Category Archives: A New Kind of Christian

A Parable

I posted this a few years ago, thought it might be worth some updating:

Then I sought the Lord in prayer and asked, “Lord, I want our country to be Christian again, but this can’t happen if we just let anyone in. How much longer should I show hospitality to the stranger?

And Jesus answered, “I tell you hospitality, openness, and welcome, especially to those who are different, is the very essence of what it means to be Christian.”

You see, citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is like a chief who wanted to make sure the people living in his territory belonged. As the chief was going over the pedigree of his servant, it was soon discovered that five generations back the servant’s family came from across the ocean seeking a new start in a land free of religious persecution. Surprised and enraged the chief summoned the servant into his presence. Since the servant could not prove the purity of his citizenship, the chief ordered him deported along with his wife, children, and extended family.

The servant fell on his knees before the chief. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

The chief took pity on his servant, and gave him and his family amnesty.

But when this servant went out, he found a fellow immigrant, who had come from the territory to the south two years ago, hoping to find a way to provide for himself and his family. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “You have no right to be here; your presence is taking away jobs, draining our resources, and trampling on our Christian values.”

His servant fell on his knees. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

But the servant refused. Instead he went off to the local immigration office to report the man and his family who were then deported.

When the chief’s other servants heard what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went to the chief and told him everything that had happened.

Then the chief called the servant in. “You wicked foolish man,” he said, “I gave you amnesty, I gave you a chance, I welcomed you with arms wide open. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy on your fellow immigrant just as I had on you?” In his anger, the chief had this man, and his wife, children, and extended family sent back to the land of their ancestors.

How should we treat today’s refugees and immigrants? Maybe with arms wide open?

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White Privilege

One of my job responsibilities is to have regular check-ins with our City Directors. These calls are usually filled with laughter, frustration, anger, and occasionally the unexpected. This past week the unexpected happened.

We were about 30 minutes into our conversation, when all of a sudden the person on the other end when into a minor panic moment. Like me she was multi-tasking. The call started with her working from home, then she packed up and headed to her car to go to a meeting. In the process she went from talking on her headphones to switching to her car’s Bluetooth system. The crisis happened about 5 minutes into her drive. At first I was worried she had gotten into an accident. This was not the case.

She had forgotten to take out her wallet and put it on the dashboard. Her panic seemed a little unwarranted to me. So in a silly attempt to say “no big deal” I started laughing. For her it was a big deal.  In a moment of grace, on her part, she proceeded to explained things to me. It went something like this:

“Glenn, I am a black woman driving a car, if the police decide to stop me I don’t want them to think that when I reach for my wallet that I am reaching for a gun.”

This staff person is close to my age. Both of us have been driving for 30 plus years. In all of that time I have never worried about where my ID is. To be honest I don’t even panic if I forget my ID at home. Getting a ticket would suck, but I wouldn’t be afraid of the encounter.

For more than 30 years my friend and co-worker has had to think about where her ID is every time she gets into a car. This grows out of a very real concern for her life.

Privilege, particularly white straight male privilege, means that I get to go about my day-to-day life without worry. For the most part I do not need safe places, mostly because the world is my safe place. I don’t always know what to do about my privilege. I didn’t earn it, it simply is. One thing I am slowly learning is to listen to the concerns of my friends of color and those in the GLBTQI community. Their fears are not “boogeyman-ish;” they are real. All you have to do is turn on the news. Somehow I want to find a way to be part of the solution. This is my hope and dream.

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Justice

The other week I attended the Justice Conference in Chicago.  Quite honestly I wasn’t expecting much.  I had signed up months prior and forgotten why. But I had paid the registration fee, so I went.  What I thought was going to be a forgetful conference ended up being more of a revival for my soul.

Justice is one of those biblical concepts that has been used to instill fear.  As a young child I remember going forward at a revival meeting because I didn’t want to face an angry God.  After all, I stole cookies from the downstairs refrigerator and that act was punishable by eternity in hell!  I could deal with my mother’s wooden spoon, but I had no idea how to deal with a God who was a strange and twisted version of Santa Claus, keeping a naughty list that would seal my doom.

As I got older, my understanding of justice began to expand.  I heard Tony Campolo’s sermon about 30,000 children dying every day from preventable issues.  Doing something about this was connected to both justice and my faith.

I have always struggled to get past idea that justice is mostly punitive.  When someone does something wrong, they get caught and pay the price for doing wrong.  This is the idea behind Toby Keith’s anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”: “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, It’s the American way.”  Our enemy did us wrong and justice demands that we reign down terror.

This twisted and misinformed understanding of justice is not healthy.  It has given permission to value some lives less than others.  In the USA we have seen this in the way that black lives are devalued.

When we see justice primarily through the lens of punishment, we completely miss the biblical idea of justice.  The opening speaker at the Justice Conference was Dr. Cornel West. In his address he suggested that justice is what love looks like in public.  Justice has something to do with not only believing but living and acting as if every person, even your enemy, is created in the very image and likeness of God.

A just world is not so much about who is getting punished, but believing that everyone has worth.  It’s not just about reposting “black lives matter” but working towards a society and culture that lives and acts in such a way.  It will mean reexamining our prison industrial complex, rethinking how we fund the public school systems, and calling law enforcement officials to greater accountability.  Justice means moving church out of the building and into the street.

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Diversity, where is the line?

I have always been intrigued by John 3:16.  As a child, the idea that God loved me, my family, friends and neighbors was good news.  Every year during Mission Week I would hear stories and watch slide presentations about how God loved people who lived a long ways away from me.

I’m not sure that I ever said this out loud to anyone, but I always knew that there were people beyond the reach of God’s love.  These people were the big time sinners.  I was pretty sure the rock bands Kiss and Led Zeppelin were included in this list.  Kiss because they were ‘Knights in Satan’s Service’ and Led Zeppelin because playing Stairway to Heaven backwards a subliminal message strong enough steal a person’s soul was inserted.

Over time I became comfortable with the idea that I could define the world that God loved and sent His one and only Son to save.  Although I hadn’t studied the original languages I was reasonably sure that the original Greek allowed for this re-definition of the world God loved.  This understanding served me well through high school, college, and even seminary.

Cracks began to appear in my world view a little over 20 years ago.  I attended a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) gathering in Denver.  John Perkins, the founder, had just written a book emphasizing the three “R’s” of urban ministry – reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation.  It was his thought on reconciliation that challenged me the most.  For Perkins reconciliation had something to do with expanding my concept of the world that God loved.

Again, on paper this sounded good.  There was no question that my ideas of God’s world were filled with all manners of stereotypes and prejudices.  God had much to teach me about race, gender, economics, theology, and national origin.  This journey into a more diverse understanding of God’s world has been both terrifying and liberating.

Sometimes I can relate to the prophet Jonah, sitting on the outskirts of the city, waiting for God to destroy Jonah’s enemy but knowing deep down that God is merciful and forgiving.  Other times it is freeing to not let my faith journey be defined by friends and enemies.

This journey into an ever expanding understanding of the world Jesus died for is not without controversy.  I grew up in a small denomination, so it was somewhat natural to be afraid of people and faith experiences that understood God differently.  When it came to understanding who was and was not included in God’s world I always new there was a place for me, but could not always extend my understanding of grace to those were different.  Especially if I understood that difference to be sin.

In the past few weeks many have witnessed one well-known family asking forgiveness for the inappropriate sexual behavior of one of their children, while at the same time condemning others for their sexual orientation.  Isn’t it interesting that grace and forgiveness is demanded when a wrong is committed by a family member and condemnation is leved for just being different and outside a particular understanding of who God is?

Like me people of faith and the church cannot have it both ways.  We can either have a myopic understanding of God’s world or we can take the more interesting road and assume that the world God loves includes everyone, no exceptions.  Theology, class, gender, orientation, race, nationality, or any other way of dividing we can come up with simply isn’t important to God.

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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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Together

Like most people I am glad the latest election cycle is over. I live in Colorado; we happen to be a swing state. From what I can tell, the primary benefit of this honor is to be inundated with political ads. I mean one right after the other. First candidate A says you shouldn’t vote for candidate B, followed by an ad from candidate B saying you shouldn’t vote for candidate A  Every ad had the same basic message – the other person was always evil, wrong, or sinful.

Truth be told, these political candidates were simply reflecting an emerging way of being together as humans. It goes something like this, “you either agree with me or you are wrong.” And the political world isn’t unique in holding this perspective. People of faith tend to only connect, gather, and worship with others who affirm their particular assumptions and prejudices. This way of living, thinking, and being is dangerous, corrosive, and boring. We need to find new ways to be together. Does it really make us better people if we focus our interactions on those with whom we agree?

It is our differences that make us unique. It is imperative that we find the courage to embrace and even accept those whose world view is unusual. Leaning to celebrate how we are different will make us better people, Christians, and politicians.

I do not know how to fix or change the political world. But I do have hope for the church. Can you imagine attending a church where political, social, and theological differences are embraced? Where a person’s stand on any of the “controversial” issues isn’t a litmus test, but rather a reason to have a voice?

Faith and risk taking are ideas that go hand-in-hand. When people of faith only gather with others who look, believe, and think the same, the gathering becomes something less than church. When Christians divide from each other over theological or social differences it becomes less Christian. As people of faith we are called to become highly comfortable with being highly uncomfortable. This is what it means to be salt and light!

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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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Fatigue

Have you ever found yourself eavesdropping on other people’s conversations? Every once in a while I catch myself doing this. Generally it happens at a coffee shop when the people next to me are chatting a bit too loudly.

It doesn’t always happen at coffee shops. The office is also a fertile location. In the course of a day it is not unusual to hear half an exchange or walk in to the middle of a discussion. Once people realize I am present one of two things happens (a) the topic changes quickly, or (b) the conversation just keeps moving forward. One of the special things about the staff who work for me is that they are about as diverse a group as can be found anywhere. As you might imagine the conversations can become quite animated and intense.

“White people fatigue” is one of those topics that our staff and board members of color talk about on a regular basis. When I first overheard folks talking about this I didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. Mostly I saw it as a way to blow off steam or make a challenging reference simply because I walked in to the conversation. I am slowly coming to see this perspective as erroneous at best and demeaning at worst.

White people fatigue is a real condition. It is time that (we) Anglos begin to own the pain and frustration that is too often visited on our brothers and sisters of color. With this as background, I want to offer some ideas to consider:

  1. When it comes to defining diversity too often it is white people who get to say what diversity is and isn’t. I have found this to be an interesting issue for the more progressive (read liberal) folks. For many reasons, both good and bad, this is the group that has defined the extent and limits of “true diversity” – whether it be about skin color, theology, class, gender, or orientation. As you might imagine this is interestingly ironic. To add even more irony to the situation when people of color do not accept these progressive Anglo ideas as to the nature and extent of diversity, it is people of color get written off as immature or uneducated. This creates fatigue.
  2. The “you’re my best friend” pressure. Being everyone’s best “Hispanic” (or Black, Asian, etc.) friend can be taxing. The truth of the matter is, best friendship takes time, lots of time. When a cross cultural element is added it is probably best to assume that it will take twice as much time. When white folks pressure people of color to be friends, stress and fatigue are natural outcomes.
  3.  The “I get what you are thinking.” Again, really? I have lived in a Hispanic neighborhood for 20 years and attended a Hispanic church for 10. One of the important lessons I have learned is that it is best not to assume anything, particularly that I would understand how and why someone believes and acts the way they do. When we assume that we understand the other, particularly people of color, we disrespect their culture, background, and history. These assumptions create fatigue.
  4.  The pressure to understand popular culture, at least white popular culture. This includes quoting lyrics from current songs to reenacting a scene from The Princess Bride. As Anglos we have the privilege of assuming that everyone else relates to, knows, and appreciates our particular slice of popular culture. Quite simply this is misguided. I don’t know many people of color who fixate on old Seinfeld episodes or current story lines from The Big Bang Theory. It creates fatigue when Anglos expect everyone to understand their particular cultural references but rarely take the time to understand other cultures. When we don’t understand a broader world it demonstrates both privilege and ignorance.
  5. Don’t assume that to be Hispanic (African American, Asian American, etc.) implies that a person holds to a particular set of cultural norms. Expecting a universal Black, Hispanic or Asian “experience” is ignorant and small minded. These types of expectations create fatigue and anger.

What can be done?

  1. Diversity is what its name suggests, a whole bunch of difference. Just because that difference isn’t the kind of difference you approve of doesn’t make it wrong, evil, or less diverse. Don’t think that you have the complete picture of what diversity is and is not.
  2. Don’t assume that friendly equals best friend or even friend. Sometimes friendly is just a way to be polite or a way to avoid having to confront your insensitivity.
  3. Don’t speak for other people. Listen closely to what they have to say. Ask clarifying questions. Allow their story to be their story.
  4. For every movie directed by an Anglo watch two directed by a person of color. Apply this matrix to your TV watching, music choices, and reading. As a side note, living by this standard will reduce both movie and TV viewing.
  5. It is a good idea to start from the supposition that we are all unique children of God. Rather than force people into pre-conceived boxes be surprised by the gifts, talents, and abilities each individual brings to the table.

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Thursday Night

In the parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14) Jesus tells the story of a banquet where no one shows up. Finally out of frustration the host orders the servants out into the roads and lanes to invite anyone without plans for a meal. I am not completely sure who hung out on the streets in Jesus’ day, but I suspect they were people with nowhere better to go. Today we might describe them as poor, homeless, vagrants, and even strangers to avoid.

For the past decade I have been attending a church that lives this parable regularly, especially on Thursday evenings. Prior to attending His Love Fellowship Luke was just telling an interesting story; I never connected it to reality. After all who in their right mind opens their doors to just anyone? The very meaning of the word stranger suggests the idea of unknown or even dangerous. Everything about American culture tells us to avoid anything that could be dangerous. We tell our children to run from strangers. Strangers are not to be trusted.

Every Thursday night my church opens its doors to everyone, even the stranger. They have been doing this for the better part of 20 years. If you were come and visit on Thursday you would be offered a meal, probably smothered in green chili. No questions asked. After supper you would be invited to a bible study where new friends and family would share the good news of the gospel and pray with you. To top everything off, before you left you would be offered an opportunity to visit the food pantry. All of this happens because this is a group of people who take church seriously. They are just naïve enough to act on what Scripture says – to feed the hungry, offer a cup of water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. All of this is simply offered regardless of the person’s social standing, appearance, ability to pay, or past.

Isn’t this what church is supposed to be? A gathering a people who ignore the fears of culture and simply act on the words of Jesus. There are those who might describe this kind of person as a “Red Letter Christian.

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Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.”

Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

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