Wow, where did the summer go! The kids have been back in school for a couple of weeks, and here we are in September! What a summer it has been at the church. We had some great highs, and some lows in the loss of a dear member of our congregation, but boy has this place been hopping with preparation for the fall, and other activities that happened over the summer. It is interesting how even as a pastor it can be easy to lose track of God in the midst of life.
Recently, I read an article that talked about Pastafarians and their self-proclaimed made-up religion that worships the flying spaghetti monster. As an atheist attempt at humor towards religions like Christianity, it is supposed to should how organized religion and faith in God is “as silly as worshiping a flying spaghetti monster.” For the atheist, logic and reason says and stands as proof that there is not God.
For me, I always thought that it took a lot more faith and trust to be an atheist than to believe in God. Though, on the other hand, as people of faith, we do not always help our own cause. I have three friends who are rather strong Atheists. Two of the three grew up in faithful families. One Muslim, one Christian, the other grew up in an Atheist home. The one that grew up in the atheist home was very curious about faith, telling me that there are times when he struggles to make sense out of things, but never goes so far to suggest that there might be a higher power.
The other two, my Muslim and Christian friends are a militant about their atheism as a fundamentalist Christian or a radical Muslim. Once in a conversation I asked them why they saw organized religion as such evil. Their response was interesting and felt like a punch to the stomach. “Christians and Muslims don’t even believe what they preach. Christians go around talking about love, but treat people like @#$% and Muslims are supposed to honor God through family and community yet they send their youth off to get killed.” This conversation lasted for over an hour with similar platitudes going on.
The thing is, where they were right was striking; at the end of the conversation they asked, “In your church, how many times are decisions made because of logic, or legalities, and how many times are they done because you honestly believe that they are the right thing to do, the thing that God is calling you to do?”
I think in some ways that was the most painful, since I know how often judgment and correctness guide ministry far more than faithfulness and compassion. I think having been so busy and taken back by my Shingles and one crazy summer, I got into a routine and lost my purpose for a moment. However, on Sunday, after the service a man came up to me, Jonathan, a Captain traveling in a special envoy. Of all the services to attend, he showed up to the one on calling and thanked me for the words, which gave him strength to go forward. He also asked for our prayers.
After church at lunch and when I got home, I could not help but marvel at God’s ways and also feel a bit embarrassed about how easy it is to lose sight of God only to let reason and logic be my guide. It is easy to find the right answer to always be right, but it is more important to be faithful and recognize that God is with us. I think that for all three of my atheist friends, if they saw a church that really followed a Christian life, they would see that God is not a silly made up monster, but an active vibrant being that calls us all into a faithful community of love.
Yours in Christ,
Nothing is more corrosive within a relationship then infidelity. Having done marital and relationship counseling, the problems associated with infidelity transcend almost every other problem and ultimately rock the very core and foundation of any relationship. We know that when someone finds that their partner has not been faithful, the fundamental cornerstone of trust in a relationship is rattled. However, in my experience, something much deeper occurs. For the faithful partner, the one who goes elsewhere creates feelings of abandonment, rejection, and inadequacy among others. Often when one partner becomes unfaithful, the individual relationship begins to unravel, and thanks to the ease modern divorce, reconciliation is never possible.
The analogy of an unfaithful relationship undergirds this section of Jeremiah. In this analogy, Israel is the Wife and God is the husband. This is where the cultural norms of the time show; sociologically, in that time the woman held the responsibility of fidelity within the relationship as well as a sense of devotion to her husband, even though the husband may have had multiple wives. While we understand a marriage today to be one that requires fidelity on both partners, here it is important to understand, because ultimately it is the infidelity of Israel that brings about its destruction.
When we think of infidelity, our minds often jump to something sexual. Although that is one sign of infidelity, infidelity is much more insidious than what goes on in the bedroom; in fact, many acts of infidelity within relationship occur in a completely non-sexual way. What makes those acts of infidelity is the lack-of-trust and respect for the partner in the relationship. Moreover, it is the sin in the heart that corrodes the mind to justify others as to having the answer.
Here is where Israel exemplifies infidelity in that they begin to look to other Gods, specifically Baal, for comfort. In fact, what we can glean from our understanding of Baal is that he was a creation God, much like ours, but his worship was carnal and his promises were earthly. In other words, instead of living to God, Baal worship allowed people to live to what felt good. More than anything, by turning to Baal the people of Israel reject God.
However, and this is where it gets interesting, it is not that God goes out of his way to punish Israel for it’s infidelity. Their infidelity is what leads them to their ultimate destruction. Think about it, in relationships where there are those who are not faithful, the problems and ultimate unhappiness are more often than not self produced from lying, cheating, and isolation.
What God wants from us is to be faithful to Him and Him alone, and when we are in an honest relationship with God, putting God first, being faithful to him and him alone it is easier to see and understand God, but when we turn from God to things that are not of God, we find ourselves lost and hurting, just as Israel did, just as a couple who has found themselves no longer faithful to one another.
This week as you prepare for Sunday ask yourself if you really are faithful to God. Do you put God first? Do you respect God enough to listen and to follow?
In cities like San Jose, we do not think much about going almost anywhere at night. Yeah, we have locations where your awareness is raised but not really communities that when darkness came you would stay away from. Oakland is a different thing. For many, there are parts of that city even a drive through causes a racing heart and fear. I remember one night while in my internship having biked to the church, and it had gotten dark before I headed home. A member of the church, knowing where I was going to pick up the Bart began pleading with me to let him take me to the station, or at least pick up the BART at the station closer to the church. Being young and maybe a bit stubborn, I refused, to say, “If it is my time, it is my time; anyhow, what would they do to me?”
I made it to the train with no incident and back to the seminary safely. Nevertheless, I have always thought about the fear that member had, it was visceral, and I am sure a bit experiential, but I have always thought about the question of what the fear was. Obviously, I am no fool, and anytime I ride through any neighborhood, I keep awareness for my safety and what is going on around me, but the aspect of my life I never worry about.
One thing I have learned both in my past medical life, and my ministry is that death is part of life, and we do not know when it is going to happen. Interestingly I have met many people prepared for a death that never comes and, unfortunately, people who are way too young when it does. The interesting thing is that when we let go and live whether we live or die, we are able to live fully. It is why I love riding my bike when I can; the exercise wakes my whole body and no matter what stresses I might face it reminds me that I am alive.
Fear is an interesting thing. While I speak of the fear of death, there are a lot of other fears that keep us from fully living. As we can see in the world around us, the fear of the unknown is what really becomes debilitating. Interestingly the success of the community that we are in is founded within a “why not?” culture, where the fear of the unknown is changed into the possibility of what could be. That view and approach leads to excitement and a creativity that is boundless. However, we also see how the restraints find their way in and the creativity and exploration become lost to the mundane ritual of getting by.
Fundamentally, as Christians, fear should not be part of our lives. Over and over again God asks us the question of why we fear anything other than him. Like this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah where God said that he would provide and deliver from those who might cause harm. Moreover, knowing and trusting in a resurrection, means that the ultimate fear is nothing to be afraid of, the basis of which is trusting and knowing that our lives are with him.
As you prepare for Sunday, think about the times in your life where you let fear hold you back. Explore the ways in which that fear might have been about you and ask yourself, while in the midst of that fear, did I turn to God and did I listen for God? Did I look for God? Did I Trust in God?
As we continue to think about spirituality and faithfulness, I think it is important to talk about spiritual practice. As I have written many times, for me, I like an active spiritual practice. Preaching or hiking, but I need to be doing something in order to connect with God. To sit in quiet is something that I realized was not my thing. Knowing this about myself helps me to know why sometimes I will feel incredibly close to God and why at times I feel removed. I say this as a preamble of sorts to the letter this week, because it is about spiritual practices and the development of individual faithfulness.
A few years back I was offered a class called Writing as Spiritual Practice. Since a noted author and theologian taught the class, I took it, even though I was not sure that I could make writing a spiritual endeavor. While on one hand I love to write, my learning disabilities constantly make me very self-conscious of my work and the sometimes-painstaking process of writing always seemed to be more about form and development, than God.
So when I saw the syllabus and recognized “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White, I almost withdrew from the class. Fortunately, that term there was not a better option, and I continued with the class. What happened in that class was one of the most remarkable moments of my life. At that point, I had been ordained 9 years and much of my personal spiritual life was going through a survival period. I did what I needed to do to keep connected with God, but it seemed that my faith life was a struggle: no matter what I did I could not feel connected.
On the first day of class, we began by writing, not journaling; just writing whatever came to our heads. From there we wrote, read, rewrote and so on for two weeks. Sometimes we had starters (a sentence or two to give direction) and sometimes we did not. On one hand, I struggled every moment of the class, but on the other hand, I felt by the end of the class that I had been freed from a prison that kept me from connecting to God. As I wrote more and more, my friends would read and reflect back where they saw God in my writing and helped me to identify what the issues were that were ultimately keeping me from connecting with God.
This class marked a turning point in my ministry because it witnessed to me through the structure within the class the importance of writing and listening to the faith of others and hearing the ways in which they could witness back to me about my faith. Interestingly, in almost every instance those who I shared my writing with would highlight a struggle or moment of grace that I had not seen, even though I had written about it. This witness came to make me stronger in what I believed and would serve to be an incredible tool over the times that I have struggled with my faith.
It is interesting that this worked so well for me, but then again, writing, reading, and talking are all very active modes of spirituality and in the strongest of ways, the practice I learned in that class allowed me to connect in on a much deeper level. However, saying that, I know that not all spiritual practices work for me. I have, for instance, tried over the years to do contemplative spiritual practices, and I can never connect to God through those. It does not make them bad or to be avoided because they do not work for me, I just know that is not my thing, where writing, sports, exercise, talking, preaching, etc. are ways in which I connect the strongest to God. I say this because even though I feel very connected to God when I write, or do any of the other things I do for spiritual focus, it is not always easy. In fact, it is usually quite difficult. However, when I finish I know where I am in my faith.
As we continue our study in worship on the topic of faithfulness we take a focused study on faithfulness as exemplified through the prophet Jeremiah. We will be exploring Jeremiah this week and the month of September working through this book.
As with most of the Old Testament there is a good amount of debate over this book, from its authorship to its arrangement. It does not follow either a logical progression or narrative. Rather it is a collection of events that spans the time of four kings using Jeremiah’s own life as an example of the pending demise and restoration of the Hebrew Nation.
But with every good prophetic story Jeremiah starts with the call. Like most prophets, Jeremiah is not the very best candidate, at least in societal measure. His deficit is his age. When Jeremiah questioned God because his youth, God comes back and tells him not to worry for the words and actions he does will be God’s. For me, especially in my early days of ministry, this particular passage, like Paul’s charge to Timothy, instilled a comfort knowing that God uses all of us to do his work, regardless of age, or anything else.
The importance of Jeremiah’s call is the comfort he receives from God that the words he speaks will not be his but God’s. That means that God has set him aside to be a vessel of God’s word. This setting aside for a specific purpose is the very basis for all calls. As God sets aside Jeremiah to be his voice, God does this knowing all that Jeremiah is and that he has the gifts and talents to be able to follow through with this call. We know through later passages that Jeremiah does not always enjoy his calling as exemplified by the struggle of Faith and his candid and honest relationship with God.
In the greater context of the book of Jeremiah, the call mirrors the life of the Hebrew community. You could say, looking to the fathers of the Faith like Abraham, that God called them to faith before there was even a real example of faithfulness, but a faithfulness that was new and foreign to the world. Through the ebbs and flows of history, the Hebrew nation loses their way only to find it and lose it again until the ultimate destruction. While Jeremiah does not lose faith, his struggles and life journey is a retelling of the history of that community.
In Jeremiah we see a journey that pits him against political powers and some in the Hebrew community. The prophetic speeches that he gives, as we know, are not often followed and consequences ensue. But in the end of the book we see that there is a greater story both told in the words Jeremiah speaks and the life he lives.
What we learn from the Book of Jeremiah is that with faithfulness to God, we are able to survive even the greatest of tragedies. We are able to overcome the tragedies in our lives because we live not to ourselves but to God. Here is where and why the call of Jeremiah is important, because, though there is a struggle in accepting the call, and there are moments Jeremiah has some frank words with God, at that moment Jeremiah gives himself completely over to God.
As you prepare for worship this week, ask yourself how you have been called and how you have accepted or rejected that Calling.
This week we are going to try something a little different at The Gathering. Instead of the normal projected praise music, we are going to utilize the gifts of James and let him bring us into a different spiritual space with more of a focus on Classical Guitar meditations. We are trying this as a way to explore and play with our time to see the many ways in which we can connect with God.
In this spirit, I have picked a verse from John chapter 17 verse 6–19. And found some healing prayer to go with it. This pericope is part of the farewell prayer that Jesus is giving to his disciples on the night of his arrest. Like the “Marching order” of the great commission, this prayer for the Disciples is designed to remind them of their calling, purpose and ultimate direction.
Interestingly, in this commission, one of the calls for the disciples is to create a paradigm where as one of the primary goals and responsibilities aside from the spreading of the Word are to be on guard for the Evil presence that will invade the Christian Life. Moreover, they are to protect the new believers from the myriad of ways the evil one is likely to invade.
As Presbyterians, we have a theological issue with an embodied “Satan,” a dark angel who lurks in the world causing mischief and derision. While we do believe that there are those that who work primarily in the evil vein, evil is something that is not contained within an individual but is much more subversive. This means that we really have to work at recognizing evil for what it is, that which separates us from God.
But that you guard them from the Evil One.
They are no more defined by the world
Than I am defined by the world.
Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth;
Your word is consecrating truth.
In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world,
I give them a mission in the world.
I’m consecrating myself for their sakes
So they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission.
You see that when our motives and our actions are to save things that are in this world, bound in this world, we begin to lose our connection to God. This means our mission becomes more about our own need rather then God’s. The greatest truth in life is that anything that is acquired in this world will ultimately stay in this world except for what we have built within our relationship to God, since we do not live for the now, rather we live to the future.
As I rode to the church this morning I had a long forgotten obstacle: cars and school children heading off to school! Funny how quickly things change on the first day of school even for those who have nothing to do with it other than riding by on their way to work. As I continued my ride, I began to think of how we impact things and don't ever really notice it.
Often, when things we do are negative we hear about it pretty quickly, but it is rare that we hear about the way we impact the world and don’t even think about it. Over the past few weeks I have had some people from the community coming in for counseling or just a friendly ear to listen to. I always find these conversations interesting. Last week a nice man came in and talked to me. He met me at the funeral for the homeless woman last year.
As he was telling me his story he said that when I went up to him and gave a welcoming smile, that was the beginning of a journey that lead him to rehabilitation. Being honest, I vaguely remember the encounter, and it did not help that he looked very different cleaned up. As we ended the conversation, all I could do was think wow, the power of God. If I would have thought of the significance of that day I would have never thought that being nice would have impacted things more then anything else.
There is the song that was a standard camp song when I was growing up: “We are One in the Spirit” -I hope most of you know it. It is a simple but powerful song, which teaches us a very important lesson about faith. Basically the lesson we learn is that we are one body with one God who calls us to love, anything more or less than that is a diversion.
A few years ago one of my good friends was leading a discussion trying to recruit people for a prison ministry. When a person in the group said, “Well they’re felons, they did the crime, now they’re doing the time.” The odd implication being that by going into the prison my friend was giving them a way out. My friend answered back “Yes, but as people of faith we are called to share that faith with everyone, showing them dignity and love. From there, God will do what God needs to do.”
My friend hit on the essence of what we spoke of a few weeks ago in the Good Samaritan story:
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Interestingly, so much of modern Christianity is focused on immediate results, theological correctness, and comfortable spirituality. But that is not the message that Christ gives at all: in fact he calls us to be compassionate and treat all with respect and love, staying faithful to God. From there, God will use us, and while we do not always see our impact, we know that we have one, and we can see the impact if we look really hard. As people of faith, we must never forget that our call is to love as God has loved us and that the impact of that love will affect the world around us and that God will use that to bring others to faithfulness.
In confirmation classes I always make my kids memorize John 3:16. I am not big on memorization, but it is so simple it should be known. The problem with John 3:16 is that it is one version. In fact, for many people of faith that is where they both start and stop with their faith. The unfortunate part of that is there is so much more then the fact that Jesus come to this world out of Love. While John 3:16 gives us a good starting point, I really like to take the next step with Hebrews 12:1-2.
This week in preparation for Sunday, I am going to break down this verse line by line. However there is an underlying metaphor that is driving the text. One of the things that began in the Greco-Roman world is athletics. Though sport was not quite what it is today, the athleticism and nuances of sport were well known. In this passage Jesus is portrayed as a star athlete, actually as a marathon runner.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,
Think of the race here; as an athlete you have done everything possible to prepare yourself for the race that is before you, but with nerves and everything else you still have doubt of your ability. When you look to the stands and see the crowd that is there to support you, your confidence increases and all of a sudden you’re able to follow through with the full potential of what you have.
In real terms, the cloud of witnesses are the faith community that recognizes, supports and uplifts you. And like the runner who uses the “cloud” to let go of their fear and doubt, we will use our community to overcome our sinful nature.
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
When running a marathon, you know that there are times when you feel like you want to give up; it is hard to see the end and your body is spent; this is where your sheer determination and goal has to kick in. This perseverance will ultimately be what brings you to completion.
In faith matters, the goal that we strive for is something that is achieved when our time has come to an end. This means that there are many points that we receive grace, but there are also many times when the race overwhelms us. It is in those times that we have to have the perseverance within ourselves to continue. That perseverance is faith.
looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Here the writer highlights Christ as the champion athlete, with the correct form, style, and determination. Not only does Christ show us the way to finish, he is invoking a new way to run. In biblical terms, this is referring to the “new” way of Grace as opposed to the “old” law.
Think of it this way: when the race comes to an end, the runner is working on pure adrenaline. With energy-spent nerves shot, the race is finished but often you find the athletes collapse. But this is not the case for Christ, for he walks off and in fullness wins walking tall into glory.
The unique aspect to this is that while we are called to run this race we know that we are unable to beat Christ; more importantly, the goal of the race that we run is not to win, but to persevere and finish, since winning ultimately is not important, finishing is.
One of the greatest struggles of Christianity is to have belief and conviction in something that is not visible and often feels unattainable. However, it is the Hope in that very thing that underlays the Christian experience. So coming out of last week's discussion on the prodigals, I thought it would be good to explore our hopes as a foundation for how we begin to live into our faith.
Therefore, this week we are going to explore hopes and dreams as it relates to a couple of passages that are connected to the apostle Paul. The first is from one of Paul’s trials found in Acts. In this excerpt Paul witnesses to his faith “I admit to living in hopeful anticipation that God will raise the dead, both the good and the bad. If that’s my crime, my accusers are just as guilty as I am.” Interestingly within this short statement Paul challenges the convention of the community by embracing an inclusive resurrection, one that will be open to both “the good and the bad.”
The faith that Paul has is subversive to the status quo of the community. As we know, an understanding of the resurrection was not new to that part of the world, but an inclusive one was not accepted. In both the Greco-Roman community as well as the Hebrew community, many groups believed in a resurrection, though that resurrection was tied a particular practice, there are those who are saved and those who are lost.
In his letter to the Romans, (thought to have been written soon after the trial that the above excerpt was from) Paul talks about the hope of faith from Abraham. This example paints Abraham as the exemplar of Faithfulness, as much of the New Testament does. As he does he specifically highlights an understanding of faithfulness that comes with the hope that when we embrace our faith God will restore us to fullness.
That’s why it is said, “Abraham was declared fit before God by trusting God to set him right.” But it’s not just Abraham; it’s also us! The same thing gets said about us when we embrace and believe the One who brought Jesus to life when the conditions were equally hopeless. The sacrificed Jesus made us fit for God, set us right with God.
The problem that the early Christians faced, as well as many do today, is that when we speak of hope, salvation, etc. we look forward to clear and present confirmations that the faithfulness is being both recognized and embraced. There is also the desire for immediacy, we want salvation, and we want it now. Ironically, that would mean that we would also be calling on our own demise for we know that the fullness of salvation will come when our life here has ended.
Nevertheless, it is our human nature to want a clear and identifiable proof of our salvation. Unfortunately, this never happens. In fact, this immediacy is often a sign of succumbing to things that are not of God. Think about Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. He could have had everything, but he knew better. The easy life would have given in dominion, but would ultimately be his folly. The story we receive from Paul on faithfulness can be seen alluded to in both narratives, but is exemplified in his whole story. In his life and in his preaching, Paul shows that through hope, we find salvation and the promise of a life beyond this one. In other words, the reward of this life is not something that is found here, but is found elsewhere, in heaven. When we let our hope be our guide, we make our choices and follow where God calls.
This week ask yourself if you have the conviction to stand up and claim your hope if an authority was going to kill or imprison you for doing so. Furthermore, ask yourself if you accept that Christ frees us from hopelessness.
Everybody has a Yoda, the wise teacher that gives you the answer you sometimes don’t want to hear but need to. I have had many “Yoda’s” throughout my life. Most of my Yoda’s have moved on to the church eternal, the most recent being my Grandmother last week. Unlike many of the wise teachers I have had through my life, my grandparents were a team in their wisdom and their examples. The great gift of wisdom that my grandparents had was a sense of love that they witnessed together.
If there was anything that drove them it was love, the love that they had for each other and the love that they always showed toward me. You could tell the love they had for each other, as my grandfather would often look at my grandmother as if they were teenagers. Though more than that their example of love was interesting in that they could accept and love people that they did not always agree with on the issues of the day. I witnessed this as my grandfather, a staunch conservative, adored the incredibly liberal Clergy couple he worked for as visitation pastor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque.
While I was in High School and spending my summers with them, before declaring my call, or even inclination to ministry, I remember my grandfather talking about his life as a minister. My Grandmother would smile as he talked; it was her goal to stay as uninvolved as she could in the churches. However, while she did not get involved, you knew that they were a team as she would be his support and confidant. She often found that when she got involved, people would use her as a go-between, which she quickly learned was not healthy for their relationship, but she knew everything that went on, even if she did not let on her knowledge.
Grandpa once said that the problem with the church is that we continue to battle over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, rather than how we can get people to be more faithful. This was the greatest frustration of my grandfather’s ministry: the church focused on diversions rather than on God. Which helped me to understand my grandmother’s faith as she, who was always very private about her faith, would often open little glimpses into it as she would be thankful for all that she had.
One summer, the three of us went to vacation in Sedona, Arizona. Before we left they had their house painted, and when we returned we found that their house had been burglarized. Almost everything of value had been taken, including my grandfather’s collection of bicentennial quarters. They were not happy! Though as unhappy as they were they kept going. The fear that they had was not about losing the “stuff” again, but was the violation of their physical safety and while we had a pretty good idea of who did it, beyond seeking justice, they did not seek vengeance. I know a minor distinction, but it was interesting to see how they acted more from a place of frustration and inconvenience than from a place of hate or anger.
They were a funny couple, after everything settled and they replaced much of what was stolen, though they did not replace much of it at the same quality as what they had. The funniest was the tea set that was replaced with a very nice pewter one that my grandmother handwrote on a tiny ceramic sign “NOT SILVER.” Grandpa said, “Things can always be replaced, but people can't, and we are just glad it did not happen when we were home and someone might have gotten hurt.”
The thing is that with the Alzheimer’s and illness, for the last couple of years my grandparents just seemed different, as their states were weakened by this life. While I am thankful that they are out of their pain and living into their lives of glory, I will never forget them and they cannot ever be replaced. I am just so very thankful that God gave them to me to share their wisdom and show me their faith.
I wrote this in celebration of Grandma who passed away last week and my Grandpa who passed last year, I am thankful that God made them part of my life.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen