Amazing Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautifully Complicated

Last week my wife and I drove from Denver, CO to Hesston, KS. The majority of this drive took place on I-70. We left at 5 AM and the first few hours of the Colorado portion of the trip were in the dark. As the sun rose I began to notice billboards, both the homemade and professional versions. Many of these signs proclaimed something about the Christian faith:

Abortion stops a beating heart

You will die, then meet Jesus

Where will you go when you die?

Jesus is real

Smile, your mom chose life

Then there was the coffee break moment. As we approached the one Starbucks between Denver and Hesston, there was a “White Jesus” floating in a wheat field.

Rita and I went to Kansas to attend a funeral. A friend had lost his battle with cancer. He had just turned 40 and left behind a wife and two children. A few years earlier his sister, a mutual friend, and I drove our motorcycles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and back. It was an adventure that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Now I was driving I-70 reading one liners about a Christian faith I claim, and wondering why my friend was dead.

If we were traveling to Kansas for any other reason I doubt I would have even paid attention to the billboards. These signs and their attempts at reducing the Christian faith to a one liner that could be read as cars passed by at 75 miles per hour began to feel offensive.

Christianity at its best is a deeply complicated experience. On this particular day my feelings towards God were not at their healthiest. Children need their parents; why would God allow a father to die before his job was done? Grandparents and parents should not have to attend the funerals of their grandchildren and children.

We arrived in Hesston and made our way to the church. Hundreds of people came. As I silently watched the family come in my internal questioning of God only intensified. About halfway through the service my friend’s wife and siblings came to the front and shared the story of his life. In the retelling of my friend’s life story, a story of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and radical love also emerged.

Later on as more stories were told over a meal, I began to reflect on this Christian faith I cling to. The truth is I have moments where God and I are on the same page, followed by moments where I wonder if God is even present. There are times when I think I have my Christian ethics figured out only to be confronted with people of faith who don’t see the world like I do.

The Christian life, when lived honesty and without one-liners, is complicated. At its worst it is frustratingly complicated and at its best it is beautifully complicated, but always complicated. As much as I want to make it simple, God keeps complicating everything.

The Line

When are we allowed to start hating someone? This was the question raised by our speaker. A couple of weeks ago DOOR’s Beloved Community Council met in Chicago. This is an annual gathering that brings together DOOR staff, board members, and participants to talk about diversity. This year we invited Jeff Chu to be one of our presenters. Jeff’s book Does Jesus Really Love me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was certain to stir up some controversy and uncomfortableness among this group. One of the things that I have learned during my time at DOOR is that all of us have a breaking point, where diversity shifts from something to be admired and sought after to sin. This is especially true among people of faith. Currently sexual orientation is that hot button issue.

I did expect some in the circle to be uncomfortable. What I did not expect was for me to be uncomfortable. Part way through Jeff’s presentation he started talking about Westboro Baptist Church, a church known for its extreme ideologies. While researching for his book, Jeff spent a few days with the church and its leader, Fred Phelps, conducting interviews and trying to understand how they came to believe what they believe. In many ways this is a congregation that unites both the liberal and conservative sides of the church. Everyone is uncomfortable with their tactics and hate messages.

Quite frankly I expected Jeff to join the chorus of people who have condemned this fringe group. Instead Jeff showed a picture of a 6 year old holding a sign that stated God hates gay people. Then he went on to describe this boy, during his time with the church he got to know the boy. This boy was just starting to read; he really didn’t know what he was holding. He only knew the adults in his life approved, like any 6-year-old he obeyed his parents and held the sign.

This is when Jeff asked the question. When is it OK for me to start hating this boy? When he can read? Once he reaches the age of accountability? When he is 20? Is there ever a time when people of faith get a pass on extending grace even to those who would do us harm?

When does someone else’s “diversity” or “difference” give me permission to hate or exclude? Usually at this point someone will respond with “the Bible clearly states,” this in turn becomes a reason to exclude. This quickly becomes an unwinnable argument, not because we are right, but rather because we are stubborn. History tells us that every time people of faith come up with reasons to exclude, eventually they end up seeking forgiveness for their hate. I suggest that Scripture is abundantly clear about our need to love the other, even when they are different. I have yet to hear about people who ask forgiveness for loving too much.

Looking for Grace

Later this week Mountain States Mennonite Conference, the conference I am part of, will be hosting its annual assembly. This year’s assembly will be closely watched by Mennonites from across the USA and around the world. Depending on who you ask we are either prophetically leading the church to a new reality or we have come as close as a conference can get to committing the ultimate sin. In February 2014 we licensed an openly gay pastor. In the Mennonite world licensing is the first step on the path to ordination. This decision has pushed our conference to the very center of the Mennonite world. Whether you are a Mennonite of not, the discussion itself is familiar.

On the conservative side it goes something like this:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.”

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

And on the more liberal side we hear:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.” (I know, both sides claim this one.)

“God created us with particular orientations and desires; let’s celebrate and support these differences.”

“Love is the only biblical orientation.”

So there is a sense in which everyone is claiming to have the moral high ground. Like everyone else I have a bias in this discussion. That is not what I want to talk about.

Is there a way for everyone to back off a bit? I was part of one discussion where someone was so worked up that they began to tap me on the chest with their fingers. Quite frankly once we achieve that level of anger, it is safe to say that the conversation is no longer about the Christian faith.

I have heard people say that more often than not conversations about orientation and Christian faith quickly descend into irrationality. An irrational conversation is frustrating for everyone.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to choose grace over the need to be right. Back when I was in college the popular book Evidence Demands a Verdict was making the rounds. The idea behind this book was to prove to everyone who didn’t hold a certain set of convictions and beliefs about the bible that they were wrong. It took years for me to learn that arguing people to my convictions and beliefs rarely works.

What I have discovered in the last 20 years is that choosing grace is a much better approach. One, it leaves space for me to be wrong and two, it allows the other to be wrong! When we choose grace then it becomes possible to live and worship with those who are different.

There are many people predicting that the Mennonite Church USA is going to split over the sexual orientation controversy. I hope our leaders and the rest of us find the courage to be graceful with each other. It will not always be comfortable or easy, but it might be the most Christian decision we can make.

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.

Enemy

This week President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I remember September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday.  It wasn’t a fun day.  I was in a plane, flying from Ft Lauderdale to Chicago, when the first tower was struck.  I still remember being ordered out of our plane and eventually out of O’Hare airport.  I was one of the lucky few who managed to rent a car.  The 18 hour drive from Chicago to Denver was filled with all kinds of emotions.  What if I had been on one of those planes? Before the end of the year I was diagnosed with shingles.  The doctor said it was stress related.

I cannot say that I was ready to throw a party when I heard the news, but I did not shed any tears either.

How should people of faith respond when those who wish to do us harm are harmed?

Martin Luther King Jr. had an important perspective, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate; violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

I think that there is much wisdom in his words.

The Good-Old Days

Have you ever found yourself longing for the good-old-days?  A time when everything seemed simpler and less complicated?  I wonder if the good-old days were really all that good.  Do we really want to go back to a time when some people had to sit at the back of the bus?  My boys did not have to suffer through the mumps or the chicken pox.  I like my GPS; going places without having to stop and ask for directions is a good thing, even a little empowering.

I cannot help but wonder if simple and less complicated are code words for racist and judgmental.  In a sense, things are simpler if we can exclude people who are different.  It is less complicated if those who are deemed different are granted no access to privilege or power.

Rather than looking at the past as an ideal to get back to, it might be better to view the past in the same way the Apostle Paul did, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Could it be that we long for the past because we like the immaturity and the not knowing that comes with being a child?  Growing up means dealing with reality - reality can be complicated.

I like living in a world where reality has been and is being confronted.  It is not always easy and simple solutions are rare, but it is honest. 

Honest sounds better than simple and less complicated.

Failing

I have been reading Gregory Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart.  Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries.  Their mission is both simple and visionary; they assist at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training and education. Once again, it was a statement in the book’s introduction that stuck with me: “anything worth doing is worth failing at.”  I need to hear this, more than that I need to believe this.

