It is always easy to get wrapped up in faith as if it were a fad. In the late '80s and early '90s, a new pop-culture Christianity started to make its way into the schools where I attended and the general culture. Like many pop-culture trends, it added to the culture but also lost some of the essential understandings of the faith. One of the strange fads that came with this movement was the wristbands that were labeled "WWJD." Strangely enough, it was a marketing gold mine, as WWJD–wear took off as if it were a high teen-fashion brand. In time, it could be seen marketed on clothing and jewelry, even on lunch boxes and school folders. It seemed to be everywhere. Unfortunately, one thing seemed to be missing: not everyone wearing the logo knew what it meant. In fact, many of my friends had the very popular bracelets, but few could express the meaning. Understanding the statement that they were making (asking the question "What Would Jesus Do?") was lost to the momentary fad of fashion.
As we celebrate the church and its role in our lives, I cannot help but think what others in my generation think of the church. Many claim that the church is a hypocritical institution, and some proclaim that all the church is interested in is money, while others say that church is merely irrelevant. Sometimes I even have a hard time defending it, as the debates and division within our churches are not even about the timeless issues. Sometimes I even wonder if we, as a denomination, might fall into the trap of following the fad of religion, going through the motions to keep up with others whose lives we so deeply wish we had, instead of reaching a real understanding of God and of faith.
As I thought about this, I remembered the prophet Micah. Micah is found among the minor prophets; "minor" with respect to size, not content. Micah was a prophet who was a contemporary of Isaiah. His book can be split into two similar, but distinct sections. Each section begins with prophecies of punishment and leads into prophecies of salvation, reminding us of God’s presence and desire for all to live in peace.
As with many of the prophets, even his name, Micah, is prophetic. Micah, in Hebrew, means "Who is like Yahweh?" (Yahweh is an academic construct of the name for God used throughout the Old Testament.) This is important, because Micah is speaking to what seems to be God’s perpetual battle with humanity, where we are constantly falling away from God, complaining over the destruction that ensues, ultimately resulting in God’s rebuilding toward peace.
The interesting thing is that Micah is constantly reminding us of God’s desire, even in the midst of the destruction. In a way, it is like when a parent spanks their child, saying, "This hurts me more than it does you!" For Micah, God gains no joy in seeing his people hurt and destroyed. Rather, he seeks what is good, posing the simple question,"What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In other words, one might argue that Micah is asking what is so hard that you cannot merely be just in what you do, love and strive to be kind toward others, and know a bit of humility by allowing God to take credit?
This is a powerful concept, and used as a guide, it helps us to understand and follow our calling. Many leaders in this country have quoted this as a part of their understanding of the political office they hold. President Jimmy Carter used this passage at his inauguration, as did John Ashcroft on the day he was nominated. It makes me think, if leaders truly followed it, maybe our world would be much different.
I often wonder what the world would be like if everybody went to church to simply give glory to God and thank God for the lives that we have, then took that glory and love out the doors of the church and gave it as a gift to all whom we see, to all we meet throughout the next week, sharing the kindness we know to be right.
And what about sticking up for those who are unable to stick up for themselves because they have no voice or because they are weak? Instead of leaving them to be bullied and left alone, what if we gave them a place to be and be heard?
Here is the kicker: what if we did this and never let it be known what we did, keeping a true humility with God?
Unfortunately, some feel that once an individual experiences salvation, they need to only be focused on the relationship with God, and ask, "What does action have to do with faith?" Though faith is rooted in our relationship with God, it is serving God that builds up our faith and helps us to better understand God. See, what Micah points to so vividly in his prophesies is that the constant faith is from God. It is we—yes, all of us—who lose sight of God. Instead of helping, we hurt. Instead of giving, we take. Instead of acting in justice, kindness and humility, we buy a sticker or a wristband to prove our allegiance.
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 the thick, red wool sweater with a big white “E” in the center I was wearing. I remember waiting for my chance to be like my brother and wear the cool sweater that he had worn years earlier. When I put it on, I remember feeling a little proud, but that changed pretty quickly.
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).
On the surface, there was nothing wrong with the band 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 had worked in the past. I became aware that I had to make adjustments. Like the sweater that 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 from that 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 parade situation—what a mess, but we all survived. The band teacher was not bad, nor was he a bad guy; he utilized what was used before him 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 had worked. Oh, and by the way, the next year, the kids were marching in T-shirts and shorts.
Yours in Christ,
Back when I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to visit my ancestral home of Glarus, Switzerland. After leaving the rest of the group behind, I was all alone, and had very poor German skills. After a few hours there, I began to wonder what the heck I was doing. No one seemed to speak English, and everyone was yelling at me! After a little while longer and a lot of walking, I heard a group of people talking ENGLISH!! All of a sudden, the discomfort went away as they talked to me and explained the community and, most importantly, that the people were not yelling at me. Switzerdeutsch is a very rough language and it always sounds that way. Learning from that group and then being sent off changed my experience from being lost and frustrated to a marvelous weekend of discovery and learning.
I cannot help but think about what it was like on that day of Pentecost where all who were gathered were able to hear the message of God in their own language (especially thinking of the comfort I found bumping into a group of English-speaking people in a foreign land!). What hope and power there must have been in the welcoming comfort of the message in their native tongue.
Today, much of faith and Christianity has devolved into pious discussions concerning who is right and sadly, who can be part of the faith and who are excluded. To me, this is a very personal thing! As I have said many times before, church is where we should all be able to come together and be accepted as children of God. The basis for all of this is the fact that God has created this world and created each of us.
Knowing that we are created in God’s image is important because it helps us realize the gift God has given us. Moreover, it stands as a clear symbol that God has made us to be who you are called to be. However, there is another important message, which is to accept yourself; this is one of the biggest difficulties that we face as individuals. As a mentor of mine has told me many times, “You cannot hear the love in this world until you open your heart to hear the love that is in there!”
Oftentimes we are beaten down by the judgments in this world. Many who are at work or in school are judged by their weakness or difference. However, the message of God is that God did not create us to be compared to each other, for we all possess different skills, abilities and knowledge. This makes us inherently different, while at the same time recognizes that we are all seen as equal in our incompleteness.
Knowing that God has created us in this way should give us strength to take control of our lives and listen to the ways in which we are called to be or not to be part of the world. I often tell people in counseling that the commandment “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev 19:18)” starts with the commandment to love and understand yourself so that you can begin to understand and empathize with your neighbor.
Thus Pentecost becomes a celebration of the church, the individual’s faith and a calling to welcome all into God’s House! While we do not speak all of the languages that are found in our community, we can learn to love those who are in our midst, seeing that we are all children of God! And this can be a place where we can learn to love ourselves, love our neighbor and love God.
The theme this year for Pentecost is “All God’s Children Have a Place in the Choir.” This comes from a favorite children’s song by the same name. It is a perfect children’s song, since it makes you giggle, but behind it is a very serious message: God does not exclude anyone from his choir or the church or the community. I ask that this year, you invite a friend or neighbor to join us for this very special day as we celebrate Pentecost and the fact that God loves us so much that his spirit is here!
When you first met Sid Byrd, he would hand you a business card with a logo on the top that read "F.B.I." On the back, it explained that stood for "Flat Broke Indian." Sid was a Dakota raised on the Lakota reservation. I spent the summer before college on mission with Sid, ministering on the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota. I learned a lot that summer, mostly from mistakes, but a great deal came from long car rides with Sid.
Sid was very open about the fact that white people were not to be trusted. As he regaled old Dakota stories and his own history, it was hard to miss why he would feel that way. Abuse would not begin to cover the extent of those experiences. It was the first time I really was embarrassed about my heritage and realized my privilege. The stories he would tell had a common theme of things being taken away, starting with crafts and land and dignity to identity and finally, life itself.
The stories were hard to hear, but he always seemed to come back to the questions, “How can one claim ownership of another person or the land or even the right way to live?” To him, everything belonged to God, and subsequently for him that was where his Dakota faith connected with the Christian faith. For Sid, accepting a sovereign God was in line with the faith of the Dakota people, and Sid taught me the first very important lesson in my professional ministry.
A lot of what we practice in Christianity is not really Christian; rather, it is cultural. Moreover, a lot of what people do in the name of Christianity is not Christian either. He was the first person to show me how people used a particular myopic view of Christianity to oppress and repress people. Sid also helped me to see how I had been influenced by that view, creating an idol to worship rather than God. For Sid, Christianity was very much about humility and stewardship. I remember him saying once that the moment one realizes they are not God, they recognize their responsibility to care for this world because the land and our lives are gifts. From an early age, I was taught that anytime you borrowed or used something that was not yours, you had a responsibility to leave it better than you found it.
The problems that we face in our world today are based in the fact that we have no real sense of humility and stewardship. Fracking and its by-products are causing earthquakes and sickness in many communities because we do not think about where our gas, oil and electricity are coming from. We arrest and deport people because they were not lucky enough to be born in our country, even though many of the conditions they are coming here to escape are caused directly or indirectly by our consumerism or power grabs. The shootings and violence we see all around are caused by the fact that we are disconnected from each other. Not only do we not love our neighbor, but often we do not even know our neighbor.
Our society lifts up warped values that claim wealth to be success and power to be good, and often this is done under the guise of Christian faith. So often we reject the realities that are happening all around. When things are good, we credit ourselves, and when they are not, we take no culpability. So often we are left wondering where God is, rather than finding ways to let go and truly be present with God.
I remember one day driving through the wheat fields of northern South Dakota, just south of North Dakota, through rolling hills far away from any development. We pulled over at a place where there was no sign of civilization except the car we were in and the little dirt road we were on. Standing at the top of the hill, we looked all around, and Sid said, “This is all God's, and to God it will return. Never forget that.” It is a beautiful memory, but I can only think of how we, in our quest for control and power, lost our call to be good stewards of God’s world.
We, as people of faith, have to make a change and live into the community that God calls us to be part of. We must begin to model for the world a faith based in humility and stewardship, recognizing our place in the world and our call to live as servants to God and not to be God, to listen to God's call for our humility and to not create idols that only serve to support a warped faith of power and persecution.
As a pastor, some of the most powerful moments in my ministry come in the most interesting places. Early in my ministry, I was at a street fair that happened to be going on a few blocks from my church. Being a downtown pastor, many people knew who I was and, like here, would often come up and ask me questions about their faith journey. In the middle of all the festivities, carnival rides, and laughter, a man with a sour look asked me if God loved him. His sadness in the midst of such joy was jarring.
“Of course, God loves you!” I responded. Without another word, the man walked away, I am sure mumbling things under his breath. About an hour later, I made my way back to the church and sitting on the front steps was this man.
“How can you be so sure? You don’t even know who I am and what I have done,” he said. Meanwhile, in my mind I was fighting my own humanity of being tired and annoyed that this man was bothering me when all I wanted to do was go home. I also knew that questions like this were often loaded and could be a sign of psychological or other issues, so I took a breath and sat next to him. I told him, “I know that God loves you because you are concerned about God’s love. That means that God is in your heart, and as Paul said, if God is with you, who can be against you?” The man started to cry and walked off.
Over the next few weeks, I learned more about the story of this man as he would come in to visit and talk. He was in a bad place, and I guess I said what he needed to hear, because he began to become very active in the church and the sourness of his look began to fade.
I am a strong believer in the power of God’s love and that our salvation is assured in God. To me, this comes from an understanding of predestination. A lot is made of Calvin’s discussion of predestination, and for some, that is an essential part of Calvinism. It’s not. It is a doctrine that Calvin himself changed and struggled with throughout the various writings of his institute. This theological understanding tries to convey a truth that the God that created us will never abandon us, and therefore we are elected into the body of salvation.
Of course, nothing can be that simple. When making an argument for a theology of predestination, often people venture into the land of fatalism, which is an understanding that everything in life has been predetermined. This is not the same as predestination, because within predestination, there is free will and choice. You can be blessed, yet still reject the faith. You can also be blessed and never know Christ fully, or at least not know Christ in a way that is familiar.
This is the difficult part, because as we really dive into the Gospels, there is a trend that happens within the teachings of Christ. Christ is always pointing to God—a God that we know to be both mysterious and compassionate, angry yet patient, judgmental yet grace-filled. The other truth about God is that we only have a glimpse of God’s fullness. We do not always know what God is doing within the hearts of others. This puts us in a precarious position, for if we choose to judge others on their faithfulness, we could very easily be judging God and the way that God is working within the heart of that person.
This is why it is so wrong for Christians to judge others. Many would call this a sin, but I don’t know if that fully encompasses what is going on, because judging others is not just a separation from God, it is both an active rejection of God and an attempt to become a god, asserting control and dominion over others. Biblically, we see this most in Jesus’ teachings about Caesar and the illegitimacy Jesus claims (Matthew 22:16-22).
For me, knowing that God loves me and has already reached out to save me gives me the freedom to truly live. Thus, I live my life in thankfulness for what God has done for me, and I don’t desire to do wrong. And when I do, I know that God will give me the grace and welcome home that I don’t deserve but is there because of his promise that he instilled at my birth.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen