Category Archives: denominations

Questions and Answers

One of the great privileges of my job is walking with young adults as they process their faith, discern their vocation, and explore what it means to live a life of integrity. As you might expect, this journey is filled with questions. What do I do with the Christian faith that was given to me by my family? Is there a church or faith community that will accept me as I am? Is it possible for the Christian faith connect with my politics and social convictions? What do I do with politicians who came to be pro-life and then advocate for carpet bombing anyone who is declared an enemy? Aren’t issues like climate change, food-justice, police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, immigration reform, and race deeply Christian issues? If so, why don’t we hear about this from the pulpit?

This is just a small sampling of the questions my staff and I face on a regular basis. There is never an easy or simple response. I worry that too many church leaders have spent too much time trying to simplify Christianity. As a church leader I understand this temptation. I am not sure if Christianity was ever meant to be simple.

As humans we are complex. We have the capacity to be brilliant and foolish in the same moment. We know how to sacrifice and how to be selfish simultaneously. We can open our pocketbooks for starving children around the world and callously watch the evening news as children died while trying to escape terror and war. We know how to forgive and hold grudges in the same moment.

When young adults come to me complaining about the church, people of faith, and the hypocrisy, I don’t move into defensive mode. When I am confronted by hypocrisy in my life it can either make me angry and resentful or become space of growth.

If the church is going to survive and play an important role for the emerging generation of adults it will have to confront its own hypocrisy. If done well the church will survive and remain a critical voice in a culture looking for moral leadership.

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Filed under being wrong, Christian, denominations, diversity, DOOR, Leadership, Uncategorized

23 years of being pushed, challenged, and prodded

November is an important month for me. It is my New Year. In August of 1994 I joined the ranks of the unemployed. Three months earlier I had submitted a resignation letter to the church where I was working. As I look back on that time it seems clear now I wasn’t being very strategic. My wife was pregnant with our first child, due in September. She was employed, so we would find a way to figure things out. Finances would be tight but we would make it. That plan made sense until September when Rita received notice that she was going to be laid off.

By October we were new parents of a baby boy and unemployed. It was a stressful time. On November 1, 1994 the local DOOR board hired me as the new DOOR Denver director. I never imagined staying at DOOR for more than 5-7 years. Here I am 23 years later, still at DOOR. Both our boys have only known me as a dad who works for DOOR.

For me November is a month of reflection and evaluation. When I look back over the two plus decades I have been at DOOR there are a number of reasons why I have stuck around.

I get to work with a group of people who are always challenging me to reexamine my stereotypes and religious prejudices. DOOR’s staff and board leadership come from all kinds of backgrounds. We have the “decent and in order” Presbyterians, the peaceful Mennonites, a Quaker or two, a few Pentecostals, some inspired Lutherans, and more than a few folks just trying to figure out where or if they fit into the denominational landscape. That is only one way to describe DOOR. We are women and men; Americans and immigrants; theologians and artists; gay and straight. We also hold many racial identities- African American, White, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Caribbean, and Asian.

One of the major benefits of working in a diverse environment is the inherent permission to examine, reevaluate, and question my faith perspective. Prior to DOOR, I was a pastor. As a pastor one of the unwritten requirements is to have a solid unshakable faith. While other people could question God, it was my job to be the steady reassuring voice. Over time this began to destroy me. My primary reason for resigning in 1994 was a complete loss of faith in God.

I came to DOOR because I needed a job and the bills needed to be paid. What I have received has been so much more than a source of income for my bills. DOOR became a place where God became real. There is a freedom in pursuing a faith and a God who has no respect for my stereotypes. Working alongside people who do church differently (read: anyone who is not Mennonite) has been enlightening. Praying, laughing, and crying with people of different sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, and theological perspectives is a contestant reminder that at best I see through a glass dimly.

For too long people of faith have confused “one way” with “everyone better go the same way.” What I have begun to uncover after 23 years is that each of us is a unique individual made in the very image and likeness of God. And God, in God’s grace and mercy, has helped me to walk my path, my one way.

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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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Looking for Grace

Later this week Mountain States Mennonite Conference, the conference I am part of, will be hosting its annual assembly. This year’s assembly will be closely watched by Mennonites from across the USA and around the world. Depending on who you ask we are either prophetically leading the church to a new reality or we have come as close as a conference can get to committing the ultimate sin. In February 2014 we licensed an openly gay pastor. In the Mennonite world licensing is the first step on the path to ordination.

This decision has pushed our conference to the very center of the Mennonite world. Whether you are a Mennonite of not, the discussion itself is familiar.

On the conservative side it goes something like this:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.”

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

And on the more liberal side we hear:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.” (I know, both sides claim this one.)

“God created us with particular orientations and desires; let’s celebrate and support these differences.”

“Love is the only biblical orientation.”

So there is a sense in which everyone is claiming to have the moral high ground. Like everyone else I have a bias in this discussion. That is not what I want to talk about.

Is there a way for everyone to back off a bit? I was part of one discussion where someone was so worked up that they began to tap me on the chest with their fingers. Quite frankly once we achieve that level of anger, it is safe to say that the conversation is no longer about the Christian faith.

I have heard people say that more often than not conversations about orientation and Christian faith quickly descend into irrationality. An irrational conversation is frustrating for everyone.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to choose grace over the need to be right. Back when I was in college the popular book Evidence Demands a Verdict was making the rounds. The idea behind this book was to prove to everyone who didn’t hold a certain set of convictions and beliefs about the bible that they were wrong. It took years for me to learn that arguing people to my convictions and beliefs rarely works.

What I have discovered in the last 20 years is that choosing grace is a much better approach. One, it leaves space for me to be wrong and two, it allows the other to be wrong! When we choose grace then it becomes possible to live and worship with those who are different.

There are many people predicting that the Mennonite Church USA is going to split over the sexual orientation controversy. I hope our leaders and the rest of us find the courage to be graceful with each other. It will not always be comfortable or easy, but it might be the most Christian decision we can make.

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History

The other week I was at a conference. One of the speakers challenged us as church leaders to “be on the right side of history.” He then went on to reference women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. I have been thinking about his challenge ever since. On one hand I like the idea of the church being prophetic, creating spaces for those who have been excluded from the table. From a distance it seems heroic.

There is also that other hand. I am part of a church tradition that was once referred to as the “radical reformation,” the Anabaptists. Five hundred years ago one of the few things that the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could agree on was that the Anabaptists should be burned at the stake. Looking back on that period, it is now easy to say that the Anabaptists were on the right side of history. Their emphasis on community, non-violence, and the priesthood of all believers are ideas that have gone mainstream and as a result have been accepted in the church at large.

The result of this is that we have become less radical and more normalized. And normalization has led to institutionalism. This in turn has led to maintaining the status quo (the institution). Although it is true that institutions create stability and help to maintain order, the downside is they do this by resisting change. This resistance can and does lead to being on the wrong side of history.

Even my radical tradition was, and still is among some groups, resistant to inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. Our acculturation has occasionally led to an unwelcoming attitude towards the immigrant. Currently we are either ignoring the sexual orientation debate or threatening to let it tear the church apart.

You see, there is a cost for being on the right side of history, especially in the church. Confronting injustice more often than not leads to misunderstanding and sometimes goes all the way to charges of heresy. Being thrown out of the church for “not holding the correct beliefs” is not fun.

I realize that it is not easy to go to church with people whose beliefs are radically different than the traditional way. If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different. It is the only way we can find our way back to the right side of history.

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Filed under Bearing Witness, Christian, church rules, community, denominations, distinctives, diversity, faith, immigration, mennonite, ministry, movement, multicultural, racism, racist, religion, religious system, theology

A glimpse into the program I oversee

Brent Davis is a Dweller in our DOOR Hollywood program. Over the last few weeks he took it upon himself to capture the thoughts of recent Discover participants while they stayed at our community house.  It’s a huge blessing, and a fun way to show how God is nudging people to break down single stories in Hollywood through DOOR.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np_JZfxfg38

 

If you are interested in participating in in DOOR, please check out our website – www.DOORnetwork.org

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Filed under A New Kind of Christian, atlanta, Christian, culture, denominations, experiencing god, faith, kingdom of heaven, label, labels, Mission, multicultural, mutuality, relationship, religion, religious system, service, service to others, short-term mission, theology, transforming, urban tour

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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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.”

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Thoughts on immigration

“Mr. Obama, tear down this wall.”

Can you imagine Enrique Peña Nieto, the 57th President of Mexico, giving this speech?  How would Americans react?  Don’t we have the right and responsibility to protect our land?  To keep our people safe from invaders who would take our jobs and abuse our social systems?

I am old enough to remember when in 1987 then President Regan issued a similar challenge to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall.  Interestingly not many folks took notice when the speech was first delivered; in time this became the prophetic moment of the Regan Presidency.  Within a few years the wall came down and western style freedom spread like wildfire through much of Eastern Europe.

Last week Mennonites from all over the USA gathered in Phoenix, AZ to discuss where they are as a denomination and where they are headed.  The theme was “Citizens of God’s Kingdom.”  I believe that this theme also has the possibility of being a prophetic moment, not only in the life of the Mennonite Church but also in the life of the American Church.  It was a theme which affirmed citizenship in the kingdom of God and the notion that Christianity and the Christian community crosses all borders.

Without a doubt immigration is a controversial political issue.  I sort-of get why, but as a Christian matter I am not sure that there is much controversy.  After all, Jesus calls us to a new understanding of family.  Blood lines no longer define relations.  It possible to say, “Our unity in Jesus trumps blood, borders and anything that would separate us from one another.”  As we all know families need to connect, get together, and fellowship over meals.  Anything, including politics, which prevents this from happening, needs to be called out.

So maybe it is time for a new speech, this time from people of faith – “Mr. Obama tear down that wall.”

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