Identity – Who am I?

There is one question that has haunted me for as long as I can remember, who am I? Earlier today I had lunch with a good friend. After lunch we walked around the neighborhood he grew up in. It was memorizing to listen as he pointed out houses and parks while telling stories of friends, neighbors, and events. It was clear that his neighborhood shaped his identity.

For the past few months I have been reacquainting myself with one of the Old Testament’s greatest heroes – Moses. I think I find myself drawn to him because, like me, he had an identity issue. He was born into a Jewish slave family, but raised in the king’s court as an Egyptian. Later in life he attempted to protect his Jewish people only to be rejected. Out of fear and confusion he ran to another country and took up shepherding. You can find this story in Exodus 1-3.

Last fall during our staff gathering we were led through the Enneagram. This is a personality test that organizes people around nine different ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Over the years I have been exposed to many different personality inventories. For the most part they have played a significant role in helping me to understand how I am wired. But they all seem to fail at answering the big question – who am I?

My passport says that I am a Canadian, but I have spent my entire adult life in the USA. The ordination certificate on my office wall says I am a Mennonite, but I attend a non-denominational, Pentecostal leaning, Hispanic church. I have friends who think of me as an evangelical while others say “not a chance, he has gone off the liberal deep end.” For the past two decades I have lived in a neighborhood that some would describe as “the hood,” but I grew up in northern British Columbia and I am not even sure what “the hood” means.

I am a white, straight, Christian male. People have pointed out that this means I am a person of great power. I get to go through life without much fear. For example, I am a green card carrying immigrant, but because of what I bring to the table by simply being born white I do not have to fear expulsion or exclusion.

From the outside I am a person of power and privilege. But when I am alone I do not feel this power and privilege. Rather there is a deep sense of confusion. My time on the West Side of Denver, my neighbors, and my church have influenced and changed who I am. The changes have been life altering; I no longer feel at home in my white, Canadian, Mennonite culture. At the same time I am not a person of color. I appreciate Pentecostalism, but it is not me either.

I cannot help but wonder if the greatest need for western culture is more social martyrs, people cut off from their roots, background, and culture. People destined to be strangers in a strange land. After all, isn’t this the point of Philippians 2:6? Paul talks about Jesus giving up his identity, power, and privilege. It was only after giving it up that salvation could become a real possibility.

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.

 

 

 

Class

“As long as people think they have a chance of getting to the top, they just don’t care how rich the rich are.” I cannot help but wonder how true this statement is.  The fairytale we most want to believe is that it is possible to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  It is the universal myth we hold most dearly.  And there are just enough compelling stories to keep the myth alive.

I am a Canadian, so I got up at 4 AM to watch to royal wedding.  Kate Middleton, the great granddaughter of coal miners, grew up to become a princess.  If it could happen to her, then it must be possible.

The truth isn’t nearly as fun or compelling.  You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to move beyond the status you were born into.

The correspondents of the New York Times wrote a book, Class Matters, on this very topic.  Their conclusion: people who are born into poverty are destined to remain there.  When access to education, healthcare and healthy food is not equal then bettering your living conditions becomes almost impossible.

When people of faith start talking about these issues then something uncomfortable begins to happen - faith and politics start to intermingle.

It doesn’t take a New Testament scholar to figure out that Jesus was concerned about the poor, the widow and the orphan.  These were the people at the bottom.  When we ignore those whom society defines as the least, we choose to be less Christian.

Why do I say all this? Because things like taxation are Christian issues.  Giving tax breaks to the rich probably isn’t what Jesus would recommend.  Trickledown economics doesn’t work.  Cutting social welfare programs may save federal money, but it isn’t Christian.  Reducing spending on education will only ensure that those with wealth improve and the poor will stay poor.

What would it look like to apply the biblical idea of jubilee to our tax policy?  Do the rich really need to keep getting richer?  What is so wrong with the upper class becoming middle every once in a while?  Could the government play a missional role in helping everyone get through the “eye of the needle?”

Rights and Responsibilities

In the early 1980’s, while I was attending college in Canada, a national debate was raging about the newly written constitution. The debate over the partially written Bill of Rights was intense. People were debating what should and should not be included. Some felt that the American Bill of Rights was the template to follow, while others strongly opposed this approach.

As this debate raged, one of my professors notably started his class with the following comment, “What this country needs is a contract of responsibility, not a bill of rights.”

Every once in a while, I wonder how different our world would be if personal responsibility took precedence over the need for personal rights. In a world filled with rights, we talk about freedom of speech. In a world of responsibility, what we might say would be tempered by a concern for how words would be received by others.

In a world of rights, we have the freedom to bear arms and defend ourselves. In a world of responsibility we would never consider defending ourselves first. The needs and security of the other would come first.

In a world of rights, the individual becomes a mini-god. Everything is about me first and my own personal rights. Responsibility moves beyond the individual, and it shifts the focus to the good of the community.

Is it possible that most of the issues that threaten to destroy our communities, churches and country could be solved with a shift from a focus on rights to a focus on responsibilities?