22 years

At the end of this month I will celebrate my 22nd year of leading DOOR. Back in 1994 my plan was to stick around for 4-5 years and then move on. Very quickly this job became more than a stopping point figure things out. Co-workers became friends and neighbors became family. What follows is one of many stories about what keeps me coming into work every day. “I am no longer going to be embarrassed about where I come from and who I am.”

Anna Martinez said this was her biggest take-away from her summer as part of DOOR Denver’s Discern summer staff. Anna and her family have been my family’s neighbors for 20 years. We live in a center city neighborhood which has experienced multiple transitions. Some people think of where we live as the “ghetto.” This had been a cause of great embarrassment for Anna.

Over the summer as she lead groups around the city and her neighborhood, Anna took the time to tell stories about where she lived. Anna was instrumental in educating our DOOR participants about her culture, neighborhood, and family. This work planted a seed of self-esteem. Anna, a young woman of 17, had found a sense of self-worth and pride for her culture, neighborhood, and background.

Discern participants from each DOOR city have similar stories. Over the past decade we have hired and worked with over 400 Discerners like Anna. In 2017 we want to expand our Discern program. Our goal is to double our annual participants and expand our Discern program beyond the summer to a year.

Thanks to you, 2,156 youth and young adults were able to participate in our Discover, Discern, and Dwell programs this year. On behalf of them, thank you for making a DOOR experience possible.

Your partnership in this endeavor is key to any success. Would you be willing to make a special donation of $50, $100, $1,000, or whatever you can afford to help us expand the reach and depth of this program?

We simply can’t do it without you. Your financial support will make a real, lasting impact in the lives of young adults like Anna.

Please, click here to make your donation now.

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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.

Simplicity, Complexity, and Fairness

In my role I quite often receive both solicited and unsolicited advice. There is something about working with people that always leaves room for improvement. Interestingly enough this is a source of tremendous joy and frustration, all at the same time. In April of this year I turned 51. Somehow I always figured that by the time I got to this age most of my time would be spent sharing my wisdom with those around me. That hasn’t happened. In my more hopeful moments I am pretty sure that I have learned some life lessons. The hopeful moments are not the majority of my moments. Most of the time I find myself in the role of a learner.

Last month that was made clear to me again when one of our yearlong Dwellers sent me an email. Each of our DOOR cities hosts three unique programs – Discover, Discern, and Dwell.

Our Dwell program is for individuals to spend a year living in intentional Christian community while serving in a local agency placement, worshiping in an urban congregation, and reflecting together as a community.

Additionally being a Dweller also includes a commitment to living simply for the year. This means our Dwellers live together in community, and receive a small food, transportation, toiletry, and living expense stipend each month. When we first conceived of this program 20 years ago asking everyone to live on the same budget was our way of creating fairness.

Last month one of our Dwellers pointed out in an eloquent way that “same” and “fair” are not the same:

DOOR should reconsider the monthly amount they give their Dwellers and volunteers, especially if they are wanting to further create diversity. One of the prime examples I can think of is the difference in the products that I use as a thick curly haired Latina versus my straight haired anglo female housemates. I use about four times the hair products to take care of my hair than they do and the products tend to be more expensive. The stipend we receive, in my experience, is not enough for toiletries, food, and the essentials for my hair. I have been managing this year with the help of my mother and father. However, if the goal of our service year is to live simply and within our stipend, then we should receive enough where I shouldn't have to ask my parents to cover a basic need. If as a program, we want to have diversity in all areas like race, economic status, gender, and perspectives then I think this matter should be brought to the table. Thank you.

There is a popular saying within the social justice community that encourages people to “live simply so that others might simply live.” I am beginning to wonder if this well-intentioned one liner is a bit misleading. For those of us committed to diversity, inclusion, and justice maybe we need to recognize that the world is complex. Simple answers and simple living work when everyone looks the same, thinks the same, and believes the same. Quite frankly a mono-cultural world seems a bit boring. Maybe it’s time to live complexly so that everyone can live fully.

Change

About once a year I go to a DOOR recruiting event. These are always good reminders about why we have a recruiter on staff. This year I attended a denominational gathering in Portland, OR. One of my favorite things to do it to walk the hallways between seminars and business meetings. This is how an outsider can get a sense of the big issues. As I walked the conversations around the water coolers were all too familiar. Who do we include in the life of the church? What disqualifies someone from ordained ministry? Can we expand our shared understanding of who can be included? These discussions about inclusion always seem to be closely tied to a particular understanding of sin on the exclusion side and grace on the inclusion side. It is much easier to be a detached observer when it isn’t my denomination having the discussion.

There was one conversation that stopped me in my tracks. I was in line waiting to order my morning coffee. There were two pastors behind me, one from North America and the other from Africa. Just before I was about to order one of the pastors, clearly frustrated, asked, “Do you even want the church to change?”

I have been reflecting on this question ever since. If I am honest, I want church to be stable and predictable. I want the pastor to preach a sermon that inspires me. I want worship to recharge my batteries. There is a sense in which these ideas open me to the possibility of change. Really I just want church to reaffirm my convictions, beliefs, and perspectives. This means I want to be challenged and inspired to reaffirm my understandings of God, faith, and life.

The problem with change is that it forces me to accept the possibility that I might be wrong. I have spent years studying theology and serious amounts of time developing a solid theology.

Do I, Glenn Balzer, want the church to change? If I am honest, not really. The church is not about me. It is a place to worship God. This God I worship is dangerous. God is not all that concerned about our carefully constructed theology. Is it possible that one sign of maturity is a willingness to have our ideas of church, theology, and life deconstructed on a regular basis. In doing this can we create the possibility for the church to change, to be refined, to better express the heart of God?

Cancer – the long game

Cancer is an exercise in patience. It isn’t cured in one surgery. There is no magic cure-all. Procedures like radiation seem to go on and on. When all the surgeries and procedures have been dutifully completed, there are no guarantees. Fighting cancer is about the long game. It is slowly dawning on me that cancer might be a metaphor for life, work, and ministry. Living, raising a family, or working to make the world a better place requires patience. Even when we are patient and do our work with integrity, there are no guarantees. Stuff happens. People disappoint us. The unplanned and unexpected wreak havoc on families and ministries. The people and ministries that survive are in it for the long game.

In Psalm 23 David writes about a valley of death. Pretty depressing, especially if you quit reading at that point. If you push through and finish reading something unexpected emerges, a banqueting table! You can’t get to this table if you aren’t in it for the long game.

I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. Watching and giving witness as my wife bravely faces this disease, I am learning to appreciate the long game, the patient game. Every day when she gets up and faces another treatment, takes another pill, or visits another doctor she is chipping away and winning the battle.

I am learning about life by watching my wife.

Our marriage works. Not because we had a great wedding, but because we get up every day and figure out how to get through the day. When you string all the days together, those days become years and decades.

Great parents know that parenting is more than any given moment. It is about loving and being there through the good, bad, and ugly.

Effective ministry isn't about any one moment, good or bad. It is about getting up every day. Believing that God is present. It is about caring for the other person. It is about trusting God, even in the middle of a crisis. It is about the long game.

Cancer – 24 hours

In Matthew 6:34 Jesus tells his followers, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” As a husband who is watching his wife live through cancer, I am learning the truth about this. It started Wednesday afternoon when Rita went in for her ultrasound check-up. The procedure was supposed to be a routine step along the road to radiation treatment. In a moment it all changed. The medical staff saw something and ordered tests. We were going to have to wait 3-5 days to find out if this was a bump in the road to recovery or a major change in direction.

That was Wednesday. The sun set and the sun came up. I started the 500 mile drive from my meetings in Kansas to Denver. 8 hours, alone in my car, switching between NPR, the best of the 1980’s, and silence. Then the call came, about 24 hours after the first call. They had fast-tracked the biopsies. Instead of 3-5 days, it was 24 hours. The news was good! They didn’t find any cancer.

In an instant I moved from fear to joy.

For anyone who has been touched by cancer or loves someone battling this disease you are well acquainted with moments that seem to spin on a dime. One moment everything seems to be going well and then something unexpected happens. A moment of joy turns into anguish.

I am slowly learning the wisdom of living in the present. Too often I have put important things off until later. I have let the business of life get in the way of loving, caring, and spending time with the folks most important to me.

Take some time today. Call that friend or family member you have been meaning to talk to. Let them know how important they are. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Cancer and Roller Coasters

I thought I had finished writing about cancer, then today happened. Rita went in for a check-up. It was supposed to be routine. Today they were going to check her lymph nodes and tomorrow she was going to be “mapped” in preparation of four weeks of radiation beginning in early May. This wasn’t an appointment to be concerned about. As a result I am in Kansas and Rita is in Denver. Then Rita texted me, “they are going to biopsy the lymph nodes and some breast tissue near the scar.” This is how it begins. They are “concerned” so they are choosing to be extra precautious. I am grateful for their concern. I am pleased they are double checking everything.

It doesn’t end there. I want assurances. Answers. I want this to be over.

A friend emailed me. His reflection is that physical roller coasters are more fun than emotional ones. I agree.

I am a person who wants assurances. And cancer is not terribly predictable. The medial staff do their best, but things happen.

I do know how this is going to turn out. We get results in 3-5 days. I am prying that everything comes back negative.

In the midst of all this there is an emerging silver lining. Rita and I are learning to live for today. Beyond this moment not much else is promised. We are discovering the power of prayer. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and people we have never met are praying. Both of us feel those prayers in real and unexpected ways. Words cannot begin to express our gratitude. In quiet and unanticipated ways God has shown up. Sometimes it’s in a conversation, a kind word, a touch on the shoulder, or a hug.

The tag line for the program I run is “See the Face of God in the City.” Over the past few months God has proven to be real. I have seen God’s face in the people I have encountered.

Great Again

I am writing this on an airplane bound for Washington DC.  It’s hard not to think about elections and the future.  In politics, finding good tag lines is important. Regardless of where you stand politically there is no denying the power of “Make America Great Again.” As I travel the country I have seen signs, shirts, and red hats promoting this message. Like many I have also begun to wonder about the word “again.” When exactly was America great? Spending too much time reflecting on this question can be somewhat depressing. There are certainly great moments: the moon landing, the 1980 miracle on ice, and King’s march on Washington with his “I Have a Dream” speech. I suspect that each person reading this can come up with many moments of their own.

I am also someone who has worked with youth and young adults for the past two decades. I worry that all this emphasis on “again” is interpreted as a critique of emerging young leaders. Making America great again says something about going backwards and reclaiming a mythical past glory.

Is it possible that greatness is already present among us? When we talk about “again” what we are really doing is discounting and disempowering what makes this country great.

If you want to see the possibility of greatness, find out what our young adults are doing, particularly young adults of faith. In my work I have the privilege of a front row seat, watching greatness happen every day.

There young adults working for change at all kinds of levels. They seem to instinctively know that the past cannot repeat itself. There is a sense in which the world is both bigger and smaller. Isolating ourselves from one another is not going to work. Our common humanity will have to outmaneuver our political differences. Shared resources mean life and the pursuit of happiness for all. Advantages for the few are destructive and just plain selfish. Our young people know that intolerance, whether for religious or political reasons, only leads to hate, mistrust, and violence. If we want safety and security we are going to have to do the hard work of loving and forgiving each other.

I agree that I have the privilege of living in a great country. If we really want to move from greatness to awesomeness then let’s find a way to follow the leadership and vision of our young people first.

It’s about the Assumptions

We all have assumptions. To be honest they are a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the assumptions of others can feel a whole lot like judgment. Other times I am glad to have people assume good things about me. I am discovering that it is important, particularly in faith communities, to figure out what the assumptions are. These tend to be the non-negotiable items.

For example, I regularly field calls about DOOR’s statement of faith. Do we believe in the gifts of the spirit? Is the Bible the inerrant Word of God? What is our understanding of sin and punishment? These are just the easy questions! I understand why people ask. They want to know if DOOR is going to reinforce their understanding of God or challenge it. Responding to questions about our assumptions is a little like walking through a mine field, you never know when something is going to explode in front of you!

There are some assumptions we are very public about. Our belief that God is already present in the city working in and through the people of the city is one of those assumptions. For years I was convinced that it was my duty to bring Jesus to places where Jesus wasn’t. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that Jesus isn’t present.

My time at DOOR and in urban centers across the country has given me the unique opportunity to reexamine and challenge my assumptions. There is something amazing that happens when we open ourselves to the possibility that God is more than our assumptions and statements of faith.

At this point someone points out that Scripture is clear and that Jesus is the only way. This is usually code langue for “my understanding of Jesus and Scripture is correct.” The problem with this is that it doesn’t take into account the person doing the interpretation, cultural differences, and western reimagings of Jesus.

Here is where I respect my more Pentecostal friends. Allowing the spirit of God to freely work in and through us will challenge our assumptions and make space for a God who is dangerously surprising!

Sick and Tired

For 20 plus years I have had the unique privilege of leading an urban mission, education, and service program. I cannot overstate the uniqueness of this. After all I am not only white, male, and Mennonite but I am also a Canadian who was raised in small towns throughout the interior of British Columbia. The town I was born in, Ocean Falls B.C., has less than 100 permanent residents. In high school I spent one day studying American history. In many ways I came into my role very naïve. I have spent much of the past 20 years educating myself and being educated about the realities of race, sex, economics, and prejudice. The staff who I get to work with have been at the center of this process.

This week Tonya Powell, DOOR Atlanta City Director, wrote with clarity, wisdom, and grace about one of the most troubling issues we face in America – race. I would like to share with you her thoughts:

I am sick and tired of talking about racism.

 I am sick and tired of talking about racism when I serve a God who is love. Lately all the race talks I have had reek of some underlying hatred with no one trying to understand anything. Don't get me wrong, it is almost unbelievable to have a job with an organization that does staff book studies and even hosts meetings where someone who looks like me can freely speak their mind. A job where city directors across the country bravely try to tear down the walls of racism and teach understanding through service work and reflections.

 But I am tired of talking about racism when there is so much hatred that I have to respond to.

 This week we have over 40 Discover participants. We have had a fun week so far. Tonight I had the opportunity to drive one of our participants back to the church after we finished a service project. It was just the two of us in the car. Our conversation was great. She has such a great spirit and it was awesome just to have her positive energy around. Then her phone buzzed and I noticed her face dropped. I asked if she was ok. She told me she was but she was trying to make plans to meet her aunt and have dinner with her while she was in town. I told her I was happy that she was able to do that. She responded that she wasn't. She continued to tell me how her aunt was prejudiced against people of color. How she knew the dinner would be hard because her aunt would probably say some offensive things about people of color during their dinner. She said she would not even allow her aunt to pick her up from the church because she was afraid of what her aunt may say to the people she saw there. The more she talked the sadder I became. I heard her say most of her family feels this way except for her mom who "taught me to love everybody." I told her so did mine.

 I thought she was brave to share all that she had with me, but I wondered how many more of our participants had the same issues. Then I was reminded of how important it is for us to talk about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. this week. I am so sick of talking about racism, but tonight we both agreed with our mothers that God is love and we should love everyone!

 To know that people who don't even know me hate me because of the color of my skin is my reality.

 However, this reality does not make me feel any less.

 I love the color of my skin.

 I can't help that stereotypes help allow others to look down on me. No, I am not the stereotype of the angry black woman because I am naturally quiet, but when I do speak, I speak my mind. That's not anger, that's confidence. I am not only confident, but I am strong. I have great reasons to be confident and strong. Not only am I the seed of Abraham, but I also am the seed of slaves who endured captivity, a treacherous boat ride, ridicule, and shame. Yet my ancestors survived. I am the seed of a grandfather who, although hated in this country for being a person of color, still had enough dignity to go to another country who hated him even more and defend this country and its citizens of all races in WWII. I am so sick of talking about racism, but if I never talk about it how can I help others to better understand?

There was I time in my life when I wanted others to have heroic thoughts about me because I left the suburbs and moved to the city to make a difference. I no longer think this way. The heroes in my life are the people I work with. Every day they come to work and have to face stereotypes and judgment. Yet they show up, even when they are sick and tired.

Heaven and Hell

This past week I was invited to lead a book discussion on The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In this book Lewis explores the afterlife and the possibility of Heaven and Hell. The book is a fable about a bus ride from Hell to Heaven. On this trip characters must decide whether to go deeper into heaven or return to where they came from. As I prepared for this discussion I spent a lot of time reading about hell. As you might expect there is a whole lot of stuff out there. It covers the entire spectrum of opinion, thought, and theology. If you want to find an opinion on the afterlife that fits your suppositions, it’s out there.

I grew up in a time when the idea of hell was used as motivation to get me into heaven. The logic went something like this: I could die at any time. If I died did I know where I was going? This worked.

What struck me as I prepared for this discussion is how little the bible actually says about what happens after we die. However, the bible does say a whole bunch about how we should live right here, right now. The themes are pretty consistent- loving our neighbors and enemies and praying for those who wish to do us harm. This God who we serve loves us enough to let us make our own decisions – this is Lewis’s thesis.

I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t seem to be all that concerned about hell or the afterlife.

So why do some people of faith focus so much on hell? Based on my experience as a child, all I can come up with is that the concept of hell is a great motivator. In some cases I might even go so far as to say there are people of faith who have used their imagined concepts of hell to manipulate and control their congregations. Others secretly want a God who gets even in the end. The idea that all the really bad people will suffer forever has a strange attraction.

If my study of hell has made anything clear it is this: what happens after death is mostly a mystery. If you read the bible through the perspective of a judgmental God, it is a frightening mystery. If you read the bible through the lens of John 3:16, a loving God, then the mystery is kind of exciting.

Cancer and the Lectionary

This past Sunday I preached at my home church. The gospel reading came from Luke 13:1-9. This passage starts by recounting two tragedies where innocent people die – the first group of people are slaughtered for no apparent reason by Pontius Pilate and the second group die when a tower collapses on them. The people are wondering why. Some conclude that both these incidents were acts of judgment by God. In response to all of this Jesus tells a story about a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs. There have been times during the past number of months when I have wondered if God was judging our family. What did we do to deserve this? As I have told our story of questioning God something unexpected happened. Other people have begun to share their stories of suffering. The common thread holding these stories together? Wondering where God is, what God is doing, and why God is doing it.

I want to propose that suffering is the great challenge of the Christian faith. Bad stuff happens, even to good people. Where is God in all of this?

This brings me back to the fig tree. The owner of the fig tree is frustrated, so frustrated that he orders the tree to be dug out and thrown away. If you are the fig tree, this would count as a disastrous moment! Death is looming. In a most unexpected way the gardener shows up and advocates for this tree. “Just give me one more year, I am sure I can turn this situation around.”

It is possible to read this passage assuming that God is the landowner, relenting and giving us one more chance. In this season of my wife’s cancer I have begun to see this passage through a new set of lenses. You see God is not the landowner, God is the gardener.

A gardener who is always there, always believing, always hopeful, even in the middle of difficulties. Seeing this passage through a new set of lenses has helped to restore my faith. Bad stuff has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. People will die unexpectedly and unjustly. Sickness and disease will be present and unfair realities. Bad stuff comes from all kinds of sources – bad luck, bad people, and sometimes it is an inevitable consequence of being both human and mortal.

My faith is being restored by knowing that God is present – in sickness and in health.

Cancer – yes but

This weekend Rita got the news we have been praying for. The cancer and pre-cancer cells have been removed. It is out of her body! Now Rita can begin to focus on healing and prevention. Before that can happen there is another mammogram that needs to be scheduled. The doctors want to make sure that the cancer is gone and hasn’t resurfaced. I want 100% assurance. In the world of cancer this is not possible.

We are going to have to learn to live with a certain amount of uncertainty. Every treatment comes with a degree of risk. The risk can reduce the possibility of cancer coming back, but it can’t eliminate it.

In the middle of all this life still goes on. The sun still rises, every day. Bills still show up; interestingly they show up with certainty and on time.

There is this human need to know, to be secure. Yet Jesus suggested that this impulse isn’t terribly helpful. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” (Matthew 6:25). The truth is that none of us are promised anything beyond right now. I always knew this intellectually. Giving witness to my wife of almost 30 years as she deals with this disease has been a powerful reminder about today.

We could choose to worry about what might happen or we can choose to live our lives, to be alive in the moment. I cannot and will not speak for Rita, but the invasion of cancer into our marriage has made me more grateful for what we have today. I am hopeful for tomorrow and the next 30 years. But I refuse to live in the world of what might happen. Quite honestly, even with the cancer, what we have is pretty cool.

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself…” (Matthew 6:34)

Cancer & God’s Will

There are some days I will always remember. November 27, 2002 is one such day. On that day I watched my friend die. Leukemia won. Three days later I officiated his funeral. It wasn’t my first funeral, but it was the first funeral of a close friend. Part of my responsibility that day included delivering the meditation. I won’t go into everything that I said, but near the end I made the following statement; “I am not here this afternoon to tell you that it was God’s will for Bryan to die.”

Today, thirteen years later, I stand by what I said.

For as long as I can remember I have struggled with the idea that everything that happens is somehow part of God’s plan. I am not alone in this debate. People of faith have been arguing about this for millennia. In the theological world it is the debate between predestination and free will. Are we just cogs in God’s grand plan?  Puppets controlled by the puppeteer.  Or do we have the freedom to make our own choices? Do we have a say in what happens?

As a pastor I have occasionally prayed the “panic prayer.” It goes something like, “God please heal this person, but if it isn’t your will then help us to accept what happens.” This type of prayer allows us to shift all the responsibility (blame) to God.  In some ways it is the modern equivalent of washing our hands of any significant role in God’s world. God is going to do what God is going to do and we cannot change the course of what will happen.

These concepts have been swirling around in a new way since Rita was diagnosed with cancer. The idea that God gave Rita cancer to somehow fulfill God’s will seems both small and mean. Put simply, cancer sucks. I cannot imagine any scenario where God would feel the need to create cancer.

This journey into cancer has tested my faith. I have wondered if God cares. At various times I have prayerfully demanded action. In many ways the quality of my faith has been weighed. Somehow in the middle of all of this I am getting to know a God who is really good at turning lemons into lemonade. For that I am learning to be thankful.

Cancer – numbers

One of the things that has become clear to Rita and me is that cancer has a whole lot in common with the gaming industry. It is about the numbers. (What follows are numbers that have be told to us by doctors, nurses and medical professionals; any mistakes in reporting are mine.) It goes something like this: 1 in 8 women (12.5%) will develop breast cancer sometime in their lives. Of the women who get a lumpectomy, 20% will require a follow-up surgery. In addition 20% of the women who have Rita’s form of cancer will see a reoccurrence. This can be reduced to 14% through 4 to 6 weeks of radiation and a regiment of tamoxifen for 5 years. Reoccurrence can be reduced another 2% by extending the tamoxifen for another 5 years.

On the surface all of this sounds wonderful. The odds are on our side.

Now this is what I hear: 1 in 8 and Rita is the 1. After Rita’s surgery the news came back that a second surgery was needed. We ended up on the wrong side, the 20% group. Radiation and tamoxifen will decrease the possibility of reoccurrence. What is going to prevent Rita from being on the short side of the stick? Now when someone says there is an 85% chance of success I wonder about the 15% group, after all being on the short-side is starting to feel familiar.

I want to know that everything is going to be OK. I want God to write in the sky or let me know in a dream that God has got this. It hasn’t happened. Our friends, co-workers, and family are supportive. They believe that we are going to beat this. On my good days I agree. Other days hope fades.

The Apostle Paul talks about faith, hope, and love. I can say that our love is strong. Our faith has been shaken. And then there is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for a future. Hope that we beat the odds.

Cancer – the body

A number of weeks ago I wrote about being furious with God. Some have wondered how an ordained minister of the gospel can feel this way. They feel that being angry with God is wrong; that anger is a significant step towards turning my back on everything I believe. This journey into cancer has not been easy. Watching someone I love face one surgery and now another tests everything I hold dear about my faith. This isn’t easy. My Christian faith and vocation has shaped our entire marriage. In 1986 Rita and I married after I finished my pastoral internship. On our second wedding anniversary we packed our truck and moved from Canada to Fresno, CA to go to seminary. While in seminary I interned in a United Methodist Church for three years. After seminary I was called to Denver to work as an associate pastor. After three years I moved on to DOOR, and for a number of years I pastored while running DOOR.

I do not think it is an understatement to say that my faith has shaped everything about the past 30 years. This has also been true for Rita.

To come to a point of anger and frustration with God was not part of my life plan.

God also has a way of showing up in the most unexpected ways. This week I have been reflecting on the Apostle Paul’s image of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

For the past 10 weeks my faith in God has been shaken. But I am part of this living organism called the Body of Christ. Both of us our finding out that when our faith is shaken to the very core there are other parts of the body that pick up our unbelief and believe for us. We have given witness to this as friends have brought meals cooked with love. Others have given us a space to vent. Prayer warriors have prayed and others have sent emails reminding us that God is present. Those who have faced cancer have shared stories and gently reminded us that God will never leave us.

To all of you who have prayed, sent emails, brought meals, or just let us talk, know that you have been the hands, feet, and heart of God in my (our) valley of the shadow of death.

Cancer – the calm

Eleven years ago I experienced my first hurricane. I was traveling to Miami FL just as Katrina was coming ashore. This is the same storm that would later devastate the Gulf Coast region. First it had to cross over Florida. I remember clearly the landing. The pilot had informed us that it might be “bumpier than usual.” I have travelled a lot and this particular landing was the bumpiest I have ever experienced. Once the plane came to a stop at the end of the runway all of the passengers broke out in cheers. After disembarking I found my rental and drove south to Homestead. It was rainy and windy but I made it to my destination. Everyone was getting ready for a hurricane party. I still don’t understand the logic of hosting a party in a hurricane, but people in Florida do this kind of thing.

It is also important to note that Katrina was not a terribly strong hurricane at this point. As a matter of fact it may have been classified as a tropical depression. Regardless, it was impressive. At a certain point that evening, everything calmed down. The wind and the rain subsided. I thought the storm had passed. My more experienced hosts let me know that the eye was passing over. This was new to me. Calm in the middle of the storm.

In many ways this is where Rita and I find ourselves today. On Friday she went in for a MRI. The technicians collected the data and sent it on to be interpreted. They told us we probably wouldn’t hear anything before Monday or Tuesday. This weekend a winter storm rolled in to Colorado. This may delay hearing from the doctors.

In many ways this weekend has been calm. You could say deceptively calm. We have been “normal;” working, visiting and just being a couple. There are storm clouds on the horizon. We don’t know if it is going to be a tropical depression or a full blown hurricane. However in the middle of this journey a space of calm has emerged.

In Matthew 8 there is a story of Jesus sleeping in the middle of a storm. He found a space of rest when everyone was fearing for their lives. This weekend we have been thankful for this space; a place to rest before the storm.

Cancer – Surprise

In my work life I am an Executive Director. One of the key functions of my role is to eliminate surprises.  In many ways I am well suited for this. For example, I have never wanted a surprise party nor have I ever enjoyed participating in them. In my work life I manage people and budgets. In both cases surprises very rarely yield a positive outcome. This morning my wife met with her surgeon. I have met him a few times as well. He professional, smart, empathic, nice, and knows what he is doing. Both of us have come to trust him.

Today as he was reviewing the surgery results the word “surprised” was used.  At the outer margins of the tissue that was removed they found a pre-cancerous grouping of cells. They will need to be removed before any treatment can begin. Before they schedule surgery they want to do an MRI on both breasts to make sure there are no more surprises. If they find any masses it means additional biopsies. It means additional waiting to hear results and praying that any results come back benign.

We live in a world and culture that works hard to minimize risk. When problems arise we want clear solutions. This journey into cancer has become a stark reminder that not everything is predictable. There is not always a clear solution. And sometimes God is silent.

In sharing this journey we have heard from many of you. Your stories of unpredictability and surprise have been encouraging and pastoral, even in the middle of this storm. Rita’s and my faith is being tested. I have been mad at God and grateful for God’s presence in the same instant. I have wondered where God is and known God is right there beside us.

The writer to the Hebrews talks about faith being the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Somehow in all of the surprise, unpredictability, anger, and frustration, our faith remains.

Cancer – a curve in the road

My all-time favorite ride at Disneyland is Space Mountain. For those of you not familiar with this attraction it is a roller coaster. I like it because the majority of the ride takes place in complete darkness. It is a thrill ride full of unexpected twists, turns, and drops. In some ways Rita’s cancer is a bit like the ride, only we are not sure how or when this will come to an end. Last Thursday we received confirmation from the pathologist that they removed all the cancer. I cannot begin to tell you how happy this made us. There are still 6-8 weeks of radiation and 5 years of hormone replacement therapy. All of this felt like steps of precaution on the road to being declared cancer free.

Then Friday came. Rita’s surgeon called. The first part of his call reconfirmed everything we already knew. They removed all the cancer. Then he used the word “but.” I have come to strongly dislike that word. It is very rarely a harbinger of good news.

He started to talk about margins. There were concerns with the margins. I still don’t know what “margins” all refers to but, there’s that word, it wasn’t good news. They found some pre-cancerous cells near the surface of the skin. I was under the impression that radiation was supposed to take care of the “pre-cancerous stuff,” but the doctor started talking about removal of the cells. This sounded like more surgery. Then he went on to say he didn’t want to keep taking pieces. What does that mean?

All of this is testing our faith. And too be honest I am not interested in hearing about a lack of faith. I believe, that is not in doubt. However, I am frustrated. This has impacted how I have worshipped lately. I am tired of a worship experience only grounded in a God who always comes through for God’s people, if they just believe enough.

There are entire sections of Scripture dedicated to lament, sorrow, and frustration. God’s people are not always given simple answers. Positive thinking is not a cure-all. Last year at a conference I was introduced to the possibility of using lament in worship. From the stage they sang words that I am singing today:

I need to hear from you

I’m crying out

And through the pain we'll learn to trust in you

For reasons I do not understand God seems silent, but I am learning to worship in a new way.

Cancer

This is not a topic I ever planned to blog about. Sometimes things happen that we do not plan for. Late last year my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Getting that phone call was not fun. To be honest I just didn’t expect it. Yes, they had called Rita back for further tests because something unexpected was spotted, but I just assumed the medical staff was being extra careful. They were being extra careful. I just didn’t expect the call. No, I expected a call, I just thought the news would be different. The news wasn’t different. There is no way to prepare yourself to hear that your wife has cancer. It simply sucks. In the weeks since we have heard a whole lot of positive news. It was caught early. The mass is small. There is no reason to believe that she won’t be cancer free by summer. But this isn’t what I hear. All I know is that my wife has cancer. And cancer is not a good thing.

There have also been some amazing points of light. Hearing the stories of cancer survivors has been a source of hope. Our church family that has surrounded us with prayer and love. My coworkers have consistently asked how we are doing while giving me space to be less than my best. Family members have reached out in all kinds of unique ways. Both of our boys have become “pastoral.” Our neighbors have cared for us in ways that say we are more than people who live next door to each other.

In a strange way my faith is growing and changing. I am furious with God for allowing this to happen. At the same time God is there in ways I have never experienced before. I am not a fan of the various ways that Romans 8:28 is sometimes used and abused, but I find myself clinging to these words: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

At December’s DOOR National board meeting I quoted Tim McGraw’s song:

Let’s take a moment and celebrate our age

The ending of an era and the turning of a page

Now it’s time to focus on were we go from here

Lord have mercy on our next 30 years

My prayer is simple; I want another 30 years with my wife.