Category Archives: faith

BMWs, Whiteness, and my Christian Faith

As a young seminary student in the late 1980’s I interned at the amazing United Methodist Church in Clovis, California. For three years this church made space for me, treated both my wife and me like family, and allowed me to grow as a leader. One of my first assignments was to lead the young married bible study. We met every Thursday in one couple’s home. One of our fist decisions was to choose a book or theme. After much discussion we all agreed that we would work through Tony Campolo’s book 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. The study was going along well until week seven when we explored the chapter “You Cannot be a Christian and Own a BMW.” At least one of the couples in our group owned a BMW. It would be fair to say that the evening did not go well for me.

I have reflected on that evening often over the years. If I were to lead that study again, I wouldn’t focus on BMWs. For Campolo, the BMW was a metaphor for a much larger concern. As Christians, how and where we spend our money has both moral and ethical implications. The neighborhood you choose to live in, the size of house you purchase, where you invest your retirement money, and, yes, the car you choose to purchase are not morally neutral choices.

Last Sunday I experienced another BMW type of moment. During the adult Sunday school hour our speaker asserted that “you cannot be white and a Christian.” At this point it is important to let you know that 90% of the folks in the room were white. After the initial shock wore off he went on to say, “If all you are doing is focusing on the color of your skin then you are missing my point.” Just like Campolo’s BMWs this speaker, was using “white” in a metaphorical way.

White Christianity is a faith that allows a person to talk about making things great again. It is a lens that provides a rose colored perspective of our shared history. It is choosing not to see how white Christian faith and slavery, Jim Crow, sexism, homophobia, and segregation are all part of “great again.”

White Christianity allows Christian politicians to advocate for carpet bombing the enemy while claiming to be pro-life.

White Christianity has the power to marginalize and dilute movements, by responding to Black Lives Matter with slogans like All Lives Matter.

White Christianity creates a space to claim the authority and inerrancy of scripture until it becomes inconvenient. Turning the other cheek and welcoming the stranger don’t apply when the stranger is Muslim, gay, a Democrat, or a Republican.

White Christianity is not so much about the color of my skin as it is about the power I choose to access and weld because of my skin color. The hard work that those of us with access to white Christianity are tasked with is to unburden ourselves from the need to reshape Christianity into a faith that only serves our needs. One of the more powerful ideas within Christianity is surrender. As we do the hard work of surrendering white Christianity and leaving it at the foot of the cross, something Christ-like will take its place.

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Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.

I am not the biggest fan of Christian music, but this song always manages to stir my soul at a deep level. I like the idea of Amazing Grace. Or to put it more honestly, I need Amazing Grace in my life. I half-jokingly shared with a co-worker that I start and end every day with, “I sorry, please forgive me.” If there was ever an award for offending people I think it would go to me. What really gets me is that I am not terribly intentional or pre-meditated about offending others, this ability just seems to come naturally. I wish I could describe how many evenings I go to bed desiring a do-over for the day or week. That is not how life works. So I find myself in constant need of forgiveness and grace.

Lately I have been challenged to think about Amazing Grace as it applies to others, particularly when someone has hurt me. I know that I am a wretch and I need a God who finds me and heals me from my blindness. So why is it that I have such a tough time dealing with the wretchedness, lostness, and blindness of others?

There is a strange hypocrisy that allows for grace in my life and demands perfection in the lives of others. The honest truth is that I do not like being hurt or disappointed by others.

According to the church calendar we are in the season of Lent, a time of repentance, fasting, and preparation for Easter. It is not uncommon for people to give up something during Lent. This year I want to give up my need to judge and condemn others. I want to find ways to make Amazing Grace accessible even to those who have hurt me.

Maybe this is the point of Easter and of the Christian faith – forgiving and loving those who have hurt us deeply.

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Beautifully Complicated

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

Abortion stops a beating heart

You will die, then meet Jesus

Where will you go when you die?

Jesus is real

Smile, your mom chose life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hangover

“When they go low, we go high.”

Nice words, but this morning they seem a little too optimistic. Here in the United States of America, going low won the day and the next four years.

We just elected a president who started his campaign by describing an entire people group as rapists, thieves, and drug dealers. Over the course of his candidacy he made it OK to objectify women thereby creating moral space for misogyny. Now he is calling us to unite, to come together as one. How does this even happen? I don’t even know how to approach my fellow believers who justified their vote by saying, “well he’s a baby Christian.”

I work for organization that has hired Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, immigrants, and people from the GLBTQI community. They are terrified and not figuratively. The fear is real; it is based on actions and statements made by the candidate. Their very humanity and lives have been brought into question.

I don’t know how to come together. How do you hold hands and sing Kumbaya with someone who denies your very right to exist?

Where are the people of God in all of this? Where is the church?

Too many church leaders, who tend to look like me, white and male, have sacrificed the gospel of Jesus for a shot at power and dominance. The best way to do this was to rewrite Scripture so that the only things that mattered were prayer in school, abortion, and homosexuality. Loving God and loving people have become side issues. As long as we have someone in our camp who hates who we hate, then we can look past the misogyny, the racism, the sexism, and the fear mongering. All of this has brought us to today, November 9, 2016.

I do not know what the future holds; today I am pretty pessimistic. But maybe it is time to remember that people of faith have always been most effective and prophetic when they find themselves judged, misunderstood and in the minority.

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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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Service or Social Justice?

There is nothing quite as inspiring as morning coffee, toast with honey and peanut butter, and conversation with a good friend. This past week, all of this fell into place during a trip to Chicago. The conversation started innocently enough. I asked about a conference my friend had attended. It was clear that he was not impressed. According to him the theme was justice but all they could focus on was service.

I must admit that initially I did not understand his point. In my mind service and justice might not be exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. To put it mildly, I got schooled.

For him service, although important and needed, is only a Band-Aid. For example we need people to help out and serve at after school programs, foodbanks, drug rehabilitation programs, day cares, drop-in centers, and homeless shelters. This list is only a start. It is the opportunity to serve at various helping agencies and social service programs that has been at the heart and soul of what DOOR programing offers.

In my mind service was a pretty important priority for Jesus as well. So I wasn’t understanding the frustration.

Then he made the transition. Service is what we do to help folks who have been left behind by a system that doesn’t care. There is a sense in which service makes me, the service provider, feel better about myself, my life, and my privilege. And it provides some temporary relief for those who have been abused and treated unfairly by the system.

The work of justice asks us to challenge, change, deconstruct, and rebuild the system. Justice work asks questions about fair wages, access to health care, and housing costs. It is concerned about affordable childcare and quality education for all. It examines how people in power wield their power and demands that no one be judged or treated differently because of where they live, the color of their skin, or their religion or orientation. Working towards justice requires that we embrace the complexity of the world we live in.

There is a tendency among people of faith to keep things simple. It is relatively easy to feed people or offer after school tutoring. It is quite another thing to make changes to assure quality education for all children.

This summer our Denver program eliminated one of its service days and replaced it with a gentrification tour. During this tour our groups are exposed to the realities of gentrification on the Westside of Denver. Many of our participants appreciate being asked to think about the injustices that come with gentrification. There is also a growing segment of folks who are horrified that we would expose good people who came to do service to issues of justice.

I am grateful for a breakfast and conversation that satisfied my stomach and challenged my soul. Could it be possible that service without justice is just self-serving?

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Empathy

In a normal year I like to watch the news and I especially like the political round tables. Lately I have found myself switching channels. Debates seem to be less about ideas and more about bullying. A few weeks ago I watched a debate between some Republican and Democratic pundits. I was intrigued by the Republican who attended a United Church of Christ congregation known for being very progressive. Before long I was both disappointed and sucked in. This man was railing against his church. The Sunday before his pastor had said something about white people being racist, simply because they are white. This is not an unusual claim and from my perspective is also correct.

Whenever I am in conversations where this is brought up the room either gets deftly silent or a slow defensive anger begins to grow. Either way the white men and women in the room do not react well to be called “racist.” Their responses to this take a number of approaches. There is the, “I judge people by how they treat me, not their skin color.” Or the, “I have never said a racist thing in my life.” There is also the friend approach, “I have friends of color, they have never called be racist.” My personal favorite, “I voted for Obama.” If you have been in one of these discussions chances are you could add many more responses. The point to all these responses has something to do with never having joined a hate group or used racist language. From a certain perspective they have move to a place beyond racism.

As I have thought about that pundit and reflected about conversations I have been part of, I wonder if what many white people are lacking is empathy. According to Google, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  More often than not privilege and power becomes a barrier to empathy.

White privilege affords me the freedom to only understand my world, my context, my feelings, my Christian values, and my responses. And all of these “my’s” get to be considered the standard of how everyone else should respond.

So when a person, particularly a person in power, says “I don’t judge people until I know their character,” that says something about privilege. It assumes that the other person will treat me with enough respect so that I don’t have to run in fear. My brothers and sisters of color do not have this privilege. All too often they are judged simply because of the color of their skin.

As a white person I get all the privileges of being white. My world view is the standard. My Christian faith is correct. My freedoms are the first to be preserved. Living in this world means that I benefit from structures designed to make my life better at the cost of making things more difficult for people of color. This is racist.

Changing this system, working towards a world where people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin will take a whole lot of work. A good first step is recognizing that “Black Lives Matter.”

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Safety – 2016

If you are a regular follower of my blog, you already know that one of our Discern staff was involved in a shooting last week. One of my first responses was to send out a prayer request and write a blog to tell the story and update everyone. None of this is unusual in the life of DOOR. When we need prayer, we ask. The support has been incredible. There is nothing like knowing people from around North America are praying.

There is another side to being so public about dramatic events in the life of DOOR. People who are getting ready to participate in our Chicago program are also reading these updates. This results in phone calls. Although the question comes in different forms, they all boil down to this – is your program safe for our youth?

I spent 15 years as a youth worker. So I am familiar with the questions parents and concerned leaders ask. My regular response is, “DOOR has been around for 30 years and we have yet to send someone to the hospital because of an interaction with the local community.” It is not uncommon for participants to visit the hospital because of altitude sickness (a Denver issue) or because someone slipped and fell. At DOOR we take the safety of our participants very seriously and do everything in our power to avoid a crisis.

The more theological side of me always wonders about the safety questions. I am not sure that Jesus ever said that Christianity offered a life of safety. Jesus did, however, talk about cross bearing.

This time the safety question has taken on a new emotion. You see, my oldest son, Kyle, is serving as a Dweller in Chicago. So when I was asked about safety it wasn’t a theoretical question. My wife and I literally have our flesh and blood on the ground and in the middle of the question. So, is it safe? I can say without hesitation that I unequivocally trust our staff with the well-being of my children (the other son is serving in Miami) and all the DOOR participants across all of our programing.

At its best a DOOR experience will change your life. Mikey and the rest of our Discerners are real people who are faced with challenges from racism to violence at a much higher rate than most of us. Participating in DOOR provides a space to give witness to these realities and then a challenge to go home and work for real change.

An update on Mikey: Anthony is healing and possibly going home this week. Mikey and the rest of the Discerners are doing well but it was evident from some art therapy that they are feeling heavy around this issue of gun violence and how it impacts them every day. One of DOOR’s unplanned costs is in the area of mental health. We would like to provide Discerners like Mikey with the opportunity to see a therapist. As we all know mental and emotional healing is part of the journey towards wholeness. If you would like to contribute and support the mental health needs of our staff would have faced violence please donate:

Make checks payable to DOOR and write “Health and Healing Fund” in the memo line. Mail to 430 W 9th Ave, Denver CO 80204.

Donate online at www.doornetwork.org/donate. Indicate the donation is for the “Health and Healing Fund” in the donation designation field.

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A time to weep

In Romans 12:15 the Apostle Paul calls us to, “weep with those who weep.” Like many I first heard about the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida Sunday morning as I got ready for church. 50 people killed and 53 others injured. The worst domestic act of terror since 9-11. This is a time to weep. 50 people, 49 victims and 1 hated filled perpetrator, each one created in the very image and likeness of God, gone. This is the kind of stuff that breaks God’s heart. Then to find out the shooter was acting as both judge and jury towards our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, added an additional level of pain to an already heart-rending day.

If there was ever a time for people of faith to stand shoulder to shoulder, this was it. Sunday was a day when every worshipper in every church, mosque, and temple needed to stop, pray, and mourn.

Now, a few days after, I am also bothered by a conspicuous silence by some in the faith community; the leaders, pastors, and lay people who are uncomfortable. Without a doubt this is a moment to lay aside our theological and political differences and stand together. Our common humanity negates any theological, religious, lifestyle, or political differences we might harbor.

If people of faith cannot find a way to stand together and be present, supportive, loving, and praying, our faith really doesn’t have much significance.

My role at DOOR affords me a tremendous amount of contact with young people. One of their major frustrations with the church and people of faith is hypocrisy. They hear sermons about a loving God, then watch their leaders condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They are told about a pro-life God, then instructed to buy guns to protect themselves. They hear the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,” and are then told to hate the gays, the Muslims, and anyone who doesn’t respect our way of life.

I am tired of religious expressions that are constantly looking for ways to exclude, hate, and judge. I claim a faith that rejoices with those who rejoice, mourns with those who mourn, and steadfastly believes that everyone is created in the image of God.

Today I stand with Orlando, Florida. Today I stand with all my brothers and sisters who have been judged. Today I choose to believe that love wins and hate loses.

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Leadership 2016

One of the great permissions of the New Year is the opportunity to hit a reset button, to start over with a clean slate. For the past 21 years I have given leadership to DOOR. I must admit that in the early years I was the only employee. Being in charge of myself had its share of complications and frustrations, but ultimately it was a manageable situation.

Today DOOR is an organization spread across five states employing 11 full-time staff. We host participants from 20+ denominational traditions as well as non-denomination and non-faith backgrounds. We are accountable to two denominational partners – Mennonite Church USA and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Beyond this each DOOR city has its own local board responsible for developing a unique vision for ministry in its particular location. A little over 10 years ago we formed a Beloved Community Council which was charged with expanding our understanding of diversity.

In my early 20’s I dreamed about being a leader. For me leadership had something to do with other people getting behind me and supporting my great ideas, thoughts, and plans. Somehow leadership and benevolent dictatorship were related. Just writing this paragraph makes me laugh, mostly with embarrassment.

Below are four lessons I have learned about leadership in 2016. None of these lessons have come easily or without pain. (It is important to note that I have never been a leader in the political, for-profit, or secular world.  However I still suspect that some of this will apply.)

  1. A leader is someone who is willing to be wrong. I came to DOOR with my ideas about urban ministry, poverty, racism, sexism, etc. In almost every case my initial prejudices were wrong. 20 years ago urban ministry was about helping people become “better.” It has taken years to understand that for ministry to be authentic it must be mutual.
  2. A leader is someone who is willing to flip-flop on issues. In certain Christian circles people like to talk about serving a God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Quite often this idea is used as a reason for not changing personal beliefs. I agree that God is unchanging, but I humbly suggest that our understanding of who God is needs to be more flexible. I came to DOOR out of a particular tradition and context. These things shaped my understanding of God, ministry, and leadership. As I started meeting people who came out of different traditions and contexts it quickly became apparent that my understanding of God needed to change.
  3. A leader is someone who is willing to work in chaos. Bringing together people with diverse experiences and ideas can be very unsettling. In Christian circles when someone doesn’t believe the same as me then it is easiest to declare the difference as sin. This creates division. Allowing space for difference can feel very chaotic. Those who can work and live within great difference are the kind of leaders we need in 2016.
  4. Finally, leaders are people who inspire and create space for those around them to be the people God created them to be. This requires a willingness to be wrong, flip-flop, and become comfortable with chaos.

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