With the close of our biennial General Assembly on Saturday and my guilt about not going this year because of everything going on here, I was thinking about what it means to be Presbyterian.
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 with 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 grew 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 '70s, the Presbytery of Des Moines did a fundraiser selling shirts that pronounced on the front “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 frequently takes a long time and can sometimes be frustrating; 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 perfect, 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 perhaps forgetting about God’s mission altogether. In fact, other than 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.
The journey to a deeper faith can take us down many paths. By spending the last few weeks and the bulk of the rest of the summer exploring a “Way to God,” we aim to build up a spiritual toolbox for beginning to think holistically about faith. Kind of like the foodie trend of a “deconstructed meal,” we are separating out specific aspects of faith to learn and appreciate all the elements that make up a faithful life. However, when we journey to seek out a “Way to God,” we also have to remember that there really is no formula for how to be faithful or reach an enlightened state.
The push for a uniform faith and approach causes many to explore the non-Christian forms of enlightenment through meditation, seeking interpersonal revelation, or something else to find the answers that seem to be lacking, because often the church is afraid to engage a questioning faith with nurture instead of answers. This means, as we are finding out, that when we engage a discussion on the topic of a “Way to God,” we find that it is not an easy path. In fact, it is quite hard!
So far, we have explored being gracious and trusting. Being gracious can feel impossible when you do not feel very gracious. Trust can be equally difficult when your mind can go to every reason possible why you should not trust. This makes practicing grace and trust out of reach for most people. Being human, this is a great roadblock, but, as we will learn as we continue our quest, when we learn to “let go and let God,” we begin to find trust because our values and expectations become aligned with God.
Think about it this way. Pretend you have a teenager, and you see him/her biking without wearing a helmet. You run out and scold the child for not wearing the helmet, and they come back at you for how unfair you are for making them look stupid in that helmet. You, as the adult, know that the safety issue is paramount to the coolness factor, though your child can only see it from the perspective of being a teenager with the idea/understanding that they are invincible and coolness is way more important. We know that God has more knowledge than we do, just as the parent has more knowledge than the child. Once we accept that fact, it becomes easier to trust and subsequently easier to be gracious.
This week we lift up the topic of hope. Hope and trust are integrally linked since one cannot trust without hope, and that hope is what allows us to live. Without hope in the future, our lives become focused on the now, and our future is lost to survivalism or egotism, both of which take us to an empty life. However, when we have hope in God, we are living for something bigger than ourselves. This means that our values realign to a focus on living to God, rather than the reality of living for today. This means that the overriding question of our lives is not “what is best for me”; rather, it is what the greater good in fulfilling God’s mission might be.
Living into hope is very basic; it is the acceptance that there is something more than what we have, or as Donald McKim puts it, “the Christian anticipation of the future as the fulfillment of God’s purpose based on God’s covenant faithfulness and the resurrection of Jesus Christ as known by the work of the Holy Spirit in the church.”
In lay terms, hope is the knowledge that God has a greater plan for the future, which he has shown us through the promise he made to us through the life and death of Christ, which we exemplify through the church that witnesses to each other the work of the Holy Spirit.
Ah, the mustard seed! We have come to the reading about the mustard seed, a unique seed in its simplicity, perfection, and size. As one of the smallest seeds people regularly work with, the mustard seed has become a natural example of how something very small can grow to be extremely big. The mustard plant can get quite large; in fact, in time it will grow to resemble a tree. The mustard seed, though small, also has the ability to multiply over and over, so that the seed by itself can produce an uncountable number of offspring.
Jesus uses this well-known imagery as a basis for a few teachings in the Gospels. Specifically, this week we look at two of these parables: the growing seed and the mustard seed plant. Both of these teachings use this imagery to talk about the power of God. While God may seem small and remote, the reality is the opposite.
Take the first parable this week, the growing seed. This may not seem relevant, since we know the scientific process of how a seed turns into a plant. But even with all our knowledge, most professional and amateur horticulturalists still maintain an awe as they watch the process of a seed growing into a plant and then to seed again. Even with all the knowledge of how this happens, we can still marvel at this process and be thankful to God for the bounty. Moreover, we can recognize that God needs us to sow the seeds, care for the plants, but when the harvest comes, God will provide.
The second parable is like the first. Here the mustard seed is planted and grows and grows. The seed itself is forgotten about as the plant grows and eventually becomes a home for birds to nest and reproduce themselves. This means that the seed is no longer just about propagating itself, but now has a dual role of growing and being a catalyst for growth in another species.
As you can see, there are a lot of implications for the church. All congregations start small, with a vision or seed. Those who join nurture the seed, care for it, and help it along its path. If we are faithful, it grows, and at times, it will produce its own offspring. But the church is also not only about itself, because it has a role to help be a catalyst for the community's growth and health. While the church may not benefit from this role, and at times, it may even cause some damage, because of who we are, our home is expected to be a home for all who need it.
Personally, these parables have a lot to say about our faith as well. Many people struggle with faith. Let’s face it—from the beginning, logical and reasoned arguments have been made which discount faith. Often we are stuck in places where our faith feels small and seemingly remote. But if we find that seed and nurture it, we can watch it grow and develop. We can get to the point where our faith has matured enough that we share it with others, and that becomes the start of faith in their lives.
So this week, think about that mustard seed of faith in your life, or in our congregation. Where is it? Are you nurturing it? Does it need replanting?
On a day like today, with a beautiful blue sky and light, cool breeze to kiss my cheek, I think of life in its fullness. It is hard not to be in awe with the birds chirping and the tree leaves moving ever so slightly. The awesome nature of creation can overwhelm us. But it can also remind us of something powerful: God’s creation is ever-working in our world. Now, this may seem like a cliché, but our world is in a constant state of creation and re-creation. In this constantly changing world, we are both learning more about God and realizing the greater mystery of God.
Growing up in a home deeply rooted in both Christianity and science, I was taught to appreciate both the order and circle of life, and the role God played in it. As a good friend of our family—a top research scientist at the national laboratories outside of Chicago—said, “Science and faith, they prove each other.” In his spare time, he developed a theory linking evolution and the creation stories of the Bible.
I often struggle with the antiseptic understanding of creation that is given in Genesis and the scientific, chaotic types of creation still present in our world. I believe that we are still in a time of creation and re-creation. I don’t believe that the world is going to end any time soon, and that the struggles that we encounter have more to do with our human resistance to change than God’s enduring wrath.
I heard a story a few years back on National Public Radio talking about the scientific reasons that the Stradivarius has such a beautiful sound that could not be duplicated today. The speaker said that it had to do with the weather previously being colder and the trees denser, creating a special kind of wood.
Now, we know scientifically that the weather is not constant. Some years it is cooler, others warmer. That just seems to be a natural pattern of our world. As I understand it, creation in the natural world is still happening. Every once in a while, I will read of a discovery of a new creature or a significant evolution of another.
It makes me think of “growing-up.” When we come into the world, we know only our little world. We have a defiant personality, though our limitations make that hard to express. The world around us begins to change and we begin to learn about our environment. As we are exposed to new things, we grow in our intellect and understanding of the world, which causes us to change.
Hence the statement by Paul in his letter to the people of Corinth, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” In other words, once you have grown, you are expected to move into your new reality. What would society be like if after graduation, nobody went to work or applied their skills and gifts to their community. Our society would eventually crumble, not only due to lack of labor, but also because it would stop growing and changing.
A great friend of mine, my college mentor, told me, “Life is about learning until you get to the point when you have learned that you know nothing, and then you begin to learn even more.” This is why we go back to read and reread the Bible. This is also why we come to church, even when we know the story that is going to be preached. Because even though we may know the stories and teachings backwards and forwards, our changing perspectives and understandings always give new insight and learning.
We have to remember that God’s creation is still at work in our world. The seasons bring us birth and death every year. People and our environments are ever-changing and growing. Our communities are always changing and re-creating themselves, and people are ever-changing and growing, and life continues to move forward.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen