Category Archives: Family

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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Filed under death, eternity, Family, Uncategorized

Safety – 2016

If you are a regular follower of my blog, you already know that one of our Discern staff was involved in a shooting last week. One of my first responses was to send out a prayer request and write a blog to tell the story and update everyone. None of this is unusual in the life of DOOR. When we need prayer, we ask. The support has been incredible. There is nothing like knowing people from around North America are praying.

There is another side to being so public about dramatic events in the life of DOOR. People who are getting ready to participate in our Chicago program are also reading these updates. This results in phone calls. Although the question comes in different forms, they all boil down to this – is your program safe for our youth?

I spent 15 years as a youth worker. So I am familiar with the questions parents and concerned leaders ask. My regular response is, “DOOR has been around for 30 years and we have yet to send someone to the hospital because of an interaction with the local community.” It is not uncommon for participants to visit the hospital because of altitude sickness (a Denver issue) or because someone slipped and fell. At DOOR we take the safety of our participants very seriously and do everything in our power to avoid a crisis.

The more theological side of me always wonders about the safety questions. I am not sure that Jesus ever said that Christianity offered a life of safety. Jesus did, however, talk about cross bearing.

This time the safety question has taken on a new emotion. You see, my oldest son, Kyle, is serving as a Dweller in Chicago. So when I was asked about safety it wasn’t a theoretical question. My wife and I literally have our flesh and blood on the ground and in the middle of the question. So, is it safe? I can say without hesitation that I unequivocally trust our staff with the well-being of my children (the other son is serving in Miami) and all the DOOR participants across all of our programing.

At its best a DOOR experience will change your life. Mikey and the rest of our Discerners are real people who are faced with challenges from racism to violence at a much higher rate than most of us. Participating in DOOR provides a space to give witness to these realities and then a challenge to go home and work for real change.

An update on Mikey: Anthony is healing and possibly going home this week. Mikey and the rest of the Discerners are doing well but it was evident from some art therapy that they are feeling heavy around this issue of gun violence and how it impacts them every day. One of DOOR’s unplanned costs is in the area of mental health. We would like to provide Discerners like Mikey with the opportunity to see a therapist. As we all know mental and emotional healing is part of the journey towards wholeness. If you would like to contribute and support the mental health needs of our staff would have faced violence please donate:

Make checks payable to DOOR and write “Health and Healing Fund” in the memo line. Mail to 430 W 9th Ave, Denver CO 80204.

Donate online at www.doornetwork.org/donate. Indicate the donation is for the “Health and Healing Fund” in the donation designation field.

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Filed under Christian, DOOR, faith, Family, ministry, short-term mission, theology, Uncategorized, urban ministry, violence

A time to weep

In Romans 12:15 the Apostle Paul calls us to, “weep with those who weep.” Like many I first heard about the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida Sunday morning as I got ready for church. 50 people killed and 53 others injured. The worst domestic act of terror since 9-11. This is a time to weep. 50 people, 49 victims and 1 hated filled perpetrator, each one created in the very image and likeness of God, gone. This is the kind of stuff that breaks God’s heart. Then to find out the shooter was acting as both judge and jury towards our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, added an additional level of pain to an already heart-rending day.

If there was ever a time for people of faith to stand shoulder to shoulder, this was it. Sunday was a day when every worshipper in every church, mosque, and temple needed to stop, pray, and mourn.

Now, a few days after, I am also bothered by a conspicuous silence by some in the faith community; the leaders, pastors, and lay people who are uncomfortable. Without a doubt this is a moment to lay aside our theological and political differences and stand together. Our common humanity negates any theological, religious, lifestyle, or political differences we might harbor.

If people of faith cannot find a way to stand together and be present, supportive, loving, and praying, our faith really doesn’t have much significance.

My role at DOOR affords me a tremendous amount of contact with young people. One of their major frustrations with the church and people of faith is hypocrisy. They hear sermons about a loving God, then watch their leaders condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They are told about a pro-life God, then instructed to buy guns to protect themselves. They hear the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,” and are then told to hate the gays, the Muslims, and anyone who doesn’t respect our way of life.

I am tired of religious expressions that are constantly looking for ways to exclude, hate, and judge. I claim a faith that rejoices with those who rejoice, mourns with those who mourn, and steadfastly believes that everyone is created in the image of God.

Today I stand with Orlando, Florida. Today I stand with all my brothers and sisters who have been judged. Today I choose to believe that love wins and hate loses.

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Filed under Beloved Community, death, diversity, DOOR, faith, Family, politics, religion, religious system, Uncategorized

Baseball & Reporters

2014-04-08 17.13.40Last Friday I cut out of work early to catch the first of my son’s double header. It was one of the last baseball games of the season. My travel schedule is such that I miss too many of his games. When I am in town and he is scheduled to play, I go.

Before the first inning was finished, I was approached by a young man in a suit. All by itself this was a bit strange, after all who wears a suit to a high school baseball game? He initiated the conversation, asking if I’m a parent and if my son is in right field? This went on for about 10 minutes; eventually he got around to explaining his presence. He was a reporter for the local Fox news station. They were doing a follow-up story to the “gun incident” that occurred two days prior and wanted get some “parent” reactions.

According to his source a student had brought a loaded gun to school. He was caught before anyone was harmed. Stories like this are hard to hear and understand. What is it that drives a teen to the point of wanting to commit this kind of violence? Why are guns so accessible?

After I worked through all the philosophical and theological questions, it began to dawn on me. My son goes to that school. If the situation had escalated, my son could have been in the line of fire. This is not a pleasant thought. This kind of reflecting quickly leads to a strange kind of personal questioning. What are the decisions I made that ended up with my son being in that school?

Almost 20 years ago our family moved from the suburbs of Denver to the city; according to some it was the inner city. Then we choose enroll our boys in the local elementary school, one that would eventually “three strike out” under no child left behind. This decision influenced where our boys would attend middle and high school – local and public.

All along the way well-meaning people have asked us questions. How can you send you boys to those schools? Are you being a responsible parent? Then there were the strangely judgmental comments. As a parents you are responsible for the safety and well-being of your children. These comments and questions seemed to be lodged in the assumption that the “inner city” was dangerous and the “suburbs” were safe.

All of this was weighing on my mind last Friday. This story does not end on Friday, and thankfully neither does the Christian story, Sunday eventually comes around. On Sunday DOOR Denver held its third annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. This is an event where a number of local churches get together and share food, worship, and fellowship. There are Mennonites, Hispanic Pentecostals, Folklorico Dancers, and rap artists who spend an afternoon together celebrating each other’s culture. My favorite part is eating Mennonite pies with rice, beans, and carnitas tacos in one sitting – a Mennonite Mexican fusion meal!

As always I was left with a choice. Would I let the violence in my neighborhood be the defining result of my family’s move from the suburbs to the city? Or would the multi-cultural celebrations of faith, food, music, and friendships be the defining factor?

Please don’t get me wrong, I want to do everything in my power and sphere of influence to reduce and deescalate the “need” to act violently. Honestly, once you move past the stereotypes of where violence occurs, my neighborhood isn’t that much different than any other neighborhood. Learning to see the world through the eyes of other cultures, classes, and religions is a gift that my boys will carry with them for a lifetime.

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Filed under Bearing Witness, Beloved Community, Christian, community, distinctives, diversity, faith, Family, ministry, racism, theology, urban ministry

Entitlement and the young adult

I have been working with youth and young adults for well over two decades now.  During this time I have also become a parent of two young adult boys (men).  I say this because I am not innocent of the issues I want to raise.

2013-12-27 12.59.34

We live in an era when parents are more involved in the lives of their emerging adult children than ever.  This didn’t just happen. Concerned parents have been there at every step, from planned play dates and selecting the right pre-school to hiring tutors and college prep coaches; we have wanted nothing but the best for our children.  Smart phones and social media have allowed instant and continuous access to literally everything our children do and are engaged in.  It might even be an understatement to say that parents have embraced these tools fully.  The jury is still out as to the benefits and costs of this level of social media.  It is not a stretch to suggest that these instantaneous connections slow down the “letting go” process.

It makes sense that letting go is not easy for either the parents or the young adult children.  What we sometimes fail to recognize is the cost to this extended and intense connection.  A grown child’s dependence on the parent to always be present, always come through, and always be available delays adulthood and creates a level of personal entitlement that stunts social development.

In the last few years I have seen this play out in all kinds of unhealthy ways.  Parents have inserted themselves into the crises and stresses of their young adult’s experiences in our Dwell program.  At DOOR, Dwell is a program that invites young adults to spend a year living in intentional community exploring the call of God on their lives.  During their year all kinds of issues and stresses arise from the mundane, like deciding who will cook dinner and how to keep the house clean, to the serious, like how to deal with health concerns or a co-worker who is acting inappropriate.

In the last few years it has become increasingly common for parents to insert themselves into the “crisis.”  Their reasoning is always good, “I am just looking out for the well-being of my child.”  As a parent I understand these fears and concerns all too well, so I am also speaking to myself. Our young adult children will never become mature functioning adults if we, the parents, keep inserting ourselves in their crises, attempting to be the hero and fix everything.

Deep down all of us know that failure and stress are the things that develop character.  Rescuing only creates dependence and immaturity.  It is a natural impulse for parents to protect their children, but there also comes a time when we need to let our children fight their own battles, even when they beg us to fight on their behalf.

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Filed under accomplish, aging, control, doubt, Family, Fear, respect, responsibilities

The Table

Note:  This is an article I wrote for “Zing,” the monthly newsletter of Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC).  This is the group that holds my ordination credentials.  Recently MSMC licensed an openly gay pastor.  As you might imagine this decision resulted in a tremendous amount of controversy.  Letters have been written in support, in opposition and calling for more conversation.  While at the same time some churches are contemplating what it means to leave the conference.  The goal of this article is to suggest that there is a way for us to stay to together without having to surrender biblical convictions.  Your thoughts and feedback will be much appreciated!

On September 11, 2011 I did something I never thought I would do, I got ordained.  For almost 20 years I avoided this decision.  There were good reasons for not taking this step.  In general my reasons boiled down to not feeling that I would be fully accepted.  I grew up Mennonite Brethren, so I tended to hold a conservative understanding of Scripture.  In 1994 I started working for a program on the Westside of Denver called Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR).  This ministry experience has consistently challenged every one of my deeply held convictions, except one.  I believe that Scripture is God’s message to us and must be taken seriously.

This tension has put me in a strange place.  My conservative friends think I have gone over to the “other side” and my liberal friends don’t always know what to do with my conservative leanings.  These tensions left me in a space of never feeling like I could belong or be accepted.  That is until I met Herm Weaver, our conference minister.  Over the years he has been slowly introducing me to the people of Mountain States Mennonite Conference.  It is in this conference that I saw things I didn’t think were possible- conservative and liberal churches participating as co-laborers and equals.  MSMC is living in tensions that would split most conferences.

What I have come to understand is that being at the table together trumps any of the reasons that would cause us to leave the table.  This isn’t always easy because sometimes our differences are significant.  2014 is going to test us.  Talking about leadership and sexual orientation is not easy or comfortable. There are many voices that will tell us that the prudent thing to do is separate.  For some it even feels like a litmus test; that unless you agree with my position we are going to have to leave the conference.  When I speak with people both for and against the ordination of gay and lesbian persons this issue quickly becomes an all or nothing faith matter.  In situations like this it is tempting to assume a “my way or the highway” stance.

In Matthew 22:34-39 Jesus is questioned about his understanding of the law. In short he says love God, love people.  I have a friend to takes this statement one step farther by adding “nothing else matters.”  The call to love God and love people seems to be the lens Jesus calls us to use when dealing with difficult issues.  When we choose to leave a conversation or sever a relationship are we not ignoring this imperative?

I would like to suggest that leaving, or expelling, is the sin that should concern us the most.  The primary call of the people of God and the church is to relationships that include reconciliation, redemption, and restoration.  If any of us leaves the table we are in essence saying that this is no longer possible.  My friends, that is a decision only God can make.

Staying at the table demonstrates to those outside the church that we are not afraid to engage the difficult issues of the day.  As members of Mennonite Church USA the decision of one worshipping body does not dictate the convictions or beliefs of another worshipping body.  Staying together even in the midst of great difference does demonstrate to the world one of our core convictions – all people are made in the very image and likeness of God and for that reason we chose together instead of separate.

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Filed under assumptions, Christian, distinctives, diversity, faith, Family, grace, kingdom of heaven, losing faith, love, mennonite, Mennonite Church USA, multicultural, mutual trust, mutuality, purity, relationship, religion, religious system, sinner, theology, unifying, unity

Ministry 101

I have a friend who likes to talk about his decision to come to Denver’s Westside.  It was 1965; his thought was that he would stick around 3-5 years, because that was the commitment needed to fix poverty, violence, and poor education.  It is 2012 and he is still there.

There is a popular idea among church and ministry leaders that goes something like this: “I will stay around just long enough to work myself out of a job.”  On the surface this sounds noble, empowering, and a little romantic.  However, the more I think about this notion the more I dislike it.

Authentic ministry always includes things like presence, community, mutuality, and walking alongside the other.  When leaders stand behind statements like “I am going to work myself out of a job,” it often becomes permission to stand apart from those we have been called to work with.  Standing apart is not terribly Christian.

A number of years ago John Perkins wrote about ministry in and among at-risk communities. For Perkins ministry needed to be done together and it needed to be done right. Perkins proposed three “R’s” for ministry – reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.  Anyone who has taken these ideas seriously knows that it isn’t about working yourself out of a job. It is about becoming a part of a community.  When you join a community their issues become your issues.  People cease to be ministry projects that require fixing or guidance and instead become family and friends who need a hand to hold.  When we become family, walking away becomes unimaginable.

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Filed under assumptions, CCDA, community, culture, Denver's west side, faith, Family, John Perkins

The Call

In my work I get to spend a lot of time with people who are thinking about the call to full-time ministry.  They want to preach, direct a Christian education program or lead a para-church ministry.  From a distance the “call” can seem adventurous and life-giving.  But that is not always the case; Brain McLaren sums up a reality that many of us in “the ministry” face his book A New Kind of Christian:

I found the pastorate a pretty hard place to be a growing, thinking, honest Christian.  Too many people want you to spout the party line, never question, never think.  In the end, it was a matter of integrity and compassion.  If I had been honest in the pulpit about what was going on in my mind and heart – my questioning, my reevaluating – I would either have split the church or been fired.

 This inner conflict has been part of my reality for the past 20 years.  My Christian faith, my call to ministry is both the most important part of who I am and what I do as well as the most frustrating part of who I am and how I live.  I love what I do but I am always looking for a reason to quit.

These tensions have influenced my understanding of God’s call on my life.  There are days when I feel called and there are days when I am quite sure that God is just messing with me.  In a few days I am going to take a step that I have actively avoided for at least two decades – ordination.

Why am I doing this now?  My struggle with God is still an everyday reality – just this morning I came up with a new reason to quit!  Ultimately my faith is just that – a step of faith.  When I look back at the last 20 years it hasn’t been perfect, but God has been present – encouraging, patiently allowing me to rant and question and providing church families that love on me and my family without condition.

This Sunday, I will take a step of faith;  believing that God has called me into the ministry, not because I have my act together, but because God has called me in spite of my strengths and weaknesses. If you are in Denver this Sunday, September 11 you are invited to His Love Fellowship Church at 3 PM to celebrate the next step in my journey.

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Filed under A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren, Family, His Love Fellowship, The Call

Why?

I am writing this entry from my front porch.  Across the street a family is gathering,  mostly to support each other.  Earlier this week Hector (not his real name) was rushed to Denver Health Medical Center.  He had slipped into unconsciousness. His liver is failing and unless he gets a new one he is going to die.  Hector is a father of four; the youngest just started kindergarten at the school down the street.

I met him the day I moved into this neighborhood, 14 years ago.  He likes to talk – a lot!  He is a good neighbor, father, worker and husband.  It is obvious that he adores his family.

On its own this is one of those situations that raise all kinds of “God” questions – Why would you allow this to happen?  Is this really just?

But there are other complicating factors as well.  You see Hector does not have “documentation” that allows him to “legally” live in this country.  The direct implication is that he is not “qualified” to be on a transplant list.  I realize that immigration is an extremely contentious political issue.  But watching this scene play out across the street and in front of my eyes moves the discussion from a disconnected political debate to a deeply personal reality.

Hector is going to die and leave behind a family that needs him, simply because of where he was born.  Somehow this makes him less worthy – less human.  Can this be moral, right or just?  Especially in a country that regularly claims to own the moral high ground.

The more I study Scripture the more the theme of “inclusion” emerges.  How we treat the stranger and alien says something about the quality of our faith.

I am not a politician.  I still believe that this is one of the most amazing places to live.  But we can be better and we can do better.  One of the first steps is choosing to welcome, include and allow access to all levels of services to the strangers and aliens among us.

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Filed under Bearing Witness, community, culture, Denver Health Medical Center, Family, God questions, immigration, just, liver, local communities, moral, political debate, religion, respect, responsibilities, right, rights, transplant list, urban ministry, White Privilege

Reflection

“Thinking is by far the most frightening and dangerous act any human being can perform.  People would rather die than be forced to think.  A whole nation would rather blow itself to pieces than question its basic values.  Whole groups of religious sects all through history have preferred committing mass suicide rather than face the possibility of error or change.”

                Victor Villasenor, Crazy Loco Love

One of the more challenging tasks I have struggled with as a parent has to do with passing on my Christian faith to my boys.  I would like them to believe like I believe, but I also want them to think for themselves.

Just like my boys, I grew up in a Christian home; it was easy to claim Christianity.  As a matter of fact to not claim Christianity would have been hard work and would have led to unwanted family tension.  When asked, I described myself as a Christian, but for all intents and purposes Christianity wasn’t really my faith.  It was a faith of convenience and peer pressure.  I suspect that my experience is not terribly unique and I wonder how similar my boy’s faith journey is to mine.

The good news, for me anyway, is that my faith journey continued and today I can claim a Christian faith of my own.  The scary part, at least for some, is that the road to making my faith my own began with questioning everything.

From the basic – why do we go to church on Sunday?  To the complex – do those people who preach about the end times even know what they are talking about?   To the uncomfortable – why is the church so judgmental?  Do we really get to determine who is in and who is out?

This process of questioning everything was instrumental in helping me make Christianity my faith.  I do not believe in the same way my parents believed, but that is OK.  I suspect that my boys will not believe the same way I believe and one way or another I will have to be OK with that.

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Filed under doubt, faith, Family, Victor Villasenor