A Christian One-Liner

The other day I was involved in one of those controversial Christian conversations.  As our discussion was wrapping up this person said to me, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin."  Then we hugged and went our separate ways.  This one-liner was not new to me.  As a matter of fact I have heard and used the exact same phase for years. I have probably even uttered it from the pulpit. This time the conversation was a tough one and the phrase did not sound so spiritual.  You see it was the first time I had ever been the target of the line.  To him I was the sinner that needed loving and my prayerfully considered convictions were the sin that needed hating.  Quite frankly it did not feel good to be on the receiving end.  I had been judged to be a sinner.  His love for me, in spite of my sin, did not make me feel any better, respected, or accepted.  I would not be whole until I quit sinning.

I have done a lot of thinking about loving the sinner and hating the sin.  It is one of those statements that sounds good; so good that many of us might even wonder why Jesus didn’t have the wisdom to use it himself.  I could just imagine Jesus as he looked a Peter after the third denial, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The problem with loving the sinner and hating the sin is that it shifts power.  It is an attempt at becoming God.  When I say love the sinner, hate the sin in essence I am saying that I have God knowledge.  I have the ability to name who sinners are and what sin is.  Granted there are times when this seems obvious to all.  Pedophiles and murders are two groups of people that come to mind.  However, most of us live in a world that is much less stark.  As much as many of us would like Scripture to be crystal clear on issues of war, patriotism, sexual orientation, speaking in tongues, hell, heaven, and many others, it isn’t clear.

When believers differ from each other it is tempting to name that difference as sin.  The temptation is especially strong when we believe that we have Scripture on our side.

I remember going to church and being told that drums were a sign of the Devil and that women were not gifted in leadership.  These opinions were held fervently, leaders believed they had God and Scripture backing up their beliefs.  I am glad that the church had the courage to grow beyond those convictions.

I do not know where we are going to end up with the big discussions of today, but I do know that if we keep naming those who are different than us sinners we won’t have the opportunity to see where the spirit of God is leading us.

The Table

Note:  This is an article I wrote for “Zing,” the monthly newsletter of Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC).  This is the group that holds my ordination credentials.  Recently MSMC licensed an openly gay pastor.  As you might imagine this decision resulted in a tremendous amount of controversy.  Letters have been written in support, in opposition and calling for more conversation.  While at the same time some churches are contemplating what it means to leave the conference.  The goal of this article is to suggest that there is a way for us to stay to together without having to surrender biblical convictions.  Your thoughts and feedback will be much appreciated! On September 11, 2011 I did something I never thought I would do, I got ordained.  For almost 20 years I avoided this decision.  There were good reasons for not taking this step.  In general my reasons boiled down to not feeling that I would be fully accepted.  I grew up Mennonite Brethren, so I tended to hold a conservative understanding of Scripture.  In 1994 I started working for a program on the Westside of Denver called Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR).  This ministry experience has consistently challenged every one of my deeply held convictions, except one.  I believe that Scripture is God’s message to us and must be taken seriously.

This tension has put me in a strange place.  My conservative friends think I have gone over to the “other side” and my liberal friends don’t always know what to do with my conservative leanings.  These tensions left me in a space of never feeling like I could belong or be accepted.  That is until I met Herm Weaver, our conference minister.  Over the years he has been slowly introducing me to the people of Mountain States Mennonite Conference.  It is in this conference that I saw things I didn’t think were possible- conservative and liberal churches participating as co-laborers and equals.  MSMC is living in tensions that would split most conferences.

What I have come to understand is that being at the table together trumps any of the reasons that would cause us to leave the table.  This isn’t always easy because sometimes our differences are significant.  2014 is going to test us.  Talking about leadership and sexual orientation is not easy or comfortable. There are many voices that will tell us that the prudent thing to do is separate.  For some it even feels like a litmus test; that unless you agree with my position we are going to have to leave the conference.  When I speak with people both for and against the ordination of gay and lesbian persons this issue quickly becomes an all or nothing faith matter.  In situations like this it is tempting to assume a “my way or the highway” stance.

In Matthew 22:34-39 Jesus is questioned about his understanding of the law. In short he says love God, love people.  I have a friend to takes this statement one step farther by adding “nothing else matters.”  The call to love God and love people seems to be the lens Jesus calls us to use when dealing with difficult issues.  When we choose to leave a conversation or sever a relationship are we not ignoring this imperative?

I would like to suggest that leaving, or expelling, is the sin that should concern us the most.  The primary call of the people of God and the church is to relationships that include reconciliation, redemption, and restoration.  If any of us leaves the table we are in essence saying that this is no longer possible.  My friends, that is a decision only God can make.

Staying at the table demonstrates to those outside the church that we are not afraid to engage the difficult issues of the day.  As members of Mennonite Church USA the decision of one worshipping body does not dictate the convictions or beliefs of another worshipping body.  Staying together even in the midst of great difference does demonstrate to the world one of our core convictions – all people are made in the very image and likeness of God and for that reason we chose together instead of separate.

Unity

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.”   Have you ever wondered if unity is possible, especially among people of faith?  In my more cynical moments I wonder if the unity that emerged during the council at Jerusalem was a “one-off” event. Today the church seems to make more headlines for its theological division than for its ability to bring folks together.  The reasons for this fracturing are varied and move from humorous to sad.  There is an urban legend about a church that split over a painting in the baptistery that depicted Adam and Eve with belly buttons.  When I was in college I remember debating vigorously about the virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection.  If someone was on the other side of my position I quickly moved to questioning their faith commitments.

In 2013 many faith battles are directly connected to sexuality.  As more and more churches rethink think their stances on the ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians the church seems less and less unified.  Some church leaders have even taken to starting new denominations over these disputes.

I realize that unity for the sake of unity makes no sense.  After all if everyone is unified in allowing something that is evil to occur then unity is only allowing a mass of folks to do and be wrong.  Unifying people of faith around unity only is pointless at best.

This does not change that Jesus’ final hope for people of faith was that they would be unified (read John 17).  My job provides me with many opportunities to work with both liberal and conservative believers.  If I am honest I see no quick faith fix to the sexuality battles.  Unity is still a possibility.  It will demand something people of faith often confuse with backsliding - compromise.

Like the leaders at the council of Jerusalem the church needs to become less concerned with burdening its membership with unnecessary requirements.  When Jesus was asked what was most important, his response was simple, concise, and profound.  For Jesus everything boiled down to love.  Anything we do as individuals or communities of faith that violates this rule moves all of us towards dis-unity.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “love God, love your neighbor, nothing else matters.”

Boxes

My job requires me to field all kinds of questions.  From the ridiculous, I remember receiving a call form a pastor inquiring if Denver had urban squalor; I am still not sure what “urban squalor” looks like.  To the soul searching, what is God calling me to?  And even the demanding, why? It is not often that I am caught off-guard.  Yesterday I was confronted with an unusually direct question.  So are you a liberal or a conservative?  At that moment I began to understand with new eyes what Jesus must have felt at the religious leaders attempted to back him into a corner by asking if he should pay taxes.

I do not think this person was intentionally trying to trap me, but I certainly felt boxed in.  And I don’t like boxes, they are limiting and confining and give me a sense of theological claustrophobia.

Now it is true that I was raised Mennonite Brethren (MB), and still claim them as my own.  It is also true that many MB’s would understand Southern Baptists to be their more “liberal” brothers and sisters.   Part of my faith struggle for the past 20 years has much to do with this tension between the faith of my youth and an unwillingness to be painted into a corner.

So, how did I respond?  I think I had one of those rare moments of insight.  You see I have come to a place where at least the contemporary ideals of liberal and conservative no longer have any appeal to me.  In the end both groups have people, or groups of people, who cannot belong.   The exclusion of people just doesn’t seem to be very Christ like.

The implications of rejecting liberal and conservative and seeking a third way of radical inclusion have the potential to alienate one from both sides of the church.  You see, radical inclusion means that the primary task of the church and the Christian faith is to find new creative ways to filter people in.   For too long, people of faith have hidden behind denominational distinctives and statements of faith as justifiable excuses for excluding those who are different.

Back to the question, am I liberal or conservative?  I choose “C,” none of the above.

Both Sides

In John 15 Jesus talks about being in the world but not of the world.  What does this mean?  The realities for those who are in the world seem to be the same as my reality.  In spiritual moments I can talk about a future hope I have, but that doesn’t seem to change my everyday experience.  Everything from how am I going pay for my boys college education to what will happen if we bomb Syria? Jesus was really good at speaking out of both sides of his mouth.  One moment he is calling his followers to pick up their crosses and follow and the next he is calling people to himself because his yoke is easy and his burden light.  Which is it: the heavy burden of the cross or the weightless yoke?  Experience tells me it is a little of both.  And we don’t always get to control if it is easy or hard.

In some ways the ministry I work for operates out of the same spirit.  We are both tolerant and intolerant.  On one hand we are open to participants who “don’t get it,” but on the other we do not have a whole lot of tolerance for people who are content to live out their racial prejudice or stereotypes.

The willingness to live in tension seems to be a critical trait for followers of Jesus.  Rarely does the Christian faith fall into neat packages.  And quit frankly I am tired of people who keep trying to jam a neat prepackaged faith down my throat. It doesn’t feel authentic.

Any of us living in the real world know that a prayer of faith does not always result in healing, but praying for healing is still a good thing to do.  Giving my 10% does not mean God will bless me with an abundance of money, but giving does help me to see a world beyond myself.  As a pacifist I am not going to stand idly by and do nothing when justice is required; I just get to be more creative in my responses.

I once had a college professor who said that consistency is the pursuit of the fool.  I am still working out the “truth” of his statement.   In that spirit a Christian faith that doesn’t speak out of both sides of one’s mouth might not be authentic.

Church

A Facebook friend and “former” member of a church I pastored a few years ago shared the following status, “I’ve got nothing against God; it’s his fan club I can't stand.” Statements like this make me sad. Personally I am a huge believer in the church. Quite frankly I do not know how I could be a Christian without the support of a home church. But neither am I naïve. Too often the church is not a healthy place. On August 22 a local newspaper, Denver Westword, ran a detailed story of a pastor who seems to be using grace as a way to justify his moral failures. In his wake there are a series of women who have been hurt and even terrorized. Beyond the moral failures of leadership there are the moral judgments. Too often the church has been a place of condemnation and judgment. Over the course of history the church has managed to find “justifiable theologies” to condemn almost everything. African Americans were seen as less than human, non-white immigrants could be part of the family as long as they stayed on their side of the border, women were not fit for leadership, and people of various orientations were not and are not admitted.

In some senses the evidence is overwhelming. The church of today cannot be the church that Jesus envisioned when he appointed Peter as the rock upon which the church would be built.

The church is so much more than “judgment” and “moral failure.” Today, August 28, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. was a product of the church. His dream was rooted in a connection to a community of faith.

Since 1994 people of faith have been gathering at the US-Mexican border to celebrate “posada sin fronteras.” This is a celebration where the church comes together to say no to walls of division and yes to a bond that is more powerful than political boundaries.

Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and author of Tattoos on the Heart, tells the story of how people of faith - the church- can change the destiny of those the world has given up on.

The church is still a powerful agent for change. Yes it gets tripped up from time to time. The news media and social media will play a role in keeping the church and its leaders accountable. This is good. My hope and prayer is that people will not abandon the church because of its sins, but rather chose to hold the church accountable. When the church is accountable, it is also prophetic. Prophetic gives way to hope and change.

An Eternal Moment

Every once in a while I find myself participating in an important moment. These moments rarely arise because of planning. They just happen. Last evening I was part of one of these moments. It took place after the DOOR Atlanta board meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. I like going there because they have two prime parking spots reserved for clergy. There were eight of us around the table. Two board members, our Atlanta City Director, my friend Anton, me and three Discern staff representing three of our DOOR cities. These2013-08-12 22.48.07 Discerners were in Atlanta for a Fund for Theological (FTE) event. Chris is from the west side of Chicago and has worked for DOOR every summer for the past 10 years. Today he is a confident 20 something about to complete his Master of Communication Studies, but I remember the high school freshman who was so skinny the wind could blow him over. Manny just completed his third summer in Denver. He likes to claim Los Angeles as his home town, but he spent most of his teen years in Denver and is a member of the church our family attends. Kelli spent one summer in both Denver and Hollywood. She came to DOOR through a more “traditional path;” she came as a Discover participant, liked the program and applied for a summer staff position. Here were these three young adults – a Hispanic, an African American and an Anglo.

For two hours we sat at that table. The waiter could hardly get a word in to take our order. The conversation was animated, passionate and emotional. We began with the “simplest” of topics, how should we think about sexual orientation? This went on for about 45 minutes. Once we had come to a general consensus we moved on to talking about how working for DOOR has impacted each of their lives. For each of them working with a diverse staff had helped them to better understand who they were and the radical breadth of the kingdom of God. The concept of “For God so loved the world” had taken on new meaning.

One of our hiring commitments is to find people who are different from one another and ask them to work together in unity. Our staff comes to us from urban, rural and suburban settings. Some have been raised in the church while others are new to the Sunday thing. They are young adults of color and they are Anglo. Some are progressive while others hold a more conservative theology. All of this diversity could be viewed as a prescription for disaster. I am constantly surprised that this doesn’t blow up in our face. Every year these young adults choose to define themselves first by what they hold in common. When this happens everyone is given a glimpse of what the church can be.

The Voice

If you have arrived at this post because you were looking for information on NBC’s “The Voice” you may as well stop reading.  I am a fan and cheer for anyone from team Blake, but I want to reflect on another voice.  I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home.  For the most part I have good memories from my childhood. However my understanding of faith and God was shaped by a lot of rules and a tremendous amount of guilt.  For example, Christians didn’t dance, go to movies or listen to rock n’ roll.  We believed in a judgmental God who would one day come back to “rapture” the faithful.  Men were called to leadership in both house and church while women could teach children’s Sunday school and be quietly submissive.  When pre-marital sex led to pregnancy the “girl” would meet with the elders and then disappear for a few months. Apparently all of these pregnancies were immaculate because the male participation was never discussed.  Divorced people could be forgiven but rarely achieved more than second class status.

In a strange sort of way these rules and others like them created a space of predictability and stability for me. When everyone played by the rules everything was good. That was until I started experimenting with “sin.”  I still remember going to my first movie.  It happened because I went to a friend’s overnight birthday party and the next morning we all went to the Saturday matinee.  I chose to go to the movie rather than home.  It was a spaghetti western; I was both thrilled and racked with guilt.  Before long I was attending movies on a regular basis.  The story of my first high school dance is similar, only this time I was the yearbook photographer and I “had” to attend the dance to get some pictures.

Through all of this there was “the voice”, it kept whispering to me, reminding me of how I was abandoning my faith.  Initially I was convinced it was the Holy Spirit convicting and condemning my sinful actions.  Over time I came to understand that this voice wasn’t so much the Holy Spirit as it was the culturally trapped and twisted version of my faith.

One of the most difficult tasks people of faith engage in is separating cultural norms and preferences from the good news of the gospel.  This tension is only heightened when diversity increases.  The norms of my youth worked to a certain extent because most everyone shared a common cultural background. This is no longer the case for me or my family.  Diversity is the norm.  Everything is different.  Difference is challenging.  It is especially challenging when it comes to faith.  I live, work, and worship with people who claim to worship the same Jesus I do.  Some of these folks have a similar understanding of the rules that I had in my youth, while others push every boundary I thought I had and some boundaries I was unaware of.  That voice has never left, it still whispers, asking if I have crossed the line into unrighteousness.  It is a constant battle to not give in and an intentional choice to walk confidently into the vastness of the kingdom of God.

Christian

What makes someone a Christian?  As a pre-teen I remember an “End-Times” speaker coming to our town and talking about how all the planets would line up in 1982.  He speculated that this would signal the beginning of the end or the start of the “tribulation.”  I was so afraid that I would be left behind when Jesus came to “rapture” the real Christians that I went forward every night to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.  Becoming a Christian had something to do with praying the right set of words.  Confession of sin and asking Jesus to sit on the throne of my heart needed to be included in the prayer.   I kept going forward every night because I wasn’t sure I prayed the prayer correctly. The fear of not having done it right haunted me for years.  More than once I snuck out of my bedroom at 2 AM to check on my parents to make sure they hadn’t been raptured away.  It took years to realize that the rapture theology that consumed my youth was a non-biblical scam made up to sell books.  There has been much freedom in discovering that Christianity is so much more than a way to avoid “The Tribulation.”

This journey into a new understanding of Christianity has only intensified the “what makes someone a Christian?” question.  During Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 there is a fascinating conversation about entering into a process of rebirth.  It would seem that Christianity has something to do with resetting, rebooting and starting over with a clean slate.  In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a strange story about sheep and goats.  Eventually the sheep are invited into the kingdom of God and not because they prayed the right prayer.  There is no indication that they ever went forward at church and accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  They are invited in because of how they lived their lives in service to others.

The more I read scripture the more I am convinced that Christianity has everything to do with who we are and how we live our lives.  There is a song from my youth that says well what I am trying to say, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

There are still well-meaning people who want a Christianity defined by rules and formulas.  The reasons for this grow out of the best of intentions.  The problem is that the God of Scripture has no interest in rules and formulas, no matter how well-intentioned they are.  The closest Scripture comes to a formula is love, radical and unconditional love.

Acts 10 & Evangelism

Last week I had the opportunity to share about the mission and ministry of DOOR with a group of pastors. They were exploring the possibility of hosting a DOOR program in their city. After I finished there was a time for questions. As usual the questions ranged from the practical to the theological. The first 20 minutes or so were spent answering questions about facility, hosting and staffing needs. Then the discussion shifted. It started when a pastor offered an observation of what he had heard so far and ended with a question. It went something like this:

“It is clear that DOOR does a good job of introducing people to the city and its needs. Feeding the hungry, helping out with local VBS programs, addressing the “isms” (race, sex class), allowing local leaders to share their stories with participants and working side-by-side with community members are all good things to do. I want to applaud DOOR for engaging this. It seems to me that DOOR is not asking participants to do the most important work of evangelism. Do you train DOOR participants to lead people to the Lord?”

To be honest I was not surprised by this person’s assessment and question. I have had to respond to similar comments and questions many times over the past two decades. My response has evolved and changed over the years. There was a time I would have arrogantly suggested that this pastor take Scripture a little more seriously. When Jesus does talk most directly about separating people into two camps – the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, the four spiritual laws never come into play. Getting into heaven has everything to do with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner and giving a cup of water to those in need.

These days I look to Acts 10 when thinking about evangelism or conversion. It is the story of Peter and Cornelius. Many scholars understand this chapter to be the passage that officially makes space for the Gentiles, everyone who isn’t Jewish, within Christianity. So it is an important section of Scripture when it comes to evangelism.

As a child I remember being told that this was a story about the conversion of Cornelius. I agree with that assessment, but it is an incomplete understanding. The story starts with Cornelius, a Roman Gentile, receiving a word from God that his prayer had been heard. Then the story skips to Peter having a dream. He is told that “unclean” animals are OK to eat and he is to go to Joppa. Peter goes and ends up giving witness to the work God is doing among the Gentiles. The interesting question of Acts 10 is who is converted or evangelized? I have come to the conclusion that both Peter and Cornelius are evangelized.

What are some lessons we can draw from this? Could it be that evangelism is a mutual experience? I don’t know how we arrived at a one way perspective of evangelism. In my mind conversion and evangelism happen when two or more people meet and are all led by the Spirit to a place none of them expected to be. This is what happens is Acts 10; read it for yourself.

In a small way this is how DOOR approaches evangelism. It is our goal to bring people who might not normally connect with each other together and create a space for mutual evangelism. When this happens the Kingdom of God begins to appear in powerful ways.

Bounded and Centered

A few years ago while taking a class on evangelism I was introduced to the notion of “Bounded” and “Centered” groups. These were two very different ways of understanding salvation. The “Bounded” people were interested in knowing standards, rules and procedures for determining who is saved and who isn’t. Visually this way of thinking could be represented by a circle. Those on the inside are part of the kingdom of God and those on the outside are the non-Christians. There is a sense in which this desire to know the rules is what got humanity kicked out of the garden. You can read about this in Genesis 3. The “Centered” folks are most concerned about the direction someone is facing or moving. For these people you are either moving toward or away from the center. This is the drama that plays out in Acts 10 where Peter comes to the realization that all people who seek Jesus, including the Gentiles, are included in the Kingdom of God.

I must admit that I have a strong affinity with the “Centered” approach. There are “risks” with the centered approach. The clearly defied rules for membership (salvation) blur. It may mean opening ourselves up to the possibility that God works in ways we don’t approve of. Taking this line of thought to an even more radical place, it may mean that God fully accepts and includes people we don’t approve of.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11 Paul challenges the reader to put an end to childish ways. We need to move past the mentality of Adam that caused him to listen to the serpent and attempt in vain to be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. Quite frankly that didn’t work out so well for him and it hasn’t worked out well for the church.

Putting away childish things means finding the courage to move past old ways of operating. It means being open to the possibility that who the church excludes misses the heart of God. Declaring who is in and who is out is both immature (childish) and out of sync with the heart of God.

Diversity, Culture and Christianity

Several weeks ago I wrote about diversity in our Sunday morning churches. I acknowledge this is one of those ideas that sound good on paper. The notion of us putting aside ideas, convictions and beliefs which divide us seems to be a reasonable request, at least initially. The struggle for many is that church also represents a significant source of cultural identity. It is this connection to identity that creates a rub. The way I view the world, understand God, and work out my moral convictions are deeply personal. Being told to simply ignore this for the greater good is not an easy pill to swallow. For some, laying aside differences that divide means admitting that deeply held convictions may be wrong, misguided or no longer helpful. For others it means giving up theological comfort. I do not know of many people who go to church to engage in theological debate with their pew-mates. They may be critical of the church down the street, but fellow church members are seen as co-laborers in the fight for ‘our version’ of who God is and what is right.

At what first might appear to be a more benign level church, is often a place of social comfort. The potlucks overflow with ‘known’ comfort food, or an agreed upon ‘newness’. The style of worship fits within a commonly held set of norms. The congregation knows when to stand up, the appropriateness of clapping, and when to use ‘amen’. When people get invited over to each other’s homes for Sunday dinner the host knows if serving alcohol is appropriate.

I travel a lot, and as a result I have the privilege of attending many kinds of different churches. In some it is customary to be welcomed with a kiss on the cheek, while others find a handshake provides more than enough intimacy. When I preach some congregations ‘require’ a suit and tie, while at another jeans and a polo shirt are more than formal enough. Some congregations believe the Holy Spirit works best through an 18 minute scripted sermon, while others expect a 45 -60 minute spontaneous Spirit-filled sermon.

Making space for diversity, especially in the local church, will not be easy thing to achieve. 2000 years ago the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians laid out a vision for the church, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This dream may require a reimagining of culture and convistions.

Diversity on Sunday Morning

This past Sunday, Easter 2013, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about diversity in houses of worship. Apparently 9 in 10 churches in America have no significant racial diversity. Not a big improvement from 1956 when Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. When almost every other segment of society has embraced differences and diversity why is the church so resistant to change? In the evangelical world there are white and black understandings. When it comes to social issues there are the progressive churches, those open to LGBTQ people, and there are the conservative churches, the hate-the-sin-and-love-the-sinner people. Denominationally there are Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, African Methodist Episcopal, non-denominational, emergent and anarchist varieties. There is high church and low church. Peace churches and Patriotic churches. There are traditions that make space for women in leadership and churches that call men to retake their God-given headship. There are house churches and mega churches. From what I can tell everyone thinks they have "the" correct understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This is not a blog intended to persuade you to my particular understanding of the Christian faith. To be honest my goal is simpler and possibly more radical. My thoughts go all the way back to my time in seminary when I participated in a church planting class. The entire course revolved around one central idea - the Homogeneous Unit Principle. In short this principle says that churches will grow when you bring people together who look the same, believe the same, are of the same economic status and hold a similar world view.

When I look at much of the church today the truth of this principle is certainly born out. People want to worship in spaces where they will feel comfortable. I understand this desire; I am just not sure if this desire is particularly Christian.

From what I have observed the Homogeneous Unit Principle tends to benefit the powerful. In its most dangerous form the powerful, read Conservative Christian Church, assumes it has the right to speak for everyone, including God.

Now, back to my proposal, when it comes to the life of the church we need to understand the Homogeneous Unit Principle as appalling evil. Christianity was never intended to be a gathering of people who are exactly the same. It sort of flies in the face of the children’s song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Paul’s image of the body, Jesus disciples, and the entire book of Acts are a few other examples that highlight the wonderful diversity of the Church.

Imagine with me for a moment. What would happen if progressives joined conservative churches and conservatives joined progressive churches? Not with any agenda beyond recognizing that we are children of God and have much to learn from each other. Can you imagine suburbanites worshipping in urban churches and urbanites being welcomed as full members into suburban churches? How about Catholics worshipping in Mennonite congregations and Mennonites participating in the life Southern Baptist congregations? Understanding develops empathy and empathy creates a space for conversation, conversation opens the door to conversion and all of this leads to a Christianity that changes the world.

Hope

This week I spent some time in Atlanta GA participating in an event sponsored by Volunteers Exploring Vocation. They gathered together 60 young adults from 18 partner programs, including DOOR. This is a circle that includes Catholics and Protestants; men and women; liberals and conservatives; Anglos and people of color; straight and gay. Gatherings like this leave me feeling hopeful for the church. In years past people who held different views on faith issues rarely spoke. When they did it is was always to win the other “wrong” side over to the correct “biblical” point of view. I remember enrolling in classes on how to defend my faith; back in the day they called it “apologetics.” In my case I wanted to protect the Christian faith from the liberals, evolutionists, and any other person who did no share my narrow-minded beliefs.

There are so many reasons why a gathering of different people shouldn’t work, but it does and is a wonderful expression of what the church is. These young adults in Atlanta not only represented the future of the church but the present as well. Their ability to define themselves by what they have in common first rather than by how they are different gives me hope for Christianity and the church. Starting from a shared commonality creates space to enter into difficult discussions about race, gender, orientation, faith, and call with a sense of support and optimism that will carry them and the church forward in the coming years.

There are those who bemoan all the different denominations and faith traditions. They see it as Christians not getting along. The past actions of the church seem to support this critique, but this week I witnessed Catholic, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Quakers, Presbyterians, Independents, African Methodist Episcopals, and Mennonites worshipping together, playing together, praying together and celebrating our common humanity.

If these young adults are indicators of the future of the church then we have much to look forward to!

Tension

This summer almost 3,000 youth and young adults will descend into one of our six DOOR cities and participate in a week of service, mission, guided reflection, and learning. For the most part everything will go well. Participants will go home with a new appreciation of the city and how God is working in the urban world. Lives will be changed, hearts will be softened, and negative stereotypes will begin to crumble. For over 20 years I have had the privilege of giving witness to what happens when people begin to see the world from a new perspective - a perspective which includes people who look different, think different, eat differently, and worship differently.

Sometimes I wonder about the process of getting participants to this space. So much about mission and service projects is about bringing something to a people or place that they couldn’t get on their own. Years ago there was a mission project in Denver that welcomed incoming groups with the slogan, “Welcome to Denver, Denver needs you!” The more I thought about this the more it bothered me. Denver needs you? Really? If these groups didn’t come to Denver would Denver have fallen apart? Weren’t there already local churches, pastors, and laity in Denver serving?

The temptation in recruiting participants into the DOOR program is to talk about the city in a negative light. After all why would anyone go on or support a mission trip where the service location was talked about positively? According to Robert Lupton there is a certain amount of ego satisfaction going to places where we will be viewed as frontline troops placing ourselves in the gap between the grace of God and evil forces that threaten to take over. This perspective does have a certain heroic quality, but it isn’t accurate.

The city is an amazing place. It is true that bad things happen and the needs are great, but this is only a minor part of the story. It is in the city where God is gathering all the peoples of the world. Old divisions like liberal, conservative, Presbyterian, Baptist, White, and Black just don’t matter as much. For urban people it is much simpler to define each other by what is held in common than what is different. People who participate in DOOR do help out and that is greatly appreciated, but this is far outweighed by the lessons that urbanites impart to our DOOR participants.

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.

Making Friends

Book reviews are not a normal part of my blogging life, but last week I received a book entitled, “Making Friends among the Taliban.”   It is written by Jonathan Larson, an amazing story-teller and former chair of our DOOR-Atlanta program.  In it he tells the story of Dan Berry who on August 5, 2010, was murdered along with nine other members of a medical team in a remote region of northern Afghanistan. This is not a story of a senseless death, but rather of a life lived to its fullest.  Dan spent 30 plus years becoming a part of the Afghan landscape.  He was someone who seemed to have figured out how to be fully Christian in a place where Christianity, especially the western version of Christianity, is viewed with suspicion and apprehension.

From a certain perspective Dan was the wrong person to represent the Christian faith.  He lived without deadlines, communicated poorly, was easily distracted, liked to stop and smell the roses, viewed dangerous situations as simply obstacles to overcome and enemies as potential friends and allies, and thought the best places to visit were always sketchy and somewhat seedy.  You could say that Dan lived on the edge and therefore the manner in which he died was not all that surprising.

There is another perspective from which to hear this story.  Here was a person who knew the power of friendship.  Dan was willing to go to extraordinary measures to be a friend.  The title of the book hints at this, the Taliban was never his foe.   Like Jesus, relationship always took precedence over rules, policies and regulations.  For Dan everything was negotiable.  Being able to respect and understand all sides of any issue allowed Dan to be a peacemaker where peacemaking seemed impossible.  I cannot help but wonder how different our world would be if Christians choose to value relationship over conversion - not because I am against conversion.  So often the desire to convert becomes the barrier to seeing the other as a child of God.  For too many people, especially Christians, conversion is code language for you need to become like me.

One of the lasting legacies that Dan Berry has left for the church is new possibilities for being authentically Christian in a world where religious violence, mistrust and intolerance seem to be increasing.

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.

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.

Different

Stanley Houerwas is one of those theologians known for provocative statements; I suspect he enjoys making people think.   This is from his book Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular - “Mentally handicapped folks are segregated, not because they cannot learn, but because they are segregated for being not like us.  Furthermore, we fear those who are not like us.” My initial response was to check out the copyright date of the book, it was published in 1994.  In my mind the societal fear of differences may have been true a generation or two ago, but not in 2012.

Have we made progress?  Do we still separate from one another based on how we are different?  During the last election cycle President Obama regularly said, we are not a collection of red states or blue states we are the United States.  I like the idea that our unity trumps all the things that divide us.  I cannot help but wonder if disunity and differences are what we cling to.

Just listening to politicians talk about each seems to confirm how divided we are.  Politics is not the only place of division.  Sunday morning worship is still one of the most divided hours in the week.  There is Conservative and Liberal options, multi-racial churches are still the exception, family values divide gay from straight, we have hymn churches and contemporary music churches.

This trend extends well beyond church and politics.  Communities divide over school districts, crime rates and ethnicity.  What will it take to get beyond our fear of different?  When I speak to DOOR participants I spend a great deal of time explaining the different is only different.  When we fear different the possibility is created to define different as bad, evil or sinful.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to tame our fear of different.  When we do this a whole new and exciting world of possibilities open up.