I remember the day that I made up my mind about following my call into ministry. While I knew I had a calling by the middle of my freshman year, I was not quite sure it was something that I really wanted to do. It would require a lot of work, and that was just to convince my parents that it was a good idea! It would also require a lot of education and commitment.
I was sitting in a core class for the elementary education program called “Reading for Teachers,” listening to a classmate present one of the most boring practicums. All she did was follow the text from the book and use the provided worksheets, which, in my opinion, did not even reinforce the lesson’s objectives. She was the last to give her practicum, and we were all blown away when the teacher said hers was the best.
Being me, I had to raise my hand and ask, “So the objective is to teach the book, not teach to the child?” To which I got the response: “Schools pick the curriculum you’re expected to teach.”
After leaving that class, I found my way into my class on Bonhoeffer. This was one of my favorites! We had just finished Life Together and were starting on The Cost of Discipleship. It was my first “real” theology class, and I was in heaven! The great thing about theology was that its quest was not as much about finding the answer as it was developing a greater understanding. With understanding comes relationship, and out of relationship comes a deeper faith.
The Christian is not called to live in isolation from the world, but to live in the world, and, more importantly, in community. The premise of Life Together is how to order our lives in community to allow for the grace needed with each other and the structure required to be faithful followers, and how we find the strength needed to act and react to the world beyond.
This made a lot of sense to me. I knew I wanted to do something that would hopefully make a difference in this world. I also knew that if I followed the education department at my college, I would not. Encouraging people not to think seemed to me to be the antithesis of Christian living. So I transitioned completely out of education and into religion, and never turned back.
Interestingly, as I let others know about my calling and decision, I was stunned how many people were not at all amazed or even surprised. It seemed that most saw me taking that route before I did, which is always a good sign of a true calling. This summer, as I approach 15 years as an ordained minister and 23 years of working for churches, I think about those two classes and that decision to move forward into ministry. It has been an incredible experience, and I am sure it will continue to be, especially with Bonhoeffer’s teachings at the core.
But I cannot help but think about that education class. It makes me worry about our world, because so many things I see happening in the world today go back to the idea that we are to follow what we are given, rather the question what things mean. I worry that this creates a loss of independent thinking.
As we find ourselves in the midst of a presidential election, I sit in awe of all that is being said. I am sad that we are forced to accept the candidates that are being put forward, rather than envision the possibility of another way, especially since they all--with one exception--are really preaching the status quo, just with different words.
I am blown away that as we continue to see the disparity between the powerful and powerless grow, we don’t raise our voices to ask what is going on. We do not seek voices for justice; instead, we are drawn to people that will keep our individual lives the most comfortable. I am saddened by the increasingly exclusionary practices which have created superior and inferior groups. We see increasing hate towards Muslims; Jews; gay, lesbian, and transgender folks; and the homeless. Members of all of these groups were rounded up by the Nazis, along with Christians who would not toe the line¾all under the guise following the status quo.
We must break this cycle. As the church, we need to model a different way. Let’s rethink what our Life Together is. Let’s find out how we can live an ordered life, growing in our relationships with each other, so that we can truly effect change in our world by breaking down the power that separates, and building up the community in grace.
As we transition to a time in the liturgical year where we focus on the life of the church, I cannot help but think about beginnings. It is spring, we have new life all around, and all of this brings us to a place of joy! Unfortunately, because we tend to look nostalgically at our beginnings, we often overlook the struggles, frustrations, and adjustments that each new beginning requires. This means that we often miss the some of the most important parts of starting things, and forget that there is a process we need to go through in order to have healthy and whole new beginnings.
To understand new beginnings, we need to understand fear. Often when we come to the point of trying something new, we let our fear block us from really going through with that new thing. This is understandable--we take a lot of comfort in the safety of what is known, and to try something new will launch us into the unknown!
It reminds me of many years ago when I was teaching swimming to kids. I had patience, so I worked with the group that was just learning how to swim. It was a frustrating but cool experience. The truth about teaching kids to swim is that the last thing we taught was how to swim!
The very first step in teaching someone to swim is to help them let go of their fear. Even though humans are predisposed to learning how to swim, most children also have an innate fear of water. This fear is a good thing, because it helps keep the child safe, but it also restricts their experience of the joy of swimming and development of basic swimming skills.
Giving the child time and patience, I would bring them to the edge of the lake and slowly help them in. At first I would hold their hands as they crept in, then their shoulders. For some, I would only need to hold them a few minutes, but others needed reassurance longer.
Floating was the first and most important lesson, because it taught them to let go of their fear and begin to listen to their bodies. The truth is that everyone can float. Some will float at the top of the water, and others only a couple inches below but contrary to many beliefs, people do not sink to the bottom without some kind of help or movement. Learning to float is all about reducing your fear and anxiety. If your body is either tense or flailing, you’re going to sink. To float, you need to relax and listen to your body, slowly moving an arm or leg as needed.
Once the child mastered floating, getting them swimming was a breeze. Getting them to do strokes correctly is another story, and another letter altogether!
As you can see with swimming, there is a process that has to happen at the beginning. With any new beginning, there has to be a time of letting go¾letting go of fear, and letting go of what you know. There has to be trust in others. The children I worked with had to trust that I would not let them get hurt. There also had to be trust in themselves. The children had to trust that when I let go, they could rely on themselves.
Unfortunately, some of the other instructors did not take that approach. We actually had one that threw a child into the lake! It took months to get that kid to swim! When starting something new, many of us want it to be completely developed right away. If there is one thing that we know about the early church, it is that it was far from perfect. But what made it take off and become so powerful for people was that the disciples were able to let go of their fear and trust in God to guide them, and themselves to follow through.
When we forget our beginnings, we create a number of problems. We forget to give people the grace they need to get over their fears. We forget that we cannot do it alone and need to trust God. But when we remember that, even when we are no longer just starting out, we open ourselves to new beginnings all the time.
I had to laugh the other day as I opened the trunk of my car. In the center was my gym bag; behind that, my golf clubs, draped with a drying swimsuit; my swim fins and other stuff in their bag to the side. My golf shoes and some things I recently picked up for my bike took up the other side of the trunk. I had to laugh, because if you had told me when I was 12 that I would still be involved with sports at the age of 41, I would have told you just how crazy you were.
Other than wrestling, which came rather naturally to me, I never really went too far with any organized sports. It was not due to a lack of effort or athleticism, but my size, strength, and issues resulting from my medical problems meant that my abilities were always just average.
As a result, I HATED school and other organized sports. They had a way to demean even the best player. Winning in organized sports is everything. Many coaches I had over the years never let us forget that. There are a lot of important lessons to be learned by participating in organized sports, especially how to win and lose with grace and decorum. But at a certain point, most of the sports I played, whether it was swimming or football, lost their fun. Even winning seemed empty.
Maybe it is because the times I had the most fun playing sports were either in the neighborhood or at camp, where sports were less about winning and more about the sport and the enjoyment of playing. Usually this was also done without adult supervision!
Sports could be so much fun when we collectively decided that the rules sucked and we were going to write our own. Most of the time that worked really well. No matter what we played, the rules were relatively the same. The basic framework would remain for the game we played¾ so if it were soccer, you would kick the ball into the goal, if it went out of bounds, it would be thrown in, and so on. But the rest of the rules, the technical stuff, fell away, and no matter what we played, they ended up being replaced with three things. Though never really formalized or even talked about, there was a strict covenant that if you crossed these lines, the worst punishment of all would come¾rejection.
The rules, or maybe guidelines would be a better way to talk of them, were simple. First, that we respect each other. This meant that you could not play if you did stupid things that would get others hurt, and teasing each other to the point where someone cried was never cool. Second, that we would be honest about things like whether or not a goal was made. This had less to do with altruism than it did practicality. We wanted to play, and all that arguing did was to take up our time and keep us from having the fun of the game. The last rule was that we would be fair. If teams were uneven, we would adjust. Again, this was less about benevolence as it was the sport¾what fun is it, really, to beat someone so badly it is embarrassing? They probably would not play with you again.
That was living! Playing like this was fun, and most importantly, though someone always left with a bruised ego, everyone remained friends when all was said and done.
If you are still with me, you must be asking, “What does this have to do with God?” Well, nothing and everything. I once joked that I was a “Christian anarchist,” in the same way that I see Paul as a Christian anarchist or Christ as an anarchist. All governments become religions unto themselves, where their rules and laws become the focus, rather than either the well-being or faith of the people. This was certainly true of both the Roman government and the Jewish leadership at the time of Christ. For both, it was far more about the law than what was best for the people, or moreover, what was best for serving God.
I believe we are coming to a critical point in our history where we are far more concerned about the winning than we are about the living. We are so consumed by the sport of life that we have forgotten what it means to play. Personally, I think this is what is behind many of the disparities and discriminatory practices in our country. Not only have we lost respect for each other, we’ve also lost the ability to be honest and fair.
As I prepare to go to General Assembly in a little less than a month, I am going to take you on a journey through a new focus for my efforts called “All Hate Hurts.” While the presidential campaign is an obvious target, it is only a symptom of a society that has lost the ability to play and work together with respect, honesty, and fairness, which I believe are the cornerstones for for any relationship. I believe it is time for us to be bold--not necessarily to be anarchists, but definitely for us to relearn what it means to be in relationship with others.
I think that is why I have kept with sports. While I’m no longer doing organized sports, I really enjoy the way that I can go out, meet people, play, and live. It gives me perspective, and from a grounded place, I am able to assess what is really important in the world.
The one good thing about an early Easter is the fact that we get to have an early Pentecost. Unfortunately, Pentecost is often lost to the beginning of summer or, even worse, Memorial Day. But this year we get to have an all-out celebration of this special day.
Historically, Pentecost started in the Hebrew tradition as the harvest festival Shavuot, which celebrated the wheat harvest and the day God gave the law to Israel when they were assembled at Mount Sinai. While in the Hebrew traditions this was a feast of lesser importance, the Christian church seized on it following the events laid out in Acts 2.
Thematically, it also makes a lot of sense that the Christian church would choose to make this one of their high holy days. With respect to the law, the recognition that Christ came to complete the law replaces the Torah with the teachings of Christ.
More interesting is the harvest festival aspect. As the Acts story of Pentecost plays out, there is a very important harvest: once everyone is able to hear and understand God’s message, they can come to faith and “be harvested.” This is nothing new, just an agricultural twist on the story of the fishermen and many of the parables. The church then becomes central, because the purpose of the church is not to make people happy or even to do what we want, but it is about reaching beyond ourselves into the world to make a difference.
I was lucky to be in seminary in a time of great change. While there, I was blessed to meet and study with Rev. Bill Creevey, who was the interim chaplain my middle year. Having been a very successful pastor, he would talk about the exponential growth of his churches by saying “church growth starts small, literally, by caring for the children.” He talked often about when his church in downtown Portland stopped trying to serve their members and began to serve their community. While it was difficult, the church began to change and grow to what is now one of the largest churches in the denomination.
Over the years, I have witnessed that when churches highlight their biblical mandates, different priorities come into play. We stop thinking about our own comfort and begin to live in the sometimes frightening unknowns of life. But when we do so, like most things, we begin to find that our comfort, if anything, was holding us back. The stagnation is often our fear of moving forward.
About ten years ago, one of my friends found himself in the position of being a hospice chaplain to dying congregations. He was in the unique position of helping the congregations cope with the very real issues of dignity and life, hope and salvation as it related to their unsustainable situations. He said that when he would go to a congregation, their primary concern was the question of dignity and life. While these are great questions, he also notes that they are social, not biblical ones.
This means that for a “good death,” he worked with the congregation to transition from dealing with their own self motivations to understanding the church theologically, especially in terms of hope and salvation. As he did this, he found that his churches tended to break out of their boxes. They dropped the hardened identities which they had formed and let the spirit take hold. Interestingly, not every congregation he was called to closed. Many actually took on a new life, stopped worrying about how to stay open, and started to ask, “How can we best serve God in our remaining days?”
It reminds me of the passage from Romans Chapter 8 Verses 5-6 :
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
A church focused on the spirit is infinitely more connected to God and its mission than those who use the standards of this world. We have to set the example as a congregation and take the necessary leaps of faith. This is, after all, why we are all here, celebrating life as an expression of God.
We must labor to continually ask if the order established by the church is a catalyst for spiritual growth in faith, and whether it is bringing an understanding of hope and salvation or has become a rigid law boxing in the Holy Spirit. Our job as the church is to be a faithful expression of God deeply rooted in the spirit, which has been given as a gift to us. We are called to lift up and not tear down, and we are called to live in the celebration of the Holy Spirit every day!
If there is one thing that we can learn from what happened here on Pentecost, it is that God still has great plans for this place and there is a powerful seed for the spirit here!
It’s the last Sunday of the Easter season this week; next Wednesday, we will celebrate the Ascension, and a week from Sunday, Pentecost. But as we come to the conclusion of this season, I cannot help but reflect on the themes that came from the lectionary this year. As you would expect, many are about faith. But surprisingly, they were not about how we attain faith, but what we do with our faith. Whether that may mean being bold in our declarations of God, or reaching out in love for our neighbor, it is the theme of action which is the core of faith.
This is contrary to much of the current thought concerning the church. Like most in our society, the question of church and expectation of God comes down to that old line, “What’s in it for me?” Even in traditions like ours which shun a sense of “works righteousness,” we often are motivated by our own desires over our call to connect more deeply and fully with others.
This made sense in the context of the early church, since the early Christians were facing a world where they were truly countercultural. Their morals were focused on the corporate faith, not individual gain, which was the hallmark of the Roman Empire. Keeping everyone focused on themselves helped the Roman powers to keep people both happy and in fear¾happy for what they had, and fearful for what they could lose.
Those who had wealth lived to protect it, and those without lived in fear of persecution or death. So the countercultural corporate faith of the early church challenged this paradigm in very real ways, some of which we are being called to explore today.
Although contextually the time of the early church was different, it was still very similar to the world we live in today. As I read the story from Acts this week, I could not help but laugh. It is about an annoying person, an annoyed couple of disciples, an unjust legal system, fear, and ultimately redemption. I do encourage you to read Acts 16:16-34 . I think you’ll like it!
The thing that makes me laugh about this passage, other than hearing that Paul was annoyed and acted on it, was how similar it was to what often happens as we try to live out our faith. At some point in in our journey, we encounter a situation where we have to deal with very annoying people. We all know how frustrating that annoying person is, and can understand when Paul and Silas had enough and asked the spirit to shut the person up.
But what is interesting and gave me a chuckle was how God used the annoying person to ultimately bring another person to faith. This is not unique in the Bible, but it is interesting how a series of events can lead to something vastly different than what is expected. Over and over in the Bible, God shows us that his way is not ours. Moreover, it means that we are living not for our own wants and needs, but for God’s.
As for the implications of this for modern society, on a meta level, we can point to the rhetoric of the presidential election. But that is almost too easy! On a local level, we can look at our own neighborhoods and some of the real problems that are starting to arise. Whether that is the housing crisis, police-community relations, homelessness, homophobia, Islamophobia, or something else, when discourse breaks down, and especially when violence enters, it is when we are far more concerned with ourselves then we are with God and our neighbor. This is part of the power of the story from Acts. There is no question that Paul and Silas were wrongly imprisoned, but when they had their chance to “save themselves,” they did not, and as a result, they were able to bring a very important person to faith.
For a society based on what is best for the self, this does not mean much. But when we are living for something more, the fact that one more person came to believe means everything, because that helps others to strengthen their faith as well.
So as we think back over this Easter Season, and forward to the time of Pentecost, we must ask ourselves two fundamental questions: “How are we living for the Lord?” and “How are we called to live out our faith?” The way we answer those questions will make a big difference in how we prioritize our journey forward.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen