Category Archives: death

Real Life and Cancer Sucks

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under death, eternity, Uncategorized

Beautifully Complicated

Last week my wife and I drove from Denver, CO to Hesston, KS. The majority of this drive took place on I-70. We left at 5 AM and the first few hours of the Colorado portion of the trip were in the dark. As the sun rose I began to notice billboards, both the homemade and professional versions. Many of these signs proclaimed something about the Christian faith:

Abortion stops a beating heart

You will die, then meet Jesus

Where will you go when you die?

Jesus is real

Smile, your mom chose life

Then there was the coffee break moment. As we approached the one Starbucks between Denver and Hesston, there was a “White Jesus” floating in a wheat field.

Rita and I went to Kansas to attend a funeral. A friend had lost his battle with cancer. He had just turned 40 and left behind a wife and two children. A few years earlier his sister, a mutual friend, and I drove our motorcycles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and back. It was an adventure that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Now I was driving I-70 reading one liners about a Christian faith I claim, and wondering why my friend was dead.

If we were traveling to Kansas for any other reason I doubt I would have even paid attention to the billboards. These signs and their attempts at reducing the Christian faith to a one liner that could be read as cars passed by at 75 miles per hour began to feel offensive.

Christianity at its best is a deeply complicated experience. On this particular day my feelings towards God were not at their healthiest. Children need their parents; why would God allow a father to die before his job was done? Grandparents and parents should not have to attend the funerals of their grandchildren and children.

We arrived in Hesston and made our way to the church. Hundreds of people came. As I silently watched the family come in my internal questioning of God only intensified. About halfway through the service my friend’s wife and siblings came to the front and shared the story of his life. In the retelling of my friend’s life story, a story of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and radical love also emerged.

Later on as more stories were told over a meal, I began to reflect on this Christian faith I cling to. The truth is I have moments where God and I are on the same page, followed by moments where I wonder if God is even present. There are times when I think I have my Christian ethics figured out only to be confronted with people of faith who don’t see the world like I do.

The Christian life, when lived honesty and without one-liners, is complicated. At its worst it is frustratingly complicated and at its best it is beautifully complicated, but always complicated. As much as I want to make it simple, God keeps complicating everything.

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Filed under Christian, church, death, doubt, faith, God questions, grace, strength, Uncategorized, wisdom

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

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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Filed under aging, canada, Christian, death, doubt, faith, God questions, grandpa, heavenly citizenship, kingdom of heaven, listening, losing faith, love, mad at god, maturity, mennonite, mourning, questions of church, relationship, religion, respect, responsibilities, rest, retired

Remembering

One of the habphotoits I have picked up over the last few years is running. Initially it was a way to lose weight and get in shape. In this sense running has been good for me; I have lost weight and my physical stamina is much improved. Running has become so much more than a way to stay physically active. There is something spiritual about running along Hollywood Boulevard at 7 AM before the tourists emerge or being stopped by the police in West Garfield Park, a neighborhood in Chicago, to find out if I really intended to be out and about in that particular part of town.

Running in my particular neighborhood, East Denver, helps me notice things that go unnoticed when I am rushing about in my car. Roadside memorials are one such thing. The memorials along my running routes are remembrances of people, mostly teens and young adults who were shot and killed as a result of gang activity.

This coming Saturday Edward Armijo, also known as East Side Eddie, is hosting “A Day to Remember Lost Lives Slain to Violence.” This event will take place at Sunken Gardens Park; this park is right across the street from my office. It is also a place where 1,000’s of DOOR participants have played soccer, ultimate Frisbee or escaped to for a few moments of silence.photo4

On Saturday over 1,000 names of young people who have died unnecessarily on the streets in Denver will be read. In some cases parents will share stories of lost loved ones. Tears will flow.

Since the late 90’s our family has lived in a community affected by violence. We know the difference between a fire cracker and a gun shot. By the way these are skills that were never taught in seminary. I know of no easy or quick fixes for urban violence. Serious solutions will demand that parents, schools, churches, the police and politicians work together.

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Filed under Bearing Witness, chaos, death, urban ministry, urban pastors

Ministry

Christian ministry is an interesting thing.  There is the idealized vision of what ministry might be and then there is the hard cold reality of what ministry is.  As a seminary student I remember dreaming about debating the important theological issues with church elders and deacons.  This dream always included a coffee shop with great ambiance.  It was during one of my first leadership meetings when we spent hours talking about the church budget that I began to wonder if coffee and theology would ever be a reality.

Then there were the pastoral tasks.  When officiating weddings, funerals and baptisms in my dream world I was wise, smart, pastoral and always treated with just the right amount of awe.  I forgot to ask the bride and groom to kiss at the first wedding I officiated.  A little over a decade ago I officiated at a friend’s funeral; he died at age 29 of leukemia.  I did not feel pastoral; as a matter of fact I hardly knew what to say, mostly I was mad at God – not very pastoral.  I come from a tradition where we baptize by immersion.  A few years ago I was conducting a baptismal service, everything was going smoothly.  The last person was on the taller side, as I lowered him into the water I did not account for his height and the shortness of the baptismal tank.  At this point it is important to note that that the tank was made of steel.  His head bounced loudly off the edge of the tank.  It is hard to look dignified and pastoral when you are up to your waist in water knocking someone into unconsciousness.  He survived, but the whole death and resurrection symbolism was a lot more real that day.

Added to all of this are life’s temptations.  Somehow I thought I would be above the desire to have a nice house, drive a sports car, wear the latest fashions and own the newest gadgets.  The truth is I want a nice house, I really like the 2012 Mustang, I find myself spending more time in the expensive department stores and I am hoping God leads me to buy an iPhone.  This is nothing compared to the private struggles.  I never thought that greed, lust and envy would be regular battles.  Aren’t ministers above this?  We are supposed to have an extra portion of Godliness.  Why would we want what others have?  Isn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to keep those lustful and impure thoughts in check?  How can it be that someone called by God can be envious?  After all, I was told we have a higher calling; doesn’t this calling and the work of the Holy Spirit render envy powerless?

This week I finished reading Ellie Roscher’s book, “How Coffee Saved my Life.”  Near the end she suggests that ministry begins when we let go of our expectations and embrace reality.  I agree.  Ministry is not about being super-human; it is about being human, fully human.  It is about letting the world know that God loves us when we make mistakes, struggle with budgets, wonder if God knows what God is doing and even when we lust.  This my friends is ministry!

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Filed under Christian, church, death, ideologies, mennonite

Fear, Violence and Death

This past Monday I was in Los Angeles when I received a text from my wife, “there was a fatal shooting at 29th and Franklin, it happened just as the High School was letting out.”  I live a 31st and Franklin.  The 18 year old victim died.  My son turns 18 later this year so when I hear of an 18 year old being shot to death in my neighborhood, it becomes personal very quickly.  According to my neighbors this was a gang related shooting.

The news this week has also been dominated by a shooting in Florida.  An unarmed 17 year old was shot to death justifiably, according Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”  In what world is shooting an unarmed teen justifiable?  Can we really claim to be a Christian Nation and have laws that allow us to kill each other?

Philosophically what happened in Denver is as “justifiable” as what happened in Florida.  A gang member was simply standing his ground – protecting his turf.

I can almost understand why people without faith believe that standing your ground is important and correct, but what I cannot understand is how anyone in the faith community could even begin to endorse a law like this.

Stand your ground laws help to legitimize prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes.  It is not surprising that both of the dead teens happen to be black.  It is this is population that has been victimized most by society’s irrational fears.

We are not going to get past things like racism, prejudice, and fear by creating space for justifiable murder.  If anything, allowing civilians to arm themselves makes these issues more contencious.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Jesus had it right all along.  Swords and guns must be transformed into instruments of peace.  When we arm each other it becomes too easy to let fear dictate our actions and fear too often leads to unwarranted violence.

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Filed under Beloved Community, death, Desmund Tutu, diversity, enemies, enemy, Martin Luther King, MLK, multicultural, racism, racist

Words of Comfort

I remember the first funeral I officiated at like it was yesterday.  She had passed away quietly of old age.  In an effort figure out what to say at the service I arranged to meet with the family a couple of days before the service, my goal was to get to “know” this lady.  I would weave what I learned into the meditation.  Imagine my surprise when the entire family agreed that they were glad that she had finally died.  Apparently she was mean, angry and insufferable for as far back as anyone could remember.  It was not an easy first funeral, but I must have done OK because afterwards a deacon came and thanked me for “finding just the right words” for such a difficult situation.

That was over 20 years ago.  I have officiated at many funerals since and figuring out what to say has not gotten any easier.

What do you say to the grieving parents who have just suffered to loss of a newborn baby?

How do you comfort a grieving newlywed whose husband has just died of leukemia?

Where do you find words of comfort for others who are mourning the death of your mother?

What do you say when a loving husband of 50+ years finally slips into eternity?

How do you tell your children that grandpa isn’t coming back?

Finding words of comfort is never easy.  Death is scary.  Sometimes in the rush to be pastoral and comforting it is easy to say all the wrong things for all the right reasons.  The twelve words at the top of this list are: “If given the opportunity to come back, they would choose to stay.”

Really, is this the kind of God we serve?  A God who intentionally keeps loved ones apart from each other?

My mother died 8 years ago.  I cannot imagine a scenario where my boys are better off because she has gone to a “better place.”  If I tell my boys that grandma doesn’t want to come back, how are they supposed to understand that?  That grandma doesn’t love them anymore?  Telling grieving families that loved ones would choose not to come back makes God seem mean, self-centered and small.

As Christians our faith does talk about the hope of life beyond death, this hope should be talked about at funerals.  Turning the hope of heaven and reunion into “I don’t love you anymore” is wrong.

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Filed under aging, Christian, death, eternity, faith, funeral, grandpa, leukemia, ministry, mourning, religion, responsibilities