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?

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!

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.

Measurable Goals

One of the ways ministries fund themselves is through writing grants. The process of writing these requests can be helpful and clarifying. A typical grant request includes a statement of need, measurable goals, expected outcomes, and a budget. There is a significant downside when we attempt to measure ministry only through measurable gains. People and circumstances are not easily predicted. Could you imagine if Jesus had to write a grant request prior to his birth? The statement of need would have been strong, the goals would have been out of this world, but the outcomes? After 33 years he found 12 possible “board members” (the disciples); one betrayed him, another denied him, others doubted, and the rest ran. Then there are the accounting practices, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, what is that all about. How insightful was Jesus anyway? The treasurer of the whole organization ended up betraying him for 30 pieces of silver. Yes there was the resurrection and that was pretty cool. From a sustainability perspective, even after the resurrection, the program was in ruins and leadership was non-existent.

Over the next two millenniums the church rose from the ashes of failure. It certainly hasn’t been perfect, but its influence is felt everywhere.

We spend our careers, lives, and ministry around an immediate success ethic. We have all heard the sermons. God just wants to bless you today, but you have to give. Or if you have faith like a mustard seed things will work out, now or in the next week or two at the most.

There are certainly times when God works quickly. I also have had to live with a silent God. Friends have died, even when I prayed with my mustard seed faith. Finances are not always available and don’t always arrive in time.

Our careers, ministries, and lives need to be judged by a larger faith picture. Much like the Apostle Paul, we only get to see in a mirror dimly; we only know in part. This kind of stuff - faith, hope and love - does not fit easily into a grant request or theologies of success.

Fear, danger and mugging

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at a “Mission Fest” in rural South Dakota.  It was a fun weekend of reconnecting with my traditional Mennonite roots.  Hymns in four part harmony, potlucks and popcorn for Sunday supper were an enjoyable trip down memory lane.  After one of the services we had a question and answer time.  During one of the services I had shared about my family’s journey from the suburbs to the city.  Before long I was fielding questions about safety and fear. What kind of schools did your children attend?

Have you ever been mugged?

How do you respond after your house has been broken into?

Is it safe?

There was a time when questions like this frustrated me.  I tended to assume that the motive behind such questions was a subtle form of racism or classism.  I no longer make these assumptions.  For the most part people are genuinely curious about people who have made different life choices.

I like to use these occasions to talk about differences.  We live in a culture that teaches us to fear or be suspicious of that which is different.  This fear is reflected in many of the little and big decisions we make.  For example, people like to worship with others who hold similar faith perspectives and worship style preferences.   As a culture we like to live in neighborhoods with others who share our values (and skin color).

Choosing to live and worship outside the norm can be scary.  I like to challenge people to confront their fear of the different.  More often than not different is simply different.

That is my typical response to my family’s move from the suburb to the city.

Since returning from South Dakota two people that I am acquainted with have been mugged.  One was pistol whipped.  Both of these people live in “different” neighborhoods.  It is not a stretch to say that they were targeted, at least partially, because of their skin color.

To be honest I have no easy response to this.  Fear of the “different” goes in every direction and that fear can and does play itself out in unpleasant ways.  Personal violation is not easy to just get past.  Events like this raise some difficult faith questions.  Does God call us to safety?  When does personal well-being demand that one move or leave the situation?  What does it mean to be salt and light?  How far do we take this call?  What does it mean to be a reconciling presence in a dangerous neighborhood?