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.

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!


Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission. This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.


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

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

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

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

Failure is simply a part of life.

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

Judas’ response – commit suicide.

Peter’s response – run to Jesus.

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


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

Is the church less pure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is in this space that grace happens.


Without a doubt, failure is our very best teacher.  I am not sure if I like this statement, but I am pretty certain about the truth of it. As a 16-year-old, I spent some time working for a rancher during haying season.  One of the first things he asked me to do was to fill the tractor up with fuel. I remember pulling the tractor up to the fuel pump, shutting down the engine, and getting ready to fill up the tank.  There was just one problem, I could not figure out where the fuel tank was.  After 15 minutes of searching, I noticed a screw cap at the very front of the engine compartment. So I opened it up and began filling the tractor up with diesel fuel.

There was just one problem: I was filling up the radiator.

Without going into a whole lot of details, the radiator holds fluid to cool the engine; diesel fuel does not belong in the radiator.

It did not take long for the rancher to notice the mistake I was making.  It would be an understatement to say that he was upset with me.

We ended up draining the radiator, refilling it with coolant and then he showed me where the fuel tank was.

Then he said something remarkable, “Well I guess you won’t make that mistake again.”

I couldn’t believe it.  He had every right to fire me, but he didn’t.

In the years since I have become convinced that one of the most important things we can do as parents, leaders, pastors, or employers is to create an environment where failures are not final.  It is failure that leads to wisdom.  It is failure in my life that creates space for grace when working with others.

I don’t like failure, especially when I fail publicly.  But, without a doubt, failure has been my very best teacher.

How are you embracing failure?

Better Mistakes

I turn 45 this month. Generally I try to ignore my birthday.  For reasons I do not fully understand, this birthday seems different. I have crossed a line. I am no longer referred to as “young.”  My hair color can best be described as “grey.”  And later this year, my wife and I will celebrate our 24th wedding anniversary.  Spun more positively, I am gaining experience. Aging does have benefits. The other day someone told me that I now have the opportunity to make “better mistakes.”  My resume is full of lousy mistakes.  I have hurt people by talking first and thinking second.  More than once I have chosen second or third best because I lacked the patience to consider all the options.  The word, “Sorry,” has not been used nearly enough in my conversations with others.  I have misjudged people too often for superficial reasons.

I doubt any of us will arrive at a “mistake free” existence anytime soon.  We all blow it from time-to-time.

My hope for my next 45 years is that I will make better mistakes. I want to do more thinking and less talking.  I want stop and think before rushing in and choosing the easiest option.  I want to spend more time apologizing and less time defending. I want to hear a person’s story before I jump to conclusions.

I want to better live out the Apostle Paul’s more excellent way. I want to choose to love first and make better mistakes.