The very first scar that I ever received came as a gift from the chickenpox fairy. It's barely noticeable today, above my left eye on my forehead. This little indentation where an eager six-year-old picked at his chickenpox is a reminder that sometimes it is important to persevere through the discomfort; otherwise, you can make a bad situation worse.
Despite the multiple warnings from my mother and my father not to scratch, the urge was too great. If only I could have had the patience to persevere just a few more days! But instead, every time I look in the mirror, I can see the remnant of that mistake, as well as remember the lesson that scar brought: that patience is a virtue, and that often when we try to find that quick fix, it actually can make things much worse.
Now, a few years past six, my body is laden with lots of other scars. Some of my scars have incredible stories, and some of my scars chronicle many of the stupid things I have done, but no matter how I came to acquire the scar, like that first scar, each one has a lesson learned. But besides the life lessons that happened in the acquiring of the scars, each scar represents a past that is behind me and a hope for the future.
Recognizing that life moves on might have been one of the most important lessons I ever got from my scars. I remember when I was a teenager and I took my shirt off for the first time in front of friends, and they saw my very pink scar at the time. It was interesting to see the reactions people had: some expressed sympathy, some expressed disgust, others just genuine curiosity, but for me, most of the time I just forget about it. They have become so much a part of who I am, that I can't even think of life without them. When I do think of the scars, I think about how lucky I am that I have the scars from operations that allow me to live.
This all reminds me of the passage that Paul gives in Romans 12:9-21. In this pericope, while there are many themes and different areas to explore, the phrase that the spirit keeps stuck in the front of my mind is "hold fast to what is good." I think about that often, especially when things are not going so well.
Oftentimes in life, that's really hard to do, because in the midst of times that are turbulent, those times where we’re receiving our scars, it's easy to succumb to the pain. When we fall into the pain, evil in the form of persecution, doubt, and so much more can get its foot into our lives and take us to a place where we become a slave to it, rather than to life itself. This is all around us! And just like keeping from scratching the chickenpox, it's hard for us to hold on to what is good when we are not able to focus or see it.
When we find ourselves in those situations, we often lose hope and direction; sometimes we even lose our identity. It's important in those times for us to remember that everything is temporary, even our lives. We need to remember that our faith is permanent, and recognize that when we are living in our faith, we are able to make it through any turbulence, because when we are focused on our faith, we truly are focused on what is good.
This constant helps us to recognize that no evil, no temporary pain, nothing can hold us back in this world, because everything that holds us back in this world is bound to only this world.
This is what my scars remind me; that no matter what I went through to get those scars, I was able to overcome that and continue to live, and to live well.
Paul keeps telling us that we need to live in this world and not be grounded in this world, but to be grounded in our faith in God. When we are grounded in our faith in God, we can make it through whatever this world can throw at us. Even when we take on scars, and even when we go through painful times, there is a light at the end where we can find the grace and the glory, holding fast to what is good.
My very first sermon when I was in college was at my parents’ church, and the topic was “spiritual gifts.” I remember this sermon well, not for what I said, but the conversation that followed. After the service, I was standing outside doing the handshaking thing, when a self-described curmudgeon came up to me. Readying myself for some kind of complaint, he took my hand and smiled, saying, “That was the best sermon I ever heard.” I'll be honest with you, it was nowhere close to the best sermon!
Out of curiosity, I asked him what it was about the sermon that connected with him. He replied that it was good because I had recognized that all people are called to whatever they're called to. He said most of the time when he hears that sermon, the pastor talks about their call and what a call to ministry is, and so on and so forth. But at that service, I spoke about how somebody could be called to be a veterinarian or even an accountant, and how that would be serving God.
While people could easily connect a veterinarian with serving God, since they are caring for those whom God calls us to care, but an accountant, that is a different matter! From later sermons when I spoke of the same thing and mentioned accountants as having a calling from God, even accountants have balked. So I have to explain that Jesus makes a point of sitting and ministering to the tax collectors. Yes, they are not accountants, but they share a stigma that accountants also face. Yet those same tax collectors that Jesus met with became central to the early church, and it is because of good financial people that churches are able to be around today.
I know in our church, we would not be able to do what we do without the finance team that works with our church. Their gear house gives us the ability to do the ministry that we do and to connect with people in a very real way, because we can afford to and we have gotten the priorities met by our budget.
It's easy for us to look at things and be able to make a quick determination as to what is godly and what is not, but that's not our purpose as a church. Our purpose as a church is to be present with the community, and to help facilitate individuals’ relationship with God. In order to do this, we have to be honest about the call and recognize that no matter where someone is called, we are all called to be the church, and that God will use our gifts in many ways to serve him.
I think this has a lot to do with the problems that we are seeing in our community. We place labels on things being “good” or “bad,” “Christian” or “not,” foregoing the faith that God does have a plan and a presence in the world. I think this is at the root of the conflict and crisis that we are facing in the society.
The norms that we thought we knew are changing. Just like Jesus saying to the tax collector that you have a place in my church, the church and community is having to rethink our whole understanding to ask how are we propagating the message of Christ and recognizing how God has given all people gifts to serve and help the church grow!
It almost feels as if our nation is having a midlife crisis. Up to this point, we had a pretty good idea of who we were, or at least we thought we did. But today, the things of the past¾things we haven't talked about, things that undergirded our society¾are starting to bubble up, and it is becoming evident to many that who we thought we were is not who we are. This disruption in our society is really difficult to deal with on so many levels. And for money and leadership and for those in our community, it's hard for us to see where we start.
At this point, it's not even an issue of attacking one thing over another or trying to fix systems. Our issues are deeper, and really require us to do a major overhaul of all the power you can approach, being a community together. More than anything else, we need to do what Christ was trying to do when society had gotten far away from their faithful relationship with God and comfortable with their power and presence in their communities.
For the different sects of Judaism that were around at that time, so much of what they were doing was establishing a point of view, and not necessarily being faithful to God. Much of what we see in the New Testament is not anti-Semitic; it's more that people had lost their way, putting their comfort in their ideology, rather than in God.
So we recognize that all people are called to God. We are all given different gifts and called to use them in different ways. We recognize that our world is changing, and we must question whether we’re acting on the side of God or if we’re acting out of line, watching out for our own comfort by excluding people and their gifts from our call to be the church of all God’s children.
Last week I visited with a surgeon to talk about my case. I gave him my extensive medical history, he saw the pictures of my barely functioning digestive system, and asked me, “How can you be so relaxed and with a smile on your face?”
My response was simple: “Well, I am a pastor.” We chuckled a bit and I said, “No, seriously, I’ve been dealing with this for 36 years. What other choice do I have?”
Divine healing is something that I always find frustrating. It seems so random and unfair. The biblical stories of healing often have a huge element of luck¾being at the right place at the right time to encounter Christ, or having the means by which you could travel to Christ to be healed. More than that, the insistence that someone’s faith can heal is downright frustrating. When I was a teen, this made me so angry, because I had faith, but even when I was healed, nothing was ever normal, and though technically healed, it never really was fully resolved.
What my frustration with the stories was is simple. I was jealous of those who experienced that healing. I had been faithful all of my life, yet no prayer would be enough to heal me. In fact, most likely these issues of my youth would come back to cause more issues later in my life. To me, it was not fair.
One of the greatest blessings I had was when I was required to spend six months in the chaplaincy program at Marin General. This was not something that I was looking forward to, and actually for a time, I thought I had successfully talked my way out of it. Thankfully, the Presbyterian Church requires rotation on all of its committees so that new eyes can bring new perspective. In a kind way, the new committee said that if there was anyone who needed to be in a hospital setting, it was me. And they were right!
One of the things I had to confront was my own frustration that when people would ask for prayers of healing, which were genuinely given by incredibly faithful people, they were rarely answered. After a particularly hard afternoon, I went to the head chaplain and talked about the issues that I was having.
He asked me to reread the healing stories and look closer at the miracles that happened. I reread them a couple of times and just got more frustrated. All of them had faith and all of them were healed. I knew I was missing something. The head chaplain sat with me the next day and asked what I had learned. Pensively, I answered: “I really don’t know, only that faith is the key to healing, and maybe I just don’t have enough.”
The head chaplain laughed, “You’re not thinking about what you’re reading. First, the healings show the power of Christ while he was here; he is no longer here. Secondly, when taking the healings in context of the gospels, the physical healings, even the earthly resurrection of Lazarus, are temporary. He uses the healing as a sign of the ultimate healing, a grace that says that no matter who or what you are, God will heal you from this world and welcome you to the next.”
I learned that day that healing was not always about getting better, it was always about grace. So, for some, healing was getting back to “normal,” but for many, it is finding peace with a disorder or ailment that will never go away and learning to live with it; and yes, for others still, healing is the earthly death when they are freed from the pains of this world and made whole again with Christ.
This is how I take my situation; it is what it is. As I accept the reality of my life, I find the strength in Christ to accept his grace and live fully now and forever.
What do you seek when you seek God? For me this is one of the most important questions to ask at the beginning of any journey of faith, yet for most people when they begin or transition their faith lives they never take time to really explore this question. Often this leads to a faith without depth or a faith that is comfortable, a faith on your own terms.
The problem with faith in America and especially in the Bay Area is that we treat it like a commodity … even the church, yes even the Presbyterian church does this. Think about how often we equate church attendance with the power of the Spirit. But that is only one example of many where faith is used to buy and sell ideas, further political aspirations (this is true of the left and the right), and in some of the most egregious ways promote a hierarchy of righteousness. Those with more access are better than those without. This is a real problem which we see almost every day as people use faith to further their own power or influence over promoting God.
There is an interesting and overlooked aspect of faith in the New Testament. That overlooked aspect is the theocentricity of faith. For Christ, faith is a relationship between people and God. It is a trust that God will provide in our final hours but it is also a responsibility on our part to be in fidelity to God in all aspects of our lives. This is best exemplified in one of the readings from the lectionary this week, Jesus walking on the water.
Jesus walking on water is one of those stories that is used as proof of Jesus’ identity and often used jokingly to prove people are not who they say they are, pointing to the fact that Peter sank. But to look at the story that way is to miss a huge part of the story. The story of Jesus walking on water is not a miracle story like many of the others which are to prove Jesus’ identity and connection with God, while that plays a part; this story really is about Peter and faith.
We forget that for a brief time Peter is able to walk on the water, just as Jesus had. In his exuberance he left the boat and found his way towards Christ. But along the way he lost his focus and began to let the wind cast doubt and he began to sink. The faith that he had in Christ was lost to the situation he was finding himself in at that moment and panic ensued.
The problem for Peter is that as much as he wanted to be with Christ, he still let his own will overpower his faith, thinking that the things of this world have power when God is involved. The teaching that Christ gives to Peter is that if he had stayed focused, if he had not let the strong wind corrupt him, he might have been able to make it to Christ.
Peter was someone who tried to be faithful like so many of us, but his greatest problem while being Christ’s disciple, and ultimately the fatal denial that cost Jesus his mortal life, was his inability to keep the faith when difficulty arose. He took the things he “knew” -- whether that be the wind in the sea or safety from persecution -- to be ultimate over God, not trusting that God will provide.
Peter is not alone. We all succumb to the powers in this world defining faith not in terms of God, but in tangible things. Saying if “I am faithful God will. . .” is not a statement of faith because it is about us and not God. Think about Peter, the moment the wind came the faith he had in Christ came second to the reality he knew, when in fact had he kept the faith he would have made it all the way.
As you think about faith, it is really simple; focus on God and make God your goal. As you get distracted from that goal because people are telling you one thing or another, or when life jumps up and pulls you away from your journey, remember to stay focused on God’s calling, not man’s, and listen for Christ’s call to come. Even if you sink a little, if you regain that faith and focus, you’ll never drown.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen