One of my views on how to live a life of faith is the example of what I would call a granny knot. A granny knot is a poorly tied knot usually done in haste that ends up being very difficult to untie.
Now, there are three truths to untie the Granny knot:
This is like faith and life. First, you’re not going to go anywhere in your faith if you do not start with a basic belief in God. It may take time to get there, but without that starting point nothing else will fully make sense and you will get frustrated and quit. This belief surpasses every issue that could arise and in the end you will experience God’s Grace.
Secondly, you need to live your life; don’t get too far ahead, don’t dwell in the past, but live. At times, you get to places that are harder than others and you have to be more vigilant and sometimes you can fly through because everything is working “as it should.”
Thirdly, you need to let things “play out.” When we try to force situations, bad things can and often do happen. I remember many years ago when I taught beginners swimming how many kids were terrified of the water because of the way they were forced to learn how to swim. Many times, with those who were timid, letting them move closer on their own, taking the time on land made them more comfortable in the water. In life and our struggles with faith, giving ourselves the grace that we need to work through a difficult time, not forcing things to be good right now but letting them “play out” can help us to see things much clearer and end up working out much better. Especially since a bad time may give a glimpse into something much deeper.
In my life, this has played out through various struggles in my life. Through the medical anxieties of my youth to the many struggles of life, the times where I give myself the grace and patience I have often seen things workout, as they ought. This is not about being passive; it is about being in the moment and working through the series, like the knot where you may have to work the strings back and forth to loosen the string, in life you may need to experiment to find what works. However, in time, if you have faith, patience and continue to move forward, eventually you get through it.
Maybe the best way to sum all of this up is “have faith in God, have faith in yourself, because God has faith in you.”
Regardless of an individual’s background, the word “Bible” invokes deep emotions and understandings to almost everyone who hears it. Unfortunately, most of the time they are more negative than positive. The feeling that many have towards the Bible starts when people define what the Bible is. There is an old joke among mainline clergy of the pastor who got up in front of his congregation and said “If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for me!” He said this with the connotation that, the King James Version dated back to Jesus Christ. To him, this meant that everything in it was the way God wanted and there were no mistakes.
The truth of that version is that a King with a questionable lifestyle wrote it in the 1500’s. He used the writing of that version to further his political standing. While he did not change the overarching understandings or themes in the Bible, the translators made some translation choices that many scholars, today look back on and question. On one hand, it brought many “R” rated parts down to “PG” and introduced concepts, that we still debate today. One being, the sections having to do with homosexuality. Here, you can see the problem, many people read the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, but the Bible was written and translated by people, so while it may have begun pure, the versions we have today have lost a bit of that through the translations. This is why we encourage people to use multiple versions of the bible in bible studies.
Another issue is something that most 9 year-olds pick up on pretty quickly when they read the Adam and Eve story. Some will ask, “If everything was created, why would it be created again a different way?” But my favorite question is “If Adam and Eve were the first people, how come they found other people when they were kicked out of the garden?” Good questions!
The first, is a sign of the multiple writers of the Pentateuch and rest of the Old Testament. Tradition stated that the Old Testament was written all by Moses and another, that God wrote it himself; however, this is most likely not the case. As scholars have worked through the original texts, some that were merely fragments, they have seen distinct writing styles for different parts, suggesting that there were multiple people who were writing these witnesses. As we move to the New Testament, we know for sure that God did not write it, since the witness of each book is ascribed to a particular writer.
There is an underlying inconsistency in the Bible. The first and most obvious one is the question of Adam and Eve finding other people when they leave the garden. The Bible was NOT written to be a user's manual for life, nor was it written to be an accurate account of history. The Bible WAS written to be a faithful accounting of God. Therefore, all of the stories, poems, songs, laments, wisdom, and revelation all point to an inscrutable but loving God.
The problem is that when people make these blanket statements about inerrancy and infallibility in the Bible, they tend to miss the point that the Bible as a whole is a witness. Now as we know with witnessing anything, there are many limitations. Just think of my sermons each week and the discussions we have. Everyone interprets what I say a little differently based on his or her perspectives and understandings. Does it make their perspective any less valid? No! In fact, it makes it even more valid.
The Bible is a powerful witness that shows us over and over again the relationship that God longs to have with us. It speaks of God’s desire that we know love. While it is a witness, it is special because its inspiration and guidance come from God.
One of my favorite times of the year is Vacation Bible School. For one full week of the year, the church is bustling with activity. Moreover, it is a time when we tend to set aside everything that might get in the way and truly celebrate God. This year, with Chris’ leadership, we were able to see the joy and fun that goes with learning about God.
Learning about God and sharing faith is one of the most important parts about church. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons the church was established. Think back to the days of the early church. Worship, as we know, was mainly around a meal. The recognition that eating brought strength was not lost, especially in the struggles of that early church. The early Christians recognized that they could not be faithful if left to their own devices. Even if they could “get it right,” they needed the community for strength, since to believe was to literally put your life on the line, as we know from the stories of the martyrs.
The problem we often see in the modern church is that there is less openness to learning and a diminished sense of the need to learn. While I do not necessarily see this in any particular congregation I have served, over my 17 years of ordained ministry (my ordination date was July 15, 2001), there seems to be less and less of a desire to learn and be challenged, and more and more of a desire to hear things that support a specific point of view. When I say this, I am not just calling out one side of the church. Actually, it has been my experience, especially in light of our current political climate, that there is a need for openness to multiple points of view. Moreover, there is a need to get back to the place where we can openly share our struggles and witness to the power and strength of God.
This is why I love Vacation Bible School so much. For the kids, it is a great experience. The joy and smiles when they leave warm even the toughest parts of one’s soul. But for most of the adults, it is difficult. From maintaining the high energy to keep up with the kids to always being alert, it takes a lot! Whenever I struggle with anything to do with children’s ministry, the image that first comes to my mind is Matthew 19:14 (NRSV): but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
This is an important image for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the passage recognizes a special grounding that children have. In their ignorance of the world, they can more clearly see and witness to who Christ really is, more so than even the disciples, who try to shoo them away. It also reflects a need that the children sense to be close to Christ. In a way, it is a subtle fight that goes back and forth between Jesus and the disciples: Jesus desires people to come closer, while the disciples are trying to protect Him from harm, especially from the children, who might be seen to taint Christ (this is another letter, but trust me on that).
What children do, in their excitement and sometimes even insights, is help us to see a better picture of who Christ is. They also help us to grow into an openness for what God is calling us to today. Through their gifts, they remind us of the importance of this calling to be Christian. Most significantly, we are all energized by the faith they show. Even if some of our leaders are physically tired after VBS, spiritually most of us are left at a high above all others.
I am really thankful for everyone who helped—those who were up front, those who were not, even those who only did one or two things. It was you who made this example a true blessing and witness of Jesus Christ.
This week in VBS we are talking about heroes. Now, I love a good superhero movie or series on TV. It is the ultimate in escapism. Like fairy tales, they pit good vs. evil. Even when they try to throw in a twist, that only goes so far and you catch on, but that is why we like them so much! Their predictability brings comfort, and knowing that eventually good will triumph brings us hope.
However, the heroes of superhero movies and shows are somewhat problematic. First of all, there is the violence. In most superhero movies, there is an underlying militancy. The lesson is that through force and fighting, one can save all. The second problem with superhero movies is that they suggest that only certain people can be heroes. Most of our favorite heroes have some kind of gift, whether genetic, alien, intellectual, financial or some combination thereof.
So, while we have deemed them “superheroes,” I am not sure that they are really are that super—they are just using their gifts to make a difference. But that should not make them super, other than the fantastical powers they have, which, when diving into the stories, are as much a burden as anything else.
To me, a real hero is someone with the courage to be who God created them to be and to use the gifts they have to make a difference in this world. In fact, I believe that we all are heroes when we are authentic to our calling and work for the best community possible.
One of the heroes in my life is a man named Jim McKay. Jim was an adolescent trapped in the body of a middle-aged man when he came to my church as our youth director. The very first time we met, I had no clue who he was. Like most of the boys do here during VBS, my friends and I were running around the church, playing tag or something like that. Jim had just been hired, so we had no clue who he was. When we ran into the sanctuary, there was this big man doing something; now that I look back, I think he was praying.
He looked at us and said the obligatory adult thing, "Are you guys supposed to be in here?" We looked at each other and readied ourselves for the wrath to come. Then Jim did something unexpected. He looked around a little bit and said, "Have you guys ever done pew races?"
Now we were really confused. Our sanctuary was large and flat, with carpet down the center aisle and a tile floor underneath the pews. He noticed our stares and said, "Pew races go like this: you lie on your backs underneath the pews and slide from the front of the sanctuary to the back." It sounded fun, so we started to have pew races, a new tradition for our group.
Our first introduction to Jim was acceptance and love (and FUN!). He knew that the program had not started; he knew that our parents were all preparing things throughout the church; and most of all, he knew that if we were comfortable in church, we would be far more comfortable learning about God.
I could not help but think about that when I watched the blur of all the kids running through the church playing tag. Though they are young and well on their way to developing their faith, I could not help but think of how important it is that we maintain a fellowship that is welcoming and safe for everybody. In doing that, we may become real heroes to these kids.
I think that this is one of the reasons that I love Vacation Bible School so much! For me, it is the most intensive way that the church can exemplify Christian living and love. It teaches the children and helps the adults to relearn what it means to be in community. In the case of our church, it is not just welcoming our community but opening up to a larger community.
Happy Fourth of July!
This week we celebrate a holiday that is very special to our country and remarkable upon the global stage. Inspired by the tyrannical acts of unfair taxation, among other abuses of the British government, the leaders of our nation claimed independence from this tyranny. The founders risked their lives and livelihoods to follow a dream of independence and the ability to have self-governance.
Some might say that the desire for independence started before the Europeans ever landed on the continent. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the West (similar technologies had been found in the East, but those were by-and-large unknown to Westerners). With the ability to print more Bibles, the price came down sufficiently that people could afford their own and, in time, read them and realize that what the church had been telling them about their faith was wrong and, at times, abusive. By 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the church, many people were ready for a revolution of faith, recognizing that what they had been told was not true.
At this same time Europeans found their way to the Americas, and as the Reformation allowed people to question their faith, it also allowed them to question their government. In Britain, the authorities were more than happy to let people seeking religious freedom go over to the colonies. In many ways, the colonists were left alone, not only enjoying their faith without persecution, but also self-governance. That is, until things changed. Historians have written books about all of the intricacies of this, but, in short, by the time the war started, people knew too much about the British government and no longer could accept its repressive actions.
For John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), the tyranny of the British government was not just financial but also spiritual. New laws were created to force a hierarchical governance of the churches, following the Episcopal model. That is a governance with bishops and individuals who could assert control over local congregations, something which we as Presbyterians do not believe in.
While the Declaration of Independence was not a religious movement, the religious concerns were present because whenever government restricts personal freedom, they also inevitably restrict religious freedom, as we saw with the British government at that time. This was why freedom was so very important to the reformers, and why it still is today.
Unfortunately, we are in a scary time where our freedom is being challenged, both in a religious and secular context. Unlike before the printing press was invented, we are in a time when there is so much information, the art of thinking and the openness to understanding have declined. Tyranny comes in many forms, but when you see it, you know it. As many philosophers have pointed out, wherever there is power, tyranny can happen, and whenever power is unchecked, tyranny will flourish. This is what happened in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, both in the church and the government. But it did not end with the Enlightenment. The biggest example, of course, is Nazi Germany, to which we have the Barmen Declaration (http://www.westpres-sj.org/barmen.html).
We need to remember, both as people of faith and Americans, what the Declaration of Independence stands for and to do our best to make sure that we do not become the tyrannical oppressors, but rather beacons of hope and freedom.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen