White Privilege

One of my job responsibilities is to have regular check-ins with our City Directors. These calls are usually filled with laughter, frustration, anger, and occasionally the unexpected. This past week the unexpected happened. We were about 30 minutes into our conversation, when all of a sudden the person on the other end when into a minor panic moment. Like me she was multi-tasking. The call started with her working from home, then she packed up and headed to her car to go to a meeting. In the process she went from talking on her headphones to switching to her car’s Bluetooth system. The crisis happened about 5 minutes into her drive. At first I was worried she had gotten into an accident. This was not the case.

She had forgotten to take out her wallet and put it on the dashboard. Her panic seemed a little unwarranted to me. So in a silly attempt to say “no big deal” I started laughing. For her it was a big deal.  In a moment of grace, on her part, she proceeded to explained things to me. It went something like this:

“Glenn, I am a black woman driving a car, if the police decide to stop me I don’t want them to think that when I reach for my wallet that I am reaching for a gun.”

This staff person is close to my age. Both of us have been driving for 30 plus years. In all of that time I have never worried about where my ID is. To be honest I don’t even panic if I forget my ID at home. Getting a ticket would suck, but I wouldn’t be afraid of the encounter.

For more than 30 years my friend and co-worker has had to think about where her ID is every time she gets into a car. This grows out of a very real concern for her life.

Privilege, particularly white straight male privilege, means that I get to go about my day-to-day life without worry. For the most part I do not need safe places, mostly because the world is my safe place. I don’t always know what to do about my privilege. I didn’t earn it, it simply is. One thing I am slowly learning is to listen to the concerns of my friends of color and those in the GLBTQI community. Their fears are not “boogeyman-ish;” they are real. All you have to do is turn on the news. Somehow I want to find a way to be part of the solution. This is my hope and dream.

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.




An Eternal Moment

Every once in a while I find myself participating in an important moment. These moments rarely arise because of planning. They just happen. Last evening I was part of one of these moments. It took place after the DOOR Atlanta board meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. I like going there because they have two prime parking spots reserved for clergy. There were eight of us around the table. Two board members, our Atlanta City Director, my friend Anton, me and three Discern staff representing three of our DOOR cities. These2013-08-12 22.48.07 Discerners were in Atlanta for a Fund for Theological (FTE) event. Chris is from the west side of Chicago and has worked for DOOR every summer for the past 10 years. Today he is a confident 20 something about to complete his Master of Communication Studies, but I remember the high school freshman who was so skinny the wind could blow him over. Manny just completed his third summer in Denver. He likes to claim Los Angeles as his home town, but he spent most of his teen years in Denver and is a member of the church our family attends. Kelli spent one summer in both Denver and Hollywood. She came to DOOR through a more “traditional path;” she came as a Discover participant, liked the program and applied for a summer staff position. Here were these three young adults – a Hispanic, an African American and an Anglo.

For two hours we sat at that table. The waiter could hardly get a word in to take our order. The conversation was animated, passionate and emotional. We began with the “simplest” of topics, how should we think about sexual orientation? This went on for about 45 minutes. Once we had come to a general consensus we moved on to talking about how working for DOOR has impacted each of their lives. For each of them working with a diverse staff had helped them to better understand who they were and the radical breadth of the kingdom of God. The concept of “For God so loved the world” had taken on new meaning.

One of our hiring commitments is to find people who are different from one another and ask them to work together in unity. Our staff comes to us from urban, rural and suburban settings. Some have been raised in the church while others are new to the Sunday thing. They are young adults of color and they are Anglo. Some are progressive while others hold a more conservative theology. All of this diversity could be viewed as a prescription for disaster. I am constantly surprised that this doesn’t blow up in our face. Every year these young adults choose to define themselves first by what they hold in common. When this happens everyone is given a glimpse of what the church can be.

Bearing Witness

As a young adult I attend a college that had a daily mandatory chapel requirement.  For four years, I heard six sermons every week.  I quickly became an expert at evaluating the quality of a preacher within the first half-minute.  If the preacher didn’t pass the 30-second test I could be asleep within the next 30 seconds. In many ways, chapel became a place of rest for me.

After four years of six sermons per week, one in particular has stuck.  It was delivered by a professor not known for his public speaking skills.  I can no longer recall his name, but I remember the sermon as if it were yesterday.

His text was the book of Job.

He spoke shortly after the death of his wife.

She died after a long struggle with cancer, leaving behind her husband and two children.

I remember him talking about Job’s friends.  These were the guys who came to comfort Job after he lost everything: his children, his wealth and his reputation.  Initially, they came and just sat with him - listening and bearing witness.

After a while they started to talk. They tried to explain the “what” and the “why” of Job’s loss.

This is where they went wrong.

Like Job’s friends, we live in a culture that needs to understand why bad things happen to good people.  Simply bearing witness to pain and loss seems inadequate.  So we try to explain and justify: “All things work together for good,” or, “She is in a better place.”

The only thing that Job’s friends did right was sit with him for seven days and bear witness to his pain.  It was when they opened their mouths that everything when wrong.

Why is it so hard to simply bear witness to someone’s pain?

Listening and learning

The Christian faith has always been a part of my world. My dad was a pastor and my mother taught Sunday school. Wednesday Bible studies, Friday youth groups, and Sunday morning and evening services were weekly, non-negotiable realities.

After graduating from high school, I went to Bible college. To graduate, I passed a 600-question Bible content exam. I spent three years in seminary studying theology.

On occasion, I have been known to get a little prideful with my biblical and theological knowledge. Pride is very rarely a good thing. It tends to blind us.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone talking to a co-worker. I was trying to make a point by demonstrating my deep biblical understanding. For the life of me, I cannot remember the point I was trying to make, but I do remember her response; “Jesus, the son of God, was on earth 30 years before he started preaching.”

The comment stopped me in my tracks.

Jesus, the son of God, spent 30 years listening and learning before he started preaching. Wow.

Every time I discover some new theological insight, I want to share my “wisdom” with everyone around me. When I take the time to be honest with myself, this sharing has more to do with wanting to show off than anything else.

My mother was fond of telling me that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. We should spend most of our time listening and learning, not spouting and bragging.

My mentor and spiritual hero passed away last year. He lived a good life. One of the things that everyone remembers about him was his ability to listen. Listening made him wise and when he spoke people listened.

If listening, learning and observing first was a good approach for Jesus, the son of God it, might just be a good approach for the rest of us.

I have a sneaking suspicion that those who achieve sainthood do so because they are slow to speak and quick to listen.

My God give me the grace to be a better listener.


(Author’s Note: This entry will appear in an upcoming issue of Mennonite Weekly Review. It does contain a paragraph from an earlier blog…)

Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I especially like its public transit system. It’s easy to use and gets me everywhere I need to go and I don’t have to deal with the traffic.

A few years ago while riding the Red Line, a man came up to me and asked if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. It was late at night, I was tired and not really interested in talking to anyone, but this guy wanted to know something about my eternal status. I was the only person in the train car. I turn and acknowledged his presence.

Before I had a chance to tell this man about my status with Jesus, he launched into a creative rendition of the four spiritual laws.

By the time he came to the end of his speech, I wasn’t sure how to respond or, to put it more accurately, I had not been given the opportunity to respond. It was clear that his goal was to have me pray the sinner’s prayer. From what I could tell, he wasn’t interested in anything else I had to say.

On that evening, this Mennonite pastor prayed the sinner’s prayer just to get rid of the messenger.

On that evening, I learned a valuable lesson.

If you are going to ask a question, wait for a response. Assumptions are demeaning and belittling.

Most of us have been guilty of asking questions and thinking we already know the answers.

For the next 14 months, Hugo Saucedo and I have been asked to lead a nation-wide urban listening tour for Mennonite Church USA. It is the expressed desire of Mennonite Church USA leadership to have urban pastors and church workers shape the urban Mennonite agenda.

Listening is not always comfortable or easy. People say unexpected things. Conversations go in unanticipated directions.

Listening is not easy, but it is fruitful.

The first words Patricia Running-Bear said to me during my first week at DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), were, “Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.” Patricia was the administrative assistant to the director of the Denver Inner City Parish. To her, I was the latest in a series of white men who had come to Denver’s west side to try to do some good.Being told to hang around for 10 years seemed like a waste of time. After all, I had been to seminary, was well-read on urban issues and had a natural inclination to fix things. I wanted to work for justice and be a voice for the voiceless.

But vital, significant ministry is not instant or quick. Mutual trust takes time and a willingness to listen. Open, honest conversations become the bedrock for mutual trusting relationships. Mutuality, in turn, leads to shared vision. Shared vision creates ownership.

Urban centers are the growing edge of the church. They are both the present and future of Mennonite Church USA.

Allowing the urban church to shape its own agenda means the center of power and decision-making will begin to shift from rural to urban. This will not always be comfortable or easy, but it is necessary and inevitable.

I am looking forward to the next 14 months. I am curious about commonalities that will be shared across the urban centers. I am looking forward to understanding the unique challenges faced in the various cities, so that we as Mennonite Church USA might support one another in all types of ministry.

Just Listen

“Service as listening.” With these words, Eduardo Vargas, the assistant city director for DOOR San Antonio, began his report to the local board of directors.

To be honest, I sometimes check out when staff members report to the board. It’s not because I don’t care. Many times, I have already read a version of the report or I can sense where the conversation will go.

Eduardo’s description triggered an avalanche of ideas and concerns.

Most of us think of service as something concrete. People participate in DOOR because they want to serve. When I think of service I go straight to the list of tasks that need to be accomplished.
· Painting a house.
· Helping with summer day camp.
· Sorting food at the local food bank.
· Serving a meal at the rescue mission.
· Running a Vacation Bible School program.

When people come to DOOR, they want to feel good about the tasks they accomplish. They want to make a difference. This is noble and good.

This is my fear: would people want to participate in a program that defined service as listening?

What does listening accomplish?

It doesn’t paint a house, or run a program. Food for the needy doesn’t get sorted, meals go unprepared, and children miss out of Vacation Bible School.

But listening has the potential to move me past my stereotypes and assumptions.

It is tempting, when going on a “mission trip” to have all the answers and solutions for where you are going before you get there.

Listening has a way of exposing the hypocrisy of my prepackaged answers.

Listening first opens the door to authentic service.

When we take the time to listen and be listened to, mutuality is often the result. This in turn creates an opportunity to both give and receive.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is what service is all about.