A young Seattle pastor relaxes in his hotel room after a long day at a conference in Kansas City thinking about a challenge raised to him earlier in a meeting: What would you give up to let God have complete control of your life?
The phone rings, interrupting his train of thought, but a familiar voice is on the other end of the line.
“JBU called and wants to fly us in,” said Tracy Balzer, his wife.
“When do they want me?” he asked.
“Well, actually, they want me,” she said.
Downpours of emotions flow through his mind. His list of things he would give up to let God have complete control of his life flashes before his eyes.
He thinks, ‘Is this God preparing my family for Tracy to be the main breadwinner in case my multiple sclerosis gets really bad?’
This moment is a reflection of a pivotal situation that happened in Cary Balzer’s life.
The Balzers were young parents living in Seattle when some really odd things started happening to him.
“I woke up one morning, and I couldn’t feel my right leg. It was tingly, like I had slept on it wrong, and it had lost feeling. But the tingly feeling never went away,” he said.
This concerned Balzer a little bit, but he didn’t go to the doctor yet. The next day, the Sunday of his first week at their second church, he woke up and the other leg had this tingling sensation. Being the loving and devoted pastor he was, he got up and went to church anyway. However, his wife was really concerned and called the doctor to see what was wrong.
“The doctor told Tracy to bring me to the emergencry room immediately,” said Balzer. “She had to explain that I was working that day, because it was our first Sunday at our new church. He told her I needed to be seen as soon as possible.”
Balzer went to the doctor soon after church ended that day. He went through a variety of tests, including one where the doctor would press on Balzer’s legs with an instrument that had a sharp end and a dull end, and Balzer verbalized to the doctor which end was being pressed against his legs.
“It was bad because he was using the dull end, but I thought he was using the sharp side because that’s the feeling I got on my legs,” said Balzer.
After taking a spinal tab, the doctor told the Balzers that it could be one of two things: Multiple Sclerosis (MS) or Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). The two illnesses are alike in many ways: they both numb the limbs and can cause paralysis. However, GBS is curable and MS is not.
“We were very surprised and very alarmed because the only thing we knew about MS was that there were people in wheelchairs because of it,” said Tracy Balzer. “We learned that MS was actually something that was common in the Pacific Northwest and that it was something that people lived with everyday. You’d never know that Cary has MS by just looking at him, and we are very blessed that it has not affected him in the worst way.”
Balzer reflects how MS has affected his life at home. One specific memory is about a time that he was playing catch with a baseball in the back yard with Kelsey, his oldest daughter.
“I couldn’t throw the ball to her,” he said. “I would think in my mind, ‘Okay, throw the ball to Kelsey,’ and I would throw it, and it would just go way over to the side and hit the fence. My brain wouldn’t put it together.”
Kelsey remembers how her father would use her to help him with his balance by slightly supporting his hand on her shoulders and the base of the back of her neck whenever they walked somewhere as a family.
“I remember being annoyed because I thought it was his way of being fatherly and protective, but then he told me that it was just to help him with his balance,” said Kelsey. “I of course felt bad for ever being annoyed after that.”
Balzer shared that being diagnosed with MS changed his outlook on life.
“It made us not take things for granted,” he said. “This just showed me that we’re vulnerable, and reinforced that there are no guarantees in the Bible that we’re going to have a comfortable, easy life.”
He went on to explain how God prepares us and takes care of us through hardships.
“Christ says that we will have trouble in this world,” said Balzer. “But that’s not the most important thing. It’s not that Christ will rescue us out of it; it’s that Christ is walking beside us through it. Our hardships don’t define who we are.”
The diagnosis also changed his relationship with God, and how he viewed God’s plan for his life, he said.
“I kept asking: Why is this happening to me?” he said. “The thing I just kept reading over and over again was that it’s not what happens to you, it’s what Christ can do through you. And that just came to me in so many different ways.”
Balzer explained that God could turn something that’s ugly in your life, beautify it and use it to reach out to other people in your life, or to make you more sympathetic to other people.
“The other thing was that I had trusted God because nothing bad had ever happened to me,” he said. “I had this naïve trust in God that didn’t really have any depth to it.”
Balzer confessed that he really struggled with trusting God for a while after his diagnosis.
“My fear was really more of a paralysis than the MS ever could have been,” he said. “It took a while of getting to that place of saying: You know, even if this goes really bad, it’s okay. I’ll trust God even if he slays me. I’m on His side and that’s okay.”
Tracy Balzer also shared that she was scared for a while, too.
“It was shocking and alarming, because all we knew about it was the wheelchair thing,” she said. “And being a young couple…not really knowing what this meant for the future, and so fear. Fear for me; that was the biggest reaction that I had to deal with pretty intensely for the next six months after that.”
The week that Balzer was diagnosed was a tough week for their family.
“When he was diagnosed, we had one child, and actually I was pregnant with a second,” she said. “The trauma that happened after that week was not only him just very quickly afflicted and diagnosed, but that same week I had a miscarriage of this second child that we had really waited quite a while for.”
God was faithful to the Balzer family. Balzer’s MS has turned out to be quite manageable. His wife was able to have another child, Langley. Things were going great.
“We had been at our second church in Seattle when we started to get the tug that there was something bigger that we were supposed to do,” said Balzer. “So we started looking for new opportunities and different jobs in churches in our denomination, but nothing was really working out.”
That was when Tracy Balzer got the call from JBU.
“When my opportunity came along for me to work at JBU, it was just such a gift,” said Tracy. “I had no thoughts about, Does this mean that I’m going to be the one to work full-time? I didn’t, at all. I just thought, Oh this is just a way for God to help me make a transformation from raising young kids to raising older kids and helping with finances.”
Tracy interviewed and got the job she has now, assistant to the chaplain. At this time, Balzer was asked if he would be an adjunct professor at JBU. He gladly accepted. He now teaches a small number of classes and spends a lot of his time working on faculty development.
“When I first got here, I was sort of a pastor who worked at a university,” Balzer said. “And then I went through my Ph.D. process, and now it’s blending those two together, and I think I am a pastoral professor.”
The Balzers have now been at JBU for 17 years, and they couldn’t be happier. Professor Balzer will be on sabbatical this semester.