Category Archives: labels

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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The Line

When are we allowed to start hating someone? This was the question raised by our speaker. A couple of weeks ago DOOR’s Beloved Community Council met in Chicago. This is an annual gathering that brings together DOOR staff, board members, and participants to talk about diversity.

This year we invited Jeff Chu to be one of our presenters. Jeff’s book Does Jesus Really Love me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was certain to stir up some controversy and uncomfortableness among this group. One of the things that I have learned during my time at DOOR is that all of us have a breaking point, where diversity shifts from something to be admired and sought after to sin. This is especially true among people of faith. Currently sexual orientation is that hot button issue.

I did expect some in the circle to be uncomfortable. What I did not expect was for me to be uncomfortable. Part way through Jeff’s presentation he started talking about Westboro Baptist Church, a church known for its extreme ideologies. While researching for his book, Jeff spent a few days with the church and its leader, Fred Phelps, conducting interviews and trying to understand how they came to believe what they believe. In many ways this is a congregation that unites both the liberal and conservative sides of the church. Everyone is uncomfortable with their tactics and hate messages.

Quite frankly I expected Jeff to join the chorus of people who have condemned this fringe group. Instead Jeff showed a picture of a 6 year old holding a sign that stated God hates gay people. Then he went on to describe this boy, during his time with the church he got to know the boy. This boy was just starting to read; he really didn’t know what he was holding. He only knew the adults in his life approved, like any 6-year-old he obeyed his parents and held the sign.

This is when Jeff asked the question. When is it OK for me to start hating this boy? When he can read? Once he reaches the age of accountability? When he is 20? Is there ever a time when people of faith get a pass on extending grace even to those who would do us harm?

When does someone else’s “diversity” or “difference” give me permission to hate or exclude? Usually at this point someone will respond with “the Bible clearly states,” this in turn becomes a reason to exclude. This quickly becomes an unwinnable argument, not because we are right, but rather because we are stubborn. History tells us that every time people of faith come up with reasons to exclude, eventually they end up seeking forgiveness for their hate. I suggest that Scripture is abundantly clear about our need to love the other, even when they are different. I have yet to hear about people who ask forgiveness for loving too much.

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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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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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Empathy

One of the more frustrating aspects of my day-to-day life is dealing with people who do not see the world as I do.  I realize that this can come off as sounding arrogant, foolish, or ignorant.  Admittedly this is sometimes the case.

Dealing with people whose world is small can be frustrating.  If a person only associates with people who share his or her values is it possible to grow, change, or mature?  Is it even possible to have empathy for someone or something you have no experience with?  I am convinced this is how racism still exists.  If you only hang out with “your own kind” it becomes very easy to demonize anything that is different.

A number of years ago I was feeling pretty good about my theological knowledge.  In the middle of my bragging my friend asked who I was reading, a simple question.  I began to rattle off a long list of names.  Before long he stopped me again and asked whether I noticed anything about my list.  My quick response was that they are all great theologians.  He shook his head and said that I wasn’t even aware.  That impressive list was all white men.  Then he went on to ask where the women and the writers of color were.  In less than two minutes my friend had moved me from pride to embarrassment.

Empathy, deep heartfelt empathy, demands that we open our eyes and hearts to the other, to that which is different.  I am white; I will never fully understand the pain and horror of racism.  Having friends of color, not token but true friends, has helped me develop empathy for the racism they continue to experience on a daily basis.  Today when I read theology for every Anglo author I read I make a point of reading three authors of color.  This practice has done more to shape my understanding of who God is than almost anything else I do.

In the last few years a raging debate has escalated in the church about sexual orientation.  One of my newest practices is to read theology written by my gay brothers and sisters.  Once again I find myself understanding that God is so much more than the white, straight, male world I was born into.

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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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Filter

As a 2nd grader I remember being the last person picked for the spelling bee.  The teacher divided the class into two teams.  The best two spellers were named team captains.  They took turns picking who would be on each team.  I still remember sitting at my desk as everyone else was chosen. I was not going to be chosen; I was simply the last person left.  I had to be picked.

In many ways this was a good life lesson – sometimes you don’t get picked first.

A number of weeks ago someone sent me an article, I can’t remember who wrote it or who sent it, but the theme has stuck with me.  The article asks a question – does the church function like an institution or a city?  According to the author, institutions exist to screen people out – an individual must qualify for a job or a program.  Cities always expand to include everyone – there is space for the homeless, the renter, the homeowner, the uneducated, the educated, the poor, the rich.

It doesn’t take years of theological studies to figure out that Jesus was interested in making space for everyone.   That’s the essential message of John 3:16.  It also does not take many years of study to figure that the historical trajectory of the church has been one of finding ways to screen people out.

What would it mean for the church to renounce the path of exclusion and to become a place of inclusion?  How do we become less white and less male?  What does it mean to invite others into our community?  Inclusion also includes folks who don’t get it – the racist and sexist. What does this look like?

And just how far do we take this diversity thing?  It is one thing to talk about cultural and theological diversity, but quite another thing to talk about sexual orientation.

It is my hope that our future can be one of figuring out how to filter people in.  This will not be easy or without controversy, but it does seem to be the Jesus thing to do.

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Drawing lines

Why is it so important to draw lines in the sand?  Too many people enjoy the illusion that the world can easily be divided into two camps – friend or enemy; republican or democrat; right or wrong; saint or sinner.  It feels good and right to declare that people are either with us or against us.  Why do things like change, diversity and difference scare us so much?  Is it possible that we are hard wired to be afraid of diversity in ethnicity, faith, politics and ideological points of view?

Concepts like middle ground, compromise and grey areas are all too often seen as positions which immature or unenlightened folks take.  If the definition of maturity includes fear of diversity and an unwillingness to change my mind, then I am not interested in maturity.

Could it be that the opposite is true?  Immature people draw lines, never change their mind, and want the world to be full of people who look the same, believe the same and think the same.

Why would anyone vote for a politician who refuses to change their stance?  Why go to a church where the pastor(s) never grow in their understanding of theology, God and what the church is called to?  What fun is it living in a community where everyone looks the same or eats the same food or worships in the same way?

I like the Apostle Paul’s image of the body in 1 Corinthians 12.  We are not all the same.  As a matter of fact it is our differences that make us one!  Embracing differences (diversity) means that any lines we draw should be easily erased and moved because chances are we should not have drawn the line in the first place.

Can you imagine a world where compromise was the norm?  Church would be healthy and healing, politics would be helpful and honest, and battles over religion would be non-existent.

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