimes friendly is just a way to be polite or a way to avoid having to confront your insensitivity.
  3. Don’t speak for other people. Listen closely to what they have to say. Ask clarifying questions. Allow their story to be their story.
  4. For every movie directed by an Anglo watch two directed by a person of color. Apply this matrix to your TV watching, music choices, and reading. As a side note, living by this standard will reduce both movie and TV viewing.
  5. It is a good idea to start from the supposition that we are all unique children of God. Rather than force people into pre-conceived boxes be surprised by the gifts, talents, and abilities each individual brings to the table.

Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

Baseball & Reporters

2014-04-08 17.13.40Last Friday I cut out of work early to catch the first of my son’s double header. It was one of the last baseball games of the season. My travel schedule is such that I miss too many of his games. When I am in town and he is scheduled to play, I go. Before the first inning was finished, I was approached by a young man in a suit. All by itself this was a bit strange, after all who wears a suit to a high school baseball game? He initiated the conversation, asking if I’m a parent and if my son is in right field? This went on for about 10 minutes; eventually he got around to explaining his presence. He was a reporter for the local Fox news station. They were doing a follow-up story to the “gun incident” that occurred two days prior and wanted get some “parent” reactions.

According to his source a student had brought a loaded gun to school. He was caught before anyone was harmed. Stories like this are hard to hear and understand. What is it that drives a teen to the point of wanting to commit this kind of violence? Why are guns so accessible?

After I worked through all the philosophical and theological questions, it began to dawn on me. My son goes to that school. If the situation had escalated, my son could have been in the line of fire. This is not a pleasant thought. This kind of reflecting quickly leads to a strange kind of personal questioning. What are the decisions I made that ended up with my son being in that school?

Almost 20 years ago our family moved from the suburbs of Denver to the city; according to some it was the inner city. Then we choose enroll our boys in the local elementary school, one that would eventually “three strike out” under no child left behind. This decision influenced where our boys would attend middle and high school – local and public.

All along the way well-meaning people have asked us questions. How can you send you boys to those schools? Are you being a responsible parent? Then there were the strangely judgmental comments. As a parents you are responsible for the safety and well-being of your children. These comments and questions seemed to be lodged in the assumption that the “inner city” was dangerous and the “suburbs” were safe.

All of this was weighing on my mind last Friday. This story does not end on Friday, and thankfully neither does the Christian story, Sunday eventually comes around. On Sunday DOOR Denver held its third annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. This is an event where a number of local churches get together and share food, worship, and fellowship. There are Mennonites, Hispanic Pentecostals, Folklorico Dancers, and rap artists who spend an afternoon together celebrating each other’s culture. My favorite part is eating Mennonite pies with rice, beans, and carnitas tacos in one sitting – a Mennonite Mexican fusion meal!

As always I was left with a choice. Would I let the violence in my neighborhood be the defining result of my family’s move from the suburbs to the city? Or would the multi-cultural celebrations of faith, food, music, and friendships be the defining factor?

Please don’t get me wrong, I want to do everything in my power and sphere of influence to reduce and deescalate the “need” to act violently. Honestly, once you move past the stereotypes of where violence occurs, my neighborhood isn’t that much different than any other neighborhood. Learning to see the world through the eyes of other cultures, classes, and religions is a gift that my boys will carry with them for a lifetime.

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.

Empathy

One of the more frustrating aspects of my day-to-day life is dealing with people who do not see the world as I do.  I realize that this can come off as sounding arrogant, foolish, or ignorant.  Admittedly this is sometimes the case. Dealing with people whose world is small can be frustrating.  If a person only associates with people who share his or her values is it possible to grow, change, or mature?  Is it even possible to have empathy for someone or something you have no experience with?  I am convinced this is how racism still exists.  If you only hang out with “your own kind” it becomes very easy to demonize anything that is different.

A number of years ago I was feeling pretty good about my theological knowledge.  In the middle of my bragging my friend asked who I was reading, a simple question.  I began to rattle off a long list of names.  Before long he stopped me again and asked whether I noticed anything about my list.  My quick response was that they are all great theologians.  He shook his head and said that I wasn’t even aware.  That impressive list was all white men.  Then he went on to ask where the women and the writers of color were.  In less than two minutes my friend had moved me from pride to embarrassment.

Empathy, deep heartfelt empathy, demands that we open our eyes and hearts to the other, to that which is different.  I am white; I will never fully understand the pain and horror of racism.  Having friends of color, not token but true friends, has helped me develop empathy for the racism they continue to experience on a daily basis.  Today when I read theology for every Anglo author I read I make a point of reading three authors of color.  This practice has done more to shape my understanding of who God is than almost anything else I do.

In the last few years a raging debate has escalated in the church about sexual orientation.  One of my newest practices is to read theology written by my gay brothers and sisters.  Once again I find myself understanding that God is so much more than the white, straight, male world I was born into.

