For the month of October, in Revive our focus series will be “Being the Body of Christ!” At the traditional worship, the focus will be “Acting Like a Christian.” Some may look at these two topics and see them as vastly different, but that is not the case. They are actually two sides of the same coin. Think about it like this: you cannot be the body of Christ if you’re not acting like a Christian, because ultimately your desires will get in the way of the community.
The same is true the other way around. You cannot act like a Christian if you are not part of a community. This is because the community is central to your Christian endeavor. For people of my generation (those who are now roughly 35-50), one of the most common statements made is that they are “spiritual,” but not religious. In other words, they believe in a God, but “church” is just not that important. Moreover, many feel the hypocritical nature of the church community might very well be an impediment to gaining a deeper understanding of God.
This is very interesting, because in many places in the New Testament, there are stern warnings against seeking faith alone. In fact, doing anything alone can create real problems, because often something is missed or misinterpreted. One of the greatest examples of why you cannot pursue faith alone is not even in the scriptures, but in the way the Bible is created. There are a lot of redundant stories. In the Old Testament, you have Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, all of which are covered in a slightly different way in the book of Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law.” In the New Testament, we have four gospels, which all tell the same story of Christ, yet with very different emphases and perspectives. Think how vastly different Mark is from John¾not just in the way it reads, but when you get to the theology and what is emphasized, the distinction is rather remarkable! Mark does not even touch the Resurrection, and everything in John is pointing to it.
Now, when you get to the point that you study scriptures, you really understand. As I have seen with so many people who have attempted the “year with the Bible” reading, where you try to read the Bible in a year, many times you will encounter things that just plain don’t make sense until you talk them out with someone.
The real kicker is once you get into the scriptures. Just look to 2 Peter 1:20-21: “First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit who spoke from God.” And that is only one of the passages that brings out that point!
All of this is to help us as individuals and as a congregation to come to a deeper understanding of our faith and the reasons why we do the things we do. For Presbyterians, this is one of those core understandings that we have. Mind you, I did not say theology or doctrine, because this is not something about God. It is, however, a real understanding of our human predicament, and how we can come to understand our faith better! Moreover, we cannot do that alone. We need the full perspective to be the body, and, ultimately, to act as God calls us to act. We need to be earnest in our witness, and open in our hearing. When we do that, we are opened to a deeper faith.
It was the first day of spring, an appropriate day for my professor to begin his lecture on the Resurrection. It seemed odd to us, because the class was on “the urban church,” not the New Testament. Thankfully, we did not write it off, thinking that the professor brought the wrong notes. His exegesis on the Resurrection was basic, but that is all it needed to be. It was a hook to get us to think about the birth, life, death, and, yes, the resurrection of the urban church.
Having worked with congregations for over two decades now, I have noticed something really interesting. Many people fear the death of a congregation more then they fear their own death. In other words, they trust in their salvation, but don’t really trust that God has a greater plan for the church. So often instead of letting go of their past, churches fight to regain what they once had, striving to somehow keep alive a glimpse of their former selves.
This is problematic, not because of the desire to be “what the church once was,” but because we put our desire before allowing a death and resurrection to happen. Like putting a person who will never recover on life support, perpetuating life when death needs to happen is painful, hard, and causes far more casualties than anything else.
The thing about the resurrection that we often do not recognize is the presence that remains. When Christ dies and is later resurrected, he has a real presence in this world, and when he finally ascends to God in heaven, his presence in this world does not come to an end. Yes, he sent the Holy Spirit, but more than that, he left a legacy through his teachings and his examples.
The same thing is true for people. When they die and enter the church eternal, their existence is not wiped away from this earth; their impact is felt and their witness is continued. The same is true of churches. When a church dies, it leaves a legacy. The witness of what came before stays with the new congregation and the people that are left behind.
I always think of this when I wear my Easter robe. That robe came from a church in Virginia that had closed a few months after I started in North Carolina. One of my members had grown up in that Virginia church. As I sat with the member and heard the story of growing up in that church, I was both humbled and impressed with the impact that congregation had on him as well as the impact that congregation had on the one I was serving through him. While it no longer existed in a physical way, it was, and always would be, alive in its witness.
So we come to the celebration of our 125th anniversary this Sunday. We remember as a congregation that we are a resurrected people. While we celebrate the lifespan of this particular congregation, we also recognize that there are many times when we have died and been resurrected. The most formal resurrection was 90 years ago, when the church left downtown and moved to our current location. But it has also happened recently, as we have begun to let go of what we once were and started to ask the question of where God is calling us to be now.
In that respect, this celebration on Sunday is as much about honoring the past, and all those who have paved the way for us to get where we are going, as it is also an Easter celebration, looking forward to how and who God is calling us to be today, tomorrow, and years to come!
There is a crisis in Christianity and Christendom. It is actually a funny crisis, when you think about it, because the crisis is one of identity. If you could boil the crisis down to one question, it would read like this: “What does it mean to be a Christian today?” I find it funny, because if you strike “today,” you’re really asking a fundamental question of Christian identity. If there is anything we should be able to answer quickly, it is what it means to be a Christian! I think this is one of the things that gives fodder to people who are so much against Christianity. How can things not be hypocritical, if you do not know why you are doing them in the first place?
This crisis exposes a real problem that was true in Christ’s time and has been true many times in history. That problem is: who do we serve? In the Presbyterian church, this has been a very interesting question.
In the late '80’s and into the '90’s, as the denomination began to shrink, many questions in the church changed from “What should we do?” to “What do you want?” Hopefully, you hear the difference in the two questions. One points outward and the other inward. If we ask what should we do, we are not worried about the immediate consequences to either ourselves or the church. Interestingly, that was not the main concern when Presbyterian clergy and laity went to march in the civil rights movement. Granted, many objected to the action of those who did that, but there was a very lively debate, and at the root of the debate was not concern about how we were going to “grow the church.” Regardless of what side of the issue one was on, it was not about what we were going to do to preserve the faith, but where the church should stand in the community.
They knew who they were, and even if they sat across the side of the table, both sides knew and trusted that the other was deeply rooted in faith. Unfortunately, in times when the church has put itself out there, there is a reality that when people get challenged, many cannot handle the challenge and leave. That is always sad, but that is also when churches made the real mistake of switching from the questions of “What should we do?” to “What do you want?” The problem is, when you ask someone what they want, you are no longer in ministry, you are creating a service.
Over the past 30 years, most of the mainstream church has been focused on service to “clients.” Some would even say that many of the missions and outreach have not been as much about questioning where God is calling us to be, but rather, “How are we making people happy?” or “What are we doing to grow the church?” Don’t get me wrong, people are important, as is growth within a congregation. But if you are servicing congregational growth, or being dictated by what makes people happy, are you really serving God, or are you just trying to keep the doors open? Moreover, to what end?
It is worth noting that the churches, conservative or liberal, that stayed fast to their question of “What should we do?” have grown. Examining the top 10 largest congregations (half of which are conservative and the other half, liberal), one fundamental similarity is noticeable: They are rooted in Christ and constantly trying to discern where God is calling them to be in their communities and the world. While they all offer lots of programs and opportunities, the reason for their success is simple---it rests on God.
As we prepare for our next 125 years as a congregation, I would like to boldly say that our session is committed to putting God into every decision that we make in order to discern where God is calling us to be, even if it does make us uncomfortable. We must do this; otherwise, we run the risk of again losing our identity and our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Every evening before I go to bed, I have a routine. I check what the weather is going to be the next day, pick out and pack my outfit, make sure the right clothes for my commute to the pool are ready to be put on, and that my wallet and keys are sitting on top of my swimsuit. I have found I have to do this because if I do not, one of two things happens: I either forget something very important, or I lose something.
At this point in my life, I do not lose things never to be found again. But often after a late night of meetings, I will drop my keys somewhere obscure while not thinking, and voilà! It is a 20-minute search the next morning that often results in giving up and taking the spares, only to find my keys the minute I walk in the door later in the day. Granted, there is instant relief, but only after much frustration.
Often when we lose something, it is because we are not being mindful. We are going through the motions of life without really being connected to what we are doing. Every time I lose my keys, this is true! I find my keys to open the door, but once inside, I am usually onto the next task and not really paying attention to what I am doing at that moment.
When we think about losing faith, often the same issues hold true! Back when I was working on my doctorate, I took a class on writing led by Barbara Brown Taylor. She is an Episcopal priest who is very well known for her spirituality work and her writing. In one class, we were encouraged to go out and hug a tree. This was part of her curriculum for the spirituality class she usually taught, but for us, it was suggested as a possible way to connect and be mindful as we prepared to write.
Now, as a boy, I hugged many trees, but never as a spiritual exercise. I was the fastest tree climber in the family, a very useful skill needed with two older brothers! So I felt silly standing at the base of a tree, remembering my climbing days. But as I hugged the tree and took on the exercise of being present in the moment, I soon began to smell the tree’s green, fresh leaves, feel the rough bark, and watch the little bugs commuting from one ridge of a piece of bark to another.
I began to see the tree in a very new way. It was not just a pretty structure or even a boyhood playground; it was a living thing and something that needed respect. OK, so I guess that I technically became a tree hugger that day, but not in the sense of the environmental activists. I came to know a respect for something that I had taken advantage of throughout my life. In a very real way, I found something that was never really lost, but now my life was more full.
This is true of faith. I often say people lose their faith in God, but God never loses faith in us. When we lose our faith, it is often because we are not paying attention or we are just not being mindful. So when tragedy strikes, it is hard to see where God is present because we have forgotten how to find God. We forgot how to be mindful of the vast ways in which God is present in our lives.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen