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.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.