What Muslim Students Have Been Teaching Me About The Bible

Something’s happened this semester that I hadn’t anticipated: Muslim students have been consistently showing up to the Bible studies I help lead at HFCC. I’m not exactly sure why they’ve been coming (although, if I had a similar chance to get to know the Quran alongside an open Muslim community, I’d probably do the same thing), but I’ve loved having them in on our conversations.

When I’ve mentioned this surprising development to some of my Christian friends, I’ve been met mostly with encouragement. “What a great opportunity!” I’ve been told. “You must be so excited to teach them about the Bible!”

And of course, I’m always eager to introduce students to Jesus—I think he’s pretty great. But what’s excited me most isn’t the occasional moments when we’ve taught Muslims about the Bible; it’s been the consistent ways they’ve helped us Christians understand the gospel.

The world Jesus was born into overlaps so frequently with the cultural context of Muslim students; there are so many similarities between Islamic culture and first century Palestine. Despite not sharing our understanding of Jesus, Muslim students often get these stories better than I do.

Each time we get together, I’m surprised by the aspects of the story my Western eyes refused to see, cultural dynamics that are immediately apparent to an Iraqi immigrant. In ways that I never could, Muslim students get the scandal of the prodigal son longing for pig food, the local tensions between Jews and Samaritans, and (especially) the social and familial cost of leaving everything to follow Jesus.

Or, to use an example from yesterday morning, Muslim students really seem to grasp the depth of the controversy surrounding Jesus eating with tax-collectors. As one student explained as we read Luke 19, “It’d be shameful and sinful for me eat my lunch next to a bank manager, for instance. He makes his living by collecting interest from others and exploiting them. If I ate at the same table as him, my meal would become like dung.”

He continued, “So it makes sense that the whole town would have been shocked that Jesus was a guest at Zacchaeus’ house. No holy person would do that. He must have seen something in the tax collector that no one else saw.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe what is happening in this story. Jesus broke all social expectations because he saw something in Zacchaeus that no one else saw: the image of God, the potential for change, a future as a Son of Abraham. And it was through that scandalous act that Jesus brought salvation to Zacchaeus’ house.

And I can’t help thinking that it’s through the scandalous act of trying to welcome the perspectives of every student at our table—Christian or not—that Jesus is bringing salvation to every person in our small groups.

All of us.

Especially me. 

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The Typo that Changed the Way I’m Thinking About Lent

Every Sunday at church, we conclude our meeting with a different reading from the Bible, usually related to the morning’s sermon. This week, it was my turn to read this benediction.

The text that was assigned to me was Isaiah 58:1-2, 6

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them…
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”

I skimmed through the passage as we sang our final song–it seemed like an odd selection for a closing blessing, especially since the sermon didn’t have anything to do with fasting or justice. (As it turns out, I had the wrong verses. I found out later that there had been a typo; I was supposed to read Isaiah 55, not 58.)

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, and my moment had come to read the benediction. So, I walked to the front and mumbled some improvised introduction before reading the passage, “As we head into the season of Lent, let this be our mission and identity.” This comment was met with a number of politely bewildered smiles; we’re not the kind of church that formally observes Lent. I pushed through the awkwardness, read the passage, and we were done. Weird, but at least it was over.

Except, it’s not over. This passage has been haunting me all week.

Despite the throw-away nature of my comment about Lent, every time someone else has mentioned Lent this week, Isaiah 58 has reverberated in my mind.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice?”

Fasting requires justice. As unrelated as those two seem to me, they’re inextricably linked in this passage. And that has serious implications for Lent.

Lent, I’ve been told, is about identifying with the suffering of Christ, sacrificing comfort in order to be closer to God. But the suffering of Lent–at the least the way I’ve observed it in the past–has very little to do with the suffering of Christ. Jesus didn’t suffer for suffering’s sake, the way I do when I cut out my favorite hobbies or foods. Jesus suffered for the sake of others.

In particular, he suffered alongside and on behalf of the suffering. He poured himself out to bring freedom to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. He endured pain for the sake of both solidarity and salvation–that those who mourn will have someone to mourn with them, and that their mourning will be turned into dancing.

So, to share in the suffering of Christ, we must share in the suffering of others. If we want to get closer to God this Lenten season, we must get closer to the brokenhearted, because God is close to the brokenhearted.

Anything else is just self-serving, self-righteous self-flagellation.

That said, I’m not sure what this looks like in practice, which is why I’m writing this post. I need ideas! What would it look like for us to spend Lent sharing in the suffering of others? What have you done in the past? What have you heard of others doing? What have you always wanted to do, but never had the courage/community to try?

Post your thoughts below!

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(Photo credit: wikimedia.org)

My church is full of heretics

Last week, something happened that had never happened before: people read my blog (a lot of people!).

Outside of a handful of gracious friends and family members, my blog had remained relatively unread for the past three years. But something about my most recent post apparently prompted a whole bunch of shares (I’m guessing it was the click-bait title), because I had over 16,000 readers check in over the course of three days.

One of the side effects of this surprise boost in readership was a sudden onslaught of feedback, mostly from complete strangers. The majority of comments were supportive and encouraging, but not everyone loved what I had to say. The criticism that came back varied, but the most prominent and intriguing rebuttal went like this:

“Choosing a church because they treat you like family seems unwise. Shouldn’t your choice of church be based on the accuracy of the church’s theology, not on the strength of their hospitality?”

Unlike some of the less articulate critiques of my post, these comments really made me think. Was my reason for joining my church foolish? After all, good churches aren’t the only communities capable of hospitable acts; cults, gangs, and Klans can be just as welcoming to those in need of a family. If any community, regardless of integrity, has a capacity for hospitality, what makes my reason for joining my church compelling?

To be honest, I’m not sure I picked the right church, nor am I sure I picked it for the right reason. The point of my post wasn’t to recommend a process for choosing a church, nor was it a sales pitch for the Church of Christ. I was just hoping to offer an honest depiction of the journey that led me into this particular family.

That said, my reason for joining the Church of Christ still doesn’t seem so bad to me.  In fact, I’m convinced that it’s the primary—if not best—reason people join a church.

While I understand the “choose the church with the right theology” argument, it simply doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve never met anyone for whom theology was the initial, central on-ramp to church (they probably exist; I’ve just never met them). Everyone I know—from first-time Christians to church kids choosing churches as adults—joined their church because someone in that church loved them. Grandma took them to mass before Christmas dinner. Their college roommates invited them to small group. The church across the street bought them groceries when they were most in need. Someone sometime extended the welcome of Jesus, even before they knew the family that was welcoming them.

“People must belong before they believe” has become a sort of catch phrase among church planters and evangelists as of late. This observation is descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s simply true that for almost everyone, belonging comes before believing. Hospitality precedes theology.

More significantly, choosing a church based on its theology seems impossible because—and this is the point that I’ve wasted 450 words trying to get to—no church contains a single, homogeneous theology. Each church family is filled with theologies; within every congregation exists a widely diverse collection of beliefs and opinions about God.   

Take my church for example. There are all sorts of views on God, church, the Bible, and society in my little congregation.  If we took enough time and asked enough questions, we’d discover that no two people in our family agreed entirely on every theological issue. Each of us is the only individual in our church who believes exactly what we believe.

Which means that we all must be wrong about something (or at least all but one of us). Each of us holds inaccurate/incomplete views of God and God’s people. We’re all heretics.

This doesn’t mean that theology doesn’t matter to my church, nor does it mean that we have no theological agreement; the vast majority of our family shares a number of central beliefs and values (one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one baptism, one God, etc.). There is an expectation that every committed member of our family confess these core beliefs, and rightly so.

However, no one could choose our church because our theology perfectly matches their own, because there is no such thing as my church’s theology (at least not in the intricate, systematic sense that most Christians have in mind when they ask about my “church’s theology”). If there was, whose beliefs would it be based on? The elders’? The ministers’? Each of the members of our church leadership team holds beliefs that are unique to them. Imposing a complex, monolithic theological system on our family would compromise the integrity of each individual and stifle the work of God’s Spirit in our community.

So instead, we choose unity over uniformity. We’re convinced that our diversity is a strength, that our disagreements over truths draw us closer to the Truth. In our plurality of theologies, we embrace a single hospitality, welcoming strangers—even those strangers within our own family—in the same way God welcomed us while we were still strangers.

Hospitality may precede theology, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The hospitality that welcomed me into this family is central to the identity of our Father. It’s deeply theological.

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Why I joined a Church of Christ (and why I might leave)

This summer, I joined Parkside Church of Christ as one of their ministers. Ever since, I’ve been consistently asked, “Why did you choose the Church of Christ?”

The question itself betrays an interesting/alarming reality currently at work in the Church of Christ. The two dominant narratives in the Church of Christ today seem to be “Everyone is leaving!” and “We must keep on keepin’ on.” As a transplant into this community, I fall outside those two narratives. I didn’t grow up in the Churches of Christ; I was raised in an Assembly of God church and a fundamentalist Baptist school (my dad used to call us Bapticostals). But somehow, I’ve found myself pastoring a Church of Christ, which seems to astonish more than a few people. In a church where leaving or staying seem to be the only two options, a newcomer—especially a young one—presents a fascinating anomaly.

So how did I end up here?

It wasn’t because I fell in love with the elegant simplicity of acapella worship music. It wasn’t because of the Church of Christ’s high view of baptism. It wasn’t because of this community’s deep love of the Bible, nor was it due to their weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, their commitment to intergenerational friendship, or their flat(ish) church hierarchy. I’ve definitely come to appreciate each of these things (in an evangelical culture saturated with cool, cool musicians leading a room full of people who look just like me in low-impact personal experiences, it’s surprisingly refreshing to sing stripped down songs and share an ancient meal with babies and old ladies). But I didn’t choose the C of C for any of these reasons.

I’m here because this is the family that welcomed me.

When I had pretty much given up on organized churches, it was a couple Church of Christ professors who taught me the value of the local church community.  When my parents split up, it was a handful of Church of Christ families who mentored me, nurtured me, and allowed me to heal. When I could no longer afford school, a stranger from a local Church of Christ paid part of my tuition. It was a Church of Christ that provided my first internship, and later, my first preaching gig. When I moved away to plant a campus ministry, the majority of my budget was raised by members of the Church of Christ.

I didn’t choose the Church of Christ because it’s the one true church, or even because I think it’s the best church. I chose it because it was the community that embodied the hospitality of God when I needed it most. “Chose” isn’t even the right word for how I wound up here; I ended up in this family the same way I ended up in my biological family—they just happened to be the people through whom I found life.   

That said, I’ve found this to be a fairly dysfunctional family. There’s a surprising undercurrent of gender inequality in many Churches of Christ; it’s a lot more fun to be a man in this family than a woman. There’s also often an ugly combination of legalism and nasty in-fighting. You won’t believe the things some churches split or “disfellowship” over. Likewise, I can’t help feeling like many members of the Church of Christ family care much more about what goes down in the building on Sunday morning than what happens out in the world throughout the week. This really isn’t my ideal church.

But it is my family. And as a family, I’ve come to expect brokenness that requires long-lasting grace; I’ve never met a family that didn’t need daily forgiveness. Grace is the thread woven into every sustained relationship—why should I expect my church experience to be any different? It’s not like I’ll ever find a church that gets it all right, a family with no hints of unhealth. I’ve been a part of enough congregations to know that the Churches of Christ don’t have a monopoly on dysfunction.

This doesn’t mean I’m content with the ugliness in my new church family. A number of my sisters and brothers across the country are being abused by this family and need to get out. Grace does not require toughing it out in an abusive situation, even when (especially when!) it comes to family.

But my situation is definitely not abusive. And yet, it’s not the healthiest family either. As a member of this family, I’ve been welcomed to the table, invited to effect healthy change. As certain as I am to bring my own brokenness into this family, I also have the opportunity to join in God’s healing my church.

So dysfunction won’t make me leave the Churches of Christ. However, I might leave if I’m ever convinced that this family has ceased to move. We can’t follow Jesus standing still. If our dysfunction ever becomes our identity—if our mission to maintain our peculiarities usurps God’s mission in the world—our body will die, cut off from our source of life.

But, as far as I can tell, that’s not a risk right now. There are so many glimpses of life, so many signs of motion in the Churches of Christ that I’m tempted to label movement as the norm, not the exception. The missional impulse of Mark Love, the patient compassion of Sara Barton, the prophetic imagination of the Woods, the unwavering trajectory of Rubel Shelly, the merciful insight of Richard Beck, the courageous storytelling of Naomi Walters, the persistent call for justice from Josh Graves, the commitment to embodied hospitality of Coleman Yoakum, the Christ-centered inclusivity of Rochester College, and especially the faithful love of Parkside all give me reason to stay put.

This is my family now. Thanks for having me.

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Gratitude of Inclusion

So I moved back to Detroit a month ago and started three new jobs, which has put any blogging I’d normally do on hold. I’m planning on picking this back up soon (I promise that whole “Welcome Generation” series really will feature more than one person), but until I do, I’ll take the easy way out and feature quotes and links that I appreciate. 

Today’s quote comes from Sher Sheets, the subject of my most recent post:

“Gratitude of inclusion is not the same as gratitude for service…  Service that is oriented on those with, giving to those without, while maintaining their power and comfort is a type of service that lacks hospitality.  The service of hospitality is by nature vulnerable and humble – in fact, the service of hospitality looks a lot like the incarnation – God forcing himself into the form of a baby, exiting the frame of a young woman, and growing into a man who had little to cling to as He modeled the fullness of hospitality – welcoming children, women, lepers, the poor, prostitutes, uneducated and untamed men – etc. The incarnation is about God contextualizing Divinity and limiting Himself so that He could be with us – eventually giving up his very life for the fullness of his presence to dwell among us.

Hospitality is about limiting ourselves – about risking and giving up and sacrificing our rights and entitlements in order to be with others.”

For the rest of Sher’s post, click here.

The Welcome Generation: Sher the Footwasher

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This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting stories of millennials who embody God’s hospitality. For more about the motivation behind this series, as well as a list of all the stories so far, click here. 

“Your feet are looking a lot better, Leon!” A young woman in a hoodie sits across from an older African man, his bare feet atop towels on her lap. “See—this is what happens when you come back every month!”

Leon smiles and sighs contentedly. He’d immigrated from Ghana in the 70’s, planning on moving to New York via Chicago. “I never made it to New York,” he tells me in a rich West African accent. “The voices wouldn’t let me.” The voices have also kept Leon homeless for over a quarter century.

Homelessness can take quite a toll on a person’s feet, I learned, especially in a climate as inhospitable as Chicago’s. “Thanks to our cold, wet winters and hot, humid summers,” I overheard one volunteer explain to another, “moisture is trapped in the same shoes and socks for weeks. It’s incredible what that constant dampness can do to skin.” I remembered something I’d learned about trench foot in history class, but my thoughts were interrupted by an announcement: “Let’s set up six stations, and then meet in the lobby to talk about why we do all this before we begin.”

The announcement came from Sher Sheets, the aforementioned hoodied woman who will later wash and lotion Leon’s tired feet. She’s been hosting this monthly foot clinic for two and a half years now, borrowing the space from an old church down the street from her house. As we set up the foot-care stations—a stool, some towels, assorted lotions and soaps, and a soaking bucket—Sher describes the process for us newbies.

“We’ll greet our guests at the door, give them a name tag, muffins, and some coffee, and then invite them to sit and let their feet soak. After about fifteen minutes, wash your guests’ feet; look out for build-ups, injuries, or other things that might need special attention. Offer to trim their toenails—please be gentle!—and then dry their feet and add lotion. And that’s about it I think! Let’s head out to the lobby”

Pictured: Julie, not Sher. Well, except the feet; those are Sher’s.
(Click the photo to read the Sher’s story of getting her feet washed)

As we sit around a table and begin munching on homemade muffins, Sher fills us in on the history of the neighborhood (“Uptown used to be where all the movie stars lived in the 20’s, before Hollywood—now it’s home to dozens of shelters, psychiatric facilities, under-funded nursing homes”), the church (once home to over 4,000 worshipers every Sunday, membership has dwindled to a few dozen), and the foot clinic (“A lady from Atlanta started something like this down there, and when she heard what I was doing in Uptown, she convinced me to start one here too”). The content of this mini-history lesson is interesting, but secondary to the tone in Sher’s voice; even through her why-do-we-do-this-so-early-on-a-Saturday grogginess, it’s obvious that she absolutely adores her neighborhood.

But I knew that already. It’s why she moved here back in 2010. It’s why she hosts dozens of parties for her neighbors each year. It’s why she started JUSTembrace, a little grassroots organization focused on “equipping people to live inclusively, generosly, and hospitably.” And it’s why she seems to know every single person that walks through the door to have their feet washed.

Sher and a neighbor at the JUSTembrace Easter party.

What I didn’t know was how this specific act connected to Sher’s Christian identity. I thought I knew; when she asked our group, “When you think of washing feet, do any stories of Jesus come to mind?”, I was proud to have guessed both of the passages she had in mind—Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and the “sinful woman” washing Jesus’ feet.  So when she asked “Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet?”, my instinct was to answer like this:

Jesus washed their feet—something usually done by a servant—to illustrate the humility and self-sacrifice central to the gospel. Likewise, we’re gathered here to embody that same humility, participating in the mission of God by washing the feet of those often seen as less valuable than ourselves. It’s a holy, sacramental moment. When we wash the feet of the poor, we’ll discover—like the harlot at the Pharisee’s house—that we’re washing the feet of our Savior. In the words of St. Francis, “When you kiss the lips of a leper, they become the lips of Christ.”

Fortunately, Sher answered her own question before I got the chance to make a jerk of myself. “Jesus washed his disciples’ feet,” she said flatly, “because they were dirty. Somebody had to do it. Jesus wasn’t doing something super spiritual; he was doing what needed to be done.”

“Don’t think of what we’re doing as some sexy, spiritual moment. It’s an intimate, vulnerable act—feet are funny like that—but it’s not so special. It’s just a small part of a bigger thing we’re a part of every day: treating our neighbors like family.”

That, I think, is the most hospitable thing about Sher. Despite the sacrifices she makes every day for her neighbors and the counter-cultural life decisions she’s made, she doesn’t see this kind of stuff as terribly unique or exclusively for people like her. As she states on the home page of JUSTembrace’s website, “Be encouraged by the stories we tell – but don’t for a second think you can’t do what we do – you CAN! In fact, you were MADE to!  And we want to help!”

True, deep hospitability not only welcomes everyone just as they are, but invites everyone to welcome, just as they are. I’m sincerely convinced that Sher doesn’t think she’s doing anything special, anything that the rest of us couldn’t do just as well. And I’m starting to believe her. You could do this. Maybe even I could.

For information about JUSTembrace, including Sher’s blog, click here. Read her stories; get to know her and her neighbors a little better. If you’re local, come visit or volunteer some time. If you’re not local, donate some money to help out—they never seem to ask for it, but they really need the support. But most importantly, find ways to practice inclusion, generosity, and hospitality in your neighborhood. It’s really nothing special, but it is the kind of thing that Jesus does.


Mark Love: “Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ.”

One of my friends/mentors, Mark Love, has begun highlighting what he calls “signs that your congregation is growing in their participation in the life and mission of God.”

So far, it’s all brilliant.

In his first post, Dr. Love (yes, really) claims that a healthy, missional church will be typified by hospitality and diversity. Every word is worth reading, but in case you’re not going to take the time to read it all here, here’s a little snippet to get you thinking:

“Does your congregation do a good job of welcoming and involving a diverse range of individuals? You are participating in the new creation of God if you are living into Paul’s exhortation, ‘welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.’ The key here is ‘as Christ has welcomed you.’ The welcome of Christ creates a community where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.

Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ.

What do you think? Have you been a part of Christian community whose embodiment of God’s hospitality resulted in a multi-ethnic, mixed-income, and/or inter-generational family? If so, what did they do to cultivate that sort of welcome?

I’m guessing it took more than smiley people shaking hands at the door…