Why THIS Church Matters

Our church is going through a season where we are facing difficult budgetary constraints for the first time in our history. And so we’ve been talking a lot about “why does this church matter?” This is (one) of my answers to that question:

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Last week I got briefly distracted on Facebook by a Washington Post article about the Noah’s Ark replica that creationist Ken Ham built in Kentucky. While the article was mostly about Ham’s intention to build more theme-park style Bible attractions, the article also reported that the “single largest source of funding was actually $62 million in junk bonds floated by the town of Willamstown [sic]…”

Groups like the ACLU have been critical of the project, specifically the organization’s discriminatory hiring practices that should render it ineligible for state funding.

“As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply.”

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Yes, I read the entire statement of faith. And yes, it represents a very conservative evangelical view of Scripture, theology and the world. I think most of you who would read this post probably aren’t that conservative.

However, it’s a loud view. It’s a definition of Christianity that gets a lot of airtime both because of media interest and also because part of what makes evangelicals “evangelical” is their boldness about their faith, their willingness to “stand on street corners” and wear their faith on their collective sleeve.

But this is what concerns me: many modern people are rejecting Christianity because “Christian” to some has become synonymous with a strictly literal reading of the Bible, rejecting evolution and judging homosexuality (their word, not mine) to be a sin (among other things).

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This is why I believe the progressive evangelical church matters, and specifically why I believe that my church – Imago Dei in Peoria, IL – matters.

Listen, I’m not going to throw stones here. If you know me, you know I disagree with a lot of things in the Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith. I think some of their beliefs are harmful and unhealthy. But I don’t feel compelled to call them “heretics” or anything like that.

But I do hope to offer a counter-narrative. I do hope to say to everyone, “there are many ways of being ‘Christian.’” What makes us “Christian” is that we’re all followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We believe his words, his teachings, his “way” matters, and it’s still worth following, 2,000 years later. It’s worth talking about, it’s worth arguing about, it’s worth orienting our lives around.

We don’t agree on lots and lots of things. But even though we disagree, we can still worship together, we can still argue together, we can still serve the poor and take communion together. THIS is what I think Jesus means when he says, “ that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

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So here’s why I think my church matters. In the midst of an increasingly polarized culture where being “right” is more important than being loving, kind or civil, our church insists on 3 things….

The unity that Jesus is talking about in John 17 as the most significant form of witness.

That how we treat those at the margins is central to the “gospel.”

God loves everyone just as much as he loves Jesus. Everyone.

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Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.

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The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.

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If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.

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And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!

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So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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Some Rules for Interfaith Engagement

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A next Monday, May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. Please help us plan by signing up in advance. (And if you don’t sign up, please come anyways.)

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Okay, so suppose a new family of a different faith moves into the neighborhood. And your kids are the same age, attend the same school, play on the same sports team and you find a great affinity with the new family. And now it’s an evening in the summertime, and you’re sitting on your back patio after having a great cookout and the subject of religion comes up.

What do you say?

What do you not say?

Breathe.

Here are a couple of ideas for Interfaith conversation and engagement that may steady your nerve. Of course, if you have more ideas, please add them in the comments below:

    1. The goal is not conversion, it’s relationship. So relax. In the tradition in which I grew up, there was tons of pressure to convert people. In my tradition, people from church would go door-to-door “soul-winning.” They would knock on the door and launch into a spiel about their faith, trying to convince people to convert.

      I suppose we could have an argument about the effectiveness of such strategies, but that’s not what you’re after here. You want to have an ongoing friendship. So stop stressing about getting people to “pray a prayer,” or “come to our church,” or go through “four spiritual laws.”

      Coming from a Christian perspective, your goal is to live out your faith in this relationship, to demonstrate love towards every human being. So relax, be yourself, and be loving. 

    2. Ask questions. Sometimes we convince ourselves that some questions are too dumb to ask, and so we choose to stay ignorant. Which is itself dumb. If you don’t know why your neighbor wears a headcovering, ask her. Ask kindly, and respectfully, but ask. I have NEVER been offended when someone asks me an honest, sincere question. And especially when it comes to matters of faith – where there are thousands of different religions, sects, denominations and viewpoints, asking why someone practices in a particular way isn’t out-of-bounds at all!

      (2a) Get curious. This is true of ANY relationship, but if you want to grow a friendship, get curious about your friend. Ask them about the things they care about. Ask them to teach you something about what they’re interested in. Do they have a great flower garden? Ask them about it. Do they fly the W? Ask them about why they love the Cubs so much! Ask them about their religion. Learn something new about their faith.

      A couple months ago I read a book just because I heard my good friend say, “It’s my favorite religious book.” I’m curious about my friend, so I read the book he was talking about. I recently listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, because my friend told me she liked it so much. And so I gave it a listen because I was curious about my friend and why she might like it so much. (And then I too, fell in love with Hamilton!)

    3. Don’t project upon your neighbor what you read in a Facebook article. In other words, there is no Christian that speaks for all Christians, Muslim who speaks for all Muslims or Jew who speaks for all Jews. So, just because you read an article online that said “Christians want to drop bombs in the Middle East,” you shouldn’t assume that represents the views of your neighbor. So, invoking rule #2, just ask the question, “I read something the other day online, what do you think?”

      (3a) You might need to stop reading online articles. To be honest, there’s a lot of BS out there – especially about Muslims. If you aren’t reading it on CNN, NPR or NYT or some other respected news site, you really need to be careful.

    4. Find things you agree upon. Even among my closest friends, we don’t agree about everything. And while we aren’t afraid to talk about those differences, we also don’t focus on those things either. Rather, we probably spend more time talking about the things we DO agree on, causes that we can all rally behind. And if this is a neighbor we’re talking about, you have things built in: common schools, the neighborhood, etc.

    5. Don’t back down from what you believe. In fact, a healthy relationship can tolerate and actually benefit from a degree of tension. Oftentimes we only grow when pushed. Having friends of a different faith, denomination or sect can actually strengthen our own beliefs. So, when the conversation “goes there,” don’t be afraid to say what you believe in the kindest, most loving way possible. As my friend Michael Danner said, in response to my last interfaith post, “I actually want my friends of other faiths – and of no faith – to try to proselytize me. Not disrespectfully. Not manipulatively. Not coercively or arrogantly. But through passionate, informed, loving persuasion.”
    6. Believe the best of your friend or neighbor. Believe that they believe the things they believe for good reasons. Believe that they are equal to you in intelligence, equal to you in devotion, equal to you in their love for their religion and the country you both live in. Believe that they believe following their religion is helping them become a better version of themselves.

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Okay, that’s my list. I’m sure there are other great ideas. What are some additional guidelines for interfaith engagement?

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What I Hope to Get Out of Interfaith Conversations

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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I’m a Christian. Let’s start there.

I affirm the Apostles Creed. I stand with traditional Christian orthodoxy. Engaging in interfaith dialogue is in no way a concession of my own set of beliefs.

However, when I talk to a Rabbi, there is so much I want to learn. How Rabbis have interpreted their Scriptures is of utmost importance to me. Of course, I’m going to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of Jesus, but knowing how Jews view their Scriptures has made my understanding of Jesus richer.

I don’t think respecting Judaism is difficult for most Christians.

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But I can also say the same of Islam. Within the Quran, there is a high value put on the person of Jesus. Jesus is the penultimate prophet, and belief in Jesus as a prophet is required of a Muslim. Of course Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is God, but there is an engaging discussion among some Christians and Muslims about what it means to follow after Jesus. (Incidentally, the word muslim simply means “one who submits to God.” So Muslims, full of respect, consider Jesus to be muslim.)

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From Buddhists, I am learning important things about contemplative prayer and quieting the crazy in my head. From Native Religions, I can learn something about living in harmony with the creation — surely a Christian value. (A puzzling sidenote: I find it strange that Christians who hold most tightly to a literal understanding of the Creation accounts, where God commanded the first inhabitants to care for the creation, are often the least likely to embrace Christian environmentalism.)

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Yeah, I know. Sometimes interfaith stuff gets a little hokey. And sometimes not everyone is playing by the same rules and one group is trying to proselytize the others (The next post will be on “ground rules for interfaith engagement.”) But for me, interfaith conversation is about learning what I can learn from the other traditions that further strengthens my understanding of my own faith.

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Here’s an analogy that shows how I view interfaith conversation:  I love my friends. And I love how their marriages work. I talk deeply with my friends about how they love their wives, how they work through hard times, how they navigate the joys and sorrows. I learn a lot from my friends.

But at the same time, I have my own marriage. I’m my own person. Jennifer is her own person. And we have our own ways of navigating our life together that aren’t the same as our friends’. So, I learn from my friends, I’m enriched by our conversations together, but I also have my own way of “doing marriage.” I’m better for having the dialogue with my friends about their marriages – there’s definitely some overlap – but my marriage is mine and theirs is theirs.

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This is my hope for interfaith conversation (and interdenominational conversations as well) — that we will learn from others in the areas that overlap.

I’m richer for my dialogue with those of other faiths, but that doesn’t mean I’m exchanging mine for theirs.

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It’s When I’m Crying That I’m Strong

I was having breakfast with a friend a month or so ago, and he was telling me about recent experience that had led him to tears. Big, fat tears of regret and pain and darkness. And, worse, it was in front of other people. So we talked about tears.

There’s a macho man myth that says “real men” don’t cry, that to be a “real man” is to be unaffected, to be a “real man” is to deny the things that hurt us, to be a “real man” is to brush yourself off and get back up again.

But, here’s the conclusion my friend and I came to: when we cry, when we embrace what we feel inside, that’s when we’re at our strongest.

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It takes no courage, no particular strength to avoid pain. Anyone can give himself to the pursuit of pleasure that denies or numbs the darkness. In fact, according to psychologist Terrence Real, in I Don’t Want to Talk About It, his book on male depression,

“There is a terrible collusion in our society, a cultural cover-up about depression in men.

One of the ironies about men’s depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above. He who has been brought down by it will most likely see himself as shameful, and so, too, may his family and friends, even the mental health profession. Yet I believe it is this secret pain that lies at the heart of many of the difficulties in men’s lives. Hidden depression drives several of the problems we think of as typically male: physical illness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, failure in intimacy, self-sabotage in careers.

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And I guess if a man doesn’t want to face his pain and would rather numb and ignore his inner truth, it’s his prerogative. But, I know in my own life, when I don’t acknowledge my inner realities, it comes out in less-than-ideal ways.

When I don’t enter into that space of honoring my emotions, when I’m not brave enough to face my inner truth, when I cheat and make a bowl ice cream, binge watch TV, pour a glass of scotch in place of facing my inner truth – it comes out sideways. My wife, my boys, my friends, my employees – they pay the price for my cowardice.

So, last year on my Sabbatical, I determined that I would face some of my own inner demons. I named some of my ugly truths. Some of them I named only to God. Some I named only to Jennifer, some I shared with others. And I learned some things.

First, I learned that not everyone is safe. As a “verbal processor,” I too often feel regret for the things I say in a conversation. I’ve learned that not everyone is safe. That’s not to say that other people want to harm me, but I’ve learned in time that I don’t feel safe when people don’t reciprocate. In time, I will come to think that I’m being judged or “managed,” and I’ll grow resentful.

I’ve also learned that not all truths need to be said out loud. Some I just need to acknowledge my truth in my own silence and solitude. (I read a novel on the beach over Spring Break in which there was this great line: “Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste.”) I’m thankful that Jennifer doesn’t name all her truths to me!

And I’ve learned that I’m not a “wallower.” I don’t like to stay in tearful places very long. But I at least need to acknowledge my hurts, my brokenness, my sin – whatever darkness there is – and I need to feel it so I can get up and move on.

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So, here’s my manifesto:

When I cry, I am strong. When I name my doubts, when I embrace my failures. When I’m neither dismissive nor wallowing, when I choose to wrestle with the hard stuff, when I come back and apologize when I’m wrong, that is the true Charlie being his bravest self.

When I avoid, when I run, when I hide, when I choose to numb my pain. When I refuse to say “I’m sorry,” when I say the words, “I don’t want to talk about it”; when I try to be a macho, successful, American male who is unaffected by unkind words, intentional (or even unintentional) slights, heartache and rejection, that’s Charlie being his most cowardly.

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One final thing:

I’m fortunate that along the way, I’ve made plenty of friends like me. Men who are willing to be brave, to deal with their darkness. Men, who out of their love for themselves, their wives, their children, their friends are willing to be their bravest selves.

You know who you are. We’ve cried in restaurants, hugged in parking lots and declared our love for each other. Thank you.

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Jesus on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for a class at Illinois State University on interfaith dialogue. I sat on the panel with an Imam and Rabbi from Peoria. The question we were each asked for our opening remarks was something like this: what in your religious tradition draws you to interfaith dialogue? Here’s what I said:

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I need to start by owning my story. I grew up in a very xenophobic religious context. For example, I remember religious tracts from my youth that depicted the pope burning in hell. While we didn’t strictly believe we were the ONLY faithful remnant, we sure were wary, even of those in other Protestant traditions. But as I grew up, went to a more broadly evangelical seminary, and got to know people in other faith traditions, my horizons expanded.

I’m just saying, I’ve grown in my understanding of things, and I’m sure I will continue to grow. So these thoughts are still being formed. But to answer the question, I think there are generally three theological camps when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and Jesus has something to say to each.

The first is that “they” are our enemies. A Presidential candidate who says, “I think Islam hates us,” is choosing to propagate a narrative that says “they” are our enemies. When I wrote a post about the open house at one of the mosques here in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I had a couple different people contact me with questions out of this perspective. And one of the things I heard is a common Christian idea about Islam, that “Muslims may say they are peaceful, but they’re just saying it to get power, and once they do, they’ll implement Sharia law.”

Even if this is in fact reality, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love and pray for our enemies. And if, for the sake of argument, I grant the premise, it just feels like an excuse not to love. And yes, what it means to love and pray for ISIS is super complicated. But it’s much less complicated to love and pray for our Muslim neighbors in the Midwest.

So, even if you believe that Muslims are your enemy, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, then you are compelled to find ways to show love to Muslims in our community.

A second theological idea is that those of other faiths are not enemies but, rather, are just misguided. For example, many people I know are able to look past the rhetoric of conservative media and understand that Muslims and ISIS are not one and the same (just like Christians and the KKK are not one and the same). Many Christians believes Muslims (and those of other traditions/religions) are wonderful people who are simply on the wrong path.

I would suggest then, that our theological compulsion in such cases should be driven by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If we believe someone is misguided, don’t we have a Christian responsibility to reach out and care for them, even at personal cost?

FInally, I believe there’s yet another way to view interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I was thinking the other day about these verses in the Gospel of Luke:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 10:49-50

Whatever you may think about demons, can we all at least agree that in the context Luke is written, driving out demons is a good thing? So, Jesus seems to be saying that anyone doing good things is “for you.”

I was thinking about the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. If the local Imam is doing something to promote peace, isn’t he then my co-laborer as a peacemaker? If the Rabbi is doing something good in the community, isn’t he “with us”? It seems Jesus is pushing his disciples to think of “us” as a much bigger concept than “those with whom we agree.”

I know it’s challenging for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of “our group is right” to think this way. But I’m challenged by Jesus’ words. I think our mentality most of the time is “If you’re not with us somewhere close to 100%, then you’re against us.” But Jesus said almost exactly the opposite.

Hmmmmmm.

So what do you think? Does your theology drive you toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation? Why or why not?

 

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Know Islam. Know Peace (in Peoria)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.”
— Jesus

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Several months ago, I heard a report from the BBC that vandalism crimes against mosques in America were on the rise. You don’t have to be an avid follower of the news to know that anti-Muslim rhetoric is getting increasing airplay in certain sectors of American society. In fact, just in the past few weeks, in a neighboring city, one man caused an uproar when he posted silhouettes in his yard of a man holding a gun to another man on his knees wearing a turban. In news reports, he defended his lawn decorations by quoting the Bible and Jesus.

Ugh.

Given the rising rhetoric, in December I finally took the initiative and sent an email to one of the local imams: “Hi. We’ve never met, but given the current anti-Muslim climate of this country and the mandate of my religion to be a peacemaker, I just wanted to say that I’m your friend. Let’s meet for lunch sometime.”

Within about a week I found myself having a long lunch with Imam Kamil Mufti, during which he challenged me to use my voice, to speak up for peace, to educate people to think differently about Islam. And he told me about his idea to have an open house at his mosque sometime in the next couple months.

Tonight was that open house.  The event was called “Know Islam. Know Peace.”

I’ve never been so proud of my community.

Local news is reporting that in excess of 700 people showed up at the Islamic Foundation of Peoria. I, and nearly everyone I talked to at the event, was blown away by the number of people who turned out to show support for Muslims in our community.

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I’m writing this just a couple hours after the event and here are a couple of my impressions:

First, I was blown away by the hospitality shown by the Muslim community. From the minute we arrived, they were the ever-gracious hosts, welcoming us, giving tours, answering questions, circulating the aisles handing out water during speeches and then feeding all of us amazing Afghani food. Just this past Sunday, I was teaching our church out of Luke 22 and one of the things we noted is that Jesus defined leadership as those who serve. I saw that lived out tonight. I felt honored and humbled to be the recipient of their kindness.

Another impression had to do with the speeches. The room was full of civic leaders, religious leaders and politicians and the dais was filled with the same. When I first saw the long list of those who would be giving speeches I thought to myself, “Oh no, this is going to be a long night.” But I was so caught up in the event, that I forgot to look at my watch until about 75 minutes in, just before Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Anshai Emeth took the stage to finish out the evening. Nearly all the speakers had something significant to add to the evening.

And finally, it struck me tonight that Jesus’ words, – “Blessed are the peacemakers” – don’t have any qualifiers. He didn’t say, “Blessed are the Christian peacemakers,” or the “American peacemakers,” or anything else. He just said that those who make peace are blessed. So, tonight, I was struck that the Muslim community is blessed. And Imam Mufti is particularly blessed I know others have worked with him, inviting those they know, but Imam Mufti and his community are the ones who reached out to build a bridge for peace.

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When Mayor Ardis stood up tonight to give his speech, he was visibly moved, as I think many of us were. I know I had goosebumps throughout the night. And he said to us, “I don’t know that I exactly have the words to describe what I feel.” He went on to talk about how proud he was of our community – both the Muslims in Peoria for hosting the event and also of everyone who showed up at a mosque – many of us for the first time in our lives.

I said it at the top, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this community. It was beautiful to see people of all kinds of faiths supporting, honoring and defending each other’s rights to religious expression and being peacemakers.

There may be a world full of ugly, ignorant anti-Muslim rhetoric “out there,” but in tiny Peoria, IL, there are at least 700 of us who will stand up for peace, stand up for love and refuse to demonize “the other.”

I think this is the way of Jesus.

(To learn more, go to peaceforpeoria.com)

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Why I am a Progressive Evangelical

Last fall, I was at a meeting of progressive evangelical leaders in Minneapolis and one asked me, “so, are you okay with both words – progressive and evangelical?”

Gulp. I actually, don’t really love either one.

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I grew up in a denomination with the word “conservative” in the title, and it was a badge of honor. We were conservative in nearly every way. Our politics were conservative, our clothing styles were midwestern conservative (which means “trendy in New York 5 years ago”), and most of us were conservative with our money.

Of course our theology was conservative. And I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, it’s just who we were. Like I said, we were proud of our conservatism because it distinguished us from the theological “liberals.” And I did mean “liberal” in a pejorative way, because in our minds the liberals were the people who didn’t love, respect or venerate the Bible in the same manner as us and therefore were questionably Christian.

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As I started reading more widely and interacting with more “liberal” Christians, my views changed.  In time, I stopped calling myself “conservative,” adopting the label “evangelical” in its place. For years, I proudly described the seminary I attended and the megachurch I worked at as “broadly evangelical.”

But like “conservative,” “evangelical” eventually didn’t fit either. In time, like high school sweethearts slowly drifting apart in their college years, it seemed evangelicalism was heading one way, and I the other. The things I loved most about evangelicalism – vigorous discussions about the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the broad inclusion of many denominations and a passion for changing the world -— got subsumed by other ideas that I could no longer endorse -— narrowing definitions of who’s in and out based upon a couple “litmus test” doctrines, an over-identification with the political right and a seemingly growing confidence about our own “rightness.”

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Eventually, I gave up the labels. I couldn’t bring myself to associate fully with any one group, author or position, so when we started our church 8 years ago, we didn’t associate with a denomination and we didn’t label ourselves. Instead, we exchanged the convenience of a label for the complexity of answering “what kind of church ARE you” with lots of head scratching, stammering, stuttering associations and denials. In fact, these days I’m mostly comfortable describing our church as a group of “used to be’s” and “if not for Imago I wouldn’t go to church” misfits.

And every time I describe myself or my church I’m again frustrated there isn’t an easier way to say who we are, some kind of label that wouldn’t make me want to gag. And more importantly, I’ve felt very alone in Peoria, Illinois, wishing there were other churches like ours, other pastors to talk to, bounce ideas off of and share resources with. I knew they were out there, but I didn’t know how to find them.

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Since my time in Minneapolis, I’ve become friends with some of these “progressive evangelicals,” and together we’re working to create a network of churches like us. And while I’m still uncomfortable with labels, it’s the juxtaposition of those two words — progressive and evangelical — that is wooing me into the fold.

As a homegrown Midwestern boy, I’m only progressive by Midwestern standards. Yes, many people in Peoria think I’m the “emergent boogieman,” but in the broader conversation I’m fairly conservative. When I sit in rooms with those theological liberals whom my tradition warned me about, I find they really do love God, seek to follow Jesus and are engaging in a conversation with the Bible and culture, but they see it through different lenses.

And I’m only evangelical in that I love the passion that my tradition has for sharing the Good News. Of course, my theology about what the “Good News” is has distanced me from my roots, but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And I even have hopes that my tradition will change in time.

I was recently in New York, meeting with some of my progressive evangelical friends, and there’s a certain joy I have in knowing that as progressive evangelicals we leave both groups -— the progressives and the evangelicals — scratching their heads wondering exactly who we are. Maybe that’s as it should be.

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And this is why I’m proud to be working with OPEN, “a network of progressive evangelicals fostering a just and generous expression of the Christian faith, renewing a focus on people, poverty, the planet and peace.”

Do we all agree on everything? Nope. Do we all have differing ideas and strategies about people, poverty, the planet and peace? Yep. Is “progressive evangelical” the best label to choose? I don’t know. But I don’t think you need to agree to all the labels in order to partner as friends. Maybe this is the difference between a “denomination” and a “network” — a “network” implies a much looser association, a connecting point for ideas, resources and relationship — than a denomination does (at least in my own mind).

But here’s what I know: there’s enough overlap, camaraderie and synergy between us about “a just and generous expression of the Christian faith” – however we each uniquely express that in New York, Minneapolis, Denver, Peoria, or Morgantown, KY – that I want to be part of this community of people “up to something together.” And that’s why I’m a progressive evangelical.

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Regarding Generous Orthodoxy: An Open Letter to Brian McLaren

Dear Brian,

We’ve met a handful of times, but you don’t know me. The first time we met, in 2008 at a conference in Kansas City at Jacob’s Well, I introduced myself then blubbered through a thank you. See, when I read A New Kind Of Christian in 2000, while the youth pastor at a Baptist Church, it set my life on an entirely new trajectory.  After reading that book — and subsequent books of yours — multiple times, you became my spiritual father of sorts.

I met you again a couple months ago in Minneapolis at Solomon’s Porch, and even though I wanted to thank you again I refrained for the sake of my own pride; I didn’t want to cry again, but knew I would.

When I met you the first time, I was in the early, heady days of planting a new church that had sprung organically and unforeseen out of the tight bond of a group of friends. We read ANKoC together and it — along with Generous Orthodoxy — became the common language of our young church. In fact, your ideas were so important to us that when we sat around my dining room table discussing the core ideas that would give definition to our community, the idea of generous orthodoxy became core to who we are as a church.

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We are committed to historic, orthodox Christian faith as found in the Apostles’ Creed. We are committed to a generous orthodoxy under a banner of love and grace. As such, we commit ourselves to faithful reading and study of the Bible, finding new and creative ways to live out what it teaches.

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It’s been 8 years since we crafted that statement for our little church here in Peoria, and about 10 since you wrote the book. And I still deeply believe in a generous orthodoxy. I think it’s a sad statement about the Body of Christ that since the Protestant Reformation, we feel like almost everything is worth dividing over. There are a lot of great things I was taught growing up Baptist, but one of the ugly things I learned is that when you disagree with someone, you move away from them.

But I don’t think this is the way of Jesus. In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that tension and disagreement have always existed side-by-side in the church. Peter v. James, Paul v. Jerusalem Church, Paul v. Barnabas, James v. Paul…  Throughout the Scriptures, I see our church fathers arguing with each other over the nature of what it means to follow after Jesus. We’ve always had “disputable matters” (as in Romans 14) that have caused us to question our brothers and sisters.

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Over the last couple of months, our church has been engaged in a conversation over the role of LGBT persons in our church community. Some say that, of course, “generous orthodoxy” extends to the LGBT persons in our church, prohibiting them from nothing; others say that we can be generous, but this lies outside the lines of “orthodoxy,” and should therefore limit their participation in certains facets of our ministry.

And while we’ve always made space for gays and lesbians in our church, we’ve been intentionally ambiguous about the specifics. But it’s now time for us to address what “generous orthodoxy” looks like when it comes to the role of LGBT persons.

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Here’s what I see, Brian, that bothers me and it’s the reason for this letter. In some of the churches that I admire, who have moved to an “open and affirming” position, there is no generous orthodoxy, only a new orthodoxy. In other words, it feels like some have only changed their minds about what the Scripture affirms or denies, without maintaining the spirit of graciousness that I’ve seen modeled by you in your writing. And so a church “affirms” one group that was formerly ostracized but now tells another group they’re not welcome because of their beliefs.

And it’s not just churches, it’s people. It’s people who have changed their view on what the Scriptures condemn or allow and are now just as ungracious being “liberal” as they were when they were “conservative.” It’s like they’ve completely forgotten their own journey and the sometimes slow process of changing one’s mind.

So, my question is, even if we expand our “orthodoxy,” how do we maintain generosity? Even if we feel like God is calling us to accept people that the church didn’t used to accept, how do we maintain a spirit of generosity towards those who just can’t get there yet, and perhaps never will?

With Great Admiration,

Charles

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Okay, it’s doubtful to me that Brian McLaren will ever read this post. But I’m curious, what do you all think about the relationship between generosity and orthodoxy? What do you think about “orthodoxy” changing, as it does from time to time? What are some of the specific practices you believe a local church should employ in order to create a space of “generous orthodoxy?”

And even if you don’t want to engage in the discussion here, please drop me a line and let me know if this post is beneficial and thought-provoking. Over the next couple months, we’ll again be exploring the idea of “generous orthodoxy” at Imago Dei Church, and I’m intending, from time to time, to “spill” some thoughts over here to my blog.

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Happy New Year!

I’m a sucker for the sky.

In my new house, I have a nearly complete view of the entire expanse of the southern sky. Standing on my deck, I can watch the sun both rise and set. I can’t even begin to tell you how many mornings I’ve stolen a moment and walked out to the deck in my pajamas, holding my cup of coffee, to admire the orange, blue, and yellow of a sunrise. And on the flip side, I’ve spent so many evenings sitting on the deck with a book in the late summer as the last light lingers in the sky to the west.

It’s been way too long since we’ve been on a beach vacation, but one of my favorite moments is the sunset; that moment when you quietly whisper “thanks” for a day spent frolicking in the waves, playing in the sand, reading, napping, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin. A “thanks” whispered simply for the joy of living.

All sunrises and sunsets are good to me. But here’s what I’ve learned – the most beautiful ones, the ones that have me taking thoroughly inadequate pictures on my iPhone – always include clouds. The most beautiful sunrises require the clouds to reflect the sunlight before it emerges on the horizon. It’s the contrast of the orange clouds against the dark night of sky slowly turning to blue, that causes me to gasp in wonder.

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I’ve tried to be as honest as appropriate here on this blog, so it should be no secret that 2015 was a difficult year for me, dark and stormy at its worst moments, cloudy at the best of times. It was a year during which I drove myself to exhaustion building our house while still trying to do my job well. It was a year during which I experienced dark times of deep loneliness. It was a year of friendships shifting and changing, and a year when we said goodbye to Jennifer’s grandma (who probably prayed more faithfully for us than anyone in the world). It was a year during which I rumbled with my own stories, and I stared down shattered hopes, expectations and bitter disappointments, both with myself and with others.

Many people are worse off than I, and I’m culpable in my own demise. But that sentence is a load of crap, too. While the voice in my head says “you got what you deserve,” and “other people have such bigger problems than you,” I wouldn’t say those unkind words to anyone else. Rather, to someone sitting in my office I would say, “It doesn’t matter how you got here, and it’s not a comparison game. When you feel darkness in your soul, when you feel alone, it’s real to you and so you have to rumble with it.”

And so, this year, I’ve let the clouds be clouds. I’ve stopped trying to wish them away or pretend they aren’t real.

But here’s the thing about clouds: they provide a great canvas for the sun as it emerges on the horizon.

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A woman grabbed me at church the last week of Advent and said, “You seem so focused and strong since you’ve come back from Sabbatical.”

Thank you. And yes, I’m getting there.

I wrote earlier this year about hope rising. And as I think back across the year, as I see the sun rising in the morning, it’s the interplay of light and clouds that is beautiful to me.

I used to think that some years are good, some are bad. I used to think that when we said goodbye to the past year and cheered in the New Year, we could start over with a hope that this year will be better than the last. But I don’t think life actually works like that. Instead, life is always sun and clouds. Every year is full of goodness and pain at the same time.

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Over the past five or six years, I’ve had a New Year’s Eve practice of reminiscing over the past year — naming the highest highs and the lowest lows — and toasting those whom have chosen to take front row seats in my dramas, and I in theirs.

Who know what this year holds — at the time of writing, my New Year’s Eve plans are still undetermined — so I will do my practice here, toasting us all (but without having to face you all and cry all the way through it as I’m prone to do).

Here’s to us, in the coming year. Here’s to the clouds that will inevitably come our way – may we face them with courage, strength and good people at our sides. May we get to the other side where we see the beauty of the clouds and how they so magnificently reflect the sun. May we rumble with our stories, say the hard truths about ourselves and arrive at deeper truths for all the hard work. May we discover the beautiful imago dei that each of us uniquely reflects. May each of us in the coming year get to be the sun in someone else’s life, gently holding space for them and then reminding them over and over that their clouds are beautiful. May we be fully alive, may we capture more moments and live in the now.

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Thank you for reading. Thank you for sharing, for commenting, for writing me encouraging emails, for following up with coffee and beer. Thank you for the kindness you’ve shown, in words, in hugs, and in “me too’s.”

Happy New Year!

(oh, and the photo…from my deck 7:02am, December 10.)

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