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.

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?

A Bigger Faith

Billy Graham has always been one of my heroes.  Not because he was perfect; he certainly crossed the line from pastor to politician, but he also owned those failings.  A few years ago Graham told Christianity Today that:

I also would have steered clear of politics. I'm grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn't do that now.

I was somewhat shocked last Friday when on a flight from San Antonio to Denver, I came across a full-page ad from Billy Graham in USA Today:

On November 6, the day before my 94 birthday, our nation will hold one of the most critical elections in my lifetime.  We are at a crossroads and there are profound moral issues at stake.  I strongly urge you to vote for the candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life, and defend our religious freedoms.  The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues.  Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn our hearts back towards God. (USA Today, October 19, 2012)

This ad does not sound like the Billy Graham who was regretful of crossing the line.  What bothers me even more is that one of the most influential evangelical Christian leaders of the modern era has managed to reduce the Christian faith to a few political sound bites.

What about poverty, health care, violence, sexual abuse and education?  Why isn’t anyone talking about a prison system that incarcerates men of color at substantially higher rates then Anglos?  Is anyone questioning the military budget?  Aren’t these Christian issues as well?  Aren’t these concerns that should influence how we vote?

A former slogan of the Mennonite Church was “the Whole Gospel for the Whole World,” I like what this communicates.  If Christians are going to spend money trying to influence this election it would be nice if they took the whole of Scripture seriously.

The Shrinking Middle

One of my early dreams for DOOR centered on the idea that it was a good thing to create a safe space to explore who God is.   I do not think I ever anticipated how controversial such a dream would become.  I have always been somewhat amused by the liberal-conservative divide in politics.  It makes for great TV and provides excellent source material for late night comedians. It has been my hope that the church would find a way to move beyond and above such inane divisions.  Lately I have begun to wonder if the church has been sucked into the same mentality as our politicians - you are either with us or against us.  This kind of “either/or” speak makes for great TV; it just doesn’t work anywhere else, especially in the faith community.

Debate, exchanging opinions, and sharing ideas should be the hallmarks of a strong faith community.  I am not aware of any imperative from Scripture that demands we all think and believe exactly the same.  When Jesus was cornered by the religious leaders he simply said love God and love your neighbor.  Love allows space for difference.

This year I have received more emails and requests asking DOOR to take official stands on every imaginable “hot-button” issue – the military, homosexuality, abortion, and marriage to name a few.  In the midst of all of this there are those who think we are too liberal while others cannot believe how conservative we are.

It saddens me to think that that church is buying into the same rhetoric and divisiveness we see in the political world.  When we become like the world around us we also give up the right to be prophetic.  I want to propose that people of faith are most prophetic when they create space for alternative understandings, ideas, and discussions.  It is in these places and spaces that the kingdom of God is revealed in all of its richness and diversity.

Can love win?

About a year ago Rob Bell wrote a book titled “Love Wins.”  I read it, and am still not sure why it was so radical.  For the most part he treated Scripture with a great deal of respect and did an effective job of demonstrating that the Christian faith is first and foremost about love and inclusion. I suspect that the underlying reasons for the critiques had much to do with a strange need for punishment.  As Christians we are really good at saying Jesus loves everyone, but many secretly hope that the really bad people are beyond the love of God; that there are some who simply deserve hell.  The idea that love could somehow persuade a bad person to repent and gain access to heaven is unpalatable to some in the church.

When Jesus was asked what the most important part of the law was, his response was simple – love God, love people, and there isn’t anything else that matters.  I suspect that none of what I have said so far is new information.  Why is it that we are so good at accepting the love of Jesus for ourselves, our family and close friends, but not so good at sharing that love with people we do not like?

Can you imagine how different our world would be today if after 9-11 we had chosen love instead of shock and awe?  We might even have money available for healthcare, education and welfare programs.  Having enemies, both personally and corporately, is expensive, stressful and dangerous.

Loving our enemies may not always be perceived as macho or tough.  Jesus never called us to be macho; he did however call us to a life of service and humility.  When we find the courage and strength to embrace these attributes, hell and eternal punishment become much less important.  You might even say they fade into insignificance.  When this happens love has a chance to win.

It’s Evaluation Time

I am a runner and hider.  When I think something is not going to work out or that I will be criticized, then I run.  I realize that this is not a mature way to deal with problems, nor does it fix anything, but it is comforting to hide when the going gets tough. This is that time of year when summer evaluations start rolling into my office.  The vast majority of folks are very happy with their DOOR experience, but there are always a few people who have something critical to say.   To be honest DOOR has chosen to approach urban ministry in a way that sets us up for criticism.  This is not helpful in reducing the stress in my life!

One of the ways we have set ourselves up has to do with our summer staff hiring preferences and philosophy.  The majority of our summer staff comes from the communities in which we serve.  For the most part our “competition” hires predominantly college students who want to serve in an “urban location” for the summer.

It is important to understand these are two very different groups of people.  College students who come to serve for the summer tend to be people of privilege.  They come to the city with the same wide-eyed wonderment and stereotypes that many of our Discover participants come with.   The result is that both the staff and participants have similar world views, prejudices and solutions to the “urban problems.”  In other words they come to the issues of poverty, faith and appropriate behavior from generally the same perspective.  This keeps everything comfortable.

By choosing to hire local staff, who also happen to be mostly persons of color, Discover participants’ level of discomfort increases.  Bringing different folks together challenges faith, behavior and moral assumptions.  When long held beliefs and world views are challenged, negative evaluations are certain to follow.  When this happens, I choose to run and hide, not very mature, but comforting!

Short-term Mission

In a typical year at DOOR we host about 3,200 youth, young adults and adults.  The vast majority, 3,100, of these people come through our week-long Discover program.  The remaining folks participate in our longer term Discern (three months) and Dwell (one year) programs.  One of the more interesting internal debates at DOOR centers on the potential dangers, both real and imagined, of short-term mission experiences. There are those who argue that our Discover program is the most dangerous.  Bringing youth into the city for a week to do mission has all kinds of potential to hurt neighborhoods and ministries.  In my mind this is an interesting theory that can seem to be true.  It has two fatal flaws; first, it completely underestimates the strength of urban communities and second, it vastly over estimates the power of incoming groups.  After almost two decades of living and working in urban communities I can testify to the strength of urban people.  At the same time I have given witness to the false assumptions visiting groups, mostly people of power and privilege, have of themselves.

In 1992 I lead a group of high schoolers to South Central Los Angeles about a month after the riots.  The theme for our trip was “Impact 92.”  In my naiveté I believed that we were going to have a positive impact on South Central.  Impact 92 did happen, but it was us who traveled to Los Angeles who were impacted.

The real danger in short-term missions is with those who come for a year.  They stay just long enough to build relationships.  Leaving not only severs their relationships but is a reminder that people of power and privilege always have the option to move on.

I believe that there is a place for short-term mission in the faith community.  Introducing people to each other who would not otherwise take the time to know each other is a kingdom building work.  Like any ministry, those of us in leadership positions must know what the dangers are.  It is our responsibility to create contexts where mission, ministry and relationship are mutually empowering and eye opening.

Safety revisited

A few weeks ago I wrote about safety.  It was written from the perspective of people who go on short-term mission trips.  This week I want to think about safety from the perspective of our Discern staff.  These are the people who give leadership to and host the incoming participants. It is important to note that about 60% of our Discern staff come from the neighborhoods in which we serve.   As a result they are local and they are people of color.  As a program DOOR is asking our Discern staff to give leadership to visiting groups.  It I also important to note that our Discover visitors are majority people of privilege and majority Anglo.  For a whole host of reasons placing local young adults in leadership roles over visiting groups is a very good thing.  It provides a level of authenticity that imported staff alone could never achieve.  To be honest I cannot imagine our summer program operating without local young adults.

This week I was reminded that there is a cost associated with asking locals to serve as staff.  After 18 years and literally thousands of participants, I can say that it is very rare for visiting groups to experience the chaos and dysfunction sometimes associated with the city directly.  They hear stories from speakers, see things in agencies and sometimes get hassled by the police.  For the most part their DOOR experience is educational, faith stretching, eye opening, and safe.  This is good.

Our staff of color encounter a whole series of other issues and concerns.  For the most part visiting groups remain unaware of and protected from these stresses.  At the more benign level there are the “sell-out” anxieties.  When their friends and acquaintances see someone from the neighborhood leading groups of white people they risk being thought of a sell-outs or trying to escape by becoming white.  It is interesting to think of this as “more benign;” in comparison it is.  At the other end of the spectrum are the encounters with authority.   In spite of the fact that we live in a country with an African American President, authority (and culture) still assumes that a person of color hanging around white people is up to no good.  I know what it is like to find out that one of my staff has been thrown down, beat and hand-cuffed in front of the church where the DOOR group is staying simply because he was black.

The next time you pray the safety prayer for you mission trip, please include the staff who will be hosting you.  In many ways they are the ones who are risking everything.

The Church

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to work with church leaders and members from many different faith traditions.  Some come from very structured church communities while others come from less formal more Pentecostal contexts.  There are churches that see the Bible as one of many holy books they would turn to for advice, while others come from traditions where the Bible is viewed as the inerrant word of God and the only Holy Scripture that should be consulted.  The labels people of faith give themselves and each other are telling as well - Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, etc. After almost two decades of interacting and leading all these different “Christian” groups I find myself fascinated by the similarities between the extremes.  Take for example Scripture.  Both Liberals and Conservatives require a high degree of “Selective Reading” in order to maintain their understanding and reworking of the Christian faith.

My more liberal (or progressive) brothers and sisters don’t really like the Apostle Paul.  They seem him as a sexist and homophobe.  More often than not their approach is to simply ignore Paul and focus on Jesus and his message of Grace.

My more fundamental (or evangelical) brothers and sisters have so confused American Civil religion and Scripture that they can no longer tell the difference between the two.  Take for example the “life issue.”  The vast majority of conservatives are both pro-life and pro-war; at best this is an oxymoron.

I cannot help but wonder what it would mean for the church to take Scripture seriously.  Conservatives would have to give up their sexism, homophobia and need for violence.  Liberals would have to give up their eliteness, smugness and educational arrogance.

Here is the good news.  Every week DOOR hosts multiple church groups, representing a wide spectrum of the Christian faith community.  It is true that the church leaders sometimes judge and condemn each other, but the youth have very little interest in finding reasons to divide.  They are interested in a Christian faith that moves beyond posturing, politics and rhetoric.  For them faith is about taking Scripture seriously, loving God and loving neighbor.  When this happens walls of division become unimportant.

The DOOR-Cloud

Apple has the I-Cloud, but my place of employment has an even more impressive cloud! This past week the DOOR summer kicked off.  The 10-12 weeks following the Memorial Day holiday, DOOR hosts approximately 2,500 Discover participants in 6 cities.

After almost 18 years it is tempting to fall into a “look what I have accomplished” mentality.  More than 30,000 people have participated; many have made significant faith commitments as a result of a week with us; leaders have been empowered.   Claiming all of this as my own not only leads to arrogance, but is dangerously wrong.

Hebrews 12 talks about a cloud of witnesses.   These are people who have gone before us and walk with us, offering wisdom, correction and encouragement.  Without this cloud of witnesses effective authentic ministry is not possible.  If I am going to brag about anything, it is the “DOOR-Cloud.”  This cloud includes the visionaries who first began thinking about structured service trips in 1985, years before youth mission trips were on anyone’s radar screens.  Then there are the gatherings of 2005 and 2006 when we brought together all our local board members of color and asked them to help DOOR be less racist.  These were not easy meetings.  It is never fun to confront individual and institutional racism, but the courageous work of these men and women helped us to better understand the radical inclusiveness of the gospel.

This cloud also includes former and current staff.  There are the women of DOOR who have fearlessly and compassionately lead even when men have questioned the legitimacy of their call.  We have immigrants who have endured insults and unwelcoming attitudes, yet they have loved and cared for participants in ways that mirror Jesus’ love for us.  We have gay staff members that have been told that they are somehow outside the reach of God’s grace yet in spite of this they have loved and cared for the very people who are condemning them.  We have staff of color who have endured both subtle and blatant racism and still they have not let this ignorance and mean-spiritedness stop them from reaching across racial barriers and seeking places of understanding and friendship.

For 18 years I have been surrounded by the DOOR-Cloud.  If you count yourself as part of this group, thank you!

Disruptions

For years I have been asking God for the perfect year.  In this year there would be enough money to pay all the bills; staff conflict and misunderstanding would be non-existent; DOOR evaluations would be excellent; my boys would get perfect grades while at the same time never skip a class; I would get enough sleep every night; every airplane flight would come with a complementary upgrade; and my car would never breakdown.  So far God hasn’t come through! This past week I participated in a “Consultation on Cultivating a New Generation of Christian Leaders” put on by The Fund for Theological Education.  During the opening session one of the speakers emphasized the importance on “disruptive experiences;” those moments when the best laid plans seem to fall apart.  Then she went on to say that smooth sailing through life does not produce people of depth and grit.  More significantly it is failure and pain that produce people and leaders of substance.

This reality produces an interesting conflict.  I have no desire to go out and intentionally fail.  As a parent I work hard at sheltering my boys from pain.  When I write my end of year reports for DOOR, it is much easier to talk about success.  Currently we are in the process of hiring a new City Director for Atlanta. When we look a resumes we prioritize folks with a successful track-record.

Years ago I had a college professor who claimed that 3.0 students made the best leaders.  They knew something about success but more importantly were all too aware of their own short-comings.

As a 16 year-old I was hired by a local rancher to help during haying season.  He immediately put me on a tractor and had me bailing.  Halfway through the day he sent me to the fuel tank to fill up.  When I arrived I noticed there were two caps on the tractor, not sure which one to open, I guessed.  To my embossment I ended up filling the radiator with diesel fuel – not a smart thing to do.  As I was finishing the owner came by and noticed my error; he was not happy.  It was one of those moments when I should have been fired.  Instead he had me fix the problem which involved about two hours of work.  Once we were done he walked away and muttering, “It’s not worth firing you now, because you will never make that mistake again.”

I don’t think I will ever intentionally put people into situations simply to help them fail.  That said, I cannot help but wonder what it means to create space for failure and disruption, to appreciate these moments as opportunities for growth and development.

Attitude

I have two teenaged boys.  Every once in a while they develop what can best be described as an “attitude.”  Please do not read this as a positive thing!  Their negative attitudes can be quite diverse.   One moment I am a lousy incredibly unfair parent and the next they see no reason to participate in family activities.  They argue about the importance of homework, getting enough sleep, going to church, and the friends they hang out with.  During every one of these discussions they spend a significant amount of time ranting about how uninformed and out of touch I am.  None of this is good for my self-esteem. I cannot help but wonder how often I cop an attitude with God.  For example, I am the Executive Director of DOOR.  In my mind this means I need to be powerful.  For me, power has something to do with an ability to control.  Then I read Scripture and Jesus seems to contradict this idea.  For Him power is about service and self-sacrifice.  On paper this sounds almost idyllic, but in reality service and sacrifice can be view as indicators of weakness.

Can you imagine living life as a servant?  Servants are people who need to figure out how to survive under the power of a master.  What happens if the master is evil?  Aren’t Christians called to defeat evil?  If we are going to win this battle then we need to be people of power.

Donald Kraybill is credited with coining the term “Upside-Down Kingdom.”  This is another way of thinking about what Jesus was called his followers to.  In this kingdom everything we know about leadership and power is reversed.  Enemies are to be viewed as future friends.  Non-violence is always the response to violence, even when terrorists attack.  Service to others, regardless of social position, is always the starting point for relationship.

Living and acting this way is counter-cultural.  Living counter-culturally is not easy; sometimes it leads to copping an attitude with God.

Black-on-Black

I am always amazed how rumor and innuendo and become truth and fact if they are repeated enough.   For example, if the news media or anyone with a powerful voice says something often enough eventually it becomes “true.”  This is the case with “black-on-black” crime.   If one listens long enough to the rhetoric it becomes possible to conclude that “black-on-black” crime is a raging epidemic in the USA.   All this talk about “black-on-black” crime leads at best to irrational fear and stereotyping and at worst it gives license to do harm to any black person who comes with our field of vision – stop them before they harm us. There are other ways to describe what listening to this rhetoric is – brainwashing and indoctrination are two concepts that come to mind.  Why are we so easily persuaded to believe half-truths and lies?  It embarrasses me that supposed Christian pastors think that all Muslims are only interested in destroying America.  Yes Muslims believe differently, but different does not equal evil or bad; it is just different.

Is this the kind of society any of us want to live in - a society that defines different as bad, as evil to be destroyed?  Aren’t there are enough real things to fear, things like: a government that is too easily persuaded to go to war, the environmentally dangerous fracking practices energy companies are engaging in, and lack of access to affordable healthcare.

It takes courage to confront irrational fears.  After all there is a tremendous amount of peer pressure asserted to keep our enemies our enemies.  Can you imagine a world where rhetoric and innuendo are quickly dismissed as silly and unimportant ramblings?  Can you imagine a world where we start by assuming the best of each other?  It almost sounds like the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus was so fond of talking about.  The kind of world I want to live in.

Effective

Every once in a while I decide to organize my life.   I file all the papers scattered around my office, delete old emails, reorganize my inbox folders, and sort the books on the bookshelf.  For a day or two I feel better about myself and slightly more efficient.  Within a week I am back to my old ways and feeling like I should reorganize my life. What is it that makes for effective ministry at the personal and institutional level?  I have been to seminars that proclaim the virtues of time management.  There are the books and charts I have poured over outlining healthy organizational structures.  Well-meaning friends have advised me develop comprehensive policies and procedures.  All of this is good, but I sometimes wonder if all of this is a smoke screen designed to keep people and programs committed to ministry from following their call.

Some of the best advice I ever received was from a stranger.  It was his belief that we show value to others by choosing to waste time with them.  It is not surprising that potential employers shy away from hiring people who value wasting time and hanging out.  On one hand I understand this; effectiveness and efficiency are seen as opposite sides of the same coin.  This is too bad.

Hanging out or wasting time with other people are the activities that develop understanding and respect for the other.  When we understand and respect each other it becomes much simpler to work with each other.  In a world that is religiously pluralist, culturally diverse, and ideologically separated - understanding, compassion, and empathy will only emerge if we take the time to simply be with each other.  Wasting time together and hanging out without an agenda.

I cannot help but wonder what the impact would be if we started to value time together just hanging out over developing programs and structures?  I am not sure that Jesus ever started a program, but his time on earth just hanging out changed everything.

Fear, Violence and Death

This past Monday I was in Los Angeles when I received a text from my wife, “there was a fatal shooting at 29th and Franklin, it happened just as the High School was letting out.”  I live a 31st and Franklin.  The 18 year old victim died.  My son turns 18 later this year so when I hear of an 18 year old being shot to death in my neighborhood, it becomes personal very quickly.  According to my neighbors this was a gang related shooting. The news this week has also been dominated by a shooting in Florida.  An unarmed 17 year old was shot to death justifiably, according Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”  In what world is shooting an unarmed teen justifiable?  Can we really claim to be a Christian Nation and have laws that allow us to kill each other?

Philosophically what happened in Denver is as “justifiable” as what happened in Florida.  A gang member was simply standing his ground – protecting his turf.

I can almost understand why people without faith believe that standing your ground is important and correct, but what I cannot understand is how anyone in the faith community could even begin to endorse a law like this.

Stand your ground laws help to legitimize prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes.  It is not surprising that both of the dead teens happen to be black.  It is this is population that has been victimized most by society’s irrational fears.

We are not going to get past things like racism, prejudice, and fear by creating space for justifiable murder.  If anything, allowing civilians to arm themselves makes these issues more contencious.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Jesus had it right all along.  Swords and guns must be transformed into instruments of peace.  When we arm each other it becomes too easy to let fear dictate our actions and fear too often leads to unwarranted violence.

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.

Politics

2012 is going to be, if nothing else, an interesting year to follow politics.  There are lots of burning questions, will Obama get reelected or will the Republicans figure out how to win?  Who will emerge as the Republican nominee to challenge Obama?  If it isn’t Ron Paul, will he decide run as an independent? Then there are all the political commentators and pundits.  I am not sure what exactly makes them experts in the first place, but they are kind of fun to watch.  I especially like the experts who talk first and think second.   Jon Stewart will keep most of the under 35 crowd laughing and cynical through this entire election cycle.

It is easy to become apathetic towards the democratic process and wish for something different or someone different to lead us.  Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Looking to scripture for a preferred system of politics is not terribly helpful.   At best scripture warns against trusting the powers of this world, which would include democratically elected leaders.  That said, democracy, in its purest form, grounds itself in equality, preserving the rights of even the weakest members of society and the seeking the welfare of all.  These ideas seem Christian.

In addition democracies, at a philosophical level, are committed to non-violence.  Change occurs through voting, not military coups.  Influence finds its expression in the legislative debate process not in street brawls.  Differences can be openly expressed in the media, public debates and non-violent protest rather than through warfare.

Is our system perfect?  Is it God ordained?  The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no.  Our system is the best option in an imperfect world.

Don’t forget to vote and don’t forget to enjoy the process!

Finding Truth

Politics is always a dangerous subject and in an election cycle it is even more contentious.  After all, which side speaks the truth?  Is it the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street folks?  Both movements grow out of a frustration with the perceived lies and deceptions coming out of Washington. The interesting question for me is how do we as people of faith discern what is truth?  The 24 hour news channels are increasingly partisan.  Finding a commentator who agrees with your positions is relatively easy to do, but this approach boarders on silliness.  TV and radio preachers seem more concerned about their agendas and financial well-being than struggling with the issues.  The politicians themselves are so rehearsed that asking them to move off their prescribed talking points is all but impossible.

Is it possible that speaking the truth is simply beyond the ability of the rich and powerful?  I cannot help but wonder if the cost of power and privilege is blindness and insensitivity.

2,000 years ago Jesus was constantly disagreeing with the rich and the educated. Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler in Luke 18:18-30 is just one example of this.  In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus talks about the final judgment.  Authentic faith has something to do with connecting with the weak, the powerless and the disenfranchised.  It is in these moments where truth is discovered.

Could it be that truth, especially in this political season, is rooted not in the speeches of politicians or the ratings of news commentators but in the cries of the wounded?

I suspect that the change we seem to be so desperately looking for would come if we allowed the truth of the powerless to guide our decision making.