The Evangelism conference was probably one of the most important conferences that I have been to in a long time. While most of the content was superb, much of it was not new for me; what was new and most helpful was being in a lay-driven conference, where over half of the attendees were elders.
It was fascinating listening to the stories and seeing the excitement of that group. There were a couple of themes that I saw in the elders that were there: there was the group that was brought by their pastors, there were the groups trying to figure out next steps, and there were the elders that were at churches that had made drastic changes and they were beginning to see the fruit of their decisions. It was fascinating to see that there was so much life, when the common element was that the church as we know it is dead.
Yes, there was that theme, but that was not a bad thing. In fact, the death of the church was something that we were celebrating each day in various ways, especially in our attempts to regain a focus on Jesus Christ and find ways to serve God in the midst of our communities.
The emphasis in all the churches that were seeing both growth and stability was a focus, not on numerical success, but on an individual congregations’ impact with the community. This is biblical, actually more biblical than the large church model of ministry.
We often forget that Christian worship started as a simple meal, with some readings, some speaking and corporate listening. The purpose of worship was not to make the attendees feel good or even something “spiritual;” the purpose was to gather the community and give a sacrifice of our time to God for the Sacrifice that he has given to us. There was also a communal nature to the worship of the early church in that the attendees created a focus and support for the worshipping life of the church.
There is a saying in the Presbyterian Church in that we are reformed and always reforming. The problem that we face in a society that is resistant to change is that allowing the church to be reformed is next to impossible because we have so much identity wrapped up in the way things are, or at least the way things are or were, in our minds.
The things that the churches who are seeing the greatest success are doing is going through the difficult process of letting go of that image of what was and is and instead of dreaming about what could be, looking around asking who is their neighbor, and how is God calling them to the table. This looked different in every discussion I had with other elders, since no two communities were the same. However, the things that remained the same were the willingness to try, to connect, to fail, and to discern where God was.
When you think of it, it makes sense. As a church we are not called to serve people but to serve God and be his faithful witness in the community. If we do that, if we speak a faithful message and connect in vital ways, we will never be left for want, but if we try to stay alive, or focus on ourselves, we will no longer be able to serve God and will continue to fragment and split because the focus is no longer on what unifies us, our focus is on fear. Fear of death, fear of others, fear of the future.
Thankfully, we know we have nothing to fear, for our lives are with God, and as my Grandfather’s favorite catechism question states:
Q. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
You see, we have nothing to fear, but we have every responsibility with our lives to live in ways that glorify him.
How am I called to live. This is a question that I struggle with often in my life. It is hard to know exactly how one is supposed to live when the answers about right and wrong, good and bad are not always that clear. As people we spend a great deal of time justifying our actions. Especially when we know they are just not really right. Just look to the politicians!
I can honestly say that I love being active, but organized sports never were my thing, with the exception of wrestling I never really excelled in any. But being in a sports oriented family, I was bestowed with the obligation to make my way through every sport. I got out of baseball because I could not hit a ball off the tee; I played soccer for three years and was the backfield dandelion picker. My parents had me try every event in track and field, cross country, football, you name it, and with the exception of wrestling and swimming, most competitive sports eluded me.
While there are times in my life I look back and regret the time I tried all of those sports, I think of how much I learned from those experiences, and how important it was to just try. There is a joke that goes around when the lottery gets high “100% of people who do not play don’t win.” I am not advocating for playing the lottery, but the same thing could be said for life, 100% of those who do not participate in life never really live it.
That brings us to this week’s lesson from 1 Thessalonians 5:11-28. This is parting advice from Paul as to how we are to live fully. Living is about making the most of what we have, trying, risking, and not sitting by. It is interesting that the initial part of this passage is about respecting each other, following the leadership that has been given and listening to one another. With proper respect we begin to build each other up, and when we build each other up we see a great change in our community.
Being the worst on most of those sports teams I saw how when my teams would use my limited coordination to their advantage; we often won, but when I would be picked on or made to feel small, my psychological withdrawal also began to pull down the team and mutually we would lose, and often not in a good way.
With the cornerstone of respect for our leaders and each other we are called to try, but not in a reluctant or callous way, but with enthusiasm and cheerfulness knowing that God is using you for his work.
I think back with fondness on most of the teams I played on; many were even very successful! But I am also glad that I tried, because I learned from those experiences, especially the successful teams, how important everybody was to the success of the whole, and how a good attitude starts with the choice of the individual whether or not they want to be part of the whole and live, or turn to their own wants and isolate themselves from the fullness of life.
I will be honest, I hate talking about money. For me nothing ever good came from a discussion about money. In my family money was and is a big thing. My father spent most of his professional career running the accounting services for Sears, my middle brother is a very successful accountant and my oldest brother has been very successful in his own business ventures. This means that I lose every discussion, whether I am right or wrong, and I also have this biblical slant that makes me distrust money and what it provides.
I truly believe that money can do great things, but like any drug, money can devastate lives, churches, and communities. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to counsel couples on the verge of divorce over money issues. In almost every case that I have worked with the issues that arise focus on the protection of money over the current relationship. It always amazes me, but in each case one of the people will respond with a statement like “we need to protect our money for our future” with the assumption that there is going to be a future.
The sad thing is that often this protection of the future comes at the cost of the present; thankfully through counseling, most of the couples fighting over this issue stayed married, but it is an example of the problem that money poses, what do you trust and who do you have faith in.
Money in its own right is an inanimate object with a worth that society places on it. Actually I take that back since now-a-days money is not even an inanimate object, it is a virtual number that we trust actually exists. And this is where the problems come in. Money often becomes something in which we place faith, as if money can get us out of problems, or money can give us some sort of salvation. This means that we make money out to be an idol, placing it is a superior place to God, thus causing us to sin, living for the propagation of the money rather than the glory of God.
So as you prepare for Sunday I ask: Like the prophet Amos, Jesus has harsh words for those who live in luxury and ignore the needs of the poor. The epistle reading warns that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). What is an appropriate Christian attitude toward wealth? How are we called to treat those who are poor?
Last Friday we had our screening of Bully. It was interesting that the event was primarily attended by people from the community, and it was really cool that we had a large contingent from Downtown College Prep, the school that is across the street. They sent 25 kids!
Thinking ahead of the sensitivities of the crowd, knowing there might be some in need, Rachel Notor suggested that we have a safe space room. Though I do not know if anyone went, I had a few people, especially the teacher, who expressed great appreciation for just knowing that we cared enough to have that!
While I don’t know what happened on Rachel’s side, I had some very interesting experiences that night. When we have events at night, I usually like to have someone posted in the Narthex, especially if we leave the doors open. Since I have seen the movie many times I stood out there. Interestingly, about halfway through the movie some of the kids from DCP made their way to the Narthex. One by one “going to the bathroom” or “cooling off.” I could tell that a few were struggling.
One boy struck up a conversation when he said “There are points in the movie that make me want to cry.” When I told him that I felt the same way, he began to process a little. When he was done, he made his way back in. For me this was one of the most important moments of the night, since a simple showing of a movie in a safe space really seemed to make a difference in this young man’s life.
I thought about that as the questions came in to the panel after the movie. It was overwhelming to see how big the issue of bullying is so big. On one level, it is impossible to fully grasp since there are so many pieces that factor in from family and school to societal influences. If you took on everything at once, it would be too overwhelming. It was quickly realized that though there might be laws and new regulations, the only real way to tackle the problem is by changing hearts one by one. In fact, this is how all good movements start and was the key evangelism tool in the early church, showing God’s love one person at a time.
When you are sharing God’s love, you know you’re doing the right thing. Because you are building people up and subsequently building up the community and yourself. When you break down and hurt others, pain is the only thing realized.
The police officer on the panel and two others highlighted that one who bullies often was bullied themselves. It can be a vicious cycle; in church, we notice that negativity breeds negativity. Eventually, choices are no longer made with the underlying question of how we are glorifying God; rather, they are coming from how we can make ourselves feel better or attain power.
The difficult part of life is that we don’t always see it, and this is not a modern thing! The scripture that we will be working with in the traditional service is an example of how people, thinking they were doing right, found themselves on a path that brought them so far away from God and it seemed all hope was lost. But as we will see, through reconciliation, one by one, people, and eventually the whole community, can be restored.
Yours in Christ,
Jeremiah can get downright depressing at times. Like I said at the beginning of this journey through Jeremiah, the struggle Jeremiah faces parallel the life of the Hebrew people, but in a more global sense follows our life faith cycle. This cycle often moves from blessed to lost to hopeless and eventually redemption, this week we are at the part of the story where to Jeremiah things seem utterly hopeless.
This week we meet Jeremiah when he is completely and utterly depressed. Things are so bad that he cannot even see a way out for his people and is really questioning if God really cares about his people. But the problem that Jeremiah seems to be having throughout the discourse of Jeremiah 8 and 9, is the fact that he seems to be forgetting that he is speaking from the moment and God is speaking from something larger, an understanding of the whole history.
This is exemplified through the reading that comes from psalm 79:1-9 the first reading this Sunday. The writer of this psalm is lamenting the fall of Jerusalem. While many psalms work around the direct subject or use an analogy, this psalm is very straightforward, almost angry, not with God, but with the people who were given everything and instead of being happy with what they had constantly turned to something else.
Interestingly, God seems to be having a sort of breakdown. He remarks how he has given the people everything yet they have turned away. Now in this case Jeremiah who is pleading for hope, God is in the position where he comes back essentially saying, “Even if I gave Hope would they accept it?”
Thus the question: “is there no balm in Gilead?” A legitimate question, but one that misses the bigger issue, Like taking Tylenol to get rid of pain from a broken leg, until the leg is fixed the balm, Tylenol, is not really going to make much of a difference, and can mask a pain that needs to be felt so as not to inflict more damage.
The cry for a balm is a cry for an easy way out. As people we do this all the time. Some churches make millions of dollars boiling faith and a Godly life to a simple prescription to be followed. Unfortunately, we often see how that prescription often leaves people very little space to grow and where faithfulness is often lost since the easy prescriptions often don’t hold up when life takes over and problems arise.
God knows to be the only way to wholeness is through a renewed faithfulness and trust in him. When we place God first and listen for where God is then we are able to begin reconciliation. And Like an alcoholic who has to admit to his faults before he can begin to heal, we have to admit our unfaithfulness before we can be restored, until that time, were not going to find a Balm in Gilead.
Coming off of the Evangelism Conference, Kris and I are going to be introducing a lot of our learning to the Gathering and the rest of the church over the next few weeks. In this spirit, I thought it would be good this week to focus on the question; “What does it mean to welcome?” To start this discussion, I picked Romans 15.
Being Welcoming is a term that is relatively new for the church. If you would go back to the 50’s or the early 60’s you would not see that strategy for church growth or even part of religious vocabulary. Churches, while some were more welcoming than others, positioned themselves as a communal place. Since culturally the churches served many functions in the community, the need to “be welcoming” was not in the forefront. However, with the cultural shifts of the late 60’s and 70’s the churches found themselves in the unique position of having to redefine who and what they were.
Most churches went from being “Community Center” to a service place. Typically, the churches that grew offered programming and emphasized children and youth. Often the churches targeted a specific population of income category. This caused many seekers to feel unwelcome. Churches also began to take stands on issues that alienated groups within the community: first, divorced people, those who had abortions, then Gays and so on to the point that the label of being unwelcoming stuck to churches.
In the mid 90’s, the mainline churches began to advertise themselves as “being welcoming.” At first this was code for being accepting of Gay and Lesbian people, but other churches took this to mean that they created a welcoming atmosphere, and, like most things devolved into an empty understanding, a cliché, with many saying “You say you’re welcoming, but are you really?”
While the term “Welcoming” is new, the concept is not. This is addressed within Paul’s letters and is really pointed as the biggest rift that the church faced at that time. This rift was the fight over who had the right answer the Gentiles, or the Jewish converts. Interestingly, as Paul does, he sidesteps the issue and forces the reader to take note of themselves and examine what they are doing to build up the Body of Christ.
This is interesting, because so often when we see church growth on TV and in books we often see how the growth is expected to happen, from what is going on through the person in the community, that they are to conform to our ways. Unfortunately for us, we are the ones that are called to change and adjust to the world around us.
Not in the sense of giving up our morals or understandings, but learning how to accept and lift up those with whom we may not agree with. In others how we can accept our neighbor at the table with no restrictions or agenda. That means welcoming cannot just be the agenda for Church growth. It has to be who we are, if we live into that and it is authentic, then we will be able to touch others. If we do not, all churches and places of faith will continue the decline since we will no longer have a message that is meaningful to the world.
Yours in Christ,
Last night, I reviewed the movie Bully that we are showing tomorrow night. For me, I think it is one of the most important movies that has come out in a long time. Though, like most important movies, it is not easy at times to watch. Listening to parents of children who killed themselves, to watch bullying happening and seeing the reaction of “Boys will be Boys,” and things like that get your blood boiling, especially when you see the route of the problem.
The relationship between the bully and the victim is many things, but often is one of power. To be a bully an individual has to make a conscious choice that they are entitled to something. Sometimes it is attention, others it is respect, sometimes it is even stuff, but this entitlement places the Bully in the position, because of their status, where they can pass judgment on another person and label them to be weaker or vulnerable to an attack.
In one scene in the movie, we even see where the Bully claims that the child deserves the bullying, and actually, the bullied child begins to relate to the bullying as normal. In fact, at one point, you see the child look to be bullied by “his Friends.” The difficult part of the movie for me was the fact that I knew the emotions and the first time I saw it a groundswell of all those old emotions came running back. It surprised me on two levels; first, how real those emotions were, and, second, how I had learned to cope with them.
About the time of my most intense bullying, we were studying the writings of Paul at church. At the end of Romans 14 and 15 Paul talks about the community of Faith and a problem that the churches were facing, and a problem that the churches will continue to face until the second coming of Christ, and that is Bullying. Well, they did not use that term, but the issue is how we are a community together; how we live to build each other up not how we turn to tear each other down.
15 We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. 3 For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
The problem the early church was having was that the people were living in the human nature to tear someone down in order to gain power. Instead of lifting each other up in love, the early church often found itself creating tests and hurdles; we might call this hazing. Paul gives this example in Romans 14:13-23, whereas the community would give “tests” to other's faithfulness by threatening the kosher law. As Paul lays out, if keeping kosher is integral to the faithfulness of the individual, don’t make them eat something that is not kosher. While the reader and leader know that through Christ, all things are clean, it is not our place to force our practice onto another, which will make them stumble or even fall away from God altogether.
The reality of bullying is that once you step away from school you do not necessarily step away from the bully culture. This is not a new thing but something that goes back to Christ’s time and before. However, as Christians and people of faith, our call and our mission is to look for ways to build each other up. Not to pick at the weakest point but strive to celebrate the strong areas. More than anything, we are called to treat each other with Love and respect, as God treats us.
I hope that you will be able to join us for the movie tonight.
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 15:1–6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
I remember growing up my mother coming home from a day in the prairie, (her summer job that year was to find and count different species of bees in the prairies of Fermi national laboratories in Batavia, IL) so excited about this brown burry thing. She set it on the table and began to tell its story.
She said; “this is from the Burr Oak tree, one of the most beautiful trees in the prairie. From this will grow one of the biggest and strongest trees you will find in the prairie.” To which I gave the typical bored teen age, cool and began to walk away to find something, no, anything else to do! As I turned, she began to attempt to saw it open; watching my mother saw was amusement enough as the thing kept rolling away. Finally, after a lot of work, she exposed the nut. Interestingly, her fascination was not the nut but the casing. She said “The Burr Oak is fascinating because in order for the seed to germinate it needs fire, a really hot fire! Something happens chemically when the casing of the seed is burned that ‘wakes up’ the seed. It is really amazing.”
Initially, I was not that interested, but as with all new information, something did not quite make sense. Fire was bad; I had been taught its dangers. While I knew it for utilitarian purposes, the image of a large fire always brought pictures of destruction and devastation. I began researching and realized that fires were naturally-occurring phenomena, on the prairies in the Midwest many of the native flowers and of course trees, like the Burr Oak, required fire to germinate. The fires were caused by lightening and before large settlements were a fairly common occurrence.
Through the years, I have thought about the Burr Oak and how God uses something that we consider to be bad the make something that can be really awesome!
In California, we are no strangers to fire; right now the barely controlled fire in Yosemite is taking out beautiful trees and threatens life in the forest, as we know it. This really bothers us because we have concerns for what is there, for the people and homes, the memories of trees and other scenic points. In fact, one of the scariest things about fire is that it forces a change that we usually do not want, and often requires us to start fresh.
Every year, my parents spend a few weeks in Colorado. In one of their recent trips, my mother took pictures of the cabin that we would rent when I was young. Once surrounded by trees, it looked naked! Interestingly, she said, even soon after the fires, she saw the signs of new life. Soon the Aspens will come out and grow to give shade to the pines which will eventually overtake them until the next avalanche or fire will start things fresh once more. It is the cycle of God’s creation and re-creation.
On one hand we can, and do, see only negative when we think of things like forest fires, and while they are not good, often as many scientists would say that what you often get out of a good forest fire is a stronger and healthier forest, in the long run. When we come to the moments in our lives when we struggle with our own fires, we can turn and embrace the new reality that is placed before us. Often when we do that we become stronger and healthier than we ever were before.
This week in our journey with Jeremiah, Jeremiah has had recently had a breakdown in his relationship with God. He cries to God because God is not giving him the words he wants and the people are only wanting to listen to what “they know” is what God is telling them. In Jeremiah 17:14-18, we see this frustration through a prayer when Jeremiah turns to God asking for vindication.
Following a short decree on keeping the Sabbath, Jeremiah reflects on an experience when God directs him to go visit a potter, you know, one of those holy field trips. So Jeremiah goes and witnesses to what the potter is doing. This is the focus for the service this week. The potter builds up the clay pot, making sure that it is as good as he can.
Having spun a few pots when I was younger I understand the process. For in the creation of the pot, as the wheel is spinning the artist has to pay close attention to the movements they make. To a novice who has never seen a pot being made, the process looks easy, but once you sit and try; you realize the work needed. Often when watching a potter, even the best of them, when they stop the wheel and notice what is wrong, without sadness or any emotion you watch as they collapse the clay into itself and start over.
In this story, God is the potter meaning that God has the power to build up and to destroy. The problem that is apparent for the modern reader is that God is clearly the one that is acting both in good and bad. Often when we hear stories of destruction or devastation, we want to affix an evil causing it, creating a devil or some other entity. Ultimately, the evil that is present in this passage is not divine in nature, rather it is among the nations. While this is pointing to the ultimate fall of Judah to the Babylonians, the destruction of what God created is solely on the people who have chosen a different way.
In response, God lays out a plan for the destruction and ultimate re-creation of the Hebrew nations. The image of the potter becomes central for our understanding of life with God. When we accept that God is shaping and molding us, we are able to open our eyes and recognize that God is very active in who we are, and we also begin to see how God at times is at work recreating who we are.
I think about this often. When I think of who I was in the various points of my life, I recognize and know that often, while the core of my identity is the same, who I am and the strength of my faith is very different. It is interesting that every time I come at a point where I think God is done with me; I get a nudge, and often those are the times when I know within my heart, I have lost the faith.
The thing about this story that is the most difficult to handle is that the evil that is present is not God or Jeremiah, but it is the people that have turned their backs on God, giving God no real choice but to start over. When we examine our own lives, we have to ask: is the evil in our lives something which is outside of ourselves, or is it something that we cause for ourselves?
As we begin a new program year as a congregation, it is a good time to visit some foundational aspect of our life as Christians. The two readings this Sunday will be from Ephesians. The church in Ephesus was a lot like the Gathering as they were a new worshiping community struggling for an understanding of what God was calling them to do and how they were called to witness to his word. Imbedded within this understanding is the theme of Identity. Identity for the early Christians was important since they were a new sect and still coming to understand who they were.
In the pericope that I picked for this Sunday, Paul engages a discourse on our life in Christ. He uses the image of us being a new creation. This is an important theme throughout much of Paul’s writing and the New Testament because it requires action on our part. For some that action is from unbelief to belief, but for many, it is recognition of the constant recreation that God is doing inside of us. This understanding becomes foundational for the second part of the pericope that explores how we are to structure this new life.
For many early Christians, this new identity offered a different way of life that provided more meaning and often gave hope where there was none. Here we see Paul laying out to the community that when we make the choice to be Christian, we make a choice for an alternative lifestyle.
I totally understand this! Whenever I tell someone that I am a pastor, usually they apologize for something or begin to act a little different. The first time I noticed this was when I was in college, and though I had not really changed other then making a declaration, my pronouncement made me represent something different to the people in my community. Interestingly, as I made my way to seminary I was faced with what my life would be in that my “Job” as a pastor was not something that I would ever be able to escape or ignore; in fact, after working in the “faith business,” as one of my friends says, I realize that I am always on.
For me, the initial choice to be a Christian and the choice to be a minister were fairly easy. As the text suggests, I gave myself over to God. Nevertheless, structuring and maintaining my life in faith can be a struggle creating a life journey that has not always been as easy! In fact, it has been and is incredibly hard at times. However, by accepting this life I have made choices and decisions that at times put me at odds with society and even times with the churches I serve, but ultimately, it is a result of discernment and love.
As we begin the new program year in the church, we move forward with full force living into our identity as Christians. The difficult part is allowing the time for discernment and growth.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen