Category Archives: being wrong

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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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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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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A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives.

What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

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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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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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Faith and Diversity

For the most part I have chosen not respond to comments made about my blogs. My hope it that comments both positive and negative spur deeper conversation. Some like this policy while others think it is a bad idea. Today I am going to deviate from my policy and reflect on a theme that emerges whenever I write about diversity – women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation.

Interestingly enough people do not challenge the idea that women and race are important when it comes to faith and diversity. It seems that including people of color and women in the kingdom of God and church leadership has become a theological “given.” This is good news!

This is not always the case when I move further down the list. Including immigrants and especially people of various sexual orientations stresses people out. The result of this stress is a movement from acceptance to exclusion. For many the Word of God is clear, and these people are out. Even entertaining the possibility that they might be part of the kingdom of God is viewed as wrong, verging on sin.

Now I am a white straight male; from a certain perspective I have nothing to gai2014-06-26 09.16.06n or lose by including immigrants and gays in the list. (Although I do have to visit the Department of Homeland Security later this week to renew my Green Card.)

I realize that there is a major theological and biblical debate raging about sexual orientation and to a lesser extent immigration. There is much you can read on these topics. The cliff notes version of all of this is that the bible is not nearly as clear as people assume, need, or want it to be.

I am fascinated with is this deep-seated need to have someone or some group to exclude. In many ways this desire goes back to Acts 6 when the Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews could not get along with each other. It almost seems as if people of faith have always needed someone to exclude, and the list is long – women, Jews, people of color, Catholics, protestants, communists, Muslims, insurgents, immigrants, and homosexuals. For every one of the excluded groups or individuals the church has found biblical and theological reasons to place them outside the kingdom of God.

What would happen if the church adopted what I am calling the Mark Twain approach? “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” When Jesus was asked about the important stuff his response was simple and clear: love God, love people. It will not be easy to overcome the need for a “sinful” other. If we can find the courage to move past exclusion I suspect the world and church will be a much more joyful place.

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A white issue

Two years ago I was asked to join the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) advisory board. SCUPE is a ministry committed to educating leaders to revitalize congregations and community organizations to transform cities towards becoming just, inclusive and peaceful communities in accordance with God’s vision for the world. This particular board gathers twice a year to hear reports and dream about future possibilities. During the Advanced Latino/a Theological Education (ALTE) Program report a person made the thought-provoking comment that fundamentalism is a white person issue.

Normally I would have just ignored the statement but Martin Marty, a well know writer on the subject of fundamentalism, was in the room and he didn’t raise any objections. For those of you who have heard the term but are not really sure what fundamentalism is, here is a quick refresher. It stresses the infallibility of Scripture in matters of faith and morals and as a historical record. These are the people who get stressed out about the theory of evolution.

I am not sure that I grew up as a strict fundamentalist, but it certainly shaped my view of God, the Bible, and the kind of choices I needed to make in life. It is never fun to discover that deeply held commitments are more a matter of culture than a universal Christian understanding. Facing this reality is uncomfortable and has the potential to be disruptive. We all want to believe that our Christian understandings are culturally neutral. Quite simply this is not the case, and never has been the case.

Our understandings of God are always culturally influenced. One of the only ways I know of moving beyond my particular culture is to put myself in places where other cultures and understandings have a voice. This isn’t easy. For many of us difference has and continues to equal sin. Allowing for difference can very quickly become uncomfortable. How do people who believe in a literal six day creation worship together with those who understand evolution to be true? Evolution versus creation is child’s play when put alongside questions of sexual orientation. Difference is not easy.

Can you imagine a church where difference is celebrated? Being with a group of believers who hold wildly different understandings of who God is and how God works? Potentially uncomfortable, certainly messy but also freeing.

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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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