I often joke that one of the most Christian of all the popular holidays is Halloween. Though some make a connection to traditional Celtic festivals, All Hallows Eve was a day in which people would begin the celebration of All Saints Day, which would be November 1. While I was in college a friend of mine and I looked at how Halloween had morphed from the beginning of a “high-holy day” to the “scary” fear laden day it became (and maybe the caricature that it is today).
A big reason has to do with a sociological change in the perception of death among the Christian community that happens around the time of the black plague. At that time, science being what it was, people began to see that death begat more death. We know now that the reason was that the organisms moved from the dead body to the living ones, but at the time, death, which was a fairly accepted part of life, began to be feared as if death itself could bring more death. The logic is there, and even though we know that this is not true, we still fear death.
The fear of death is something that is really an anathema to Christianity. In the earliest days of the Christian movement, the churches would often meet in the catacombs. This was not for a special communion with the dead, but because they were safe places, because the Romans were afraid of the dead and what they represented. In fact, one of the fears bestowed among the earliest Christians was that they were death worshippers, and in a way that would be correct.
The dead play a very important role in Christianity. In fact, the story of Christ is a story of freedom from the fear of death. This is one of the promises of the resurrection, that death will no longer conquer and defeat those whom God has called, in a strange way even allowing us to celebrate death again as an important stage of life.
This is where the All Saints celebration comes in. In the Catholic tradition this was a day that people would set aside to remember the Saints of the church and celebrate them. Obviously, the eve of All Saints Day plays a role in the celebration, even conjuring up specific Saints to do acts or perform miracles. Thinking about it, it is not that different today, except for the fear. And that is unfortunate, because death is not something to be feared. It is something to be remembered, even mourned, but not feared. So we celebrate Halloween for all the fun it may be, and we recognize All Saints Day and its special place in our faithful life.
As our book of common worship writes:
Bryan  From Companion to the Book of Common Worship, edited by Peter C. Bower, © 2003, Office of Theology and Worship, Congregational Ministries Division of the PC(USA).
I remember when I was in fourth grade, and a holocaust survivor came to visit our class, he was a grandparent of one of my classmates. He did not go into the gruesome details of the holocaust, telling the story on a fourth grade level, but one of the interesting things that he said has always stuck with me:
We are products of everyone and everything that came before us, and we will be part of everything that comes after. This means that we have to learn what was wrong and evil so we never inflict it again.
Wise words from someone who knew more than I ever would about the cruelty of humankind, at least I hope to never have to witness something like the Holocaust. I worry sometimes, though, about how much we listen to the past and learn from it. We all know the famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke and used at the start of many a high school history class: “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” It is an ominous statement, but very true. We have learned through many struggles just how easy it is to fall back into previous patterns.
Along with being forced to live the past over and over by not understanding the past, we do not have respect for where and how we got where we are. It is not hard to think of that fact in the Silicon Valley. I would venture to guess that most of the jobs and economy that is present in the valley is a direct result of people building upon the work of others who came before; just think, a programmer needs a computer, and while some of the pioneers of personal computing are still around, a lot of the advancements that we have are based on how people took the established knowledge and expanded upon it.
This is to say that not only do we have to learn from our past so that we can create a civil society, we also have to honor our past, because it is the past that we build on for the future and those who come before us have to be remembered and respected for their contribution.
In the Hebrew texts the concept of an afterlife is a bit dubious. Some of the later prophets allude to it. What is more important than an afterlife is the ancestor worship. Often we read that when someone dies they go to sheol. Sheol is the place of the dead, and while in sheol one will continue to exist as long as they are remembered. Many Jewish theologians would say that this is not the same as an afterlife as the Christian tradition would understand; rather it is the memories are a life unto themselves and as long as someone is remembered they will always exist.
So here we come to the scripture and celebration this Sunday of All Saints Day. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13, Paul reminds the now established community in Thessalonica the founders were both examples of how to follow the faith, but also how their ability to worship was based on their pioneering the way. It is not that much different than today. We think of our church and recognize that there are certain things that change based on the needs of those who are here, but the future of our congregation is around because of those who have come before us. And therefore, remembering them, good and bad, is central to understanding how we might be a healthy community in the future, just as the Thessalonians could learn from their forefathers on how they could be a healthy community of believers.
Over the past few weeks on our journey of looking at various types of spirituality we looked at the two least popular types of spirituality within the United States. With the exception of my generation, which had its pull towards the mystic spirituality, most of America is mostly comfortable with a God that is revealed, understandable, and seen. Though, whether the heart or the mind drives that is a real debate.
The spirituality we are looking at today is at the heart of the mega-church or evangelical movement. This is a “heart” spirituality. A witness of God that someone in this spiritual type might say is that “I know God because I can feel God.” The big difference from the type we looked at last week and this is that while both are into feeling a spiritual presence, the person in the heart spirituality at some point needs to know or see God. In other words, God needs to be known and tangible.
There is always a great tension between people in this spirituality and the one we will talk about next week because of specific needs and understandings concerning God. A person in this spirituality does not accept a logical understanding of God; for them the only true experience of God is when God is felt.
We see this played out in its extreme in the Pentecostal movement. If you have ever been to a Pentecostal service the witness of the Holy Spirit is often seen through dancing, speaking in tongues, and other tactile ways. This is not held only to the Pentecostals. Many non-Pentecostal movements follow this emotiondriven spirituality.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Christian church was filled with the revival movements. Culminating in the great awakening and second great awakening, these revivals were filled with preachers competing for crowds and music that would spur emotion revealing a euphoric feeling. To the group that would lead these revivals it would ultimately bring people to God at a time when church and faith were really not an important part of the society.
Unfortunately, this is also a type of spirituality that is easily susceptible to abuse and exploitation. Though, at the time of the great awakening the abuses were seen in fake revivals by charlatans; in their extreme, we see groups like, on the liberal side, the Peoples Temple founded by Jim Jones or, on the conservative side, the Branch Davidians in Waco. It is susceptible to these abuses because of the emotion-driven nature and a particular ability to manipulate emptions.
However, despite the potential abuses, this spirituality adds a great deal to the understanding of Christ though their witness and Experience of God. For example, while the great awakening was not an intellectual exercise, it both challenged and impacted traditions rooted that way in rethinking how they were connecting to the contemporary needs, just as the Evangelical movement today is challenging the mainline traditions to ask how we are relevant to our communities.
Personally, I think one of the greatest gifts of this spirituality is to remind those of us now here of the need to connect with God outside of the mind. When I have been in conversations at ministerial groups, the images that pastors from these traditions give enlighten how I see God and challenge me to think and grow.
Click here for a link to the book This I Believe
I will be going a little more into reformation Sunday in my preparation for worship article. But here I want to pass on an updated article from 2009 about John Calvin. I don’t usually do this, but I think for Presbyterians, understanding who are theological leaders are is important, and John Calvin and his theological understandings are central to how we see and envision ourselves.
John Calvin is well known by Presbyterians. His theology as learned through his institutes on the Christian Religion and commentaries, have been a cornerstone for the Reformed movement. In 2009, the church celebrated the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth.
There is a lot of debate around who he was and what his theological stands really meant. Certain historical caricatures of his harsh and somber reputation have threatened to overshadow his remarkable gifts to the church. As Presbyterians we recognize his monumental contributions to theology, church government, education, language, music, and politics as well as the more troubling aspects.
A French humanist and supporter of the protestant reformation, John Calvin, a refugee in Geneva, transformed the provincial town into an intellectual capital of Europe whose political and ecclesiastical institutions would in subsequent centuries serve as models of democratic development for modern societies. Over the years, he was able to attract to Geneva renowned scholars, highly qualified craftsmen and more modest families fleeing persecution. He thereby boosted the economic dynamism of the region: to which the development of watch-making and banking activities remain a testament to this day. At the same time, he was able to make Geneva a land of refuge, by inspiring local attitudes with liberal and generous views.
As both a lawyer and theologian, Calvin was deeply involved in the reorganization of political and social institutions: he fought for a fair relationship between Church and State; his views on law gave the justice system a solid ethical foundation; and by reorganizing the General Hospice, he brought concern for the poor back to its place in the life of the town. Perhaps his crowning achievement was the creation of the College and the Academy, where the quality education offered to all, without distinction, which ensured the wider influence of a model dynamic society that was open to the world and to development.
The French-speaking world can also thank Calvin for his decisive contribution to the development of the French language, turning it into the kind of scholarly language that was suitable for formulating and sharing ideas.
As we celebrate Reformation Sunday this week, we remember John Calvin who was a patriarch of our tradition.
This Sunday is reformation Sunday, hence the singing of Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress. Since the very beginning of the church, people have been set on reforming it; actually, we would say that all Christ was really trying to do was to reform the Jewish community to be more focused on and directed by God. Many scholars have linked the reform movement back to before the church was even recognized by Constantine to the earliest biblical writings by Paul.
The characteristics of the reformed movement are found in a Latin phrase that is translated to read that we are “reformed and always being reformed.” While some make this statement to be about continual reforming to the needs of the culture, I, as well as many theologians, interpret this phrase to suggest that we are always trying to get back to the most simple expression of faith. In other words, that we are trying to cut out all of the traditions and “junk” that we have picked up along the way and get back to a simple faith. Reforming back to the essentials or maybe the essential!
This week the passage that we are looking at is the Matthew 22:34-46 pericope. This is one of the many times throughout the Gospels that Jesus reiterates the “Golden Rule.” After taking on the Sadducees, the Pharisees saw their opening and went to challenge Christ. Their challenge was obviously a setup, but Jesus knew what they were going for. The challenge was set when they asked what the greatest commandment was, to which he responds with the golden rule. What is interesting in this is the statement “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Think about that for a second; this is really the answer that catches the Pharisees off guard. Because Jesus came back to the very basic answer that answered everything else.
In our vision of Christ, this is a trait that we see him coming back to over and over again. It is rooted in the question of “why are we doing . . . ?” One of the great battles that Christ fought and a big reason for his coming, is the fact that the traditions had become the faith over the faith itself. This is seen in Jesus’ response following the initial question from the Pharisees, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Here, Jesus is highlighting a tradition understanding, playing a little bit of a logic game which highlights that the tradition of believing that the Messiah would be the son of David was wrong, because in David’s own words he revealed his position.
The problem that the Pharisees are having with Christ is that they believe that he cannot possibly be the Messiah. For Christ, he shows that a big reason that they cannot see him as the Messiah is that they are too focused on their tradition to be open to the ways of God.
This is a very contemporary problem, though not too different from various generations before. As humans we long for order and stability, and there is nothing better than tradition to further that; however, when we let our tradition and formalities dictate our actions we become products of systems and often become blind to the workings of God. This was actually one of the big complaints against the Monastic and Gregorian movements that their order and life-style allowed for a certain level of self-indulgence and their rules were more guides than God. Whether absolutely true or not, the fact is that for the reformers, the desire is to always be purging out the traditions that serve no purpose and be finding ways to get back to the simple faith and life ordered and guided by God.
When I was in college, about 20 years ago, one of the big movements on our campus was for people getting involved in what they labeled “spirituality movements.” Of my friends, many of them were discovering Gregorian Chants even playing them in their dorm rooms. But many were also curious about some of the more mystic traditions like the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Taizé traditions that were starting to appear within some the protestant churches. I even had a group of friends that frequented the local Quaker meetings.
One thing that both James and Clark brought up in the after-worship discussion that happens is the cyclical nature of many things; spirituality tends to follow those trends. Often the changes in spirituality have to do with what is going on in the world and the need of the people. Thinking back to the 90’s when this spirituality was on the rise. This was the decade of America, Communism was gone; we had our wars, but they were always disconnected from the daily lives. Also, for the youth and young adults who came of age, they were either products of divorce or, as some coined, “the latch-key” generation, the first generation to come home from school to an empty home because both parents were working.
This means that one of the great needs for this generation was something that would fill the emotional side, but it was also a generation that was very self-reliant. So it would seem fairly obvious that there was a need for a deeper introspective spirituality.
Here, as in the other spiritual types, we see how our spiritual needs are directly connected to our emotional and psychological ones. Often what we are seeking spiritually are areas where we are not being filled by other means. It goes back to the idea that a faithful person is healthy in mind, body, and soul. Granted that this filling a need is a trait of all the spiritual types.
I think this is important because when we think about how we see and understand God, by understanding our particular needs and ourselves we can better understand who God is as opposed to what we need, while still finding ways to fill that. Now if that is not a Mystic Spirituality statement, I don’t know what is!
For the Mystic, the journey is more important than the result and the answers can be found through deep prayer, reflection, and quietness. Taken to its extreme, this type of spirituality can drive an individual from their communities, or even into complete isolation. But when the Mystic is not at the extreme, they do a good job of keeping the Heady folks from veering off into some gnostic tangent.
As you know, knowledge and truth are not very important to the mystic. What is important is how we relate to one another; the phrase “can’t we just get along” would be something that the Mystic would believe in.
As you continue to think about how you might write your “this I believe,” think about how you might have been influenced by this mystic spirituality that calls the individual to feel and seek the emotions of their heart.
Click here for a link to the book This I Believe
This Sunday we celebrate the Children’s Sabbath during the traditional service. It is a great Sunday for the church as the children take over parts of the service and share their gifts with us.
I was introduced to the Children’s Sabbath about 9 years ago when my then Christian Educator said that it was an important recognition of the needs children face throughout the world. As I read through some of the materials from the official Children’s Sabbath site, the Children’s Defense Fund, I was amazed at some of the issues that children have to deal with, and the increasing needs of Children in the world and even in our country.
A few years after celebrating my first Children’s Sabbath I had the opportunity to study at the United Nations looking into issues pertaining to children. In many ways this was an eye-opening experience. While I knew almost everything that we talked about existed, I did not know the reality of the extent. From trafficking to malnutrition, there are many issues our children face. But what was really interesting was what a person from UNICEF said in their presentation.
“Children are the outliers in society. They are the first to reap the results of poverty, unrest, and social turmoil. As a result they are often the first to be enslaved, hunger, get sick, and even die. But this is not only a problem for the children, but because they are the most vulnerable, that is where this is seen first; eventually whatever is going on, be it unrest, poverty . . . , will be felt by everyone, so if you work to remedy the children, you are actually working to fix the whole community.”
I found that to be a moving and important quote because often people wonder why we might spend so much time working on issues related to children. The reason is simple, and it is not so much that we have a strong future, it is that children tell us a lot about where we are today.
One of the UN hunger agencies did another interesting presentation durring my time at the UN. A few years before the class I took at the UN, the UN had classified obesity as a form of malnutrition. This was a big move, because in the United States we have created systems for people to get food; however, the food many children get is not healthy, being overly processed, high in sugars and other additives.
While they may be getting enough to eat, what studies suggested was that obese children showed many of the same traits as the children who went without enough to eat. For me this was a big thing, having spent a great deal of my life unable to eat for medical reasons. I can understand how much more difficult malnutrition is for learning, playing, and, well, every aspect of a child’s life.
When we look at many of the inner city communities in our country, often labeled as food deserts, we see much bigger problems arising. Beyond just the issues of malnutrition, we see growing levels of human trafficking, not just from outside the US, but within, and we are beginning to see a separation between the haves and have-nots that is greater than it was at the time of the Great Depression. All of this is pointing to us needing to pay attention.
One of the most important places to pay attention first is with our children. When we listen to them and learn from them we can begin to understand the needs of our community better. While our children are not going to talk about most of the things I spoke of in this article, they are going to be sharing their faith and understandings about God with us. If we listen to them, maybe you will learn a bit more about your faith and, more importantly, you will begin to see how they are a marker for where we are as a community.
To wonder and wander
I often like to think of childhood as a time of wondering and wandering. At least for me growing up, I spent a lot of time wondering and wandering. I was and still am very fascinated by the world we are in, which is probably what called me to science and religion classes in college. I wonder about many things, and wondering brings me to times when I need to wander. Of course, wandering was my mother’s term; I called it exploration, the extension of my wonderment. So even today when I get back to my inner child I often enter a state of wonder and exploration, often finding a peaceful bliss and freedom.
The passage that we have this coming Sunday is a great text for the Children’s Sabbath because it reminds me so much of the relationship between a parent and their child. Moses, as a child, is a fairly good sport. God called him to go on a journey; he accepted and followed, but the journey was long and, well, fairly unfulfilling. The people were hungry and they really did not know when it was going to end.
The story that comes before this one is the well-known story of the golden calf, which was created out of the people’s disbelief in God and need for something tangible to worship or more likely to admire. We know how that story ends, but Moses is beginning to have his doubts, too. Like a child in the backseat of the car, Moses is beginning to ask, how much farther, and of course God says to look just past the rock.
Many people question why so much time is spent in the wilderness; by foot a trek from Egypt to Jerusalem is only a few days at most. But the story would not work for them to go directly from Egypt to Canaan; God had other things that needed to be accomplished. He needed them to unlearn the habits of the Egyptian enslavement, and he needed them to understand themselves as a people. Often the story of the exodus talks about being ready, and part of being ready is taking the time to learn and grow.
Interestingly, while there is an underlying faith, and we are introduced to things like the Ten Commandments, the people are not following the faith as much as they are Moses’s lead. This is seen at the end of the exodus, and the people have to prepare and recommit themselves for taking the land which God promised.
I often look at the exodus as the tween-to-adolescent phase of the Hebrews, because it is while these people are on this journey that they begin to understand who they are as a people. They create the basic laws and rules for their society and, most importantly, they begin to understand what their relationship needs to be with God in order for them to reap the benefits of God.
However, a big reason I see it as their tween-to-adolescent phase is the impatience of the people. Impatience by not trusting God, impatience wanting to be settled before the time, and impatience to have the answers they want, not necessarily the ones they need. But Moses, the leader, keeps his even keel and trusts that God will provide a way and teaches patience, even if that is moving from one camp to another.
This time of the exodus is an important time for the people of God. God needs them to explore and learn so that they can thrive. Unfortunately, as we learn, every time they learn a lesson, after a few generations later it is lost. This is why it is so important to teach our children, not just the things of survival, but our history and the understandings that come with it.
To quote a friend of mine, “there are two types of people; those who grow up thinking their family is normal and everyone else’s family is abnormal and those who think their families are abnormal and everyone else’s family is normal.” I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. It says a lot about perspective and gives us a insight into “normal.” Personally, I grew up thinking my family was abnormal. Compared with the “normal” lives of my friends, my family seemed odd. That was until my junior year of high school when I took a class on comparative religions and I learned that there was no such thing as a “normal” family because just as every individual is different, so is every family.
It was helpful in that class being with people from so many different cultures because we were able to talk about why we believed what we did and what that meant in how we lived out our faith. We were able to come to understand and respect each other in a very deep and meaningful way. But that was because not only did we listen to each other we were able to connect with each other in our areas of commonality and were able to be honest about our areas of curiosity.
This is a core aspect to growing in one’s faith. Being honest, in a classroom setting, the times when I felt the most growth in my faith, was during my classes on other religions. I say all of this as we continue our journey over the next four weeks looking at differing spiritual types. The way we listen to differing spiritual types is very important, because in order to grow from the experience we have to listen without judgment or contempt and, most importantly, without the expectation of conversion. Rather we listen, compare, ask questions and try to grow.
