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.

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.

Obstacles

A few weeks ago, my pastor made an interesting statement, “An obstacle is what the eye sees when it is distracted from the goal.” The more I have thought about this, the more I believe the statement to be true – especially for those of us who call ourselves Christians. But how can we know the difference between an obstacle and the goal?

According to my Reformed brothers and sisters, the highest end of man (humanity) is to glorify God and to fully enjoy him (God) forever. This sounds a whole lot like “the goal.”

Now, figuring out what the obstacles are is a tad more difficult.

For example, if Sunday worship helps us to glorify God, then it cannot be an obstacle, right? If this is the case, then why do we spend so much time arguing about worship? Some folks want their worship experience to be quiet and reflective; well others want their worship to be loud and expressive with a little dancing thrown in. Does this make worship a means to the goal or an obstacle?

Worship is simple compared with some of the other issues faced by the church. Is God a God of life or choice? Should we pray for victory in war or the courage to be a people of peace regardless of what others have done?

Keeping our eyes on the goal is important, but obstacles are a fact of life. Debating the merits of the obstacles is an inescapable reality. Is it possible that healthy discussions about obstacles help us to better see and understand the goal?

Maybe the problem isn’t the obstacle itself, but rather how we choose to engage the obstacle.

Can you imagine a church where people with different understandings and beliefs about the obstacles choose to worship together anyway?

Myths

Every once in a while, someone makes a statement that stops me in my tracks. Last Wednesday, in a diner just outside the Philadelphia airport, I heard one of these statements.

“It is a myth that people with different understandings of theology can’t worship together.”

We live in a culture that divides over everything.

Democrat or Republican. CNN or Fox News. John Stewart or Rush Limbaugh. Ford or Chevy.

In a perfect world these differences are what make us unique. But lately it seems that our differences have become dividing walls that keep people apart. Democrats cannot be friends with Republicans. Those who watch CNN look down on those who watch Fox news (and vice versa). Rather than celebrating our differences, we demonize those who are different.

This is not helpful.

The church in not immune from this either. We have bought into the temptation to divide over our differences.

“The music is too loud! Let’s look for a new church.”

“You can’t go to that church; the pastor is too liberal (or conservative).”

I cannot help but wonder what God thinks of all this dividing. I suspect that it breaks God’s heart.

What will it take to get past the pride of my “rightness” and learn to worship with people who think differently than me?

Maybe we can even change the words to a song many of us first learned as children.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world
Conservative and liberal
Pentecostal and traditional
Democratic and republican
Those for universal health care and those for the private plan
All the people of the world.

Can all these people worship together in unity?