A time to weep

In Romans 12:15 the Apostle Paul calls us to, “weep with those who weep.” Like many I first heard about the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida Sunday morning as I got ready for church. 50 people killed and 53 others injured. The worst domestic act of terror since 9-11. This is a time to weep. 50 people, 49 victims and 1 hated filled perpetrator, each one created in the very image and likeness of God, gone. This is the kind of stuff that breaks God’s heart. Then to find out the shooter was acting as both judge and jury towards our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, added an additional level of pain to an already heart-rending day. If there was ever a time for people of faith to stand shoulder to shoulder, this was it. Sunday was a day when every worshipper in every church, mosque, and temple needed to stop, pray, and mourn.

Now, a few days after, I am also bothered by a conspicuous silence by some in the faith community; the leaders, pastors, and lay people who are uncomfortable. Without a doubt this is a moment to lay aside our theological and political differences and stand together. Our common humanity negates any theological, religious, lifestyle, or political differences we might harbor.

If people of faith cannot find a way to stand together and be present, supportive, loving, and praying, our faith really doesn’t have much significance.

My role at DOOR affords me a tremendous amount of contact with young people. One of their major frustrations with the church and people of faith is hypocrisy. They hear sermons about a loving God, then watch their leaders condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They are told about a pro-life God, then instructed to buy guns to protect themselves. They hear the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,” and are then told to hate the gays, the Muslims, and anyone who doesn’t respect our way of life.

I am tired of religious expressions that are constantly looking for ways to exclude, hate, and judge. I claim a faith that rejoices with those who rejoice, mourns with those who mourn, and steadfastly believes that everyone is created in the image of God.

Today I stand with Orlando, Florida. Today I stand with all my brothers and sisters who have been judged. Today I choose to believe that love wins and hate loses.

Simplicity, Complexity, and Fairness

In my role I quite often receive both solicited and unsolicited advice. There is something about working with people that always leaves room for improvement. Interestingly enough this is a source of tremendous joy and frustration, all at the same time. In April of this year I turned 51. Somehow I always figured that by the time I got to this age most of my time would be spent sharing my wisdom with those around me. That hasn’t happened. In my more hopeful moments I am pretty sure that I have learned some life lessons. The hopeful moments are not the majority of my moments. Most of the time I find myself in the role of a learner.

Last month that was made clear to me again when one of our yearlong Dwellers sent me an email. Each of our DOOR cities hosts three unique programs – Discover, Discern, and Dwell.

Our Dwell program is for individuals to spend a year living in intentional Christian community while serving in a local agency placement, worshiping in an urban congregation, and reflecting together as a community.

Additionally being a Dweller also includes a commitment to living simply for the year. This means our Dwellers live together in community, and receive a small food, transportation, toiletry, and living expense stipend each month. When we first conceived of this program 20 years ago asking everyone to live on the same budget was our way of creating fairness.

Last month one of our Dwellers pointed out in an eloquent way that “same” and “fair” are not the same:

DOOR should reconsider the monthly amount they give their Dwellers and volunteers, especially if they are wanting to further create diversity. One of the prime examples I can think of is the difference in the products that I use as a thick curly haired Latina versus my straight haired anglo female housemates. I use about four times the hair products to take care of my hair than they do and the products tend to be more expensive. The stipend we receive, in my experience, is not enough for toiletries, food, and the essentials for my hair. I have been managing this year with the help of my mother and father. However, if the goal of our service year is to live simply and within our stipend, then we should receive enough where I shouldn't have to ask my parents to cover a basic need. If as a program, we want to have diversity in all areas like race, economic status, gender, and perspectives then I think this matter should be brought to the table. Thank you.

There is a popular saying within the social justice community that encourages people to “live simply so that others might simply live.” I am beginning to wonder if this well-intentioned one liner is a bit misleading. For those of us committed to diversity, inclusion, and justice maybe we need to recognize that the world is complex. Simple answers and simple living work when everyone looks the same, thinks the same, and believes the same. Quite frankly a mono-cultural world seems a bit boring. Maybe it’s time to live complexly so that everyone can live fully.

Change

About once a year I go to a DOOR recruiting event. These are always good reminders about why we have a recruiter on staff. This year I attended a denominational gathering in Portland, OR. One of my favorite things to do it to walk the hallways between seminars and business meetings. This is how an outsider can get a sense of the big issues. As I walked the conversations around the water coolers were all too familiar. Who do we include in the life of the church? What disqualifies someone from ordained ministry? Can we expand our shared understanding of who can be included? These discussions about inclusion always seem to be closely tied to a particular understanding of sin on the exclusion side and grace on the inclusion side. It is much easier to be a detached observer when it isn’t my denomination having the discussion.

There was one conversation that stopped me in my tracks. I was in line waiting to order my morning coffee. There were two pastors behind me, one from North America and the other from Africa. Just before I was about to order one of the pastors, clearly frustrated, asked, “Do you even want the church to change?”

I have been reflecting on this question ever since. If I am honest, I want church to be stable and predictable. I want the pastor to preach a sermon that inspires me. I want worship to recharge my batteries. There is a sense in which these ideas open me to the possibility of change. Really I just want church to reaffirm my convictions, beliefs, and perspectives. This means I want to be challenged and inspired to reaffirm my understandings of God, faith, and life.

The problem with change is that it forces me to accept the possibility that I might be wrong. I have spent years studying theology and serious amounts of time developing a solid theology.

Do I, Glenn Balzer, want the church to change? If I am honest, not really. The church is not about me. It is a place to worship God. This God I worship is dangerous. God is not all that concerned about our carefully constructed theology. Is it possible that one sign of maturity is a willingness to have our ideas of church, theology, and life deconstructed on a regular basis. In doing this can we create the possibility for the church to change, to be refined, to better express the heart of God?

Great Again

I am writing this on an airplane bound for Washington DC.  It’s hard not to think about elections and the future.  In politics, finding good tag lines is important. Regardless of where you stand politically there is no denying the power of “Make America Great Again.” As I travel the country I have seen signs, shirts, and red hats promoting this message. Like many I have also begun to wonder about the word “again.” When exactly was America great? Spending too much time reflecting on this question can be somewhat depressing. There are certainly great moments: the moon landing, the 1980 miracle on ice, and King’s march on Washington with his “I Have a Dream” speech. I suspect that each person reading this can come up with many moments of their own.

I am also someone who has worked with youth and young adults for the past two decades. I worry that all this emphasis on “again” is interpreted as a critique of emerging young leaders. Making America great again says something about going backwards and reclaiming a mythical past glory.

Is it possible that greatness is already present among us? When we talk about “again” what we are really doing is discounting and disempowering what makes this country great.

If you want to see the possibility of greatness, find out what our young adults are doing, particularly young adults of faith. In my work I have the privilege of a front row seat, watching greatness happen every day.

There young adults working for change at all kinds of levels. They seem to instinctively know that the past cannot repeat itself. There is a sense in which the world is both bigger and smaller. Isolating ourselves from one another is not going to work. Our common humanity will have to outmaneuver our political differences. Shared resources mean life and the pursuit of happiness for all. Advantages for the few are destructive and just plain selfish. Our young people know that intolerance, whether for religious or political reasons, only leads to hate, mistrust, and violence. If we want safety and security we are going to have to do the hard work of loving and forgiving each other.

I agree that I have the privilege of living in a great country. If we really want to move from greatness to awesomeness then let’s find a way to follow the leadership and vision of our young people first.

Change

This month I will celebrate my 51st birthday. The other night it struck me that I am now closer to my 100th birthday than to the day I was born. Apparently reflecting like this is an indicator that I am either in or headed towards a mid-life crisis. From what I can tell a mid-life crisis has something to do with change and not feeling good about it. It could be a feeling that the world has passed us by. I have seen people try to recapture their youth. The other day I went for a run with my youngest son. He is 20 and I am, well I already told you how old I am. After three miles he was just getting warmed up and I was clearly coming to the end of my run. For a moment it just didn’t seem fair. My son can run a marathon one day and be perfectly fine the next. I would need a week of serious recovery.

There has also been good change in my life. I find myself making less impulsive decisions. Experience can bring a measure of wisdom. I like that.

Change is not all that fun and can be downright scary. This is especially true in western culture where we seem to value stability and predictability above all else. We want jobs we can depend on and retirement accounts that will carry us through our “golden years.” When stable jobs and retirement accounts are thrown into chaos, panic is quick to follow. It is in moments like this when we discover the will to change. This can take the form of developing new jobs skills and changing patterns of saving money.

I am beginning to wonder if the North American church is entering a mid-life crisis. There is general agreement across the entire spectrum of the church that the religious world is changing. If the church is going to survive and remain an integral part of culture and life it is going to have to change.

Much could be and needs to be written about the need to rethink theological and social positions. Even more critical is the need to rethink the institution. Churches, denominations, and para-church organizations have spent decades building and reinforcing their particular institutional presence. What we are discovering is that change has happened. There is a growing suspicion of the institution, liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter. Concurrently there is an emerging belief in people. This change is huge and I suspect it is permanent. The glory days of the faith-based institution are fading. A new reality is emerging. The questions for us mid-lifers is how will we respond?

Searching for Jesus

Here in the United States we are in the middle of one of the most interesting election cycles ever. People of faith have taken sides. In all of the posturing and maneuvering Jesus is regularly reimagined as the motivation and inspiration behind the politician. Before I go on, I need to own some things. If you have spent time reading my blogs, it doesn’t take long to figure out that I tend to sit on the progressive side of most issues. If I was an American citizen I would probably vote democratic.

With that said, I have started to seriously question how Jesus is portrayed by both political parties. For the past number of weeks the DOOR staff have been reading Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen. In this book, Hart examines how the church (people of faith) have viewed and experienced racism. In chapter 4, Hart makes the assertion that, “As Christians, we have developed all kinds of fancy theological tricks and justifications that allow us to circumvent Jesus as recorded in Scripture.”

Hart is right. American Christianity has taken the Jesus of Scripture and reformed him into a Savior who holds “our” American values. If a person takes the time to look, we can find this reimaging everywhere.

Just this past Sunday my church showed a video of Jesus on Palm Sunday riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The Jesus in the video looked like a young California surfer dude. His disciples didn’t look much different! Why are we so afraid of portraying Jesus as an Arab radical?

Our visual portrayals of Jesus are just the surface. During his time on earth Jesus talks about loving our enemies, not carpet bombing them in his name. Jesus talked about turning the other cheek and beating swords into plowshares. I cannot imagine Jesus wanting everyone to have a gun for protection.

Jesus never talked about security or safety, but he did suggest that if we were going to follow him it would require self-denial and cross bearing.

For Jesus power had something to do with serving, even to the point of washing the feet of his betrayer.

I am writing this during Holy Week of 2016. I wonder what the impact would be if we as Christians took seriously the Jesus of Scripture? What will it take for us to reimagine the Jesus of America and begin to follow the Jesus, God’s one and only Son?

Sick and Tired

For 20 plus years I have had the unique privilege of leading an urban mission, education, and service program. I cannot overstate the uniqueness of this. After all I am not only white, male, and Mennonite but I am also a Canadian who was raised in small towns throughout the interior of British Columbia. The town I was born in, Ocean Falls B.C., has less than 100 permanent residents. In high school I spent one day studying American history. In many ways I came into my role very naïve. I have spent much of the past 20 years educating myself and being educated about the realities of race, sex, economics, and prejudice. The staff who I get to work with have been at the center of this process.

This week Tonya Powell, DOOR Atlanta City Director, wrote with clarity, wisdom, and grace about one of the most troubling issues we face in America – race. I would like to share with you her thoughts:

I am sick and tired of talking about racism.

 I am sick and tired of talking about racism when I serve a God who is love. Lately all the race talks I have had reek of some underlying hatred with no one trying to understand anything. Don't get me wrong, it is almost unbelievable to have a job with an organization that does staff book studies and even hosts meetings where someone who looks like me can freely speak their mind. A job where city directors across the country bravely try to tear down the walls of racism and teach understanding through service work and reflections.

 But I am tired of talking about racism when there is so much hatred that I have to respond to.

 This week we have over 40 Discover participants. We have had a fun week so far. Tonight I had the opportunity to drive one of our participants back to the church after we finished a service project. It was just the two of us in the car. Our conversation was great. She has such a great spirit and it was awesome just to have her positive energy around. Then her phone buzzed and I noticed her face dropped. I asked if she was ok. She told me she was but she was trying to make plans to meet her aunt and have dinner with her while she was in town. I told her I was happy that she was able to do that. She responded that she wasn't. She continued to tell me how her aunt was prejudiced against people of color. How she knew the dinner would be hard because her aunt would probably say some offensive things about people of color during their dinner. She said she would not even allow her aunt to pick her up from the church because she was afraid of what her aunt may say to the people she saw there. The more she talked the sadder I became. I heard her say most of her family feels this way except for her mom who "taught me to love everybody." I told her so did mine.

 I thought she was brave to share all that she had with me, but I wondered how many more of our participants had the same issues. Then I was reminded of how important it is for us to talk about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. this week. I am so sick of talking about racism, but tonight we both agreed with our mothers that God is love and we should love everyone!

 To know that people who don't even know me hate me because of the color of my skin is my reality.

 However, this reality does not make me feel any less.

 I love the color of my skin.

 I can't help that stereotypes help allow others to look down on me. No, I am not the stereotype of the angry black woman because I am naturally quiet, but when I do speak, I speak my mind. That's not anger, that's confidence. I am not only confident, but I am strong. I have great reasons to be confident and strong. Not only am I the seed of Abraham, but I also am the seed of slaves who endured captivity, a treacherous boat ride, ridicule, and shame. Yet my ancestors survived. I am the seed of a grandfather who, although hated in this country for being a person of color, still had enough dignity to go to another country who hated him even more and defend this country and its citizens of all races in WWII. I am so sick of talking about racism, but if I never talk about it how can I help others to better understand?

There was I time in my life when I wanted others to have heroic thoughts about me because I left the suburbs and moved to the city to make a difference. I no longer think this way. The heroes in my life are the people I work with. Every day they come to work and have to face stereotypes and judgment. Yet they show up, even when they are sick and tired.

Change

I have been thinking about change lately.  What does it take to do or see things differently? A few weeks ago I was visiting with a pastor.  The conversation turned towards change.  Specifically how does a church change?  Even simple things like changing where someone sits or what time the service begins is almost an impossible task.  If given a choice most want things to stay the same.  After all, change is stressful and the status quo is predictable.

Near the end of our conversation my friend talked about the DNA of institutions, organizations, and churches.  All of these groups are created with a particular DNA, and even if all the founders are no longer around the DNA of the groups continues.  These founding structures, policies, and traditions provide stability.  This stability creates a culture that new members must adjust to.  In churches this manifests publically with a particular style of worship, preaching, and pot-lucks.  At an unspoken level the organizational DNA creates litmus tests for who can and cannot be in leadership.  Again all of this creates stability, predictability, and tradition.

Nothing stays the same forever.  Being able to adapt and change is critical to survival.  Change is one of those things that will happen.  It can be healthy or unhealthy; slow or quick; forced or chosen.  Regardless, change will happen.

How change happens is an issue that impacts all of us.

How do we help churches to open themselves to new traditions and let go of old ways of doing things?  For many in the church the faith traditions that have been developed over time have been valuable, enriching, and formative.  Can we allow something new to emerge that will be valuable, enriching, and formative to a new generation of church goers?

Lately many of us have been confronted with the Black Lives Matter movement.  Some people of privilege respond with “all lives matter.”  I suspect that much of this response exists to lessen the sting of the injustice that this movement is confronting.  Black Lives Matter has never been a about the lack of value in the lives of other people, including the police and my children.  It is a movement that asks us to change, to change how we see and value the lives of our black brothers and sisters.  To value them as much as we value the lives of our own family members and the people called to protect us on a daily basis.

The ability to change, whether that is how we worship or how we view those who are different is what makes us human.  Change is what leads to compassion and empathy.  Change is what can make the world a better place.

I am tired of people of faith who use Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever…” as an excuse not to change their world view.  More of us need to spend time reflecting on what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:9, “For we know only in part…”  As we learn to own this, we will find the courage to change, to make the world a better place.

The Jesus test

In the past couple of months I have found myself responding to a new set of critiques.  It has to do with the use of the word “Jesus.” The first incident happened in response to a proposal for a new church start.  One of the people reviewing the proposal noticed that Jesus wasn’t mentioned.  A few weeks later I received some emails expressing concern that DOOR’s new website didn’t have enough Jesus language.  This summer many of our DOOR locations are focusing on race.  In light of all the violence committed against our brothers and sisters of color, it seemed like an appropriate focus.  So far the major critique is that staff are not mentioning Jesus enough.

I take these critiques seriously.  Today I spent some time reflecting on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  As Jesus is bringing the sermon to a close he makes a very interesting statement, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Is it possible that Jesus doesn’t really care how much we do or do not use his name?  If all we do is talk about Jesus, but don’t confront our neighbor flying the rebel flag, have we really done anything?  Believing in Jesus is mostly about doing.  Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, “preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

I can’t help but wonder if the “Jesus police” take up their cause because doing something is too difficult.  It is much easier to count how many times Jesus is used in a website or a sermon than to live as if black lives really matter.

The church has worked long and hard at separating Jesus from justice.  This has helped to make Christianity accessible, individual, and nice.  The problem with this separation is that it is not biblical.  It is not possible to separate the story of salvation from justice.  Talking about Jesus and ignoring justice is simply sin.

Diversity, where is the line?

I have always been intrigued by John 3:16.  As a child, the idea that God loved me, my family, friends and neighbors was good news.  Every year during Mission Week I would hear stories and watch slide presentations about how God loved people who lived a long ways away from me. I’m not sure that I ever said this out loud to anyone, but I always knew that there were people beyond the reach of God’s love.  These people were the big time sinners.  I was pretty sure the rock bands Kiss and Led Zeppelin were included in this list.  Kiss because they were ‘Knights in Satan’s Service’ and Led Zeppelin because playing Stairway to Heaven backwards a subliminal message strong enough steal a person’s soul was inserted.

Over time I became comfortable with the idea that I could define the world that God loved and sent His one and only Son to save.  Although I hadn’t studied the original languages I was reasonably sure that the original Greek allowed for this re-definition of the world God loved.  This understanding served me well through high school, college, and even seminary.

Cracks began to appear in my world view a little over 20 years ago.  I attended a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) gathering in Denver.  John Perkins, the founder, had just written a book emphasizing the three “R’s” of urban ministry - reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation.  It was his thought on reconciliation that challenged me the most.  For Perkins reconciliation had something to do with expanding my concept of the world that God loved.

Again, on paper this sounded good.  There was no question that my ideas of God’s world were filled with all manners of stereotypes and prejudices.  God had much to teach me about race, gender, economics, theology, and national origin.  This journey into a more diverse understanding of God’s world has been both terrifying and liberating.

Sometimes I can relate to the prophet Jonah, sitting on the outskirts of the city, waiting for God to destroy Jonah’s enemy but knowing deep down that God is merciful and forgiving.  Other times it is freeing to not let my faith journey be defined by friends and enemies.

This journey into an ever expanding understanding of the world Jesus died for is not without controversy.  I grew up in a small denomination, so it was somewhat natural to be afraid of people and faith experiences that understood God differently.  When it came to understanding who was and was not included in God’s world I always new there was a place for me, but could not always extend my understanding of grace to those were different.  Especially if I understood that difference to be sin.

In the past few weeks many have witnessed one well-known family asking forgiveness for the inappropriate sexual behavior of one of their children, while at the same time condemning others for their sexual orientation.  Isn’t it interesting that grace and forgiveness is demanded when a wrong is committed by a family member and condemnation is leved for just being different and outside a particular understanding of who God is?

Like me people of faith and the church cannot have it both ways.  We can either have a myopic understanding of God’s world or we can take the more interesting road and assume that the world God loves includes everyone, no exceptions.  Theology, class, gender, orientation, race, nationality, or any other way of dividing we can come up with simply isn’t important to God.

Multitasking

I am fascinated by those who claim they can multitask. From my experience and observation doing more than one thing at a time rarely works out. The end result is either chaos or more work. There is one notable exception to my multitasking pessimism. That is the work of creating a space and culture where all are accepted, included, and empowered. In a world where power rules, creating a culture where everyone is included seems naïve.

Diverse work environments, schools, places of worship, and communities can sound good on paper, especially if those in power get to define the extent of the diversity. For example, many people equate diversity and race while conveniently ignoring the other forms of diversity - theology, socioeconomic class, age, sexual orientation, nationality, and gender. I am not at any level diminishing the importance of racial diversity, but to only categorize each other by skin color seems a bit one dimensional. It should be obvious, but we are all more than the color of our skin. We are male and female; married with children, married without children, and single; homeowners, renters, couch surfers, and homeless; straight and gay; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist; white collar and blue collar; urban, suburban, and rural people.

When it comes to diversity, a person who focuses on only one aspect runs the risk of ending up with an incomplete and potentially twisted understanding of the kingdom of God. The implications of moving towards a vision of the world that is authentically diverse are real. Leadership both in the church and outside will have to become less white, less male, less straight, less privileged, and maybe less “Christian” – at least in the traditional sense.   For this to happen the church and world will need leaders who are skilled diversity multitaskers.

As a child I remember more than one preacher stating that it was better to live as a Christian and find out it was all a mistake than to live as an unbeliever and find out the God was real. Today I want to rewrite this a bit. I would rather live assuming that all people are created in the image of God and find out I was wrong than to live judgmentally and find out that God chose grace over exclusion.

For too long, people of faith have developed elaborate excuses for filtering people out of Christian community. Some in the church have become skilled at using Scripture to defend their holy exclusions and prejudices. Too often people of faith have hidden behind words like “distinctives” or “confessions of faith” to justify this segregation. It is almost ironic that finding ways to include everyone is the controversial path.

Confessions of Faith

The other day I was talking to a potential funder.  The conversation was going well until he asked if DOOR could affirm the confession of faith from his evangelical tradition.  I always struggle with responding to these requests.  From a certain perspective I can affirm almost any confession of faith that sincerely attempts to understand scripture. I am also a Mennonite; we are historically “non-creedal.”  This means confessions of faith are at best a moving target.  They tell us what a group of people believe about faith, life, and God at a particular point in history.

Confessions of faith have the power to be both healthy and destructive.  At worst they attempt to homogenize the Christian faith - if only we could all believe exactly the same then we could worship the same and look the same, be identical to each other.  Can you imagine a church with no differences?  A place where we always agree about everything, always worship the same way, always approach social concerns with one unified mind.  To some this may sound idyllic.  To me this sounds boring, uninteresting, and the complete opposite of the Apostle Paul’s vision of one body and many parts.

It is our differences and disagreements that help to make the church healthy and effective.  When we use confessions as a starting point to have a conversation, we use them well.  I have a friend who is fond of telling me that creativity occurs at the intersection of diversity; when the diversity and differences increase so does the creative potential.

I would like to suggest that the church is best when it refuses to use confessions as a litmus test for admission into fellowship or leadership.  When we use confessions to explore how we understand faith and life differently it becomes possible to find common ground in unexpected places.

Safety

In the next 16 weeks we will host close to 2500 youth and young adults in our Discover program.  There are many reasons why this is the time of year when I start losing sleep.  Last year we had a group of youth that came to our DOOR-Chicago program.  They arrived Sunday afternoon and by Sunday evening the adult leaders had determined that the neighborhood was too dangerous.  From what I could discern by talking to our staff and their sponsors their danger determination was based on the fact that the neighborhood was different.  It is a majority African American neighborhood and they let their stereotypes turn into real fear, and they left. This summer will mark my 18th year of inviting groups of people into the city.  Safety is a big concern for me.  We don’t intentionally put people at risk, but we do challenge stereotypes and this can masquerade as risk.

Have you ever prayed the safety prayer?  It is the prayer we pray before road trips and mission trips.  It goes something like this.  “God please guide us, protect us, and keep us safe.”  Have you ever wondered why we pray this prayer?  The Lord’s Prayer does not have a safety clause.  Jesus did talk to God about not going to the cross, but I am not sure that counts as a safety prayer.  In John 17 Jesus does pray for protection but he was praying for our souls, that they would be protected from the evil one.

When Jesus did talk about becoming a follower, ideas like self-denial, self-sacrifice, and picking up one’s cross were always present.  The safety prayer was not Jesus’ go-to prayer.  If anything Jesus emphasized the need to count the cost before choosing to follow.

I sometimes wonder that in our efforts to make Christianity palatable we ignore the difficult stuff.  Jesus never called us to safety.  If anything security is connected to confronting our fears, ignoring the impulse to judge, and embracing what culture says is dangerous.

Courage

During last Sunday’s sermon the pastor referred to Matthew 16:24, where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers then they must be willing to deny themselves.  This is one of those passages that is easier to just skip.  It is much simpler and less confusing to talk about a religion that teaches us to be good “Christians” rather than to engage a faith that asks us to abandon an entire way of life. Self-denial has never been a favorite sermon or bible study topic.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously have the potential to disturb the status quo and the status quo is comfortable.  To be honest I like things to be comfortable, predictable, safe, and secure.  These are the foundations of an uncomplicated life.

Self-denial removes me from the center.  It may even move my family, church, community, and country from the center.  According to Jesus, self-denial naturally leads to cross-carrying and cross-carrying leads to aloneness.

Jesus carried the cross 2,000 years ago because carrying the cross was what needed to be done.  Without the cross there could be no Easter and without Easter there could be no resolution to the sin problem.

When Jesus calls his followers to cross-carrying it is a call to courage.  It is a call to stand-up for truth even when no one else wants to hear the truth.  It means exposing and naming the powers that have neutralized the church’s prophetic place in the world.

When we name racism as a current sin, we risk our popularity.  When the church declares that we need a president of color because another white man will just reinforce the worst of our prejudices and stereotypes, we risk being called non-Christian.  When the church stands up against the raping of the environment just for cheaper fuel, we risk being called extremists.  When the church stands for the stranger and alien in our midst, we risk being labeled unpatriotic.

Friends, this is the call of Easter; a call to self-denial, cross-carrying, and truth telling.  It will not be easy.  It will not make you popular and you may end up feeling very alone.  Know this; we serve a High Priest, Jesus Christ, who understands.

Ministry 101

I have a friend who likes to talk about his decision to come to Denver’s Westside.  It was 1965; his thought was that he would stick around 3-5 years, because that was the commitment needed to fix poverty, violence, and poor education.  It is 2012 and he is still there. There is a popular idea among church and ministry leaders that goes something like this: “I will stay around just long enough to work myself out of a job.”  On the surface this sounds noble, empowering, and a little romantic.  However, the more I think about this notion the more I dislike it.

Authentic ministry always includes things like presence, community, mutuality, and walking alongside the other.  When leaders stand behind statements like “I am going to work myself out of a job,” it often becomes permission to stand apart from those we have been called to work with.  Standing apart is not terribly Christian.

A number of years ago John Perkins wrote about ministry in and among at-risk communities. For Perkins ministry needed to be done together and it needed to be done right. Perkins proposed three “R’s” for ministry – reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.  Anyone who has taken these ideas seriously knows that it isn’t about working yourself out of a job. It is about becoming a part of a community.  When you join a community their issues become your issues.  People cease to be ministry projects that require fixing or guidance and instead become family and friends who need a hand to hold.  When we become family, walking away becomes unimaginable.

Lonely

One of the more interesting sections in all of Scripture is some of Jesus’ final words, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  Peter Rollins describes this as divine abandonment - the moment when God abandons God.  As I have reread many of the Easter passages this week.  I am struck by how lonely Jesus must have been during his final week. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, people greeted him like a conquering king.  Jesus knew he had come to die and within a week some of these same people would be shouting “crucify him.”  In the upper room, Jesus’ disciples thought they were enjoying another Passover meal together.  Jesus was sharing some final moments with his closest friends who didn’t have a clue.  What emotions was Jesus experiencing as he sat around the table?  What was he thinking as he washed the disciples’ feet?  In the garden Jesus asks his friends to pray with him and these friends choose sleep instead.  During Jesus’ trial his best friend denies him three times.

Loneliness has to be one of the most painful of all human experiences.  I am an extreme introvert. I am good at being alone, but being alone is different than loneliness and loneliness is not fun.   Henri Nouwen describes it like the Grand Canyon - a deep incision in the surface of our existence.

Why is the call to Christian leadership and ministry also a call to loneliness?  This is the irony of ministry - we call people to community, mutuality and interdependence but find ourselves on the outside looking in.

In a strange sort of way it is the loneliness of ministry that opens up a space for community, support and unconditional love.  It is in our loneliness that we become most aware of our need for each other.  This dependence on each other is what builds the family of God.