Many years ago, when I was starting out in ministry, I was sitting with a group of clergy at our weekly bible study. This was not a typical study week and a couple of the pastors were really struggling with anger towards their mentor who had come out publicly as supporting an issue they disagreed with. As they vented, a wise older pastor cut them off and said, “What gain do you get from being angry?” Of course, they responded that they had every right to be angry, they had a righteous anger because they felt betrayed. The older wise pastor called them out, saying, “It sounds as if your anger is not about the kingdom; rather, it is about you.”
Watching this, for me, was something incredible. As the banter went back and forth, the two upset clergy did not want to give up their anger and the others were just getting annoyed. Eventually the two pastors left. And we began to talk. The wise pastor said, “Anger is a useless emotion. It is the epitome of human depravity, and when we sink into fits of anger, we close ourselves off to listening for God.”
I thought that was interesting, because so often God is equated with being angry. So, I took some time to study how and why God gets angry and how we get angry. The analogy I like is to think of a little boy playing in the street. The mother runs out and is angry at the child because he is playing in the street. The little boy is angry because his mom won’t let him do what he wants. So often when we get angry, it is because we are not getting what we want and holding fast to a myopic, self-centered understanding of the world.
Think about it: the boy is angry because he can’t do what he wants. From his viewpoint, he is being safe and not hurting anybody. But from the mother's standpoint, she knows it is a busy street and that her son will not always pay attention. Moreover, she knows that if he gets hurt, it will hurt a lot of other people, herself included.
When we look at the stories of God getting angry, all of them center around us doing something that is focused on our own self-interest over the divine or even over the betterment of the community. This is no more explicit than the only time that Jesus gets angry in the New Testament. Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for Passover when he went to the temple and found that it had been taken over by a marketplace. In what must have been quite a spectacle, Jesus drove everything out of the temple with whips, turned over the tables and ruined the money.
Jesus’ anger was not only a result of the temple and the faith being used for profit. What you see in the dialog that followed was that he was not only angry that it was happening, but also because the people did not understand why this was wrong. Of course, you can imagine that the people in the market were extremely angry that he had just disrupted their lives. We can understand the rationalization, but that does not make it right. They were disrespecting God and putting the temple in danger.
El Greco, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (National Gallery, London)
In fact, historically, this passage is connected with the destruction of the second temple around 70 CE. It was destroyed by the Romans because of a revolt, but to many at the time, the destruction was really linked to a lack of faithfulness. This furthered the rise of Christianity, as Christ becomes the New Temple, as it states in John 2:21.
Regardless, as people, I agree with that pastor. Anger is not a useful emotion. So often when we get angry, we stop thinking, and more often than not, really hurt others in unintended ways. This anger is different than the anger that comes from God. The anger that comes from God, like the anger that comes from the mother, is not really anger at all, but a deep passionate love and desire that we live the full life that he created for us.
What was the moment that you grew up? No, not when puberty hit, or when you reached those milestones like confirmation or turning 21; rather, when did you know that you could never think like a child again?
A friend of mine who is a psychologist claims that the moment you grow up is the very moment when you realize your own mortality. That totally makes sense! Hang around the cancer ward of a children’s hospital and you will meet some of the most mature people in the world. While that is a big part of maturing, there is another element to making the transition to adulthood. True maturity comes when you also accept humility, understanding that you are not always right or don't have the ultimate perspective on the world.
In other words, maturity is recognizing that things existed before you and will exist when you are gone, and most importantly, that the world does not revolve around you. Most of us experience this sometime in our teen years, but we all can think of adults who never reach this point in life.
Although one's immaturity is accepted while one is chronologically young, there comes a point where our immaturity can get in the way of being a Christian because we never come to accept that God has a path for us that is not always the one we seek for ourselves. Without putting our priorities in the right place, we risk a faith that cannot withstand the struggles and suffering of life.
A big part of the Gospels is the story of how Jesus is preparing the disciples for both their ministry and for maintaining their faith in the midst of the struggles that life was going to put before them. I like to think of this time the disciples had with Christ as analogous to the maturation that happens for most people through their teenage years. As the disciples are journeying with Christ, they are also coming to the realization that the world does not revolve around them.
One of the most blatant places we find this is in Mark 8:31-38, when at one point, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” In a very blunt way, Jesus is telling Peter to grow up already. Peter needs to let go of his fear of suffering and accept that it is unavoidable and good, otherwise he won’t be able to fulfill the ministry he is called to do. Moreover, he needs to begin thinking of what is really important: to let go of ego and accept his place in the greater story of faith.
It makes me think about when I was on my mission to the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota. I was very aware of my mortality, but it was there where I learned humility. This was the summer before college, and my church sent me proclaiming that I was going to make a difference in the lives of the people out there. I didn’t really accomplish that, and that was OK. As one of the elders of the reservation put it, they were doing a mission on me. They wanted to help me to understand their culture and their ways, so that I would be able to share their story with others about learning compassion over hate and acceptance over judgment.
There is nothing like being surrounded by a very different culture to make you take stock of your arrogance. Like Peter, I spent much of that mission trip learning how to be understanding of the things I know nothing about and open to the work of the Lord. There were many times I heard Jesus in my head, telling me to get behind him. And when I did, I always learned something new. Needless to say, I grew up a lot that summer.
For us, as it was for the disciples, it is hard to let go of our arrogance in thinking that knowledge we possess is universal and always correct. Jesus is continually trying to get Peter to understand the importance of letting go of what he thinks he knows and to begin to listen to Him. In the same way, that is what I had to do in Sisseton. I had to let go of what I knew and accept that people think differently from me, and that is not wrong but rather a blessing and life-altering change.
As we continue this Lenten journey, I ask you to continue to think about what you believe and understand. Ask yourself if you have a mature faith open to Christ or if you are still in the place where you know the right and only way. If you still cling to your ego, ask yourself how that’s working for you and, more importantly, how is that working in our other call as Christians to build up the body of Christ?
Never heard of Fat Tuesday? Well, you probably have heard of Mardi Gras, Carnival, possibly even Pancake Tuesday. (OK, I never heard of that one, either.) This holiday is an opportunity for people to purge their human and hedonistic desires so that when the Lenten season comes they can be penitent.
In the Protestant context, historically we do not make a big deal about Lent because our theology calls us to maintain an ordered life that focuses on the divine every day while struggling with the realities of living and working in the Mundane World. However, over the past few decades, many in the Protestant traditions have come to embrace the Lenten disciplines because we have fallen into patterns where we no longer hold that discipline in our daily lives and need times to refocus and center ourselves back into an orderly faith.
Lent, in the early church, began with what is called Quadragesima Sunday or the Sunday six weeks before Easter, but by the 7th century Lent expanded to Ash Wednesday to make it last 40 days. Forty is one of those special numbers, typically connected with penance and fasts. Jesus was tempted for 40 days (Matthew 4:2) and there were 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3). In the Hebrew texts, 40 days of “something” often preceded major events, for instance the Great Flood and the covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:5 - 9:17). I could go on, but for Lent and us, it is a 40-day journey to prepare us to understand the Resurrection in new and powerful ways.
Historically this time was observed in various ways, from all-out fasts to refraining from rich food and libations. However, today, when many think of Lent, they equate it to refraining from meat on Fridays and giving up a mundane vice. The problem, of course, with the current observance is the same as why we Protestants began to embrace Lent in the modern era—it becomes a faith of convenience and not a daily discipline.
This is important because if you want to experience the full witness of Christ at the Resurrection, reconnecting with God is crucial. So, creating a daily discipline that keeps God in focus is more important than anything else. The best thing to do is to start with something that is difficult but not impossible.
For some, this means setting aside three times a day to pray, for others trying to read the whole Bible in forty days. Maybe volunteering at a social service agency or spending time in prayer while walking in nature might be your discipline. Whatever is out of the ordinary and helps you to think and connect with God is good!
Granted, there is nothing wrong with people who follow a true fasting and prayer ritual, but it is important to remember that the purpose is not to prove how spiritual or connected you are, nor is it to show others how you are suffering. That would be about you and not God. Rather, this is a time that you are called to focused on reconnecting with God and whatever discipline allows that to happen for you is a great discipline to follow.
So happy Fat Tuesday! Take time today to connect with your humanity and all of the things that are mundane in your life and begin to think of what your Lenten discipline will be. How will you connect with God? How will you challenge your discipline and change your life?
 a theological term referring to things of this world
This coming Sunday is the last Sunday before we begin Lent. For the last four weeks, I have written on the theological understandings of faith, hope, love and evangelism. Today I am writing about something that is close to my heart and really encompasses all of these understandings, and that is mission.
Presbyterians are a reformed church. This means that at our core we have certain values which all lead back to a belief and faith in Jesus Christ. Without Christ as a central part of the church, our mission, and our call, we really have no purpose in existing. Anytime we place anything before our worship and celebration of Christ, we risk losing the essential understanding of what it means to be a reformed Christian. This includes our rules and guidelines, whether it is in the denomination or in the congregation.
Within the reformed church, the most important ways in which we respond to God’s mission in our world is through our actions (i.e. prayer, worship, learning, and service). I believe that it is through service that we really get into the depth of God’s mission for this world. This understanding of service comes from the notion that God has called us out of this world to be in relation to God, while simultaneously calling us into this world to work for justice and to propagate God’s mission. Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, talked about it in terms of Missio Dei, or the mission of God.
Karl Barth writes:
Thus the ministry of this people also takes place in the course, in the constantly changing stages and situations, of ongoing human history. And its ministry of witness, ordered in relation to that of Jesus Christ, is also both a ministry to God and a ministry to [people]; and a ministry to God in which it may serve [people]; and a ministry to [people] in which it may serve God; and therefore a ministry to the God who speaks to [people] in His Word, and to the [person] who is already called and now summoned to hear, proclaim and accept the Word of God. (IV.3.2 p.831)
As a church, Presbyterians are not called to be inwardly focused; rather, we are called to be part of God’s mission in this world, what I refer to as being a Missional Church. We are forever being called out of ourselves and into something more with the focus of propagating the mission of God. More than anything else, we must listen for the ways in which God is calling us to serve him, not the rule and institutions which we created to worship him.
In the early church, there was very little difference between mission, ministry, and service. In fact, they all come from the same word, diakonia, which is the root of our word "deacon." For Paul and the early church, the diakonia were given the charge, just as deacons are today, of service to God through their ministry. Thus, the goal and purpose of mission was more like the understanding found at the end of the gospel of Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Often this is summed up in the Greek word, oikoumene, which means "world" and is understood as "world mission."
Individuals are called by God into a missional life. This is a life that has a beginning but has no end. Once called into that life, the missionary is called to surrender their human life in order to live one that is focused on God.
Our mission and service always have to come back to God through Jesus Christ, and we must constantly challenge ourselves to answer both why and how we are serving God. I really like one sign that a church had in their narthex as you walked in: “Under the same management for 2,000 years.” We cannot forget that we are called to be the church, to be the body of Christ, by Christ and we are called to serve only one God, our God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen