Category Archives: God questions

Hypocrisy

This past week I have been reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. His story is a gripping and powerful indictment of slavery in America. What has struck me over and over was the deep collusion between Christianity and slavery. Douglass relates a story about the conversion of his master:

“In August 1832, my Master attended a Methodist Camp meeting… and there experienced religion. I indulged in the faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves…If it had any effect on his character, it made more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believed him to be a much worse man after his conversion than before.” (Chapter 9)

Douglass also describes two pastors who prayed, held revivals, and felt it their duty to occasionally whip a slave to remind him of his master’s authority. One minister went so far as to whip slaves in advance of deserving it. These were people of faith, Christians, the same label I claim for myself. What was it that allowed people of faith, Christians, to participate in and justify slavery?

During slavery Christians became very good at molding scripture to fit their particular world view. They specialized in using passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, and 1 Peter 2:18-20. All of these passages say something about salves obeying their masters. These scriptures, when taken out of context, allowed white Christian slave owners to justify and maintain a system that denied the humanity and dignity of black people.

In my more optimistic moments I would like to think that we have grown beyond the narrow interpretations of the Bible that create spaces to deny the humanity of others. It is true that the vast majority of people who claim the label “Christian” would agree that slavery in all its forms is simply wrong and unbiblical.

I work with young adults and am constantly encouraging them to connect to a local church. By far the number one pushback I hear is that “the church is full of hypocrites.” They are tired of the Americanized versions of Christianity that seem to reduce everything to abortion and homosexuality. Once again, people of faith are molding the Bible into their particular worldview.

What about Jesus’ words to love our neighbor, including our gay and Muslim brothers and sisters? Or Jesus’ thoughts about welcoming the stranger, including those who have come to our country and do not have the correct paperwork? Or Jesus’ words about serving two masters? Is it even possible to serve both God and country?

Taking the words of Jesus seriously is never simple. We do not all see, interpret, or understand in the same way. Our family, cultural, and national backgrounds shape our view of God. It is not possible to understand God apart from what we all bring to the table.

A number of years ago a friend suggested to me that the only way to get past hypocrisy was to hold on to the possibility that I might be wrong and to hold tight to the idea that everyone is created in the very image and likeness of God.

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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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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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My Son’s Faith

As a parent one of my greatest desires is for my children to become thoughtful adults. I want them to have a strong faith, a faith they can own for themselves, and a faith that will help them navigate life’s obstacles.

Last week my youngest son called me. He had a theological question. For those of you who do not know me well I am a self-described theological nerd. So being asked to help my son process a theological question sent my heart aflutter!

He was writing a response to someone’s statement about Ephesians 5:22 where Paul says, “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” According to his fellow classmate this verse was clear proof that the church should reject the temptation to allow women to be leaders in the church or family.

We talked for about 30 minutes. Then he said, “Dad, give me some time to think a write.” Here is his response:

I think the relationship between Christ and the church is a relationship about mutuality. Christ is always inviting people to himself. The choice to follow is always on the individual. To assume “authority” means dictatorship is a misunderstanding of both Paul and Jesus. Jesus is not the churches dictator not is the man ever called to be a dictator.

If we are serious about reflecting Christ in marriage than it should be a relationship where both parties have an equal say in what goes on. Christian relationships whether in the church, the context of marriage, or peers should always be mutual and invitational.

If a person is going to read Paul than read all of Paul! It doesn’t take long to discover that there are contradictions all over the place. In Ephesians Paul talks about women submitting to husbands but in Galatians Paul claims that there is no male or female in Christ and that we’re all equal so how then does that fit in?

As people studying theology we can’t just look at one verse and assume that we know what its saying. Look at everything, where was Paul and why did he write those things? Paul was not writing to CBC students for intro to Christian theology, 2017. Christ certainly should have authority over our lives and influence the way we do things and decisions we make, but that’s just it, Jesus was about love and caring fellow humans not having dominant authority.

Christ invites us into relationship of choice and mutuality and that ought to be how the marriages we enter in reflect.

When it comes to the topic of women in leadership I believe we have been living in a society where the male bias has dominated for far too long. God is not just father but also mother. Her love extends to everyone and I believe She is changing the world to a place where women need to hold just as many leadership positions as men do and the idea that there needs to be a “man” of the house is passing way. Some of the most brilliant pastors I know are women and I wish for a world where there’s more of that.

As have reflected on this conversation, it began to dawn on me how significant his DOOR experiences had been, particularly his Dwell year in Miami. For Quinten his time as a Dweller gave him a space to work out his faith for himself.

