BMWs, Whiteness, and my Christian Faith

As a young seminary student in the late 1980’s I interned at the amazing United Methodist Church in Clovis, California. For three years this church made space for me, treated both my wife and me like family, and allowed me to grow as a leader. One of my first assignments was to lead the young married bible study. We met every Thursday in one couple’s home. One of our fist decisions was to choose a book or theme. After much discussion we all agreed that we would work through Tony Campolo’s book 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. The study was going along well until week seven when we explored the chapter “You Cannot be a Christian and Own a BMW.” At least one of the couples in our group owned a BMW. It would be fair to say that the evening did not go well for me. I have reflected on that evening often over the years. If I were to lead that study again, I wouldn’t focus on BMWs. For Campolo, the BMW was a metaphor for a much larger concern. As Christians, how and where we spend our money has both moral and ethical implications. The neighborhood you choose to live in, the size of house you purchase, where you invest your retirement money, and, yes, the car you choose to purchase are not morally neutral choices.

Last Sunday I experienced another BMW type of moment. During the adult Sunday school hour our speaker asserted that “you cannot be white and a Christian.” At this point it is important to let you know that 90% of the folks in the room were white. After the initial shock wore off he went on to say, “If all you are doing is focusing on the color of your skin then you are missing my point.” Just like Campolo’s BMWs this speaker, was using “white” in a metaphorical way.

White Christianity is a faith that allows a person to talk about making things great again. It is a lens that provides a rose colored perspective of our shared history. It is choosing not to see how white Christian faith and slavery, Jim Crow, sexism, homophobia, and segregation are all part of “great again.”

White Christianity allows Christian politicians to advocate for carpet bombing the enemy while claiming to be pro-life.

White Christianity has the power to marginalize and dilute movements, by responding to Black Lives Matter with slogans like All Lives Matter.

White Christianity creates a space to claim the authority and inerrancy of scripture until it becomes inconvenient. Turning the other cheek and welcoming the stranger don’t apply when the stranger is Muslim, gay, a Democrat, or a Republican.

White Christianity is not so much about the color of my skin as it is about the power I choose to access and weld because of my skin color. The hard work that those of us with access to white Christianity are tasked with is to unburden ourselves from the need to reshape Christianity into a faith that only serves our needs. One of the more powerful ideas within Christianity is surrender. As we do the hard work of surrendering white Christianity and leaving it at the foot of the cross, something Christ-like will take its place.

A Parable

I posted this a few years ago, thought it might be worth some updating: Then I sought the Lord in prayer and asked, “Lord, I want our country to be Christian again, but this can’t happen if we just let anyone in. How much longer should I show hospitality to the stranger?

And Jesus answered, “I tell you hospitality, openness, and welcome, especially to those who are different, is the very essence of what it means to be Christian.”

You see, citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is like a chief who wanted to make sure the people living in his territory belonged. As the chief was going over the pedigree of his servant, it was soon discovered that five generations back the servant’s family came from across the ocean seeking a new start in a land free of religious persecution. Surprised and enraged the chief summoned the servant into his presence. Since the servant could not prove the purity of his citizenship, the chief ordered him deported along with his wife, children, and extended family.

The servant fell on his knees before the chief. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

The chief took pity on his servant, and gave him and his family amnesty.

But when this servant went out, he found a fellow immigrant, who had come from the territory to the south two years ago, hoping to find a way to provide for himself and his family. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “You have no right to be here; your presence is taking away jobs, draining our resources, and trampling on our Christian values.”

His servant fell on his knees. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

But the servant refused. Instead he went off to the local immigration office to report the man and his family who were then deported.

When the chief’s other servants heard what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went to the chief and told him everything that had happened.

Then the chief called the servant in. “You wicked foolish man,” he said, “I gave you amnesty, I gave you a chance, I welcomed you with arms wide open. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy on your fellow immigrant just as I had on you?” In his anger, the chief had this man, and his wife, children, and extended family sent back to the land of their ancestors.

How should we treat today’s refugees and immigrants? Maybe with arms wide open?

Empathy

In a normal year I like to watch the news and I especially like the political round tables. Lately I have found myself switching channels. Debates seem to be less about ideas and more about bullying. A few weeks ago I watched a debate between some Republican and Democratic pundits. I was intrigued by the Republican who attended a United Church of Christ congregation known for being very progressive. Before long I was both disappointed and sucked in. This man was railing against his church. The Sunday before his pastor had said something about white people being racist, simply because they are white. This is not an unusual claim and from my perspective is also correct. Whenever I am in conversations where this is brought up the room either gets deftly silent or a slow defensive anger begins to grow. Either way the white men and women in the room do not react well to be called “racist.” Their responses to this take a number of approaches. There is the, “I judge people by how they treat me, not their skin color.” Or the, “I have never said a racist thing in my life.” There is also the friend approach, “I have friends of color, they have never called be racist.” My personal favorite, “I voted for Obama.” If you have been in one of these discussions chances are you could add many more responses. The point to all these responses has something to do with never having joined a hate group or used racist language. From a certain perspective they have move to a place beyond racism.

As I have thought about that pundit and reflected about conversations I have been part of, I wonder if what many white people are lacking is empathy. According to Google, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  More often than not privilege and power becomes a barrier to empathy.

White privilege affords me the freedom to only understand my world, my context, my feelings, my Christian values, and my responses. And all of these “my’s” get to be considered the standard of how everyone else should respond.

So when a person, particularly a person in power, says “I don’t judge people until I know their character,” that says something about privilege. It assumes that the other person will treat me with enough respect so that I don’t have to run in fear. My brothers and sisters of color do not have this privilege. All too often they are judged simply because of the color of their skin.

As a white person I get all the privileges of being white. My world view is the standard. My Christian faith is correct. My freedoms are the first to be preserved. Living in this world means that I benefit from structures designed to make my life better at the cost of making things more difficult for people of color. This is racist.

Changing this system, working towards a world where people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin will take a whole lot of work. A good first step is recognizing that “Black Lives Matter.”

White Privilege

One of my job responsibilities is to have regular check-ins with our City Directors. These calls are usually filled with laughter, frustration, anger, and occasionally the unexpected. This past week the unexpected happened. We were about 30 minutes into our conversation, when all of a sudden the person on the other end when into a minor panic moment. Like me she was multi-tasking. The call started with her working from home, then she packed up and headed to her car to go to a meeting. In the process she went from talking on her headphones to switching to her car’s Bluetooth system. The crisis happened about 5 minutes into her drive. At first I was worried she had gotten into an accident. This was not the case.

She had forgotten to take out her wallet and put it on the dashboard. Her panic seemed a little unwarranted to me. So in a silly attempt to say “no big deal” I started laughing. For her it was a big deal.  In a moment of grace, on her part, she proceeded to explained things to me. It went something like this:

“Glenn, I am a black woman driving a car, if the police decide to stop me I don’t want them to think that when I reach for my wallet that I am reaching for a gun.”

This staff person is close to my age. Both of us have been driving for 30 plus years. In all of that time I have never worried about where my ID is. To be honest I don’t even panic if I forget my ID at home. Getting a ticket would suck, but I wouldn’t be afraid of the encounter.

For more than 30 years my friend and co-worker has had to think about where her ID is every time she gets into a car. This grows out of a very real concern for her life.

Privilege, particularly white straight male privilege, means that I get to go about my day-to-day life without worry. For the most part I do not need safe places, mostly because the world is my safe place. I don’t always know what to do about my privilege. I didn’t earn it, it simply is. One thing I am slowly learning is to listen to the concerns of my friends of color and those in the GLBTQI community. Their fears are not “boogeyman-ish;” they are real. All you have to do is turn on the news. Somehow I want to find a way to be part of the solution. This is my hope and dream.

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!

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?

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.”

 

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.

An Eternal Moment

Every once in a while I find myself participating in an important moment. These moments rarely arise because of planning. They just happen. Last evening I was part of one of these moments. It took place after the DOOR Atlanta board meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. I like going there because they have two prime parking spots reserved for clergy. There were eight of us around the table. Two board members, our Atlanta City Director, my friend Anton, me and three Discern staff representing three of our DOOR cities. These2013-08-12 22.48.07 Discerners were in Atlanta for a Fund for Theological (FTE) event. Chris is from the west side of Chicago and has worked for DOOR every summer for the past 10 years. Today he is a confident 20 something about to complete his Master of Communication Studies, but I remember the high school freshman who was so skinny the wind could blow him over. Manny just completed his third summer in Denver. He likes to claim Los Angeles as his home town, but he spent most of his teen years in Denver and is a member of the church our family attends. Kelli spent one summer in both Denver and Hollywood. She came to DOOR through a more “traditional path;” she came as a Discover participant, liked the program and applied for a summer staff position. Here were these three young adults – a Hispanic, an African American and an Anglo.

