Beautifully Complicated

Last week my wife and I drove from Denver, CO to Hesston, KS. The majority of this drive took place on I-70. We left at 5 AM and the first few hours of the Colorado portion of the trip were in the dark. As the sun rose I began to notice billboards, both the homemade and professional versions. Many of these signs proclaimed something about the Christian faith:

Abortion stops a beating heart

You will die, then meet Jesus

Where will you go when you die?

Jesus is real

Smile, your mom chose life

Then there was the coffee break moment. As we approached the one Starbucks between Denver and Hesston, there was a “White Jesus” floating in a wheat field.

Rita and I went to Kansas to attend a funeral. A friend had lost his battle with cancer. He had just turned 40 and left behind a wife and two children. A few years earlier his sister, a mutual friend, and I drove our motorcycles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and back. It was an adventure that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Now I was driving I-70 reading one liners about a Christian faith I claim, and wondering why my friend was dead.

If we were traveling to Kansas for any other reason I doubt I would have even paid attention to the billboards. These signs and their attempts at reducing the Christian faith to a one liner that could be read as cars passed by at 75 miles per hour began to feel offensive.

Christianity at its best is a deeply complicated experience. On this particular day my feelings towards God were not at their healthiest. Children need their parents; why would God allow a father to die before his job was done? Grandparents and parents should not have to attend the funerals of their grandchildren and children.

We arrived in Hesston and made our way to the church. Hundreds of people came. As I silently watched the family come in my internal questioning of God only intensified. About halfway through the service my friend’s wife and siblings came to the front and shared the story of his life. In the retelling of my friend’s life story, a story of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and radical love also emerged.

Later on as more stories were told over a meal, I began to reflect on this Christian faith I cling to. The truth is I have moments where God and I are on the same page, followed by moments where I wonder if God is even present. There are times when I think I have my Christian ethics figured out only to be confronted with people of faith who don’t see the world like I do.

The Christian life, when lived honesty and without one-liners, is complicated. At its worst it is frustratingly complicated and at its best it is beautifully complicated, but always complicated. As much as I want to make it simple, God keeps complicating everything.

The Interview

The other day I was interviewed for a research project. These requests come my way every so often. I enjoy talking about DOOR and my philosophy of ministry. Many times these interviews have a therapeutic quality. Talking about what DOOR does and how we see the world actually helps to clarify why I do what I do. The interview was moving along smoothly. We began by talking about board structure, hiring practices, and programmatic priorities then moved on to questions of diversity. Over the past decade DOOR has gone through a significant transformation. We, are no longer a white, mostly male, Mennonite program. Our boards are made up of people from many different denominational traditions, men and women hold leadership positions, and people of color out number Anglos. This past summer our Discern program was over 70% persons of color from the neighborhoods and communities in which we serve. It was these kinds of changes that the interviewer was most fascinated by. Responding to her questions helped me to recall the journey that DOOR has been on for the past decade.

Just before we finished she asked if I had anything else to say. In a moment of unguarded clarity I choose to respond. When I came to DOOR the power structures were comfortable and known. My board looked like me, thought like me, and made decisions the way I would have made decisions. I hired summer staff that came from the same culture and theological perspective I came from. We hosted groups that came from churches similar to churches that I grew up in. All of this took place in a community that was different in almost every respect – culturally, ethnically, theologically, and economically. The “saving” grace was that my board, staff, and program participants could all agree on the “solution.”

Today our boards are made up of local pastors and leaders representing the colorful and interesting diversity that is the Kingdom of God. We are Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, African American and Mixed. Women make up the majority (just barely) of our board members. Liberal and conservative believers sit at the same table and choose to define themselves by what they have in common rather than by what separates. There are hipsters, hip-hop pastors/artists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, non-denominational, Methodists, Four-Square, emerging leaders, and retired saints all giving input and helping to guide DOOR into the future.

If I am honest, leading this kind of organization is a little like trying to herd cats. That said I cannot imagine going back to what we once were. I thank God every day for the opportunity to be part of something that is counter-cultural, innovative, and a small reflection of what heaven will be like.

Bearing Witness

As a young adult I attend a college that had a daily mandatory chapel requirement.  For four years, I heard six sermons every week.  I quickly became an expert at evaluating the quality of a preacher within the first half-minute.  If the preacher didn’t pass the 30-second test I could be asleep within the next 30 seconds. In many ways, chapel became a place of rest for me.

After four years of six sermons per week, one in particular has stuck.  It was delivered by a professor not known for his public speaking skills.  I can no longer recall his name, but I remember the sermon as if it were yesterday.

His text was the book of Job.

He spoke shortly after the death of his wife.

She died after a long struggle with cancer, leaving behind her husband and two children.

I remember him talking about Job’s friends.  These were the guys who came to comfort Job after he lost everything: his children, his wealth and his reputation.  Initially, they came and just sat with him - listening and bearing witness.

After a while they started to talk. They tried to explain the “what” and the “why” of Job’s loss.

This is where they went wrong.

Like Job’s friends, we live in a culture that needs to understand why bad things happen to good people.  Simply bearing witness to pain and loss seems inadequate.  So we try to explain and justify: “All things work together for good,” or, “She is in a better place.”

The only thing that Job’s friends did right was sit with him for seven days and bear witness to his pain.  It was when they opened their mouths that everything when wrong.

Why is it so hard to simply bear witness to someone’s pain?

Rethinking “Short-term”

Lately I have been reading a number of articles on the damage that can be and has been caused by short-term mission trips. One writer talked about churches that spend millions of dollars traveling to other countries, performing work that locals could do best and creating a welfare economy that deprived people of the pride of their own accomplishments.

When I read stories like this, I find myself agreeing with the writer and questioning my career choice. I lead a ministry that arranges short-term experiences for 3,000 young people annually. Am I part of the problem? The honest answer is both “yes” and “no.”

For those committed to long-term ministry, short-term experiences always seem incomplete and lacking in integrity. Although I run a short-term program, I have been a part of Denver’s Westside neighborhood for 15 years. Nothing replaces time when it comes to effectiveness.

But I do wonder about all the critics of short-term missions. From my vantage point, their claims greatly overestimate the power of the groups coming to “serve” and underestimate the strength of local communities.

Many well-meaning leaders seem to understand power only in terms of wealth. If this were truth, then the short-term visitors do have all the power. But power is much more than wealth. In my context, urban America, power comes from all kinds of sources – family, culture, community, language, and faith to name a few. I have yet to see a short-term group destroy this.

Short-term programs are plagued with all kinds of problems. I have witnessed the damage that racism, stereotyping and ignorance can inflict. These concerns cannot be ignored and must be addressed.

If I were to push this conversation a bit farther, I would question the common definition of “short-term,” the one day to two week time period. I would suggest that anything less than 10 years should be viewed as short-term.

In my neighborhood, I am always intrigued by the people who move in so that they can “do” ministry. God has led them to work among the “urban poor.” And I am equally intrigued by how God always leads them to move as soon as their children become school-age. What does this say to the community they were called to? What kind of damage does this inflict?

It is easy to pick on the people who do mission one week at a time, but I am not so sure that these are the people with the power to do the real damage.

Ministry, in all its forms, needs people committed to long-term presence. At DOOR we host short-term groups, but we do this in the context of full-time city directors and in partnership with local pastors and helping agencies who have been on the ground for years and even decades. These people help to inform what groups do and do not do during their time with us.