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.

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.

23 years of being pushed, challenged, and prodded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives. What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

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.

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.

Baseball & Reporters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A glimpse into the program I oversee

Brent Davis is a Dweller in our DOOR Hollywood program. Over the last few weeks he took it upon himself to capture the thoughts of recent Discover participants while they stayed at our community house.  It’s a huge blessing, and a fun way to show how God is nudging people to break down single stories in Hollywood through DOOR. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np_JZfxfg38

 

If you are interested in participating in in DOOR, please check out our website – www.DOORnetwork.org

Empathy

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

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

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

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

A Christian One-Liner

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperfect

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

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

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

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

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.

Boxes

My job requires me to field all kinds of questions.  From the ridiculous, I remember receiving a call form a pastor inquiring if Denver had urban squalor; I am still not sure what “urban squalor” looks like.  To the soul searching, what is God calling me to?  And even the demanding, why? It is not often that I am caught off-guard.  Yesterday I was confronted with an unusually direct question.  So are you a liberal or a conservative?  At that moment I began to understand with new eyes what Jesus must have felt at the religious leaders attempted to back him into a corner by asking if he should pay taxes.

I do not think this person was intentionally trying to trap me, but I certainly felt boxed in.  And I don’t like boxes, they are limiting and confining and give me a sense of theological claustrophobia.

Now it is true that I was raised Mennonite Brethren (MB), and still claim them as my own.  It is also true that many MB’s would understand Southern Baptists to be their more “liberal” brothers and sisters.   Part of my faith struggle for the past 20 years has much to do with this tension between the faith of my youth and an unwillingness to be painted into a corner.

So, how did I respond?  I think I had one of those rare moments of insight.  You see I have come to a place where at least the contemporary ideals of liberal and conservative no longer have any appeal to me.  In the end both groups have people, or groups of people, who cannot belong.   The exclusion of people just doesn’t seem to be very Christ like.

The implications of rejecting liberal and conservative and seeking a third way of radical inclusion have the potential to alienate one from both sides of the church.  You see, radical inclusion means that the primary task of the church and the Christian faith is to find new creative ways to filter people in.   For too long, people of faith have hidden behind denominational distinctives and statements of faith as justifiable excuses for excluding those who are different.

Back to the question, am I liberal or conservative?  I choose “C,” none of the above.

Both Sides

In John 15 Jesus talks about being in the world but not of the world.  What does this mean?  The realities for those who are in the world seem to be the same as my reality.  In spiritual moments I can talk about a future hope I have, but that doesn’t seem to change my everyday experience.  Everything from how am I going pay for my boys college education to what will happen if we bomb Syria? Jesus was really good at speaking out of both sides of his mouth.  One moment he is calling his followers to pick up their crosses and follow and the next he is calling people to himself because his yoke is easy and his burden light.  Which is it: the heavy burden of the cross or the weightless yoke?  Experience tells me it is a little of both.  And we don’t always get to control if it is easy or hard.

In some ways the ministry I work for operates out of the same spirit.  We are both tolerant and intolerant.  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.

The willingness to live in tension seems to be a critical trait for followers of Jesus.  Rarely does the Christian faith fall into neat packages.  And quit frankly I am tired of people who keep trying to jam a neat prepackaged faith down my throat. It doesn’t feel authentic.

Any of us living in the real world know that a prayer of faith does not always result in healing, but praying for healing is still a good thing to do.  Giving my 10% does not mean God will bless me with an abundance of money, but giving does help me to see a world beyond myself.  As a pacifist I am not going to stand idly by and do nothing when justice is required; I just get to be more creative in my responses.

I once had a college professor who said that consistency is the pursuit of the fool.  I am still working out the “truth” of his statement.   In that spirit a Christian faith that doesn’t speak out of both sides of one’s mouth might not be authentic.

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.