If you are a parent, grandparent, or mentor to a young adult reading this- know that a gap-year away from college and home may be the greatest gift you can give to your young adult.

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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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Individual or Community

There are moments in my life that I remember with amazing clarity. One of these happened in 10th grade. An evangelist from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had come to town. This was such a big event in our small town that the local churches had to rent the high school gymnasium. Wednesday was “youth night,” which meant no hymns. A night of contemporary Christian music followed by a sermon for young people.

I still remember Mrs. Davis approaching David and me before the service began. Apparently God had spoken to her and we were supposed to go forward at the end of the service. She then proceeded to lead David and me to the second row. To this day I cannot recall anything about the service other than when the preacher asked the congregation to sing “Just as I am.” For three verses Mrs. Davis stared at us; by the fourth I went forward. Eventually the preacher called the spiritual counselors forward. Soon there was a hand on my back and we were lead into a special room just off the gymnasium. The walk was excruciatingly long. I wasn’t quite sure why I went forward, other than to avoid the wrath of Mrs. Davis.

Once we were in the room I sat across from my counselor. He asked why I came forward; again, I cannot recall what I said. The end result was that I heard about four spiritual laws and prayed for Jesus to forgive my sins.

That night shaped my understanding of faith and Jesus. Christianity had something to do with my sin life. If I accepted Jesus, then I would be made clean and could spend eternity in heaven. This idea was and still is comforting. To know that God desires to forgive my sins is life-giving and freeing. To this day I find hope in this message.

As I grew beyond 10th grade this understanding of sin and salvation began to feel incomplete and small. There is a significant element to sin that is structural. And the “I just need to confess my sin to Jesus” approach doesn’t adequately address this.

Racism doesn’t just come forward at church, pray a prayer, and go away. Corporate greed that has decimated family farms, emptied retirement accounts, charged outrageous interest rates, and chosen profits over health care doesn’t disappear after a prayer.

More often than not it seems like the church has turned its back on structural sin. It is easier to have a gospel that is only me and Jesus. Focusing on structures is hard work. It will disrupt our lives, interfere with our comfort, and push our faith out of the church and on to the street.

Jesus came for humanity, not just the individual. Our Holy Scriptures are about the people of God. Justice isn’t just for me, it is for all. The church needs to be about revival for all and prophetically confronting sin at every level.

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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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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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Progress – yes and no

For me October is always a month of reflection; by the end of this month I will have completed 20 years at DOOR.

My conference minister regularly reminds me that people and institutions become what they pay attention to. It was December 2004 when I began paying attention to something different. In many ways this something different was and is tied to the words in Jesus’ prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The journey began in 2003. When recruiting for a new Denver City Director there were no applications from people of color; the scenario repeated in the search for a new Chicago City Director a year later. In both cases extremely well qualified individuals were hired. But what did it say about DOOR and our commitments to diversity that we were unable to attract even a single candidate of color for these positions?

If DOOR was going to become a “multi” ministry, we were going to have to begin paying attention to different things. With a great deal of naiveté I wrote the following reflection/vision statement:

 As we think about DOOR in 10 years, part of that dream includes a transformation of the ethnic make-up of our City Directors. We are not saying it is wrong to hire Anglos, nor do we want to fire any of our current staff. Our current City Directors are some of the finest and brightest people with whom one could ever hope to work. We do, however, want to think about how and with whom we replace outgoing City Directors.

As DOOR looks down the road 10 years, it is our desire to develop a plan that would enable us to identify, train and hire City Directors who are from the urban minority community. It is important to recognize that for a plan like this to be successful our current set of City Directors will have to own this vision.

The goal was that by 2014, 51% of full-time DOOR staff would come from the urban minority community.

Well, its 2014, how did we do? Today, ten years later, 50% of our full-time staff and 72% of our summer Discerners are persons of color, and our local boards are no longer dominated by white men. The changes at DOOR are real; however we still have much to learn.

You see, in 2004 we were primarily thinking about diversity through the lens of race. The other forms of diversity – theology, class, age, orientation, and gender- were always important, but there was a sense in which these secondary diversity issues. In the last few years it has become increasingly clear that to limit “diversity” to one particular aspect, in DOOR’s case “color,” leads to an incomplete and potentially twisted understanding of the kingdom of God.

DOOR is both a tolerant and intolerant organization. On one hand we are open to participants who “don’t get it,” but on the other we do not have a whole lot of tolerance for people who are content to live out their racial prejudice or stereotypes. What happens when we expand this tolerance-intolerance tension to issues of religion and orientation?

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