It is really easy to believe that success emerges only from success.  In other words, to be successful I must make correct decisions.  The honest truth is that, for me, success tends to emerge from the ashes of failure, mistakes and lousy decisions.

I am the National Director of a ministry.  When I fail, others are impacted.  This is frustrating and humbling.  It means I have to own my failure and sometimes apologize for the hurt I have caused.

Failure has a painful downside.  That said it is failure that has made me and DOOR, the program I direct, what it is today.

Failure is simply a part of life.

It is how we respond to failure that dictates the role that failure will play in our lives and ministry.  Consider for a moment Judas and Peter.  Both of them failed in a significant way.  Peter denied Jesus and Judas betrayed Jesus.

Judas’ response – commit suicide.

Peter’s response – run to Jesus.

Peter owned his failure and found the courage to move on.  I do not wish failure on anyone, but I agree; anything worth doing is worth failing at.

Living in a Multi World

Have you ever found yourself longing for a simpler time? The other day I was at our local grocery store looking for cereal.  Do you have any idea how many different kinds of cereals there are?  I panicked, texted my wife explaining that it was not possible for me to make a decision and she could find me in the magazine aisle when it was time to go.

I only remember three cereal options from my childhood – Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies and Fruit Loops.

This past Sunday we attended our youngest son’s end of season tennis banquet.  As soon as we entered the room, my wife and I were sent to the “parents” table.  Before long we were sucked into a typical parent conversation about college.

One parent mentioned that their son had applied to over 30 schools.  They were now in the process of visiting all of the schools.  Prior to this incident I assumed I was being progressive by just hoping each boy would apply to three or four colleges.

I only remember filling out one college application.  My discernment process was simple; it needed to be at least 1000 miles from home.

 I am not sure if the good-old-days ever existed, but it is nice to think that they did.

We live in a world that can be described as “multi.” 

I travel a lot.  I get to visit multiple cities.  I meet with church leaders from multiple denominational and non-denominational back grounds.  I have the privilege of attending multi-ethnic gatherings.  I have been at meetings where multiple theological perspectives have a voice.

It is always fascinating to sit around a table discussing an important theological issue with a diversity of people.  Finding unity can be extremely illusive when things like language, ethnic background, gender, denominational tradition, what region of the country or world you come from, and theology are varied.

Sometimes I wonder what God was thinking by making us all so different.

When wildly different people are brought together to discuss anything clear communication and understanding quickly become difficult.  Just because I think that I am being crystal clear has nothing to do with how the message is received.  In these situations just agreeing on where to go for lunch should be viewed as a victory.

I communicate in English from a white male North American perspective.  If the person listening to me is a female for who English is a second or third language and she has recently moved to the USA, my clarity in communicating may only be clarity in my mind.

Living in a multi world requires grace, lots of grace.  It needs to be a grace that flows from every direction.  Just because you feel offended and misunderstood does not immediately imply that the person who committed the offense intended to offend.

Uncomfortable

Back in my seminary days I participated in a church planting workshop.  The one lesson that I can still recall from that class is the “homogenous unit principle.”  In short this principle states that starting a new church works best if you gather people together who look the same, believe the same, and live at the same economic level.  When you put different types of people together it creates the possibility of being uncomfortable.  Apparently churches don’t grow if folks are uncomfortable. In the last couple of days I have been involved in two different conversations about this issue.

The first conversation was with the pastoral staff of my home church.  We were talking about what it means to become multi-cultural.  Our church has made significant strides in achieving this goal, but in the end we concluded that it is much easier to talk about being multi-cultural than to actually be multi-cultural.

The second conversation took place at my semi-regular Thursday breakfast meeting.  We were having an animated discussion about the state of the Mennonite church when one person made the following comment: “I do not think that Mennonites will ever get used to having Non-Mennonites in the church.”

This year I have participated in an urban listening tour for Mennonite Church USA.  One of the consistent topics of discussion has centered on diversity.  No one has ever suggested that the church become less diverse.  But tension quickly emerges when we start talking about our differences, especially when the differences appear to cross a theological line.

How different can we be from each other and still worship together or claim the same faith?  Is the church, regardless of denomination, big enough to hold the diversity?  Does difference demand that we separate from each other?  Is the homogeneous unit principle the only way forward?

It is my hope and prayer that we can find ways to come together.  I do not want the homogeneous unit principle to win.

Just let it go

I was back at Gunther Toody’s again this week.  Every Thursday there is a group of mostly older men who meet over breakfast.  About 1/3 of them are retired ministry people.  The conversations can and do go in almost any direction.  This week one of the men was sharing about a recent family reunion.  It seems that past gatherings had been filled with contentious discussions about faith and theology.  But in recent years the divisiveness has been fading.  When I asked why, he simply said, “As you get older you just learn to let things go.”

That simple statement just might be the key to living better.

Holding on to grudges, hurts and past wrong doings causes stress – lots of stress.  Getting caught up in office, family or church politics can turn your hair grey quickly.  Having to be right or prove that you are right in every situation can lead to heartburn.

I am not suggesting that letting everything go is healthy or right.  It isn’t, there are times when we need to stand up for what is right.  What I am suggesting is that you stop and think before you move into a high stress situation. 

Ask yourself, “Is this worth getting all worked up over?”

Needing to prove that you are right and the other is wrong is quite simply not enough of a reason to get all worked up.  Maybe you just need to let it go.

When Jesus stood before the Chief Priest shortly before his crucifixion, being accused of all sorts of things, he chose to remain silent.  He seemed to know when to let it go.

Wise people have learned when to engage and when to let it go.

Grace

As a teen I remember overhearing a conversation between two elders at our church.  They were questioning whether or not they should allow a divorced person to teach a Sunday school class.  Apparently being divorced was really bad and it meant that you had committed a sin that would prevent complete forgiveness and restoration.  It was almost, but not quite an unpardonable sin.  Today, almost 30 years later, that conversation seems uniformed, ignorant and judgmental. What changed?

Is the church less pure?

I suspect that the church as grown in its understanding of grace.

In the case of my church (denomination), we became more graceful about divorce when those closest to us experienced divorce.

Our faith, our convictions and our understanding of God are shaped by life.  When life gets messy, grace becomes more important.

In John 8, there is this fascinating story of a woman caught in adultery – having sex outside the marriage relationship.  If you read the passage carefully, you will discover that both the Pharisees and Jesus want the same thing – purity.  The Pharisees thought the best way to achieve this was through judgment – the law was clear, she needed to die.  Jesus understood that life is messy and rules without grace don’t accomplish much.

There is a whole segment of the church that believes life is experienced in only two categories – right and wrong.  I feel sorry for people who live within these constraints.  There is a truckload of guilt that comes along with living this way.

Grace grows as we learn to embrace the mess of life.  Life does not easily divide into right and wrong.

I am in no way saying that we should live without rules and laws.  When these rules and laws are broken, we need to move slowly and carefully towards judgment and we need to create lots of space for exceptions.

It is in this space that grace happens.

Ministry

John 13, the story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet, is one of those passages I keep coming back to.  In 20 short verses, the good, the bad and the ugly of ministry is laid out. Jesus gets to spend one last intimate meal with his closest friends, his best friend Peter still does not understand purpose of his ministry, and Jesus will wash Judas’ feet in one last effort to keep him from committing treason.

What a picture.

After three years of intense teaching, no one “gets” what he is doing and one of his own is ready to betray him to the enemy.

If Jesus had trouble getting his team on the right page, should we be surprised when we face the same set of obstacles?

Is it possible that ministry is not so much about getting everyone on the same page as it is about offering grace to those we work with?  Maybe that is the message of John 13.  In the middle of everyone focused on their own agenda, Jesus keeps offering a second chance.

Nowhere in scripture is it ever recorded that Jesus complained about his disciples.  He believed in them even when everything they did seemed to point in a different direction. But I can imagine Jesus washing Judas’ feet, hoping and praying that he would change his mind.

Those who take up the mantle of full-time vocational ministry must be people capable of offering grace regardless of the evidence.  Make no mistake, this is not easy.

Are you the type of person who would wash the feet of someone who you knew was going to betray you?