My Son’s Faith

As a parent one of my greatest desires is for my children to become thoughtful adults. I want them to have a strong faith, a faith they can own for themselves, and a faith that will help them navigate life’s obstacles. Last week my youngest son called me. He had a theological question. For those of you who do not know me well I am a self-described theological nerd. So being asked to help my son process a theological question sent my heart aflutter!

He was writing a response to someone’s statement about Ephesians 5:22 where Paul says, “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” According to his fellow classmate this verse was clear proof that the church should reject the temptation to allow women to be leaders in the church or family.

We talked for about 30 minutes. Then he said, “Dad, give me some time to think a write.” Here is his response:

I think the relationship between Christ and the church is a relationship about mutuality. Christ is always inviting people to himself. The choice to follow is always on the individual. To assume “authority” means dictatorship is a misunderstanding of both Paul and Jesus. Jesus is not the churches dictator not is the man ever called to be a dictator.

If we are serious about reflecting Christ in marriage than it should be a relationship where both parties have an equal say in what goes on. Christian relationships whether in the church, the context of marriage, or peers should always be mutual and invitational.

If a person is going to read Paul than read all of Paul! It doesn’t take long to discover that there are contradictions all over the place. In Ephesians Paul talks about women submitting to husbands but in Galatians Paul claims that there is no male or female in Christ and that we're all equal so how then does that fit in?

As people studying theology we can't just look at one verse and assume that we know what its saying. Look at everything, where was Paul and why did he write those things? Paul was not writing to CBC students for intro to Christian theology, 2017. Christ certainly should have authority over our lives and influence the way we do things and decisions we make, but that's just it, Jesus was about love and caring fellow humans not having dominant authority.

Christ invites us into relationship of choice and mutuality and that ought to be how the marriages we enter in reflect.

When it comes to the topic of women in leadership I believe we have been living in a society where the male bias has dominated for far too long. God is not just father but also mother. Her love extends to everyone and I believe She is changing the world to a place where women need to hold just as many leadership positions as men do and the idea that there needs to be a "man" of the house is passing way. Some of the most brilliant pastors I know are women and I wish for a world where there's more of that.

As have reflected on this conversation, it began to dawn on me how significant his DOOR experiences had been, particularly his Dwell year in Miami. For Quinten his time as a Dweller gave him a space to work out his faith for himself.

If you are a parent, grandparent, or mentor to a young adult reading this- know that a gap-year away from college and home may be the greatest gift you can give to your young adult.

Service or Social Justice?

There is nothing quite as inspiring as morning coffee, toast with honey and peanut butter, and conversation with a good friend. This past week, all of this fell into place during a trip to Chicago. The conversation started innocently enough. I asked about a conference my friend had attended. It was clear that he was not impressed. According to him the theme was justice but all they could focus on was service. I must admit that initially I did not understand his point. In my mind service and justice might not be exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. To put it mildly, I got schooled.

For him service, although important and needed, is only a Band-Aid. For example we need people to help out and serve at after school programs, foodbanks, drug rehabilitation programs, day cares, drop-in centers, and homeless shelters. This list is only a start. It is the opportunity to serve at various helping agencies and social service programs that has been at the heart and soul of what DOOR programing offers.

In my mind service was a pretty important priority for Jesus as well. So I wasn’t understanding the frustration.

Then he made the transition. Service is what we do to help folks who have been left behind by a system that doesn’t care. There is a sense in which service makes me, the service provider, feel better about myself, my life, and my privilege. And it provides some temporary relief for those who have been abused and treated unfairly by the system.

The work of justice asks us to challenge, change, deconstruct, and rebuild the system. Justice work asks questions about fair wages, access to health care, and housing costs. It is concerned about affordable childcare and quality education for all. It examines how people in power wield their power and demands that no one be judged or treated differently because of where they live, the color of their skin, or their religion or orientation. Working towards justice requires that we embrace the complexity of the world we live in.

There is a tendency among people of faith to keep things simple. It is relatively easy to feed people or offer after school tutoring. It is quite another thing to make changes to assure quality education for all children.

This summer our Denver program eliminated one of its service days and replaced it with a gentrification tour. During this tour our groups are exposed to the realities of gentrification on the Westside of Denver. Many of our participants appreciate being asked to think about the injustices that come with gentrification. There is also a growing segment of folks who are horrified that we would expose good people who came to do service to issues of justice.

I am grateful for a breakfast and conversation that satisfied my stomach and challenged my soul. Could it be possible that service without justice is just self-serving?

Safety – 2016

If you are a regular follower of my blog, you already know that one of our Discern staff was involved in a shooting last week. One of my first responses was to send out a prayer request and write a blog to tell the story and update everyone. None of this is unusual in the life of DOOR. When we need prayer, we ask. The support has been incredible. There is nothing like knowing people from around North America are praying. There is another side to being so public about dramatic events in the life of DOOR. People who are getting ready to participate in our Chicago program are also reading these updates. This results in phone calls. Although the question comes in different forms, they all boil down to this – is your program safe for our youth?

I spent 15 years as a youth worker. So I am familiar with the questions parents and concerned leaders ask. My regular response is, “DOOR has been around for 30 years and we have yet to send someone to the hospital because of an interaction with the local community.” It is not uncommon for participants to visit the hospital because of altitude sickness (a Denver issue) or because someone slipped and fell. At DOOR we take the safety of our participants very seriously and do everything in our power to avoid a crisis.

The more theological side of me always wonders about the safety questions. I am not sure that Jesus ever said that Christianity offered a life of safety. Jesus did, however, talk about cross bearing.

This time the safety question has taken on a new emotion. You see, my oldest son, Kyle, is serving as a Dweller in Chicago. So when I was asked about safety it wasn’t a theoretical question. My wife and I literally have our flesh and blood on the ground and in the middle of the question. So, is it safe? I can say without hesitation that I unequivocally trust our staff with the well-being of my children (the other son is serving in Miami) and all the DOOR participants across all of our programing.

At its best a DOOR experience will change your life. Mikey and the rest of our Discerners are real people who are faced with challenges from racism to violence at a much higher rate than most of us. Participating in DOOR provides a space to give witness to these realities and then a challenge to go home and work for real change.

An update on Mikey: Anthony is healing and possibly going home this week. Mikey and the rest of the Discerners are doing well but it was evident from some art therapy that they are feeling heavy around this issue of gun violence and how it impacts them every day. One of DOOR’s unplanned costs is in the area of mental health. We would like to provide Discerners like Mikey with the opportunity to see a therapist. As we all know mental and emotional healing is part of the journey towards wholeness. If you would like to contribute and support the mental health needs of our staff would have faced violence please donate:

Make checks payable to DOOR and write “Health and Healing Fund” in the memo line. Mail to 430 W 9th Ave, Denver CO 80204.

Donate online at www.doornetwork.org/donate. Indicate the donation is for the “Health and Healing Fund” in the donation designation field.

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.

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.

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.

Safety 2014

Every year my staff and I field “safety” calls. This year we will host about 3,000 youth and young adults from all over North America. A significant percentage of the youth coming to DOOR are also experiencing their first trip away from home without parents. All by itself this creates anxiety. I am the Executive Director of a program that has hosted groups since 1986 and I still remember the worry of watching each of my sons go on their first trip without me. From a certain perspective it makes sense that parents would be concerned about their children’s safety. Now layer on to this the fact that DOOR is an urban missions program. One doesn’t have to be an avid CNN watcher to know that urban violence is a regular feature on the news. Earlier this summer I was interviewed by a local TV station about a gun that had been brought into my son’s school.

As a parent and urban ministry leader and resident I am concerned about safety. There is nothing about how DOOR is structured, run, or led that would intentionally put people at risk.

I am also challenged by the idea that when Jesus talked about becoming a follower, ideas like self-denial, self-sacrifice, and picking up one’s cross were always present. Safety was not Jesus’ go-to sermon. If anything Jesus emphasized the need to count the cost before choosing to follow.

I sometimes wonder that in our efforts to make Christianity attractive we ignore the difficult stuff. As a parent I find myself caught between my instincts to protect and wanting them to experience the dangerous wonder of following Jesus.

 

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.

Thursday Night

In the parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14) Jesus tells the story of a banquet where no one shows up. Finally out of frustration the host orders the servants out into the roads and lanes to invite anyone without plans for a meal. I am not completely sure who hung out on the streets in Jesus’ day, but I suspect they were people with nowhere better to go. Today we might describe them as poor, homeless, vagrants, and even strangers to avoid. For the past decade I have been attending a church that lives this parable regularly, especially on Thursday evenings. Prior to attending His Love Fellowship Luke was just telling an interesting story; I never connected it to reality. After all who in their right mind opens their doors to just anyone? The very meaning of the word stranger suggests the idea of unknown or even dangerous. Everything about American culture tells us to avoid anything that could be dangerous. We tell our children to run from strangers. Strangers are not to be trusted.

Every Thursday night my church opens its doors to everyone, even the stranger. They have been doing this for the better part of 20 years. If you were come and visit on Thursday you would be offered a meal, probably smothered in green chili. No questions asked. After supper you would be invited to a bible study where new friends and family would share the good news of the gospel and pray with you. To top everything off, before you left you would be offered an opportunity to visit the food pantry. All of this happens because this is a group of people who take church seriously. They are just naïve enough to act on what Scripture says – to feed the hungry, offer a cup of water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. All of this is simply offered regardless of the person’s social standing, appearance, ability to pay, or past.

Isn’t this what church is supposed to be? A gathering a people who ignore the fears of culture and simply act on the words of Jesus. There are those who might describe this kind of person as a “Red Letter Christian.

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.

Service versus the Servant

In John 13 there is an interesting story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.   I can only imagine the odd feeling in the room as Jesus, the top dog, pushes back from that table and begins to wash everyone’s feet.  And then after he is finished Jesus makes an interesting statement, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.   I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” For almost 20 years I have given witness to thousands of youth and young adults who have come to the city to “do” service.  They come to metaphorically wash the feet of those who don’t have as much.

Lately I have begun to wonder, does this passage call followers of Jesus to service or is there something more going on?  Doing is certainly important.  Giving a cup of water, visiting the prisoner, or feeding the hungry are things that Christians are called to do.

It seems to me that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was more than a “yearly” act of service.   His actions that evening were simply an extension of who he was – a servant.   In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself and taking on the very nature of a servant.

The dirty little secret about “doing” service is that the temptation to retreat back into privilege is intoxicating and overwhelming.  There is an entire Christian industry that has grown up around servicing this cycle.  It goes something like this: go on the annual mission trip, have your heart broken by the need, have your faith stretched, commit to making changes, go back home, begin the process of allowing the service experience to slowly fade into a distant memory, reengage your privilege – from how money is spent to only worrying about me, myself and I- then get ready for the next service trip and repeat.  The danger of this cycle is that it leads to a Christian faith without substance.

When Jesus called his disciples to wash each other’s feet, it was much more than a call to do.  It was also a call be.  Who we are is much more than what we do for a week.  The call of Jesus is to become a servant to all.  In some circles this is referred to as the upside-down kingdom, a kingdom where power comes from being a servant.  While it is possible to do service and retain privilege it is not so easy to be a person of privilege and a servant at the same time.  Even Jesus had to empty himself.

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.

Unity

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.”   Have you ever wondered if unity is possible, especially among people of faith?  In my more cynical moments I wonder if the unity that emerged during the council at Jerusalem was a “one-off” event. Today the church seems to make more headlines for its theological division than for its ability to bring folks together.  The reasons for this fracturing are varied and move from humorous to sad.  There is an urban legend about a church that split over a painting in the baptistery that depicted Adam and Eve with belly buttons.  When I was in college I remember debating vigorously about the virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection.  If someone was on the other side of my position I quickly moved to questioning their faith commitments.

In 2013 many faith battles are directly connected to sexuality.  As more and more churches rethink think their stances on the ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians the church seems less and less unified.  Some church leaders have even taken to starting new denominations over these disputes.

I realize that unity for the sake of unity makes no sense.  After all if everyone is unified in allowing something that is evil to occur then unity is only allowing a mass of folks to do and be wrong.  Unifying people of faith around unity only is pointless at best.

This does not change that Jesus’ final hope for people of faith was that they would be unified (read John 17).  My job provides me with many opportunities to work with both liberal and conservative believers.  If I am honest I see no quick faith fix to the sexuality battles.  Unity is still a possibility.  It will demand something people of faith often confuse with backsliding - compromise.

Like the leaders at the council of Jerusalem the church needs to become less concerned with burdening its membership with unnecessary requirements.  When Jesus was asked what was most important, his response was simple, concise, and profound.  For Jesus everything boiled down to love.  Anything we do as individuals or communities of faith that violates this rule moves all of us towards dis-unity.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “love God, love your neighbor, nothing else matters.”

Gray

I am the kind of person who desires clarity because it provides things like answers and direction.  It allows one to move forward with confidence and the assurance that “I am leading in the right direction.”  I have been brought up to believe that it is important to know some things, for example, the difference between right and wrong. There is a lurking danger when some in leadership claim to have divine clarity or direction.  More often than not it is simply arrogance parading as morality.  As I am writing this blog our nation is watching our federal leaders bring us to the brink of economic meltdown all in the name of their political “clarity.”  Everyone thinks they are absolutely right and this absoluteness leads to arrogance and a complete unwillingness to compromise.

This kind of misplaced clarity also shows up in the church.  From the benign - think of the worship style wars; to the sinister – consider how many in the church have treated those who are gay.  All of these struggles emerge from a false position of clarity.

As much as I desire clarity, both personally and professionally, I am slowly coming to realize how dangerous and destructive certainty and clarity can be, I am thinking particularly about a kind of certainly that emerges out of a desire to control, manipulate or rule the other.  The simple truth is that we live in a world which is mostly gray.  And it is not easy or comfortable living in the gray.

In politics, living in the gray means valuing and working with those who do not hold to your particular position.  It means owning the silliness of absolute viewpoints and assuming a position of humility that allows space to be wrong.

From a theological perspective we must own that black and white makes God small and manageable.  It removes the mystery and wonder.  It makes God easy to follow.  It allows us to shape God into our image rather opening ourselves to the possibility of being formed in God’s image.

Living in the gray opens us to the possibility of living in the tension of not knowing.  As strange as it might sound this is good and freeing.

Church

A Facebook friend and “former” member of a church I pastored a few years ago shared the following status, “I’ve got nothing against God; it’s his fan club I can't stand.” Statements like this make me sad. Personally I am a huge believer in the church. Quite frankly I do not know how I could be a Christian without the support of a home church. But neither am I naïve. Too often the church is not a healthy place. On August 22 a local newspaper, Denver Westword, ran a detailed story of a pastor who seems to be using grace as a way to justify his moral failures. In his wake there are a series of women who have been hurt and even terrorized. Beyond the moral failures of leadership there are the moral judgments. Too often the church has been a place of condemnation and judgment. Over the course of history the church has managed to find “justifiable theologies” to condemn almost everything. African Americans were seen as less than human, non-white immigrants could be part of the family as long as they stayed on their side of the border, women were not fit for leadership, and people of various orientations were not and are not admitted.

In some senses the evidence is overwhelming. The church of today cannot be the church that Jesus envisioned when he appointed Peter as the rock upon which the church would be built.

The church is so much more than “judgment” and “moral failure.” Today, August 28, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. was a product of the church. His dream was rooted in a connection to a community of faith.

Since 1994 people of faith have been gathering at the US-Mexican border to celebrate “posada sin fronteras.” This is a celebration where the church comes together to say no to walls of division and yes to a bond that is more powerful than political boundaries.

Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and author of Tattoos on the Heart, tells the story of how people of faith - the church- can change the destiny of those the world has given up on.

The church is still a powerful agent for change. Yes it gets tripped up from time to time. The news media and social media will play a role in keeping the church and its leaders accountable. This is good. My hope and prayer is that people will not abandon the church because of its sins, but rather chose to hold the church accountable. When the church is accountable, it is also prophetic. Prophetic gives way to hope and change.

Next week

I did it again.  I have agreed to lead a seminar about privilege.  Two years ago at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Pittsburg I led this same seminar – “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race.”  Once again I have been tasked, this time in Phoenix, with leading a discussion on White Privilege, the ultimate “elephant in the room” topic. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world, one in which people are judged only by the content of their character has not yet arrived.  I have the privilege of leading a ministry that is diverse in almost every way diversity can be used.  We are young and old –actually I prefer people with life experience and those without; men and women; American and Immigrant; conservative and liberal; married and single; white and colorful; athletic and couch potatoey; high church and earthy church; straight and gay.

Quite honestly I find this this level of diversity to be prophetic, chaotic, affirming and draining all at the same time.  As the person charged with giving leadership to this organization, I am oddly qualified to talk about privilege, especially at it pertains to being male, white and tall.

Admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color is uncomfortable.  The level of discomfort increases when I think about the people I work with.  I want us to be equal co-laborers in the kingdom of God.  In this context privilege is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona, where I will be presenting this seminar, without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born white and will die white, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by white privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for white people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

10 years

Have you ever experienced a moment when your perspective changes forever? The birth of my children and death of my mother fit into this category. Another similar moment happened on my first day at this job. We were at one of the helping agencies DOOR partners with, almost 20 years ago, and I was being introduced as the new DOOR city director. It was a time when I was full of all kinds of "creative" ideas for making DOOR a more effective urban program. Then one of the ladies, we will call her Christine, to whom I was being introduced stood up, walked around her desk, came right up to me, looked me up and down and said, "so you are the new DOOR director (long pause), don't tell us anything until you have been here 10 years." After which she turned around, walked back to her desk and went back to the work. Later on we became good friends, but that first day and the advice she gave have haunted me ever since. In one sentence Christine put me in my place and began a process that reshaped my understanding of mission, service and the role of people who come to participate in these acts. I can best explain it this way. On my first days of work I believed that I had been called to urban Denver to make a difference. Children were going to be tutored, the hungry were going to be fed, houses would be repaired, the homeless would be loved and everyone would be grateful for the changes I was engineering. Until I met Christine those dreams and visions seemed God ordained. What I had forgotten is that Christianity is about relationship. Relationship, in its purest form, is always mutual. My “day one” vision wasn’t mutual; it was paternalistic. At best paternalism stinks; at its worst it destroys communities.

What Christine was trying to tell me on that first day in her own special way was that mission, service and ministry don’t make much sense apart from relationship. In her mind it would take at least 10 years for me to understand the community and at least 10 years for the community to learn to trust me.

I realize that we live in a world where everything happens quickly from overnight shipping of goods across the world to fast food. Telling people that patience and time are needed to accomplish anything almost sounds antiquated. So I will risk it and sound antiquated – if you want to serve then hang out a bit, get to know us, earn the right to speak into our lives and together we will make a difference.

The Sanitized Mission trip

DOOR began hosting short-term mission/service groups in 1986. We were one of the first programs in the country to do so. Since that time the annual mission trip has become part of the life cycle of many if not most churches. Programs have sprung up all over the USA and around the world dedicated to filling this growing desire to participate in the annual short-term trip. When I think back to the early days of this movement I am sometimes embarrassed by all the things we did wrong. More often than not we came into communities of need “knowing” how to fix all the problems. The good that was accomplished was often overshadowed by the paternalistic, racist and arrogant attitudes people came with.

I am glad to report that DOOR has learned from its past. We understand that God is already in the city. Before we can talk about bringing God into a community we first must understand where God already is. When it comes to differences we have learned that different is just different. People worship differently, eat differently, look different, come to faith differently, and express themselves differently. All of this is OK and a demonstration of the breadth and depth of the kingdom of God. When it comes to service, mission, and ministry, if it isn’t mutual then it probably isn’t something God is calling us to. This journey has been mind-blowing and faith-expanding.

There is a new trend that has me worried. I call it the sanitized mission trip. The desire to serve is alive and well. There is a recognition that ministry must be mutual. This is good. The problem is that we want mission and service to happen in a Disneyland type of atmosphere. We want an experience as long as it is safe and sanitized. Here is the rub. Experiencing different neighborhoods, cultures and people can be intimidating and even unpredictable. This does not always feel safe.

In 1992 I took a youth group to South Central Los Angeles 45 days after the riots. Just before we left on that trip I met with the parents. All of them were nervous. Many thought we should cancel the trip; some even pulled their children out of the trip. In spite of this a smaller group of us still went on the trip. Was it safe? Certainly not by “Disneyland” standards, but it was transformational. During this trip we discovered that the news media got some things right, for example a riot occurred. At the same time it got many things wrong. We discovered a South Central LA that was full of parents who wanted a good life for their children, street venders who could produce meals that five star restaurants would have trouble competing with, homeless people who wanted to talk, and merchants who wanted customers.

Was our trip safe? In one sense the answer is yes. No one had to go to the hospital. In another sense it was a very dangerous trip. We all walked away from South Central with a new pessimism for how the media reports the news, especially in urban communities. In addition our understanding of the kingdom of God was forever changed. At a personal level I came back to Denver and joined the board of a program called “DOOR.” A few years later I became the City Director for Denver and a few years after that our family moved from the suburbs to the city. Because of that trip, everything changed for me and my family.

If we ask safety questions to avoid silly and irresponsible behavior then I am all for asking the questions. Otherwise I am not sure that “safety” and “mission/service trip” belong in the same sentence. The call to deny ourselves and pick up the cross simply doesn’t create space for a sanitized mission trip.