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 & 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.

Biblical Assumptions

“Abraham needed more than one woman and so do I.” It was the summer of 1995. They were the third church group I had ever hosted as the Denver City Director.  Our Tuesday evening reflection had just wrapped up and everyone was getting ready for bed when the head elder, from a well-respected church, pulled me aside to tell me his understanding of biblical marriage.

I remember everything about the moment.  The noise in the room, the shirt he was wearing and the conviction in his voice.  There was nothing about his body language that said he was trying to pull my leg.  For him the biblical definition of marriage meant that if he needed more than one woman it was within his moral rights to have more than one woman.

Last week Chick-fil-A revived a brewing controversy about the biblical definition of marriage when its company president came out against gay marriage.  As you might imagine my mind immediately went back to that evening in the summer of 1995.

Like it or not there is no biblical definition of marriage. Anyone who tells you that there is such a definition hasn’t spent time studying the bible.  There are lots of stories about marriage relationships and sexual intimacy.  However, turning a biblical story into a definition for marriage quickly becomes problematic.

Take Abraham: he not only treated his wife like a piece of property to be bought and sold, he also slept with his wife’s servant Hagar without worrying about infidelity.  Then there is Isaac, Abraham’s son, who married sisters and slept with their servants.  There are the stories of Israel’s two greatest kings, David and Solomon, who took both wives and concubines, in Solomon’s case by the 100’s.

Where does this desire to have a biblical definition for marriage come from?  Is it because we are afraid of any relationship that falls outside the cultural norm?

In 1995 I was repulsed by a man who felt he needed more than one woman.  His idea of biblical marriage seemed counter to everything that Scripture teaches about mutuality and respect.  There was a sense in which he had scripture - at least the biblical stories - on his side.  It would be hard to argue that he was in sync with God’s heart.  Dehumanizing and degrading women is counter to a faith which describes humans as creatures made in the very image of God.

Last week when I read about a Christian leader who was trying to define marriage in terms he was comfortable with I could not help but wonder why.  From my perspective his only goal was to be exclusionary.  This seems counter to the God of John 3:16.

We cross into very dangerous territory when we read into Scripture things that aren’t there.

Courage

During last Sunday’s sermon the pastor referred to Matthew 16:24, where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers then they must be willing to deny themselves.  This is one of those passages that is easier to just skip.  It is much simpler and less confusing to talk about a religion that teaches us to be good “Christians” rather than to engage a faith that asks us to abandon an entire way of life. Self-denial has never been a favorite sermon or bible study topic.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously have the potential to disturb the status quo and the status quo is comfortable.  To be honest I like things to be comfortable, predictable, safe, and secure.  These are the foundations of an uncomplicated life.

Self-denial removes me from the center.  It may even move my family, church, community, and country from the center.  According to Jesus, self-denial naturally leads to cross-carrying and cross-carrying leads to aloneness.

Jesus carried the cross 2,000 years ago because carrying the cross was what needed to be done.  Without the cross there could be no Easter and without Easter there could be no resolution to the sin problem.

When Jesus calls his followers to cross-carrying it is a call to courage.  It is a call to stand-up for truth even when no one else wants to hear the truth.  It means exposing and naming the powers that have neutralized the church’s prophetic place in the world.

When we name racism as a current sin, we risk our popularity.  When the church declares that we need a president of color because another white man will just reinforce the worst of our prejudices and stereotypes, we risk being called non-Christian.  When the church stands up against the raping of the environment just for cheaper fuel, we risk being called extremists.  When the church stands for the stranger and alien in our midst, we risk being labeled unpatriotic.

Friends, this is the call of Easter; a call to self-denial, cross-carrying, and truth telling.  It will not be easy.  It will not make you popular and you may end up feeling very alone.  Know this; we serve a High Priest, Jesus Christ, who understands.