Defining Moments

Abraham Lincoln had a defining moment at Gettysburg when he began his speech, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…” Martin Luther King, Jr. had one August 28, 1963 when rallied a nation with his dream.

President Bush had a less than stellar one on May 1, 2003 when he stood on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

In my city of Denver, quarterback John Elway had his moment on January 25, 1998 when he led the Denver Broncos to their first Super Bowl championship, beating the defending Green Bay Packers 31-24.

Defining moments are interesting and memorable events. They can cut two ways, either reminding us of courage and greatness or of foolishness and failure. I suspect that all of us desire the first and fear the second.

The truth is all of us are more than one moment in our lives. None of us should be defined by a single event. Each of us are far too complicated to be defined by a single act, whether great or foolish. There is an interesting human tendency to elevate those who have done great things to a god-like status and demonize those caught in foolishness.

Although we are at the front end of 2017, it seems that this is going to be a year of giving space for a fuller story. I don’t want to be a person who defines and pigeon holes others based on a particular moment, whether that is a moment of greatness or of intense foolishness.

Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, reflected, “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

In 2017 I want to be a person who knows what it means to both give and receive Amazing Grace.

22 years

At the end of this month I will celebrate my 22nd year of leading DOOR. Back in 1994 my plan was to stick around for 4-5 years and then move on. Very quickly this job became more than a stopping point figure things out. Co-workers became friends and neighbors became family. What follows is one of many stories about what keeps me coming into work every day. “I am no longer going to be embarrassed about where I come from and who I am.”

Anna Martinez said this was her biggest take-away from her summer as part of DOOR Denver’s Discern summer staff. Anna and her family have been my family’s neighbors for 20 years. We live in a center city neighborhood which has experienced multiple transitions. Some people think of where we live as the “ghetto.” This had been a cause of great embarrassment for Anna.

Over the summer as she lead groups around the city and her neighborhood, Anna took the time to tell stories about where she lived. Anna was instrumental in educating our DOOR participants about her culture, neighborhood, and family. This work planted a seed of self-esteem. Anna, a young woman of 17, had found a sense of self-worth and pride for her culture, neighborhood, and background.

Discern participants from each DOOR city have similar stories. Over the past decade we have hired and worked with over 400 Discerners like Anna. In 2017 we want to expand our Discern program. Our goal is to double our annual participants and expand our Discern program beyond the summer to a year.

Thanks to you, 2,156 youth and young adults were able to participate in our Discover, Discern, and Dwell programs this year. On behalf of them, thank you for making a DOOR experience possible.

Your partnership in this endeavor is key to any success. Would you be willing to make a special donation of $50, $100, $1,000, or whatever you can afford to help us expand the reach and depth of this program?

We simply can’t do it without you. Your financial support will make a real, lasting impact in the lives of young adults like Anna.

Please, click here to make your donation now.

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The Road Trip Diaries – Farmer’s Sausage

There are certain smells that I love. Fresh baked cookies, a spring rain, and green chile season in Denver. I have come to love the smell of roasting green chile peppers. 20 years ago I didn’t get this obsession with roasted peppers; today the smell reminds me that my meals will be just a little spicier for the next year. On August 21 I was reminded of another smell, one that had begun to fade just a bit. We had been invited over to Rita’s aunt and uncle’s home in Surrey, BC. It was Sunday mid-morning and we were about to be treated to brunch. I was especially excited for Miguel because he had never experienced a Canadian Mennonite brunch. I was expecting some Low German waffles, white sauce, and bacon. As we sat down a faintly familiar smell filled the room. A plate of famer’s sausage. Over the years Rita and I have looked for an American version of this delicacy, but is doesn’t exist in the USA. Farmer’s sausage is as unique to Canadian Mennonites as roasted green chile peppers are to people from the Southwest.

On that day as I enjoyed more farmer’s sausage than is appropriate, I was transported back to my youth. A few days later as Rita and I began the drive back to Denver I began to reflect on how my life had changed since moving to the USA in 1988. Neither of us expected to stay on this side of the border more than the three years it took to complete seminary. Now both of us have spent more time in the USA than in Canada. We have raised our boys and made friends. We have found a community and neighborhood to call home. This is where my wife is winning her battle with cancer. Down the street from our house is the church where I was ordained. None of this would have happened if we weren’t open to new possibilities.

Denver was never in my plans. Today I cannot imagine my life without Denver, DOOR, His Love Fellowship, or our neighbors. I still love and appreciate where I came from – those smells are important. I am glad that I have had the opportunity to experience new smells and come to appreciate them as my own.

This personal journey has also informed my faith journey. I am grateful for everything in my past that has informed my understanding of faith and life. I am equally grateful that I have come to enjoy other expressions of the Christian faith. It is only when we are open to a God who wants to do new things in our lives that we can begin to value the vastness and diversity of the Christian community.

White Privilege

One of my job responsibilities is to have regular check-ins with our City Directors. These calls are usually filled with laughter, frustration, anger, and occasionally the unexpected. This past week the unexpected happened. We were about 30 minutes into our conversation, when all of a sudden the person on the other end when into a minor panic moment. Like me she was multi-tasking. The call started with her working from home, then she packed up and headed to her car to go to a meeting. In the process she went from talking on her headphones to switching to her car’s Bluetooth system. The crisis happened about 5 minutes into her drive. At first I was worried she had gotten into an accident. This was not the case.

She had forgotten to take out her wallet and put it on the dashboard. Her panic seemed a little unwarranted to me. So in a silly attempt to say “no big deal” I started laughing. For her it was a big deal.  In a moment of grace, on her part, she proceeded to explained things to me. It went something like this:

“Glenn, I am a black woman driving a car, if the police decide to stop me I don’t want them to think that when I reach for my wallet that I am reaching for a gun.”

This staff person is close to my age. Both of us have been driving for 30 plus years. In all of that time I have never worried about where my ID is. To be honest I don’t even panic if I forget my ID at home. Getting a ticket would suck, but I wouldn’t be afraid of the encounter.

For more than 30 years my friend and co-worker has had to think about where her ID is every time she gets into a car. This grows out of a very real concern for her life.

Privilege, particularly white straight male privilege, means that I get to go about my day-to-day life without worry. For the most part I do not need safe places, mostly because the world is my safe place. I don’t always know what to do about my privilege. I didn’t earn it, it simply is. One thing I am slowly learning is to listen to the concerns of my friends of color and those in the GLBTQI community. Their fears are not “boogeyman-ish;” they are real. All you have to do is turn on the news. Somehow I want to find a way to be part of the solution. This is my hope and dream.

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?

Cancer – 24 hours

In Matthew 6:34 Jesus tells his followers, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” As a husband who is watching his wife live through cancer, I am learning the truth about this. It started Wednesday afternoon when Rita went in for her ultrasound check-up. The procedure was supposed to be a routine step along the road to radiation treatment. In a moment it all changed. The medical staff saw something and ordered tests. We were going to have to wait 3-5 days to find out if this was a bump in the road to recovery or a major change in direction.

That was Wednesday. The sun set and the sun came up. I started the 500 mile drive from my meetings in Kansas to Denver. 8 hours, alone in my car, switching between NPR, the best of the 1980’s, and silence. Then the call came, about 24 hours after the first call. They had fast-tracked the biopsies. Instead of 3-5 days, it was 24 hours. The news was good! They didn’t find any cancer.

In an instant I moved from fear to joy.

For anyone who has been touched by cancer or loves someone battling this disease you are well acquainted with moments that seem to spin on a dime. One moment everything seems to be going well and then something unexpected happens. A moment of joy turns into anguish.

I am slowly learning the wisdom of living in the present. Too often I have put important things off until later. I have let the business of life get in the way of loving, caring, and spending time with the folks most important to me.

Take some time today. Call that friend or family member you have been meaning to talk to. Let them know how important they are. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

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.

It’s about the Assumptions

We all have assumptions. To be honest they are a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the assumptions of others can feel a whole lot like judgment. Other times I am glad to have people assume good things about me. I am discovering that it is important, particularly in faith communities, to figure out what the assumptions are. These tend to be the non-negotiable items.

For example, I regularly field calls about DOOR’s statement of faith. Do we believe in the gifts of the spirit? Is the Bible the inerrant Word of God? What is our understanding of sin and punishment? These are just the easy questions! I understand why people ask. They want to know if DOOR is going to reinforce their understanding of God or challenge it. Responding to questions about our assumptions is a little like walking through a mine field, you never know when something is going to explode in front of you!

There are some assumptions we are very public about. Our belief that God is already present in the city working in and through the people of the city is one of those assumptions. For years I was convinced that it was my duty to bring Jesus to places where Jesus wasn’t. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that Jesus isn’t present.

My time at DOOR and in urban centers across the country has given me the unique opportunity to reexamine and challenge my assumptions. There is something amazing that happens when we open ourselves to the possibility that God is more than our assumptions and statements of faith.

At this point someone points out that Scripture is clear and that Jesus is the only way. This is usually code langue for “my understanding of Jesus and Scripture is correct.” The problem with this is that it doesn’t take into account the person doing the interpretation, cultural differences, and western reimagings of Jesus.

Here is where I respect my more Pentecostal friends. Allowing the spirit of God to freely work in and through us will challenge our assumptions and make space for a God who is dangerously surprising!

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.

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.

Head and Heart

Last week I had the opportunity to be part of a gathering sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education.  Twelve programs from around the country that work with emerging young leaders were brought together.  There were about 30 of us, 2/3 of who were young emerging leaders.  It was a privilege to sit and converse with present and future leaders of the church.  During the last session the young adults were asked to share openly and honestly about their vision for the future of the church – to describe this session as a holy time is almost an understatement. One testimony in particular has stuck with me.  One woman shared her frustration with the conservative and liberal sides of the church.  For her the conservative church was the place where her heart was welcome but her mind, her questioning, and her intellect were unwelcome.  In the liberal church her head was welcome but emotion and expressive worship and praise were seen as inappropriate.

As she shared you could feel the agreement in the room.  These young adults wanted to serve and worship in churches that created room for both their heads and their hearts.

Why is it that the conservative church is so afraid science and evolution?  The time, effort, and finances devoted to debating evolution has crossed the line from silly and peculiar to wasteful and wrong.  Then there are the various confessions of faith which leave no room for questions or reexamination.  This side of the church seems to be driven by a fear of anything that is different or unexpected.

The liberal church is no better, especially the white liberal church.  Their understanding of the faith and God borders on racism, classism, and paternalism.  Anyone who doesn’t accept their “mature,” “rational,” and “thoughtful” understanding of the world is simply wrong.  Their commitment to rationalism reduces humans to one-dimensional uninteresting people.  Our emotion and our desire to praise God with our whole being makes life fun, interesting, and multi-dimensional.

Both sides of the church seem to have an overwhelming need to define, contain and make God into their own image.

I left the meeting looking forward to where these emerging leaders are going to take us.  I like the idea of being part of a faith community that respects my head and honors my heart.

A new Church

I have always been fascinated with new church starts.  There is something special about individuals and groups of people who feel called to birth a new faith community.  Last week on my way to church I noticed a sign advertising the location, website and worship times for a new church start.  By the time I arrived at church I was checking out the website on my phone.  The first place I always go is to the staffing section.  In this particular case there was a team of four couples.  Everyone was young and had a real cool bio.  Each of them was called by God to serve in the inner city.  They were committed to racial and economic diversity.  Just based on the web site this new church was full of possibility. Every year I meet with folks who feel called by God to serve the city.  I have been around just long enough that occasionally I get asked for advice.  If I were to give the leaders of this new church some advice here are two things I would tell them:

1.  Be present. The best advice I ever received came during my first week at DOOR.  “Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.”  I have a friend who likes to tell visitors that when he first came to Denver’s Westside in 1965 he figured it would take two, maybe three, years to “fix” the poverty issue and then he would move on to another poor community.  It is 2012 and he is still on the Westside.  You see, when we choose to stay in a neighborhood the “issues” quickly fade into the background and the people become important.  When people trump issues it becomes very difficult to impose institutional solutions on friends.

I very rarely find myself thinking about the poverty on Denver’s Westside.  It is true that my friends have less financial resources than many suburbanites but their commitments to family, food, and fellowship have changed how I view poverty.  This would have never happened if I had not been told to “hang out for 10 years and get to know us.”

Church leaders would do well to spend more time hanging out and less time preaching sermons!

2.  If it isn’t mutual it isn’t ministry.  I was first drawn to urban ministry because I wanted to make a difference.  Secretly I really wanted to be the urban hero.  Over the years I have spoken to countless people who feel called to urban ministry.  In every one of these conversations we eventually end up talking about the “needs” of the city and how they feel called to help make a difference.

I am the first one to admit that there are needs in the city.  Violence and drugs are but two obvious concerns.  What is so often overlooked in many people’s rush into urban ministry is the call of God on the lives of the people from the city.  I am so grateful to the urban men and women who have invested into the lives of my boys.  They have helped to guide my wife and me through the difficult maze of parenting.  They have stood by us and offered encouragement, love and acceptance even when we have felt like failures.

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.

Biblical Assumptions

“Abraham needed more than one woman and so do I.” It was the summer of 1995. They were the third church group I had ever hosted as the Denver City Director.  Our Tuesday evening reflection had just wrapped up and everyone was getting ready for bed when the head elder, from a well-respected church, pulled me aside to tell me his understanding of biblical marriage.

I remember everything about the moment.  The noise in the room, the shirt he was wearing and the conviction in his voice.  There was nothing about his body language that said he was trying to pull my leg.  For him the biblical definition of marriage meant that if he needed more than one woman it was within his moral rights to have more than one woman.

Last week Chick-fil-A revived a brewing controversy about the biblical definition of marriage when its company president came out against gay marriage.  As you might imagine my mind immediately went back to that evening in the summer of 1995.

Like it or not there is no biblical definition of marriage. Anyone who tells you that there is such a definition hasn’t spent time studying the bible.  There are lots of stories about marriage relationships and sexual intimacy.  However, turning a biblical story into a definition for marriage quickly becomes problematic.

Take Abraham: he not only treated his wife like a piece of property to be bought and sold, he also slept with his wife’s servant Hagar without worrying about infidelity.  Then there is Isaac, Abraham’s son, who married sisters and slept with their servants.  There are the stories of Israel’s two greatest kings, David and Solomon, who took both wives and concubines, in Solomon’s case by the 100’s.

Where does this desire to have a biblical definition for marriage come from?  Is it because we are afraid of any relationship that falls outside the cultural norm?

In 1995 I was repulsed by a man who felt he needed more than one woman.  His idea of biblical marriage seemed counter to everything that Scripture teaches about mutuality and respect.  There was a sense in which he had scripture - at least the biblical stories - on his side.  It would be hard to argue that he was in sync with God’s heart.  Dehumanizing and degrading women is counter to a faith which describes humans as creatures made in the very image of God.

Last week when I read about a Christian leader who was trying to define marriage in terms he was comfortable with I could not help but wonder why.  From my perspective his only goal was to be exclusionary.  This seems counter to the God of John 3:16.

We cross into very dangerous territory when we read into Scripture things that aren’t there.

A Disappearing Majority Culture

One of my favorite work responsibilities is visiting one-on-one with our board members.  Last week in Miami I met with a Haitian pastor and local board member.  Our conversation moved freely from family matters to church work to local theology.  Near the end of our time together we started discussing cultural realities in Miami.  For him what is happening in Miami is a precursor to what the rest of the country will face in the coming years. In his words Miami is a city with a disappearing majority culture.  Only 18% of the population is Anglo.  All by itself this is a fascinating statistic.  What is even more interesting and to be honest, somewhat alarming, is reality is impacting Anglo churches.  As Anglo churches have lost influence and power they have become more theologically conservative and much less interested in having anything to do with people of faith who believe differently.  In their minds any church group that doesn’t see the world exactly the same as they see the world should be viewed as unsafe, too liberal and probably not Christian.

I walked away from the conversation hoping his assessment was wrong.  The more that I reflect on our time together the more I suspect that his conclusion is correct.  As the Anglo church losses its influence and power rather than embrace a new reality, it seems to be entrenching itself in a strange form of conservative theology that leaves no space for other perspectives.

When the church moves towards a fear-based, you’re-going-to-hell theology, everyone loses.  Conservative theology and politics share a cut and dried vision of the world - you are either with us or against us.  Slogans like “no-compromise” and “stick to your guns” energize these folks.  From a certain perspective these sounds good.  The problem is that it is not a sustainable way to live or believe.

If the disappearing majority culture (Anglo) is going to survive and thrive it will only come through a willingness to engage people, beliefs and politics that are different.  This is not easy or simple.   Recognizing that a belief or understanding is wrong looks a lot like flip-flopping or compromising on the issue.  Developing the courage to compromise requires humility, love, faith and hope.  You might even say that compromise is the most Christian thing any of us can do.  When this happens we will not have to mourn the disappearing majority culture but rather celebrate the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

Boxes

The other day at our Atlanta board meeting the chair asked each of us to share how we experience the face of God.   This is one of those questions that I should be ready to answer in an instant; after all, it is the tagline to the program where I have been working for most of my adult life.  As I was listening to the reflections of other board members my mind kept going back to when I first started working for DOOR. At that time, the God I wanted other people to experience was measurable and contained.  I knew the kind of people God approved of and those who were outside God’s will.  Well, to be more precise their actions were outside of God’s will.  I was very good at explaining how God loved the sinner and hated the sin.  My life, work and seminary experiences had all helped me to know exactly what types of actions, lifestyles and political leanings were sinful or at least outside the will of God.  Looking back, this theological certainty had an arrogant unloving quality.

When it came time for me to share about how I experience God I found that I had a new one liner, “God has no respect for the boxes I try to put God in.”  God has never come to me for a list of who to vote for, what to condemn or which lifestyles to judge.  As a matter of fact, much of my faith journey for the past couple of decades has been about reevaluating what I was so sure of.

When I compare the person I was in 1994 to the person I am today, I am glad that I have flip-flopped on many burning issues.  A faith that is dependent on condemnation and looking for sin around every corner is life-sucking, boring and frankly unchristian.  I am starting to enjoy serving a God who has no respect for the boxes I want to put God in.  It is fun, adventuresome, occasionally humbling and always stretching to follow a God whose idea of who is part of the family seems to have no limits.

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.

Don’t you believe what the Bible teaches?

The other day I was asked to sign a petition.  It had to do with one of those burning “Christian” issues.  At this point you need to know that I am not going to name her issue, as naming it would shift the focus of this blog to the issue. My standard response to petitions is that I am a Canadian and probably shouldn’t sign.  Most people let me off the hook at this point.  In this instance I was once again let off the hook, but before she went on to ask for more signatures she proceeded to lament to me about the state of Christian belief in this country.

“Why can’t people just believe what the bible teaches?”  For her the Bible spoke clearly to her issue.

I have thought about her statement for a while now.  Like her I believe that Bible is clear about some things.  For me loving God and loving neighbors are at the top of the list, but once we get past these two subjects clarity quickly fades.

Think about all the things that divided Christians:

There are many believers who defend a literal six day creation. However, Christians were among the first to suggest that we need to understand the Genesis stories symbolically.

Christians are among the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Christians are among the strongest opponents of these conflicts.

Think about the current debates over gay marriage and women’s right to choose. It is Christians who are the strongest supporters and opponents.

Then there is the healthcare debate.  You can find committed followers of Christ across the “what should we do” spectrum.

Taking Jesus and Scripture seriously does not always provide clear-cut answers.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to accept people of faith who fundamentally disagree with you and your understanding of the truth.  That said, authentic Christianity always allows for the possibility that my particular understanding of the issue might be wrong.