About five years ago I began to practice Yoga. I did not do it for any spiritual or social reason; I did it for the pure athleticism. Granted I cannot boast of ever being a great athlete, though there were many sports, I enjoyed, however, the one area I could always excel was flexibility.
Soon after starting with the practice of Yoga, I found that it was much more than just exercise. Coming from the Hindu tradition, there was a little reservation about the spirituality of the practice; however, my first instructor, a devoted Christian woman, would play soft hymns in the background while we worked through the poses. Towards the end of class each week, her iPod would play the Lord’s Prayer as a chant. For me, it was a neat experience and one that seemed to tap into a deeper, more concentrated spirituality.
Soon after that I began to use my Yoga time as centering time. If you have not noticed it is impossible for me to sit still, even when I do sit! What yoga does for me is to occupy my body, without the distraction of my fidgety body, phones, people, etc., I found that my yoga time was a special time where I could focus and reconnect with God and myself.
For the first few minutes after class, especially if it had been a good class, I feel like I am walking in an altered state, a little lighter on my feet, feeling full and refreshed. It is at that time when I have my greatest thoughts and ideas. Unfortunately, as I reenter the world, I realize just how quickly I become distracted by emails and buzzes from my iPhone. Don’t get me wrong; I love my iPhone and all that it allows me to do, but often it is another piece into a puzzle, a litany of distractions that keep me from connecting with God.
Many Pastors, Priests, Rabbis, Imams, and other clergy types talk about how hard it is to stay connected to God in this highly technological time. Nevertheless, the truth is that even back in the time of the Hebrew Testament, finding time to connect and focus on God was difficult. The problem is that when it comes to God, many do not see the immediate need, so we justify the distractions as needs and fall further away from the life God calls us into.
Just think of all the excuses people make when they skip church. How many of those are diversion? Now think about how you spend your day. In day-to-day life, how much of it is dedicated to God in prayer, service, or study? Now I am not advocating for an ascetic life or one that is removed from the world, but rather how do you involve God in your day-to-day life?
It is interesting: often when I do couples counseling I ask them when the last time they prayed together before being intimate. You can guess the answer. Interestingly, almost every time that they go home and practice prayer before their relations, the couples find that they are able to connect in a much stronger and intimate way. One couple swore that this prayer time saved their marriage!
By taking time to focus on God, we end up with the reward of clarity and understanding. We also allow ourselves the grace to feel connected to a God that is much greater and more powerful than we could ever imagine. Granted I know that many of you who are reading this article have a very full and active spiritual life and do everything I talked about and more. I know writing these articles is like preaching to the choir, but the reality of life is that life is always throwing us distractions that keep us from God.
One way that we overcome the distractions is to be cognizant of our spiritual life and give focused time, whether that is in nature, in relationships, in church or even in yoga.
Yours in Christ,
On Sunday, we will celebrate the end of another Program year in the church. While many things will continue like Children’s Church, Traditional Worship, The Gathering, and so on, many things like Choir come to an end for the year. Like any end, there is always some nostalgia about the past year, and what a year it has been.
While we still have not had the chance to hire a Christian Educator to work with our children, we have seen the growth of our children’s programs thanks to the dedication of our parents and members. Starting with VBS last summer, we turned a corner and could see the large amount of youth in our church. This allowed Mary Anne to start her Children’s Choir that blessed us with music for worship and a real jolt to our witness in the way God was working in our church. In Children’s church we have seen a program, both the older kid in the Mission Hall and younger in the nursery that is served by dedicated leaders and is so good that the children involved are excited to participate.
In Worship, we have been blessed through our choir. They give their time every Thursday night to practice; often some even plan their vacations around important Sundays and events. Though they might be small, they are mighty and have blessed us with their talent and dedication. This Sunday we will celebrate their work and gifts as they share with us some of their favorite anthems. Though they are finishing for the summer, there will be many opportunities for you to get involved with the summer singers starting next Sunday.
We have even seen the start of a vital new ministry in “the Gathering.” Through it’s non-traditional worship and flexibility we have created a space to allow creativity and individual growth. For some, this service is educational, for other’s worship, while others find it to be a powerful fellowship time. Which we hope, thanks to a recent grant, will be a model and safe place for those in our community who are lost and seeking a spiritual home.
There is so much that has happened in the last year, I could go on for pages! Nevertheless, I have to say that one of the most powerful things that has changed is the attitude of our congregation. When I came it seemed like the congregation was mostly concerned with whether or not we were going to survive. Today, that question has changed to how can we be better and more attractive and connected to our community. Though it may not seem that different, the difference is actually quite huge! We have accepted that God is going to lead us into the future, and though we might hit some stumbling blocks along the way, we know that we are going to have a future.
As we work towards the future, there are a lot of things that we will be doing, starting in the new program year like a men’s group, hopefully by the end of the summer. We will also use our VBS this summer to be a springboard for our growing children’s program next fall.
However, to be successful next fall we have to do planning and experimentation this summer. This means that you might see some changes. For example, a few members have been asking to see if they can get more out of the services. So every week in the “From the Pastor’s Desk. . .” (the Friday Letter) at the bottom you will find a paragraph and some questions to prepare yourself for the service. We will also be doing some experimentation with the services, bulletins, and so on to see if we can make worship more accessible and connected.
There will also be a major change in my schedule in that I will now be switching my “day off” from Monday to Friday. This was something that was suggested at the Credo Conference. The reasoning behind that is to allow me to have a true Sabbath day that would be easier to keep. Moreover, it will allow me to be more responsive to what happens on Sunday. While it is experimental through the summer, it will be a big change for me since my whole professional life I have had Mondays off. So we will see how it works!
Lastly, I will say that summers are usually not as scheduled like the rest of the year. This means that I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule. While I always have time to meet with members, you’re less likely to run into scheduling conflicts if you need a longer conversation with me. Also, any time of year I am willing and eager to meet you or your family for lunch, dinner, tea, Golf, or whatever, just let me know. Every time I have had the change to meet with folks I have enjoyed what I have learned, and it really helps to gain perspective on where we have been and where we are going.
As I look back over the past year and look forward to the next, I can say without a doubt that I am so happy that I have had the opportunity to join with this congregation in our unique journey and am extremely hopeful and excited about our future!
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen
When I think of Memorial Day, I think back to the parade that I was in when I was in fifth grade. In Illinois, Memorial Day usually meant rain, but it could be sunny and 90 or cool and 50; it was one of those 90-degree years. Actually, hot weather would not have been so bad had it not been for the pair of white slacks and a thick red wool sweater with a big white “E” in the center.
By the end, the parade was like a scene from M*A*S*H: some kids crying, others catatonic, some parents had removed the offending clothes and were dousing their kids with water, and most of us were just trying to drink whatever we could find. I don’t know what everyone else was like, but I know I was in quite a foul mood. Thankfully, no children that I knew of went to the hospital. And more thankfully with help from the choir teacher, (and clearly not really having a passion for the drums) the next year I got out of Band and into something much more civilized, though, as you know, I can’t sing. (Just kidding, Mary Anne)
I remember waiting for my chance to be like my brother and wear the cool sweater that he wore years earlier. When I put it on, I remember feeling a little proud, but as you know, that changed pretty quickly. On the surface, there was nothing wrong with the outfit. They were nice old-style sweaters, and I am sure we all looked quite cute, but they just were not appropriate for what the day had in store.
Faith is sometimes like that. When we set out we think we have everything we need, but often we find ourselves lacking in some way. It was like the day that I was confirmed. When I stood in front of the church with the other 55 kids who got confirmed that year, I felt proud as if I was getting a new “spiritual outfit” that would carry me through anything. I soon found out that was not the case. As my life spiraled in various directions because of my health issues, and being 14, I realized that I could not always just go back to the outfit that was working in the past. I realized that I had to make adjustments, like a sweater was inappropriate for that parade, my childhood faith was insufficient for the life and death trials that were ahead of me.
The problem that we often find within the church is that we long for our faith to be static, never changing. But all too often that does not work since neither we, nor the world around us are without change. We live in a changing culture and changing times. If that spiritual outfit does not grow or adjust, we often find ourselves in a very dark place.
If we follow the teachings of Paul, from Galatians to Romans, we see that in his ministry, Paul is growing. As we watch his encounters, especially his imprisonments, we see a markedly different Paul in Galatians then we do in Romans. When studying Paul you begin to recognize that he is not very static in his faith, but is quite dynamic in how he adjusts to the times and trials of his life.
In our country, we all too often accept a faith that is given to us, without thinking and without developing. Unfortunately, when that happens, we often find ourselves lost in a strange wilderness. We wonder why God is not there for us, and we have a hard time reconciling our faith with our experiences. However, when we allow ourselves to step back, ask questions and explore, letting our faith be dynamic, we often find that our faith is strengthened. What worked once, may not work again.
Looking back, I cannot help but chuckle as I think of the whole situation. What a mess, but we all survived. The band teacher was not bad, nor was he a bad guy; he utilized what was before him and instead of questioning or thinking in a different way. If he had only been able to adjust, and take in more information, he might just have avoided that mess. But he went back to what worked. Oh and By the way, the next year the kids were wearing tee shirts and shorts.
Yours in Christ,
As I was preparing to go to the Credo conference, the Continuing education event I was just at, I looked over the participants and realized that the only person I knew was someone who I friended on Facebook, but never met. This caused a little anxiety, especially since the focus on this conference was to explore our personal health and pastoral ministry.
Having taken the red-eye, I arrived well before anyone else so I took a nap. A few hours later I woke to make my way to the welcome reception. From across the room a somewhat familiar woman came towards me, “Bryan, Bryan Franzen.” It was a pastor who interned at the church where I grew up. While she had not worked with me, she worked with the Sr. High and was a favorite of both my oldest Brother and Mother. Actually, I often remember my mother talking about her in glowing ways.
As great as it was to see this pastor, I thought about how odd it was to have someone who knew me when I was 11 or 12. Of all the people in the world, what does it mean to have this person come back into my life? Strangely, that was not the last of those coincidences, as time progressed trough the week, I found out that one of the leaders was ordained in the church that my family attended until I was 6 and very likely was present at my baptism.
This realization made me think of the phrase “Remember your Baptism” from healing services, ordinations, commissioning, and so on. To me, that phrase has always seemed quite esoteric in my spiritual practice. Outside of reading my baptismal certificate and hearing stories of the day, I do not know much about my baptism first hand, I was an infant.
In some traditions, baptism is done at an age where the child or adult can make a personal commitment to Christ. Called Believers Baptism, for obvious reasons, the focus of that baptism is a personal transition moving from sinner to saved.
In our tradition, Baptism is recognition of the work that God has already done in us. This means that when we are baptized, the community is recognizing the acts that God is already doing within us. This welcoming mark of the grace sets us apart to live in faithfulness and community. Interestingly, in the baptismal service the congregation also takes on a crucial role; they covenant to raise the child (or adult), teaching them the mysteries of the faith.
The image of Baptism that comes to me is the Cloud of Witnesses found in Hebrews. That the Cloud of witnesses, the community, commissions us and reminds us of what is important and what is not, all while helping us find faithfulness to embark on a journey that will ultimately bring us to Christ.
Remembering my baptism is not about remembering the act, rather, it is to remind me that God did not put me in this world alone. God placed me in a home, called me into a community and gave me folks along the way to walk with me, guide me, and witness to me the presence and power of God. Even as a pastor, I forget that sometimes. Listening to the stories of the other clergy and witnessing to one-another our struggles and triumphs, showed me that God walks with all of us and when we break from our burdens, we can run this race stronger and quicker.
I guess what those two pastors symbolized to me was all the people that helped to shape and mold me. They reminded me that I have a whole group of witnesses who are around me, and I am not alone. It also reminded me that I am in community, and that I am in that Cloud for others, and I have the responsibility to care and teach. That “Both-And” participation is central to how we operate as a church and how we live out our baptism.
Yours in Christ,
Tory (not her real name) was a girl I worked with when I led youth groups back in my early ministry. At thirteen, she was spirited and very sure of herself, so when she came to youth group and did not say anything and sat by herself, I knew something was wrong.
Tory was small for her age and though most of her friends had begun puberty, she had not. It concerned her parents so they brought her to the endocrinologist, and they found out that she had a disorder called Tuners Syndrome; this is where instead of an XX or XY chromosome, she only possessed one X chromosome. Granted, for a girl or boy, those early teen years are a time of self-discovery and understanding, yet there is a great desire to be normal and need to fit in. For Tory, her initial diagnosis, in her mind, meant this would never happen.
After a few minutes of her sulking, I sat down next to her and inquired as to what was going on. She told me the whole story and ended with “I’m not a real girl, nobody is going to accept me, and no one is going to like me!” Before I could say anything she gave a very loud cry. At that point, two other girls came by. They scrunched in close to the other side from me and to my surprise, she told them the whole story all over again! The girls, without hesitation, gave her a big hug and said “We love you for who you are, what’s a ‘real’ Girl anyway!” With that, I tried not to chuckle, but it just fell out. Soon we were all laughing and by the end of the night, Tory was back to her spunky self.
Earlier that year, I taught a lesson to the kids about grace, and I pulled out a ladder, and placed it just below a hole to the attic, just shy of where I could crawl in the attic by myself. I walked the top of the ladder and attempted to go in but obviously could not. I had a friend up there and on cue, he reached down and helped me in. As I crawled back down I said to the kids, “Grace is like that, there is only so far that we can go by ourselves, but eventually we need God to help us, because our own tools can only go so far, just like the ladder.”
One of the kids responded: “but you always say that we need to be gracious to one another, so if we don’t have the tools for ourselves, how can we show grace?”
I came back and said “That is just it; we may not have the tools for ourselves, but we always have the tools to help someone else out. When we recognize our own needs, we can really be present for others for their needs.”
Interestingly, Tory got the treatment, and though she faced some difficult things, pretty quickly she began to grow and catch up to the others her age. When I left that church, she slipped me a card letting me know that she was going to just give up on life that night, but she saw that there was something more, and she also saw that now she could talk out of that grace she received and share it with others. Think about how our whole lives might be different if we were to share grace with one another and give credit to God, when God gives us Grace.
Yours in Christ,
This was the first question that I was asked when I entered the process of becoming a minister. I did not really know how to answer the question. On one hand being Presbyterian was not really a choice I had made. My parents raised me in a Presbyterian Church; I went to a [nominal] Presbyterian College and had always worked in Presbyterian Churches. For the most part, any Presbyterian Church I ever entered, I felt comfortable and at home.
On the other hand, because of the way I was raised, being Presbyterian had as much to do with my culture as it did to my faith. As a Presbyterian, I engaged the world with a healthy mix of skepticism and hope. A certain understanding that while we are imperfect, with the right systems and order, we can begin to create a way of living that can give a glimpse of Heaven on Earth.
So at 20 years old in my first formal meeting with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, a little nervous and a lot scared, I gave them the answer, “I just am Presbyterian.” They gave me really odd looks. I explained growing up Presbyterian, I talked about the cultural side, that was a new one to them, and I said, “From what I have seen, I cannot think of being anything else. Presbyterians are nowhere close to being perfect, but at least we can admit it!” They liked that, and obviously let me move forward.
Interestingly, folks like me, those who grew up in the Presbyterian Church, are more the exceptions than the rule. While there has always been a core that had grown up in the Presbyterian Church, many of those who have joined the Presbyterian Church come from outside the denomination. Some join because of the theology, some join because of the community, some because of youth and children’s programs, but most join because they feel connected spiritually. Whatever the reason people join, the diversity of theological perspective and personal background is a certain strength that comes from a reminder that no one person has all the answers. Moreover, that we all fall short and need each other.
What I often miss and lament over in our denomination is a certain level of grace and levity. I remember having an ability to laugh at our ways, which allowed us to be humbled in our imperfection. This was exemplified by one of the funniest fundraisers a church has done that I know of! In the late seventies, the Presbytery of Des Moines did a fundraiser, selling shirts that pronounced on the Front of the Shirt “Presbyterians Do It”, and on the back “Decently and In Order” (innuendo fully implied). Granted, this saying was not coined by the Presbytery of Des Moines.
This fundraiser was an enjoyable point of self-deprecation. It came from the fact that many Presbyterians often use a process that often takes long time and can be frustrating at times; nevertheless, we also know that as annoying as it can be, something good is often found when we complete the process. More than that, it was a sign that while we know our system is not prefect, we can make the best of it, and at least recognize our humanity. For me maybe the biggest part of being Presbyterian is acceptance. Acceptance not only of other people, but maybe even more importantly, of ourselves.
When we can name our imperfections through laughter, or any other means, we can begin to see how God might be using what we might think to be deficits to be places of growth. Moreover, when we recognize that our way might not be perfect and accept it for what it is, we begin to see the incredible works of God. It is quite simple: when we accept what we have in tools and faith, we use our energy in making them work for us in doing God’s mission, rather than focusing inwardly, and often forgetting about God’s mission altogether. In fact, other then God or Christ, there is not an example of a time where perfection achieved (or perceived) resulted in anything good.
To me this gets to the core of the theological understanding of the reformed movement and subsequently, the Presbyterian Church, and that is the state of total depravity. Or as I like to say, a recognition that we’re prisoners to the human condition and therefore require the grace of God because even when we are sure we’re right, we probably aren’t and that is OK.
So if I were to answer the question I was asked 19 years ago, I would say that to me, ideally, being a Presbyterian is about living as a community of folks who are trying to be faithful with grace, love, and acceptance. Our challenge is recognizing and accepting the ways in which God is using us through our imperfect ways to create something more connected and more real, helping us to spread God’s message of Grace, love and acceptance to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen