Category Archives: losing faith

Mikey and Anthony

Last week I wrote about one of our staff who has lived with a very real fear of being shot for over 30 years. This past Sunday one of our Discerners in Chicago lived that reality.

Michael (Mikey) Taylor, our Discerner, and his cousin Anthony Jackson were returning home from a night out. While at the bus stop they noticed a car full of young adults slow down and look them. At first they were not too worried because the bus was approaching. The car quickly turned and circled back through the alley. Meanwhile the bus was delayed at the stop light. As the car came by the second time, four shots rang out. Mikey dived behind the bus stop bench and the bullets barely missed him.  Anthony wasn’t so fortunate. Three shots hit Anthony, one in the leg and two in the shoulder.

As I am writing this Anthony is recovering from his second surgery. Initially the doctors and Mikey thought Anthony had been shot twice. There were two obvious entry points. Twenty four hours later they found a third bullet in his shoulder.

Today Mikey and other family members are at the hospital with Anthony. For the first time in 48 hours the prognosis is no longer life threatening. There is just a whole lot of healing that needs to take place, both physical and emotional.

All of this is taking place in the middle of our Discover season. This week our Chicago program is hosting 57 participants from Indiana, Georgia, and Oklahoma. DOOR hosts programs in five cities. We invite people to our cities to “See the Face of God in the City.” One of the reasons Mikey chose to work for DOOR this summer was his desire to show visitors another side of Chicago. He said, “I want to show people how Chicago really is, and that it is not a war zone. There are some people that want to help improve the city. I won’t stop teaching and telling the multiple stories of Chicago until people have a deeper understanding of our city!”

There is a part of me that doesn’t know what to do with these events. Why would God allow this to happen? The truth is, these kinds of tragedies are happening every day. Mikey knew this when he signed up for DOOR. Yet he wanted to and continues to want to show our participants another side, a more hopeful side, of Chicago where God is present.

This blog is dedicated to Mikey and all of our racialized and marginalized staff across the country. Their willingness to come to work every day and speak truth to power is a living testimony of the power of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16):

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Please keep Mikey, Anthony, and their friends and family in your prayers. When we hired MikeyMikey one of the first questions his mother asked of us was, would he be safe? She recently lost her other son. Facing another death in the family would be more than she could handle.

 

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Filed under Bearing Witness, Beloved Community, chaos, church camp, DOOR, Fear, fear-based decisions, losing faith, love, mad at god, mourning, Uncategorized, violence

A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives.

What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

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Leadership

Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission.

This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.

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Embracing Difference & Green Chili

It has been almost 20 years since I made a significant career and life change. Back in 1994 I was pastoring in a church where almost everyone looked, thought, and believed like me. In many ways this made being a pastor “easy.” For the most part my convictions and stereotypes were identical to the people in my church. We knew which political party to vote for, where to go for lunch, what neighborhoods to live in, and the best school district for our children. We all agreed about right and wrong and had a common understanding of what a sinful lifestyle was.

By the start of 1995 many of my tight definitions and convictions about faith and life began to erode. Moving from a monoculture (suburbs) to a multicultural (city) world began a change. Everything I thought I knew about God and the life of faith was put to the test. In the city I met a God, apparently my God, who wasn’t predicable and certainly had no respect for my well thought through theological conclusions or understandings. It was almost as if God was showing me God’s rebellious and mischievous side.

In the city I found myself working with people who claimed “Christianity” but held convictions that opposed what I thought where no-brainers, the basics. At first this was hard. How could someone claim the same faith as me and vote for the other party, or embrace a lifestyle I understood to be wrong? For a while I put up a fight. When I look back on it now, I sort of thought of myself as an urban martyr for Jesus. I suspect that Jesus was mildly humored by this impulse.

I probably would still hold to the martyr perspective if I hadn’t encountered green chili. Not just any green chili, but Denver west-side green chili. For those of you not from Denver, it would be money well spent to travel to Denver and sample some of this culinary delight. As a Mennonite from Canada my primary way of adding spice to food was to reach for the salt and pepper.

Green chili comes in many varieties and everyone seems to have a unique family recipe. Regardless of the recipe, it is fair to say that green chili is significantly spicier than adding salt and pepper. At first this chili was a shock to my taste buds. From a certain perspective the spiciness was sinful. Over time I came to understand green chili as simply different from the foods I had grown up with. Today this difference has become tasty and enjoyable.

Leaning to embrace and accept different foods has only served to increase my eating enjoyment. I still like the food I grew up with, but learning about other foods has expanded my world. 

I have tried to take this lesson about food into my faith world. Just because someone sees their faith differently than I do, this does not immediately make them sinners. It just means they are different. Learning to embrace and appreciate those differences only serves to expand my understanding of God. In a sense it serves to make my faith spicier. Trust me, spicy is good.

If as people of faith we can learn to table judgment and embrace difference, the Good News of the gospel would actually be Good News.

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Mother’s Day

While most of the people I know celebrated Mother’s Day on May 11, I waited a week. It was 11 years ago on May 18 that my mother passed away. To be honest May Mom18 has never gotten any easier for me. Time does not seem to heal all wounds. I miss my mom a whole lot. For years people have told me that she is in a better place. On one level I can accept that sentiment, but there is a whole other side of me that completely rejects the idea.

It was almost 20 years ago at the Christmas dinner table that my Mom wondered aloud if she would ever become a grandmother. At that point Rita and I had been married for eight years; apparently we needed to produce a grandchild. Without going in to all the details, Christmas dinner the following year included a grandchild and the following year we added a second grandbaby.

My mother loved her grandchildren and my boys adored their grandmother. There are memories I have of my mother and boys that are as strong today as the moment they happened. I can still see the four of them (grandpa included) playing Chutes and Ladders for hours on end in a cabin on Prince Edward Island. There were the summers my parents came to Denver in their motor home and every morning I would watch the boys sneak out the house and into the motorhome for breakfast with grandma and grandpa.

When grandma died, my boys cried a whole lot. Then 11 years went by. The other day I asked one of my boys what he remembered about grandma. He was quiet for a while and then said not much. It almost broke my heart.

Is grandma in a better place? The answer is complicated. I am glad her suffering is over. My mother was never a healthy person and towards the end of her life things became increasingly unbearable. I remember the day when my prayers switched from “God please heal her” to “please take her home to be with you.”

Why is it that God didn’t answer the first prayer but did answer the second? My youngest graduate’s high school this month. For the most part he grew up without grandma Balzer. On this particular week I am not happy with God. My boys are better people for having had my mother in their lives, for that I am thankful. But her time with them was far too short and memories have faded, and that makes me sad and even a little upset with God. Is heaven really a better place for her? She still had work to do here, especially with her grandchildren.

A little over 11 years ago I wrote this as a tribute to my mother:

Today is a day about remembering, with honor and love, the life of my mother, Bertha Balzer. And if I am going to be honest – I have to tell you that this is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

How does a son memorialize his mother? What do I say that will be of encouragement to you – family and friends?

Earlier this month my sister Sharon and I were able to visit with mom about this service and she had her own ideas about how this memorial should be conducted. She did not want this to be an unhappy occasion, but rather a celebration – a celebration of a life well lived.

When I asked mom how she wanted to be remembered without hesitation she said, “As a person who loved people.” For the past three weeks, I have had the opportunity to reflect on this and I would have to agree – my mother was a person who knew how to love.

Just ask my father – for 40 years their love for each other blossomed – in spite of mom’s health. It almost seemed that as mom’s health declined their love for each other grew. As I have struggled with this meditation, I wish I could give some clear-cut reason why my mother had to suffer so, but I cannot. I cannot explain why suffering exists in a universe created by a loving God. But the same God who loved the world enough to give us Jesus also knew my mother’s pains and sorrows.

This sanctuary is full of people who have been touched by my mother’s love.

As a sister, she always spoke well of her siblings and she adored her nieces and nephews. Visiting relatives was always a priority. 

She became a nurse because she wanted to care for people, not just their bodies – but their souls as well.

As a mother, Bertha knew what it was to love so deeply that tears would often well up as she spoke about and prayed for her children. The house was never as important as the people who occupied it. And work never took precedence over family. For Mom family was much more than blood – once you were in there was no way out. 

As a friend Mom knew how to find the best in people. I cannot recall my mother ever saying an unkind word about anybody.

In her role as a “pastor’s wife” Mom knew how to support her husband – not as a tag along, but as an equal partner. For Mom the calling was not just Dad’s, but theirs. She knew the key to ministry, you could see it in her face, feel it in her touch, and experience it in her presence – she loved people – unconditionally. She knew how to put people at ease. When someone needed to talk Mom knew how to listen. When compassion was required Mom knew how to weep. She knew that being a help-mate meant helping others find and experience a loving, caring and compassionate God. It meant helping her husband, children, and grandchildren in the battle for their faith. It meant being a rock to cling to in troubled times. My mother knew that strength was more than muscles – it was an inner spiritual fortitude – nurtured through a life of prayer. Her love was something that strengthened everyone who came in touch with her. 

Her desire to have grandchildren was made crystal clear to Rita and me 10 Christmas’s ago when around the dinner table my mother, my timid mother, lamented that she would die before she became a Gramma – talk about “loving” pressure. In her role as Gramma my mother demonstrated new depths in her ability to love. Kyle, Quinten and Lillie will forever be shaped by Gramma Balzer’s love for them. 

The words of the country music song say, “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it’s what you leave behind you when you go.” My mother, Bertha Balzer, chose well. She chose people over programs, family over work, prayer over business, and love over things. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest is love.” 

This morning through tears we have gathered to say good-bye. It is hard to do this. I don’t know what Christmas without mom is going to be like. But we must say good-bye. And we must keep hold of the many wonderful memories we have of her. We can celebrate the fact that she lived her life well. That she touched so many – so deeply.  

Bertha, a mother, a wife, a sister, an aunt, and a friend is now at peace. She has fought the good fight and has run the race to the finish line. God has now welcomed Bertha into a new heavenly home – a place where pain and poor health are no more. 

Today I am reminded of the biblical story of Enoch a man who was known for two things – he walked with God and never died. Scripture says that God translated him directly from life on earth to being in the presence of God in heaven. 

A young girl was once asked by her Sunday school teacher to tell the story of Enoch in her own words. She said, “Well, Enoch and God were good friends. And they used to take long walks in Enoch’s Garden. One day God said, ‘Enoch, you look tired. Why don’t you come to my place and rest a while?’ And so he did.” In a sense God has said the same thing to my mother: “Bertha you look tired, you have run a good race, you have been faithful to your calling – why don’t you come to my place and stay and rest?” 

So let us rejoice in the life of Bertha Balzer and know that she is at peace! Amen.

 

 

 

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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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Unity

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.”   Have you ever wondered if unity is possible, especially among people of faith?  In my more cynical moments I wonder if the unity that emerged during the council at Jerusalem was a “one-off” event.

Today the church seems to make more headlines for its theological division than for its ability to bring folks together.  The reasons for this fracturing are varied and move from humorous to sad.  There is an urban legend about a church that split over a painting in the baptistery that depicted Adam and Eve with belly buttons.  When I was in college I remember debating vigorously about the virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection.  If someone was on the other side of my position I quickly moved to questioning their faith commitments.

In 2013 many faith battles are directly connected to sexuality.  As more and more churches rethink think their stances on the ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians the church seems less and less unified.  Some church leaders have even taken to starting new denominations over these disputes.

I realize that unity for the sake of unity makes no sense.  After all if everyone is unified in allowing something that is evil to occur then unity is only allowing a mass of folks to do and be wrong.  Unifying people of faith around unity only is pointless at best.

This does not change that Jesus’ final hope for people of faith was that they would be unified (read John 17).  My job provides me with many opportunities to work with both liberal and conservative believers.  If I am honest I see no quick faith fix to the sexuality battles.  Unity is still a possibility.  It will demand something people of faith often confuse with backsliding – compromise.

Like the leaders at the council of Jerusalem the church needs to become less concerned with burdening its membership with unnecessary requirements.  When Jesus was asked what was most important, his response was simple, concise, and profound.  For Jesus everything boiled down to love.  Anything we do as individuals or communities of faith that violates this rule moves all of us towards dis-unity.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “love God, love your neighbor, nothing else matters.”

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Church

A Facebook friend and “former” member of a church I pastored a few years ago shared the following status, “I’ve got nothing against God; it’s his fan club I can’t stand.” Statements like this make me sad. Personally I am a huge believer in the church. Quite frankly I do not know how I could be a Christian without the support of a home church. But neither am I naïve. Too often the church is not a healthy place. On August 22 a local newspaper, Denver Westword, ran a detailed story of a pastor who seems to be using grace as a way to justify his moral failures. In his wake there are a series of women who have been hurt and even terrorized.

Beyond the moral failures of leadership there are the moral judgments. Too often the church has been a place of condemnation and judgment. Over the course of history the church has managed to find “justifiable theologies” to condemn almost everything. African Americans were seen as less than human, non-white immigrants could be part of the family as long as they stayed on their side of the border, women were not fit for leadership, and people of various orientations were not and are not admitted.

In some senses the evidence is overwhelming. The church of today cannot be the church that Jesus envisioned when he appointed Peter as the rock upon which the church would be built.

The church is so much more than “judgment” and “moral failure.” Today, August 28, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. was a product of the church. His dream was rooted in a connection to a community of faith.

Since 1994 people of faith have been gathering at the US-Mexican border to celebrate “posada sin fronteras.” This is a celebration where the church comes together to say no to walls of division and yes to a bond that is more powerful than political boundaries.

Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and author of Tattoos on the Heart, tells the story of how people of faith – the church- can change the destiny of those the world has given up on.

The church is still a powerful agent for change. Yes it gets tripped up from time to time. The news media and social media will play a role in keeping the church and its leaders accountable. This is good. My hope and prayer is that people will not abandon the church because of its sins, but rather chose to hold the church accountable. When the church is accountable, it is also prophetic. Prophetic gives way to hope and change.

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Losing your faith

I was back at Gunther Toody’s again this week. One of the men in around the table is a former pastor who no longer believes in God. This week he began to share about his journey from faith to rejection of God.

It was not easy to listen to his story.

He was the senior pastor of a growing church. He was well respected and loved. He cared for people. He prayed with people. He preformed weddings and presided at funerals. Somewhere in the middle of it all, he lost his faith.

Someday, I hope to hear the whole story, but today I heard part of the story.

It began with a question directed to me, “What is the purpose of the church?” This is a dangerous question.

After all, what is the purpose of the church?

I have two teenage boys. They are starting to do all the things that teens do, but they love the youth program at our church. As a parent it is thrilling to know that my boys want to go to church. Attending a church that my boys want to go to is important.

For me one of the purposes of church is to provide quality programming for my boys.

As I answered his question, he began to smile.

“Really?” he said, “what about Jesus’ call to be salt and light? Isn’t the church supposed to serve its community? When did the church become a club just to look after our own?”

I am a parent; I believe that the church has a responsibility to care for its own. That said, when the church becomes a closed system, or, to put it another way, when the church becomes so inward-focused that it no longer has space for new people or time to get involved in neighborhood or money for needs and programs beyond the four walls of the church, we might as well own the fact that we are on the road to losing our faith.

The church was never intended to be a country club to serve my needs and the needs of my family. The church, the body of Christ, those of us who use the term “Christian” to define ourselves, are called to be salt and light. As one writer said, “Salt is only helpful if it gets out of the saltshaker and into the world.”

One more time, what is the purpose of church?

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