For two hours we sat at that table. The waiter could hardly get a word in to take our order. The conversation was animated, passionate and emotional. We began with the “simplest” of topics, how should we think about sexual orientation? This went on for about 45 minutes. Once we had come to a general consensus we moved on to talking about how working for DOOR has impacted each of their lives. For each of them working with a diverse staff had helped them to better understand who they were and the radical breadth of the kingdom of God. The concept of “For God so loved the world” had taken on new meaning.

One of our hiring commitments is to find people who are different from one another and ask them to work together in unity. Our staff comes to us from urban, rural and suburban settings. Some have been raised in the church while others are new to the Sunday thing. They are young adults of color and they are Anglo. Some are progressive while others hold a more conservative theology. All of this diversity could be viewed as a prescription for disaster. I am constantly surprised that this doesn’t blow up in our face. Every year these young adults choose to define themselves first by what they hold in common. When this happens everyone is given a glimpse of what the church can be.

Judgment

I bought a new bible last week. Cokesbury is closing all its retail stores so now is a great time to get a great deal on a new bible! This whole process of looking for a new bible sent me down memory lane. I still have the bible I used as a teen. On the inside cover I found the following quote:

“No two Christians are exactly alike, some wear their hair quite long, others wear it fairly short, some Christians have black skin, others have skin that is yellow or white; some Christians have little education, others have graduate degrees; some Christians are poor, others are rich; some Christians enjoy using guitars and drums in church, other are opposed to using any instruments.”

A day or two after purchasing my new bible I was part of a phone conversation where the person on the other end of the line declared that I was clearly not a Christian. He then proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer over me not once but multiple times. I must say it is interesting to be thought of as a person without faith.

This experience has caused a lot of reflection in my own life. Not about my commitment to Jesus, but about how many times I have questioned some else’s faith or commitment to their faith simply because it did not reflect my commitments.

I am known for telling people that God does not come to us for permission. We, humanity, are not the gatekeepers for God. Declaring someone outside of the kingdom of God has never been our responsibility. Allowing God to be God is not easy or comfortable. If you are like me you want God to be on your side. I would like to think that my values line up with God’s. This is what the church is called to do, remind us of God’s values. The struggle to be as radically accepting and inclusive as God can be disturbing.

In my work I get to see and work with Christians of all stripes. There are the patriots and those who call us to a global citizenship. I have worked side-by-side with pro-life and pro-choice believers. Some believers are convinced that the rapture is coming and others see it as the greatest scam ever pulled on Christians. This list could go on for quite a while. Here is my point, for reasons that are only known to God Christians don’t always agree. Our disagreements can seem quite significant. These disagreements should never be cause for declaring that someone is outside the kingdom of God.

How would Christianity be different if we started with the supposition that everyone is a child of God; that each person’s beliefs, political positions, immigration status, and citizenship are simply inconsequential?

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.

Drawing lines

Why is it so important to draw lines in the sand?  Too many people enjoy the illusion that the world can easily be divided into two camps - friend or enemy; republican or democrat; right or wrong; saint or sinner.  It feels good and right to declare that people are either with us or against us.  Why do things like change, diversity and difference scare us so much?  Is it possible that we are hard wired to be afraid of diversity in ethnicity, faith, politics and ideological points of view? Concepts like middle ground, compromise and grey areas are all too often seen as positions which immature or unenlightened folks take.  If the definition of maturity includes fear of diversity and an unwillingness to change my mind, then I am not interested in maturity.

Could it be that the opposite is true?  Immature people draw lines, never change their mind, and want the world to be full of people who look the same, believe the same and think the same.

Why would anyone vote for a politician who refuses to change their stance?  Why go to a church where the pastor(s) never grow in their understanding of theology, God and what the church is called to?  What fun is it living in a community where everyone looks the same or eats the same food or worships in the same way?

I like the Apostle Paul’s image of the body in 1 Corinthians 12.  We are not all the same.  As a matter of fact it is our differences that make us one!  Embracing differences (diversity) means that any lines we draw should be easily erased and moved because chances are we should not have drawn the line in the first place.

Can you imagine a world where compromise was the norm?  Church would be healthy and healing, politics would be helpful and honest, and battles over religion would be non-existent.

Language

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.  I still remember my mother quoting this nursery rhyme to me after being teased.  It was her way of helping me to get over the hurt of being made fun of.  On one hand she was right.  Being teased did not cause me any physical damage; I was never rushed to the emergency room because of name calling.  To this day I am still haunted by some of the labels that were given to me – loser, scardy-cat, preacher’s kid, and wimp. In the years since, I have become convinced that the good advice this nursery rhyme appears to provide is actually horrible guidance.  It is true that sticks and stones can do a great deal of harm, but we mislead ourselves when we think of words as risk-free.

This past week I have been preparing for a seminar on White Privilege.  The power to label and define others is one of the more sinister aspects of this privilege.   Think about words like enemy, gang-banger, insurgent, drug-dealer and urban-rat.  If I were to ask you to create an image for each of these labels chances are that it would not include people of Anglo descent.  On the other hand if I were to ask you to form an image for America, apple pie, Barbie, GI Joe or a great leader chances are that an Anglo image will form in your mind.

Words are powerful; do not let anyone tell you different.  They have the power to build up and tear down.  Labels can make us unreasonably fearful or envious.  Fear based labeling is both dehumanizing and sinful.

One of the primary images for humanity in the New Testament is family.  When we use language that dehumanizes, ridicules and looks down on other people we cease to be Christian.

All the stuff in-between

Last Sunday as we were wrapping up Easter dinner, a friend made the following comment.  “Why does the church spend so much time talking about Christmas and Easter and so little time on the stuff in-between?” Good question.

After all it is fun to talk about Jesus coming as a baby in a manger to save us.

There is something powerful about Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead to save us.

It is easy and simple to focus on humanity’s need of salvation.  I suspect we do this because it doesn’t demand much on a day-to-day basis.  Get saved, move on with life.

But the stuff in-between, that is a different story.   It has the potential to change everything.

As a child I was always told that church and politics don’t mix.  And it is possible to avoid this if we focus exclusively on Christmas and Easter. However, if we take seriously the stuff in-between then politics becomes an unavoidable part of being a Christian.

Consider Matthew 5-7.  Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Choosing to actively oppose violence at the personal, community and national levels is political.

Or how about later on in the same passage when Jesus teaches folks to pray, “Your Kingdom Come…on earth as it is in heaven.”  What does it mean to create heaven on earth?  Does this mean that the Christian faith and environmentalism have something in common with each other?  Could it be that the car you choose to drive says something about the quality of you faith?

Think about Jesus’ call for us to avoid judging.  Without judgmentalism it becomes difficult to preach hell, fire and brimstone.  If the church judges less and accepts more it may appear to be “too inclusive.”

If you want a simple faith – focus on Christmas and Easter.  However, if you are interested in being salt and light - the stuff in-between is pretty important.

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.

Creative Leadership

Last fall I attended a meeting where Stephen Lewis of the Fund for Theological Education spoke about creative leadership.  Early on he claimed that “creative leaders are people who convene gatherings of diverse people because innovation only happens at the collision of diverse ideas.”   I had mostly forgotten about this comment until this week when I read a post from Duke Divinity School where the author references some research by Randall Collins. He asserts that “all intellectual breakthroughs across the history of the world, across cultures around the world, consistently have depended upon sustained relationships of people from diverse backgrounds interacting with one another over time.”

This makes sense to me.  Hanging out with people who see the world differently than I do pushes my assumptions and challenges my beliefs.  When I am pushed, I grow, change and mature.  I become a better, more tolerant person.

So, why do I spend so much time and effort avoiding being pushed?  If I am going to be honest it is my secret desire that everyone just agrees with me and accepts my perspectives.  Being confronted with my own short-sightedness, prejudices and incomplete worldview is embarrassing.  It is much more comfortable and easy to simply be right, or at least believe that I am right. 

Innovative leadership and creative ministry require space for diversity, at every conceivable level.  Those who have the courage and humility to allow for diversity will find themselves not only on the cutting edge but creating the edge itself.