How to win a Christian argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Table

Note:  This is an article I wrote for “Zing,” the monthly newsletter of Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC).  This is the group that holds my ordination credentials.  Recently MSMC licensed an openly gay pastor.  As you might imagine this decision resulted in a tremendous amount of controversy.  Letters have been written in support, in opposition and calling for more conversation.  While at the same time some churches are contemplating what it means to leave the conference.  The goal of this article is to suggest that there is a way for us to stay to together without having to surrender biblical convictions.  Your thoughts and feedback will be much appreciated! On September 11, 2011 I did something I never thought I would do, I got ordained.  For almost 20 years I avoided this decision.  There were good reasons for not taking this step.  In general my reasons boiled down to not feeling that I would be fully accepted.  I grew up Mennonite Brethren, so I tended to hold a conservative understanding of Scripture.  In 1994 I started working for a program on the Westside of Denver called Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR).  This ministry experience has consistently challenged every one of my deeply held convictions, except one.  I believe that Scripture is God’s message to us and must be taken seriously.

This tension has put me in a strange place.  My conservative friends think I have gone over to the “other side” and my liberal friends don’t always know what to do with my conservative leanings.  These tensions left me in a space of never feeling like I could belong or be accepted.  That is until I met Herm Weaver, our conference minister.  Over the years he has been slowly introducing me to the people of Mountain States Mennonite Conference.  It is in this conference that I saw things I didn’t think were possible- conservative and liberal churches participating as co-laborers and equals.  MSMC is living in tensions that would split most conferences.

What I have come to understand is that being at the table together trumps any of the reasons that would cause us to leave the table.  This isn’t always easy because sometimes our differences are significant.  2014 is going to test us.  Talking about leadership and sexual orientation is not easy or comfortable. There are many voices that will tell us that the prudent thing to do is separate.  For some it even feels like a litmus test; that unless you agree with my position we are going to have to leave the conference.  When I speak with people both for and against the ordination of gay and lesbian persons this issue quickly becomes an all or nothing faith matter.  In situations like this it is tempting to assume a “my way or the highway” stance.

In Matthew 22:34-39 Jesus is questioned about his understanding of the law. In short he says love God, love people.  I have a friend to takes this statement one step farther by adding “nothing else matters.”  The call to love God and love people seems to be the lens Jesus calls us to use when dealing with difficult issues.  When we choose to leave a conversation or sever a relationship are we not ignoring this imperative?

I would like to suggest that leaving, or expelling, is the sin that should concern us the most.  The primary call of the people of God and the church is to relationships that include reconciliation, redemption, and restoration.  If any of us leaves the table we are in essence saying that this is no longer possible.  My friends, that is a decision only God can make.

Staying at the table demonstrates to those outside the church that we are not afraid to engage the difficult issues of the day.  As members of Mennonite Church USA the decision of one worshipping body does not dictate the convictions or beliefs of another worshipping body.  Staying together even in the midst of great difference does demonstrate to the world one of our core convictions – all people are made in the very image and likeness of God and for that reason we chose together instead of separate.

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.

Why DOOR?

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

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

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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

In this passage God lets Moses know four things:

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

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

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

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

Manny’s Story

There are very few things more powerful than someone’s testimony.  This week I want to share with you an article that was written by one of our Discerner’s.  His name is Manny Alvarez and he just completed his third summer with DOOR. There is something about living in an intentional community in an urban setting that changes the way you look at a city. At times people tend to fear the city and be intimidated by its fast pace. Those that are local have the city in their back yard yet know nothing about the needs of the place they call home. DOOR has changed a lot of my philosophy of how I’ve viewed the city, my city.

Before DOOR I was clueless about the issues affecting the city and when I realized this, I felt embarrassed. I’ve worked at DOOR Denver for the last three summers as a Discern staff leading the Discover groups that came for an urban service experience. The Discern summer staff program has built me up as leader, taught me how to live in a community with others, encouraged me to live in solidarity with others, and helped me get closer to my calling and purpose through discernment.

I’ve learned that someone with everything can have nothing to offer a dying city yet someone with nothing has so much to offer. This summer I worked with people that live homelessly and I did not know I could see a mentor in one of them. Five years ago I was scared of people living homelessly because they were always drunk, at least that was my stereotype. This year I saw something different. I saw the face of God in them. Being a Discerner takes a lot out of you because you are always giving your time and energy to the groups and it can cause you to burn out. It’s the same routine every week and it can get a bit repetitive but every week that I went back to visit my friends from the streets, I was filled up again. My sponge never ran dry and I owe it to the men and women that unfortunately are homeless. They are a part of the city, that city I was so clueless about.

DOOR also helped me learn about gentrification and a single story. Gentra what? Single Story? I could not believe I did not know about these issues before. Neighborhoods are being gentrified and low class families are being driven further away from the city. A lot of it happens to clean up the neighborhoods and to make it less violent but that only moves the problem to another neighborhood and it does not fix it. The single story concept deals with stereotypes and labeling someone as one thing only. For example, all illegal immigrants are Mexicans, which is not always true. I had a lot of single stories about other issues but DOOR has taught me to find two or more stories for every issue or person I come across.

DOOR not only creates leaders but it enhances them. It challenges us to face those issues that we don’t really want to talk about. It gets us out of our comfort zone and allows us to see the face of God in the city. DOOR has helped build my faith to what it is now and has changed my philosophy about the city for the better. It provides a great opportunity for discernment and vocational search to those that are still struggling to find their purpose. It provides an urban experience so those like me can see the other side of the city and the other side of those people who are marginalized, poor, oppressed, and homeless. It is the first step to a solution and if we all took the time to see and hear the misery and cries, the cities around our nation will begin to change. Together we can do anything through Christ. We are all a part of the body of Christ and all serve a purpose. DOOR is the eyes of God who sees humanity has one tribe.