This week we are going to start by looking at what Corinne Ware calls “kingdom spirituality.” I call this spirituality the Mystic Thinker. There is a huge comfort in the unknown aspects of God while there is also a continual seeking for a deeper understanding. This is the spiritual type of many activists who believe that the fight in a particular cause can literally transform the world. The downside of this spirituality is that it tends to be a bit myopic. Like someone who has a PhD and is an expert in one area, often this spirituality allows an individual to focus solely in one cause. Moreover, when I think of people in this spirituality I think of the civil rights activists, environment activists, yes, even groups like Westborough Baptist Church, whose single-mindedness drives their spirituality.
Now being fair to the Westborough folks, they whole-heartedly believe what they are doing is divine and right, but their single-mindedness blinds them to a possibly bigger vision of God. This is the problem with this spirituality in that the single-mindedness can lead to some very bad outcomes. This is where the balance is needed.
If you would find yourself a Kingdom Spiritualist, you would need to modulate your understanding by challenging yourself being in conversation with a more heart-driven spiritualist. We will talk more about that in two weeks! There have been a lot of great people that come from this type of spirituality. Corinne Ware speculates that possibly John Calvin and Martin Luther were in this type. But more than the names, a lot of leaders are found to have this type of spirituality because they tend to give everything they have to their cause.
As you think of your spirituality this week, think of how you view God and think of whether or not you might fit into the Kingdom Spirituality.
Click here for a link to the book This I Believe
I know I have said this many times, but I love the line from the movie Simon Birch when Simon challenges the pastor asking what “a continental breakfast” has to with God. I cringe at the pastor in the movie for many reasons, but I lament that there was not a teaching moment there. When I have shown this to my confirmation classes it always sparks the question of why that part of the service is important as well. Now, the simple answer is that fellowship is key to our worshipping time. But there is more to it than that.
Part of our call as Christians is to connect with other people. Today this becomes more and more important as the world seems to be getting less and less connected. I was reminded of this last Friday when I went to the movies and arrived a little too early, having been lucky with my other errands that day. A man was sitting on a bench with no one next to him so I asked if I could share the bench.
It was nice, and I did something I don’t normally do; I put away my phone and had a conversation. As we talked, we hit on the usual topics of movies, but at one point he was surprised that I was not “playing with my phone” as most people do, and I have to admit, much of the time I fall into that category. It was interesting as he questioned how much time is wasted, and more importantly, how superficial he has noticed people getting when their attention begins to focus on their phones over real relationships.
This is not a new idea. In fact, especially in the Bay Area, one of the new but still fringe movements is disconnected worship. Now that seems antithetical to who we are as a church until you realize that this disconnected worship has nothing to do with relationship; rather, it is disconnecting from the distractions, like cell phones, or even personal bias and striving to reach out to reconnect with the community that has gathered.
While this is new in some traditions, the idea of reconnecting with the community is and has been the center of reformed worship since the times of the reformation. The order of our service is set that way: The dispersed community Gathers; They prepare their hearts to Hear The Word; then they hear The Word; they respond to The Word; and then are sent into the world to spread The Word. As part of that, woven within all parts of the service are ways in which we are interconnected.
This is one of the reasons the passing of the peace is such an important part of our worship time. The Book of Order says that the passing of the peace is a time of reconciliation “as [we] (1) take opportunity to seek and to offer forgiveness for hurts, misunderstandings, and broken relationships among [ourselves]; (2) respond to God’s act of reconciliation by exchanging signs and words of reconciliation and of Christ’s peace.”
When we think about it within the order of worship, it is the last thing we need to do so that when we hear the Word we are able to hear it without the pretext of personal guilt, dealt with in the confession, or communal contention. The hope, of course, is that by the time we have finished the passing of the peace we can become contented with our relationship with one another and God. So when we come to the time of the passing of the peace, remember that there is a purpose for why we do it: while it is a time to socialize, it is a very important time to reach out to one another, forgiving wrong, accepting struggles, and celebrating friendships. It is about creating deeper relationships disconnecting from anything foreign and recognizing that the only connections we really need are that between God and one another.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen