Walking on the Boardwalk last week we stopped for a second and watched as a caricature artist was doing a very interesting portrait. A good caricature artist accentuates features both pleasant and unpleasant to make a comical work of art. A good artist also, might ask for a sport or activity someone likes, but by design there is a lot about a person that is left out of a caricature drawing. But that is the point! We pay someone to get a good laugh or maybe to get an insight into how others see us. It is easy to compartmentalize the caricature artist and say that is something for the fair! But the reality is that often we are our own caricature artists, especially when it comes to God.
Take the “atheists” as a group. Yes, I know a dangerous thing and a caricature of that group. When listening to them talk about God, often what you hear is a narrow opinion, often highlighting the negative aspects, but forgetting or reasoning away the positives, often leading to the logical assertion that there is no God.
At the same time you could take the religious zealots, again a dangerous thing to take as a group. However, often when you find a meeting between the zealots and the atheists you will see that the zealots have just as much of a caricature of God, having a singular always-positive understanding and image.
As you might see, like with the caricature of a person, not seeing the completeness of God can and does create real problems. Almost always when you see cults develop they do so using a caricaturized version of God. Some people really love this because it often the God they think they need.
In our tradition one of the first things that happens in seminaries is a challenge to everything the incoming student knows or think they know about God. For many first-year students in seminary this is a painful experience, especially those who thought they picked a school that would only affirm what they already knew! But the importance of this cannot be missed, especially as a pastor, because it could be easy to have a singular caricaturized version of God. While that is great for growing congregations, it really does not do much for developing or growing disciples.
Step back for a second and think about that. When you hear people say they believe in a cause, they are often spouting a political agenda or myopic view. I am not saying this is good or bad; in fact, many times it can be very good! Take the Black Lives Matter movement. At the beginning it brought awareness to an issue and helped many in our community who don’t understand the plight of many African Americans to understand and have a way to help. BUT we know that the problems are not just about the respect and dignity of Black Lives, but a need for a deeper, more systematic correction to the relationship between the police and the whole community. The problem is that it is hard to introduce the bigger issues when the cause is so myopically focused.
This is true when we think about God. If our view of God is merely the God we want, or don’t want, we are not really having a full image of God. The God who we are imagining is only the God we want to see. This means that many times people come to our churches with the same mindset, choosing churches that will affirm their beliefs and not challenge their understanding of God. Our challenge is to help them to see that God is much bigger than the caricature they have, and when we see God more fully, then we can have a real relationship with Him and understand a deeper, fuller faith.
This coming Sunday we are going to re-dedicate the windows in the sanctuary. This is going to be a special service as we welcome back families and members that have been away. For some who have been away they will join in as if they never left. For most of the people that have left, coming back is going to be a surreal experience with facilities looking familiar clearly a lot of changes too, which for those who have been around are harder to see. Kind of like a child growing-up, the church is growing and by definition it is changing. That, is a good thing because as we change and grow we practice the resurrection.
One of the reasons why people fear change so much is similar to the reason why they fear death, because in a very real way change is death. It is the end of one way and the beginning of a new way. Another way to think about it is that change is a journey into a new reality where the outcomes while seemingly predictable, are really unknown. Among clergy, this is one of the things that fascinates us a lot in how a people that embrace a resurrection theology can fear change so intensely. Moreover, it is interesting because like death, change is inevitable and change is feared.
Yet, we are also called to overcome fears and live in to a resurrection life. This means that we not only accept a resurrection life, but we embrace that God has been active in past, our current and our future realities. This presence of God should bring a calm, to the ways in which we engage life because no matter where we find ourselves, we know that we are with God.
Yes, this is counter to our human instincts. For good reason, we fear what we do not know. That is how we have survived, but as resurrection people, death is no longer a great unknown. We know that there is a beyond, though what that actually looks like is hard to really understand. But today, we have a fairly good understanding of how the world works and often the fears we have, no longer really seem rational. This means that if we are faithful, the end is something that is not to be feared, rather, it is something that we should embrace and celebrate.
When I first came to this congregation we were in a funk. The prior ten years, though some may argue longer, were a rollercoaster of emotions. While the church hit some real highs, it also became a victim of the natural life cycle of a congregation, getting to the point where it was fixated on what it was rather then what it could be. In many ways we feared that if we changed anymore, the only thing that would surely come was more pain. But in a very real way, our past blinded us to the future and made us question the undergirding of our faith.
The Window project was the beginning of a new time in church when we made the deliberate choice to embrace the changes that were right in front of us. It was about the same time when we started on the windows that we started on the revitalization of the church. In both cases we worked on what was seen first, but the windows and the church both held their secrets. But that is to be expected and as we began to embrace the unknowns we also began to grow. In the case of the windows, funds that by all accounts should not have been there arrived. In the case of the church, we learned to reach out to the community and embrace them in new and powerful ways, helping them to see what Christian hospitality is and what a non-judgmental faith is all about.
Fundamentally, we took on the power dynamics that the church had developed and chose to trust in the Lord. This happened about four years ago during a session meeting where they collectively said “enough!” it was time to put the past where it belonged and let go of what was and embrace what will be. The power dynamics changed as we learned to trust each other and realize that while we did not always agree, it did not mean that we had to fight to win, rather we needed to listen and trust that God would show us the way. In a very real way, we learned more deeply than ever to trust in the Lord, for what happens here is not our doing alone and only by letting the spirit in, will we be able to do the ministry God calls us to do.
I hope that you can make it this Sunday to celebrate the windows and this new chapter of our congregations life trusting that God will guide us through all things, even the changes that are still before us!
Can you believe that many of our children and youth will be starting school this week! The summer has gone by so fast. Thinking about education this week’s letter looks at the role of education a core aspect to being Presbyterian. Much of this document, is based on excerpts from the Presbyterian Church Mission Agency and “A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education,” The Education and Congregational Nurture Ministry Unit, Presbyterian Church (USA.), 1987.
It is no surprise, that education has been central to the life of Presbyterians. While we are not the wealthiest denomination, we are the most educated. This started at the very roots of our tradition where clergy were seen to have roles of Rabbi’s (teacher) and mediators of the divine. This comes from a theological and Biblical understanding of the office of a Pastor. In fact, the historical title of a Pastor is Teaching Elder.
In fact as John Calvin was teaching and preaching he was also advocating support of free schools in Geneva where he was the city planner. John Knox, who brought Calvin’s reformed tradition to Scotland, also brought the concern that schools be provided for all children in Scotland. This was not unique to the Calvinists but, like today, not all of the church supported education in fact some preached against it. As a marker of this new tradition, education was woven into every level of the church.
In colonial times, Presbyterians joined with other churches in providing schools for children in whatever community Presbyterian churches were to be found. Academies and colleges were established to continue the tradition of learned clergy and to encourage the general development of all youth. A comparable commitment has characterized Presbyterian mission outreach in the United States among the non-European communities including notable historic Black colleges.
But often, as the Public School system in the United States took over, the Presbyterian Church relinquished their parochial schools to become public, believing in the need for a good education for faithfulness and understanding.
As Presbyterians, we believe that “an education of high quality for all children is an obligation of society and indispensable to the political and economic health of our democracy,” and that “we are called to respond in every possible way, with measures that seek to evidence love and justice in the education of children and youth.” --A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education (199th General Assembly, 1987)
However, to understand public education today, it is important to explore how it evolved and why. Understanding the roots of our public education system can help us understand the problems we face today.
As more immigrants arrived toward the end of the 19th century, education was primarily perceived as a social mechanism to change children into productive workers. Law and order, righteousness, and civil duty were stressed. The familiar descriptive metaphor of the melting pot is grounded in this influx of immigrants.
From these roots, our system of public education has branched out in an attempt to accommodate an increasingly diverse and varied population. Each branch, from secondary education to vocational education, through segregation to desegregation to bilingual education and so on, has emerged in response to the needs perceived by those in power. Our problems today and the challenges we recognize for tomorrow, must be evaluated in that light.
An overture to the 216th General Assembly in 2004, "On Improved Education for African American and Other Students placed at risk for an Excellent Education," called for action to address the concern that some children, particularly poor children, children of color and others on the margins continue to be left behind. Among its recommendations:
That Presbyterians be called upon to confront the stubborn continuance of racial prejudice, particularly the persistence of societal attitudes that discourage academic achievement among economically disadvantaged and children of color students and others at risk.
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 before, 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 faith.
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 I do 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 identify the issues 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.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen