Category Archives: confessions of faith

My way or the highway

I am a follower of Jesus, an Executive Director of a national ministry, a student of theology, and an occasional pastor. For the last two decades my underlying motivations and curiosities have revolved around two biblical ideas. The first, Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom of God could be a reality on earth as it is in heaven. And second, that God so loved the world. As it turns out these are attractive ideas and passages for most Christians. It could be argued that the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16 are the most universally recognized parts of scripture.

The attractiveness of these ideas begins to fall apart once we start asking questions. What does the world, and particularly the church, look like when it lives in such a way that heaven and earth are the same? Who is all included in this world that God so loved?

I doubt that it is possible to fully answer these questions in one blog, especially when the church has been trying for 2,000 years. The journey towards loving the world that God loves and living on earth as in heaven can be painful and upsetting, mostly because God doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for our values, rules, or theology.

One of the ways that people of faith have dealt with these passages is to “help” God with the definitions and procedures. It usually goes something like this: yes, God sent God’s Son for the whole world, but if you really want to be included then you need to pray the right prayer, believe like we do, and follow our rules for being a Christian. Living on earth as in heaven means you have to accept “our” understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

I understand why we create rules for living and statements of faith. It helps us to make God more palatable and manageable. Quite frankly it is simpler to be together and worship together if we are all the same. This need to define and contain God is an ancient practice. In John 8 the religious leaders bring a women caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment. Their motives were pure, they wanted a faith that honored God and followed the rules. Jesus just didn’t have the same need for rules designed to control God. For the most part fundamentalism grows out of an honest desire to do right by God. The problem with fundamentalism is that it quickly leads to a “my way or the highway” mentality.

I am part of a denomination that is working through its understanding of sexual orientation. There are those who say if you don’t agree with me, then you are wrong. This is just another way of someone saying I have figured out the box that God belongs in and if you don’t agree with me than you clearly don’t know who God is.

This brings me back to the Kingdom of God on earth and the world that God loves. Whenever people of faith have attempted to define and limit what this is they have gotten themselves in trouble. The truth is that the image of God that we all reflect presents a pretty diverse portrait. Like the apostle Paul, all of us are looking at the Kingdom of God through a glass dimly.

I make no claims to fully understanding who is and is not included, but I suspect that living on earth as it is in heaven means that I need to be open to including, worshipping with, and loving even those with whom I disagree.

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Filed under A New Kind of Christian, being wrong, Beloved Community, Christian, church, church rules, confessions of faith, denominations, distinctives, diversity, God questions, ideologies, kingdom of heaven, Lord's Prayer, ministry, multicultural, political debate, politics, purity, religion, religious system, theology, transforming, Uncategorized, wisdom

Embracing Difference & Green Chili

It has been almost 20 years since I made a significant career and life change. Back in 1994 I was pastoring in a church where almost everyone looked, thought, and believed like me. In many ways this made being a pastor “easy.” For the most part my convictions and stereotypes were identical to the people in my church. We knew which political party to vote for, where to go for lunch, what neighborhoods to live in, and the best school district for our children. We all agreed about right and wrong and had a common understanding of what a sinful lifestyle was.

By the start of 1995 many of my tight definitions and convictions about faith and life began to erode. Moving from a monoculture (suburbs) to a multicultural (city) world began a change. Everything I thought I knew about God and the life of faith was put to the test. In the city I met a God, apparently my God, who wasn’t predicable and certainly had no respect for my well thought through theological conclusions or understandings. It was almost as if God was showing me God’s rebellious and mischievous side.

In the city I found myself working with people who claimed “Christianity” but held convictions that opposed what I thought where no-brainers, the basics. At first this was hard. How could someone claim the same faith as me and vote for the other party, or embrace a lifestyle I understood to be wrong? For a while I put up a fight. When I look back on it now, I sort of thought of myself as an urban martyr for Jesus. I suspect that Jesus was mildly humored by this impulse.

I probably would still hold to the martyr perspective if I hadn’t encountered green chili. Not just any green chili, but Denver west-side green chili. For those of you not from Denver, it would be money well spent to travel to Denver and sample some of this culinary delight. As a Mennonite from Canada my primary way of adding spice to food was to reach for the salt and pepper.

Green chili comes in many varieties and everyone seems to have a unique family recipe. Regardless of the recipe, it is fair to say that green chili is significantly spicier than adding salt and pepper. At first this chili was a shock to my taste buds. From a certain perspective the spiciness was sinful. Over time I came to understand green chili as simply different from the foods I had grown up with. Today this difference has become tasty and enjoyable.

Leaning to embrace and accept different foods has only served to increase my eating enjoyment. I still like the food I grew up with, but learning about other foods has expanded my world. 

I have tried to take this lesson about food into my faith world. Just because someone sees their faith differently than I do, this does not immediately make them sinners. It just means they are different. Learning to embrace and appreciate those differences only serves to expand my understanding of God. In a sense it serves to make my faith spicier. Trust me, spicy is good.

If as people of faith we can learn to table judgment and embrace difference, the Good News of the gospel would actually be Good News.

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How to win a Christian argument

Have you ever found yourself passionately believing something to be true, but unable to convince others of your truth?  Frustrating, isn’t it?  I have found that the frustration level dramatically increases when talking about faith issues.

Faith convictions and beliefs tend to be sacred.  Changing or adjusting these beliefs is often seen as back-sliding or drifting from the truth.  Encountering people of faith who hold different positions while at the same time claiming to be “Christian” can be stressful.  Why can’t they read the bible correctly?

Right now the denomination I am part of is in a fierce debate about ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  There are entire churches and conferences talking about leaving the denomination.  From their perspective a clearly discernable line of sin has been crossed.  There is scripture to back this all up.

Equally as fascinating is the other side.  The church is finally figuring out that all people should be included in the full life of the church.  For them a clear line has also been crossed.  Interestingly it is in the exact opposite direction, the church is moving from sin to righteousness.  Like the other side they have scripture to back up their position.

What I have discovered in the various debates, discussions, and arguments I have been part of is the first person to say something like “Scripture clearly says…” wins the debate. To my embarrassment I need to own that I have used this tactic myself.

I think we use this tactic because as people of faith we desperately want Scripture to speak clearly to the big issues of the day.  I am just old enough to remember when people of faith were convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was Satan’s music, or when drums in church, drinking, and smoking.  I live in Colorado; currently there is a whole lot of conversation about marijuana.  Believe it or not Jesus never addressed the subject of legal pot.  What was he thinking?

Framing theological arguments in such a way that those who don’t agree with us are wrong is probably something people of faith need to avoid.  It embarrasses me that church leaders so quickly move to absolute positions.

Learning to live with difference, even when that difference is seen as sin by some, might just be a sign of Christian maturity.

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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.

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Imperfect

One of my regular prayers to God goes something like this: “I just want one year to be the perfect year, a year when everything would go according to the plan.  All of my personal and work related budgets would be met; a 10% surplus would be a nice bonus!  In addition I would like all the DOOR evaluations to come back with glowing comments and no suggestions for improvement.  My theological reflections and opinions would be received with open arms.  These reflections would be turned into a book which in turn would become a best seller.  My staff would start from the assumption that I could do no wrong. And finally my computer would be free of bugs and viruses.”

God has not granted this prayer request.  I am not perfect, the people around me are not perfect, and it is only on rare occasions that things work according to the plan.  Learning to live with imperfection actually becomes a life skill.  There are even people who tell me that dealing with let-downs and the unexpected is what develops character.  Apparently everything being perfect doesn’t say much about who we are as people; trials, tribulations, and imperfections are the things that make great people.

Here is my question: If this is true for individuals is it also true for the church?  Why is it so important to develop statements of faith that seem to require everyone to think and believe the same way?  Why can’t the church be a little more imperfect?  I am part of Mennonite Church USA.  We are starting to tear apart at the seams around the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  Some people, and I am speaking specifically to those in leadership, believe that unless we can agree on what the Bible says about this subject we cannot worship together.  From my perspective, and I need to own that it is my perspective, this seems like the pinnacle of spiritual immaturity.  It is the imperfection and differences of opinion that create character and integrity.

There is a story in John 8:1-11 about a woman caught in adultery.  The leaders saw this woman’s imperfection but had no ability to see their own imperfection.  Both the leaders and Jesus wanted the same thing- purity.  Their approaches were so different.  The leaders literally wanted to kill any impurity they found.  Jesus wanted everyone to be more reflective about their own status.  Reflection creates a space for difference and difference allows for character development.

If we are serious about our status as the bride of Christ, then let’s become much more comfortable with difference and imperfection; maybe even embrace those who hold positions about theology we radically disagree with.

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Manny’s Story

There are very few things more powerful than someone’s testimony.  This week I want to share with you an article that was written by one of our Discerner’s.  His name is Manny Alvarez and he just completed his third summer with DOOR.

There is something about living in an intentional community in an urban setting that changes the way you look at a city. At times people tend to fear the city and be intimidated by its fast pace. Those that are local have the city in their back yard yet know nothing about the needs of the place they call home. DOOR has changed a lot of my philosophy of how I’ve viewed the city, my city.

Before DOOR I was clueless about the issues affecting the city and when I realized this, I felt embarrassed. I’ve worked at DOOR Denver for the last three summers as a Discern staff leading the Discover groups that came for an urban service experience. The Discern summer staff program has built me up as leader, taught me how to live in a community with others, encouraged me to live in solidarity with others, and helped me get closer to my calling and purpose through discernment.

I’ve learned that someone with everything can have nothing to offer a dying city yet someone with nothing has so much to offer. This summer I worked with people that live homelessly and I did not know I could see a mentor in one of them. Five years ago I was scared of people living homelessly because they were always drunk, at least that was my stereotype. This year I saw something different. I saw the face of God in them. Being a Discerner takes a lot out of you because you are always giving your time and energy to the groups and it can cause you to burn out. It’s the same routine every week and it can get a bit repetitive but every week that I went back to visit my friends from the streets, I was filled up again. My sponge never ran dry and I owe it to the men and women that unfortunately are homeless. They are a part of the city, that city I was so clueless about.

DOOR also helped me learn about gentrification and a single story. Gentra what? Single Story? I could not believe I did not know about these issues before. Neighborhoods are being gentrified and low class families are being driven further away from the city. A lot of it happens to clean up the neighborhoods and to make it less violent but that only moves the problem to another neighborhood and it does not fix it. The single story concept deals with stereotypes and labeling someone as one thing only. For example, all illegal immigrants are Mexicans, which is not always true. I had a lot of single stories about other issues but DOOR has taught me to find two or more stories for every issue or person I come across.

DOOR not only creates leaders but it enhances them. It challenges us to face those issues that we don’t really want to talk about. It gets us out of our comfort zone and allows us to see the face of God in the city. DOOR has helped build my faith to what it is now and has changed my philosophy about the city for the better. It provides a great opportunity for discernment and vocational search to those that are still struggling to find their purpose. It provides an urban experience so those like me can see the other side of the city and the other side of those people who are marginalized, poor, oppressed, and homeless. It is the first step to a solution and if we all took the time to see and hear the misery and cries, the cities around our nation will begin to change. Together we can do anything through Christ. We are all a part of the body of Christ and all serve a purpose. DOOR is the eyes of God who sees humanity has one tribe.

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Filed under Bearing Witness, Beloved Community, Christian, church, church camp, confessions of faith, cultural insensitivity, culture, distinctives, diversity, experiencing god, faith, questions of church, religion, responsibilities

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.

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Silly Questions

May is not an easy month for me. It was in May 2003 that my mother passed away.  Recalling memories of her has become a May ritual for me. One childhood memory that has surfaced this year was a time when my mother, in a fit of frustration, demanded that I stop asking such silly questions.

The other day USA Today ran a story asking if Osama bin Laden was in Hell.  The article goes on to speculate that this question has become a type of litmus test between traditional heaven-and-hell evangelicals and the emerging evangelical movement led by Rob Bell with its tendencies towards universalism.  The traditional argument in its simplest form goes something like this: if God is just, then it is not possible for bin Laden to end up in heaven.

I cannot help but wonder if this debate is a silly one.  After all, trying to figure out where someone else is going to spend eternity is a little like asking if Adam and Eve had belly buttons – a potentially  entertaining discussion but also a little silly.

Why is it so important to condemn someone else to hell?  There is a strange comfort in knowing there are people more sinful than I am.  It is reasonably safe to state that I am not, nor ever will be as sinful as Osama bin Laden was.

Is it possible that condemning someone else to hell is a convenient way to avoid dealing with the stuff in my life?  After all I have never master-minded a terrorist attack or sent someone on a suicide mission – so I can’t be all that bad of a person, right?

In light of what bin Laden has done my judgmentalism, anger and arrogance are just minor offenses that should be overlooked.

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Filed under 9-11, Christian, confessions of faith, distinctives, emergent, Love Wins, religion, Rob Bell, war

Space

Last week I met with a group of church leaders. Near the end of our time together, I asked the following question, “What do you do well?”

One person immediately responded, “We provide breathing space. This is what we do well.”

At first I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t get what was being said. What does breathing space mean?

Luckily I didn’t have to wait long for clarification. Other folks quickly jumped into the conversation.

“I have felt the freedom to be me.”

“People have been patient with me as I have struggled with God’s call on my life.”

“I could be angry with God and wasn’t condemned for feeling this way.”

Hearing stories of how people were given the space to work through their faith without manipulation and condemnation was powerful. Allowing people to truly walk their own faith journey is a rare event in our culture.

We often ask, “But what happens if they come to different conclusions and understandings than me? Or think, “It is important that Christians know the truth and that truth better line up with my truth!”

This is why we have confessions of faith. It gets everyone on the same page. It creates unity.

But I cannot help but wonder if we sometimes confuse uniformity and unity. Do we all have to agree before we can be unified or does something powerful happen when we give people breathing space?

Read Acts 10. Who gets converted: Peter or the Centurion? Maybe conversion is what happens when two people come together, share their faith journeys, and both end up in a place they never expected.

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