Category Archives: Uncategorized

Memories, Mom and Death

2015-06-19 16.42.25Mom and dad were getting ready to fly home. They had just spent two weeks with us, mostly with our boys – their grandchildren. It had been a difficult visit. My mother’s heath was declining. As she hugged me she quietly whispered, “I am just tired of being touched.”

My mind drifted to a day thirty years earlier, I was 5 and my sister was 3, we went to the hospital for Christmas Eve dinner. I still remember the meal – turkey, mashed potatoes and brown gravy with green beans on the side. Each plate was covered with a stainless steel meal warmer. I cannot recall where my father sat, but my sister and I sat near the head of the bed at an adjustable table. We ate and watched my mother. She was sick, very sick. The doctors did not expect her to live. We were granted special permission to be there after visiting hours.

When my mother hugged me on that day, I was sad, but not panicked. In my mind this was just another moment of sickness. Mom and dad got on the airplane and flew home. The first hint that I was about to enter into a new normal was when my sister called me from the airport later that day. Mom wasn’t doing well; she was bleeding and nothing seemed to stop the flow.

There I was in that room watching the medical profession do everything they could to save my mother. They went about their tasks with tenderness and love. The nurse slipped quietly out of the room. For the first time since I arrived, my mom spoke to me. Her words were simple, “Don’t let them touch me, I’m ready to go home.”

Within five minutes the medication took over and my mother drifted into a restless sleep. I made my way to the nurse’s station. I called my sister, then my dad. We talked about mom’s final wishes. She had been clear with all of us – no extraordinary measures and no experiments. I hung up and spoke with the nurses, who dialed the doctor’s phone number. His voice was kind and soft, we talked about what they were doing to my mom. By the end of the call I requested that they stop all treatment and make my mom comfortable. I would not wish this conversation on my worst enemy. Within the hour the medical staff came in and unplugged my mother.

The next day I shared what was to be my final conversation with my mother. I don’t remember all the details of what we talked about, but we held hands and eventually she said, “Thank you.”

24 hours later I flew home.

Ten days after that she passed away.

 

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Hopes and Dreams

During a recent conversation I was asked to share my thoughts about the future of the church. In a moment of personal clarity I suggested the issue was no longer about me or my preferences, rather I wanted a church that my children would attend, invest in, and support. I suspect that this kind of church will be very different from what we have now.

Last week I finished reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave. I have a bad habit of skipping the appendix when I read. On this occasion I was on a plane and still had an hour of flight time left, so I continued past the official end of the book to the appendix where Douglass reflected on the expressions of Christianity he witnessed.

On April 28, 1845, Douglass wrote:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slave holding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. (Appendix)

Although these words were written well over 150 years ago, they still ring true today. There are still significant segments of the church that have chosen the Christianity of this land over the Christianity of Christ. It is at this juncture where I find hope. There are many young adults (my children included) who choose not to participate in church because of its close relationship with “this land.”

The church of this land gets to choose who participates and who has access. It gets to choose country first and God second.

The church of Christ must by definition take seriously the words of Christ. More often than not these words will put people of faith in conflict with government, popular culture, and comfortable Christianity. The church of Christ must choose our common humanity over national, cultural, and class divisions. Welcoming the neighbor trumps walls of separation.

In Douglass’s day the church of power went to great lengths to justify slavery. Today there are too many who claim faith and yet find reasons to exclude. The church of Christ is motivated by the idea that all of us share one unifying trait – we are created in the very image and likeness of God.

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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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Great Again

This past week I have been in Atlanta, GA.   FTE is hosting its annual Christian Leadership Forum. I wasn’t looking forward to another week of meetings but then last night happened.  God showed up unexpectedly.  Ched Myers was sharing and in an off-handed sort of way he referred to the irony of what it would mean for the church to take seriously the call to make “America Great Again”.

So I have been thinking about greatness, particularly from the perspective of Jesus.  As we all know Jesus was a radical who marched to his own drumbeat.

In Matthew 18:3 Jesus suggests that the only way to gain access to the Kingdom of God is to become like a child.  Jesus repeats this sentiment again in John 3:3 when telling Nicodemus he needed to be “born again.”

In Mark 9:35, when talking to the Disciples about greatness Jesus tied power to moving to becoming the last, the least, and serving all.

In Philippians 2:5 Paul encourages Christians to have the very same mind as Jesus.  For Jesus to complete his mission it meant giving up all of his power.

These verses are only a small sampling of what Jesus had to say about greatness.  The theme remains, being a Christian has something to do with rejecting power and embracing weakness. I have the privilege of living in the United States, a self-described Christian nation.  Can you imagine what would happen if we took greatness, as defined by Jesus seriously?

How would our foreign policy change if was saw our enemies as people whom we called to serve, love and be in submission to?  What would it mean to prioritize service to our enemies, both foreign and domestic over military power, economic dominance and religious superiority?  Cam you envision a world where we prioritize the safety, security and well-being of the immigrant, prisoner, welfare family, and the economically disenfranchised over our personal needs?  I suspect that this kind of reorientations would make America Great.  I suppose the question is both simple and difficult, do we have the courage to live this way?

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Safety – 2017

Every year at about this time I write a blog about safety. As the Executive Director of an urban service learning program, I have become an expert in addressing both real and perceived concerns. One of my go-to responses is, “DOOR has been around for 31 years. During this time we have hosted over 43,000 people and we have yet to send someone to the hospital because of an interaction with the community.”

Even so, violence is a concern. From my vantage point it is more of a concern for our Discerners. These are the youth and young adults we hire to lead the groups who come to each of our locations. 85% of our Discerners are local young adults of color. One of our growing concerns at DOOR has to do with the misidentification of men of color. Last year, one of our Chicago Discerners survived a drive-by shooting. He was simply waiting at a bus stop for the next bus and some young people in a car assumed he was a rival gang member. Misidentification is not just limited to gang activity. Law enforcement has been known to target young black men. We have had Discerners thrown down and hand cuffed just because they were leading a (primarily white) DOOR group.

In a little over two weeks our Discover summer begins. We have hired Discerners and they will receive orientation and training to lead our Discover program. They will help out of town visitors process their service experiences. They will lead discussions of race and racism, sometimes being the only voice of color in the room. Others will be unpacking stereotypes about mothers who receive welfare, urban poverty, and the school to prison pipeline. In the best of circumstances these are all difficult conversations. Dealing with stereotypes and assumptions about race, culture, and gender is emotionally draining. Many of our Discerners, who are 17-24 years-old, have to do this in an environment where misidentification is a looming possibility.

Please keep our staff and Discerners in your prayers as they seek to show the face of God in the city.

2017-05-11 19.12.56

 

 

 

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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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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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Real Life and Cancer Sucks

The seasons of Lent and Easter have always been important to me. This year has been different. Ash Wednesday came and went without me taking any notice. The only time I was reminded that it was the season of Lent was when I went out for lunch and saw fish on the menu.

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Rita and I skipped church. I cannot remember the last time I missed a Palm Sunday service. Instead we attended a funeral. I was there to support a friend whose sister-in-law died. My wife came for other reasons. The lady whose life we were remembering had passed away from cancer. A little over a year ago, within a month of my wife’s diagnosis, that she received similar news. Both faced and fought cancer with dignity and strength. Her battle lead to a memorial service on Palm Sunday.

I stood in the chapel with hundreds of other mourners listening to the stories of this amazing wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, and woman that brought laughter and tears. This was a person whose definition of family was always expanding to include outsiders. Strangers were nothing more than future family members. She met her soulmate and husband at a young age and together they promised to do their marriage “right.” This couple lived, loved, worked, and laughed together. They managed to forge a marriage and life together the rest of us dream about. All the stories reinforced the fact that they managed to do marriage right.

About halfway through one of the stories the speaker mentioned that this lady met her soulmate and married in 1986, the same year Rita and I started our life together. Looking across the chapel at a husband mourning the loss of his partner in life and love was heartbreaking and sobering. On this morning I was standing beside my wife and partner of more than 30 years, and he was across the room with tears flowing down his face. I was there holding my wife’s hand, and he would never feel his wife’s hand again.

I am a self-described “theology nerd.” Over the years I have officiated many funerals. I still struggle to make sense of death. I did walk away from that service with a renewed passion for life. It was Jesus who suggested that worrying about tomorrow wasn’t worth the effort (Matthew 5:25-34). None of us are promised any moments beyond this one. On the Sunday as Rita and I walked away from a service of remembrance and celebration of a life well lived, I took my wife’s hand in mine and sent up a prayer of thanks for another moment.

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Gun Violence, Part 2

Last week I wrote a blog about the violence that seems to be erupting in my Denver neighborhood. This past Sunday, the Chicago neighborhood where my eldest son lives exploded in gunfire. Of the six people who were shot, two died and four were taken to the hospital.

 

I have spent much of the past two weeks thinking about violence, safety, the DOOR Network, and my Christian faith. DOOR is an urban program. We are committed to showing the face of God in the city. Most of the time we do a good job of helping visitors see and experience the amazing things that God is doing in the city.

These past two weeks have tested (and continue to test) my commitment to God’s presence in the city. Giving witness to the violence, hate, and frustration that seems to explode on the streets of our urban neighborhoods leads to some deep soul searching. Where is God? Or, better yet, where are the people of God? What does it mean to be people of faith in the midst of violence? What did Jesus mean when he talked about people of faith being salt and light?

This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in the ordination service of our Atlanta City Director. Part of the service included a reading from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The call of people of faith is to go and be present in all places and all conditions. This presence includes the call to be agents of transformation, or, to use the biblical language, to make disciples. The Christian faith has never been about passive observation. It has always been a faith that calls us to direct involvement.

So to hear my son and his roommates talk about staying, learning from, and walking alongside their neighbors was a conflicted moment for me. I felt both pride and terror.

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Gun Shots

I live at the corner of 31st and Franklin. Last Saturday as my wife and I rode motorcycle to Albuquerque, NM, two people were shot in my neighborhood. According to my neighbors dozens of shots were fired. carThirty six hours later on Monday Rita and I were getting ready to go to Ross; I needed a new shirt. As usual I was taking my time getting ready. Just as I found the car keys, gun fire starting ringing out again. At first I thought it was firecrackers. From my perspective the rapidness of the firing was faster than even an automatic gun could shoot. I was wrong. Within minutes the streets were blocked again.

When things like this happen in our neighborhood there is a period of everyone hunkering down in their homes, followed by a slow gathering of people on the corner. These gatherings are an interesting mixture of folks. First come the younger people, followed by the men. Then the mothers and grandmothers looking for their children and grandchildren, making sure everyone is safe. Finally, the news reporters.

After about 25 minutes of standing around and watching the police run back and forth looking for the shooter(s), the crowd started to dissipate. Before long it was just me and a couple of neighbors.

Before long one of men says, “You know the shooter ran into that house.” He points to where the shooter ran, and was probably still hiding.

My response came instinctively, “Well why don’t you go and tell the police where the shooter is.”

At this point it is important to note that I am white, the majority of the responding police officers are white, and the man I am talking with is not white. It is also critical to state that this man demonstrated no animosity toward the police. He was respectful when questioned and never said anything derogatory about the police. If anything, he was grateful with their response.

So his response to me was not what I expected, he turned and looked me in the eye, and said, “I have lived in the neighborhood for 16 years and I want to going on living here for at least another 16, so I am going to mind my own (expletive) business.”

For the past number of days I have not been able to let this conversation go. It says something about my privilege to just assume I can inform the police about someone or something in my neighborhood and assume I will not suffer from any possible repercussions.

My neighbor had no vested interest in letting an armed person run around the neighborhood. For him reaching out to the police and pointing something out was even more dangerous. He felt no assurances that he or his family would be protected if folks found out the he squealed.

Moments like the one I just described are very difficult for me. I didn’t ask to be white and I cannot stop being white. It almost feels wrong to talk about a privilege I have because of my birth parents. Until I, and people who look like me, fully own that we live in a culture that values whiteness above all else, we will not be able see the kingdom of God lived out.

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