I have led an interesting life. Often boring, sometimes lively, but always interesting! I was asked in a survey to list my heritage: 50% Danish, 25% German, 25% Swiss, at least that is the story we know and have been told, and on a certain level I am left with no choice but to be proud of that, because it is part of who I am. Though the body is a wondrous thing, early in my life doctors noted that I form a certain type of scar that is foreign to the ancestry I have.
Someday I plan on pursuing that to learn more about where that recessive trait comes from, but for now I accept that when it comes to race and identity there are the obvious facts, but there is much more under the surface which is both unknown, yet influential in my health and various other aspects of life. While wearing a shirt, no one can see that hidden part of my past; in public, one cannot avoid seeing the long pink scar that parallels my ribs. It is a scar I have carried with me since I was nine, and in the beginning something that caused a bit of shame and embarrassment.
I had a great doctor, though, who when I asked if it would ever go away he said “No, but just tell people that you were attacked by a shark!” I laughed and tried it once or twice, but it never worked. For preadolescent boys, the gruesome story about the surgery was pretty cool all by itself and that scar, and the story became a big part of my identity, especially since most of my summers were spent at the pool!
In our society, we place a high importance on identity, and how one identifies themselves makes a big difference on how they can live their lives. As you can see with this letter I have shared two strong aspects of my identity. The interesting thing is that both of those aspects have made some parts of my life much easier, and in others they have closed doors based solely on other people’s perceptions.
When you are turned down or rejected based on ability it is one thing, but to be rejected based on the perception of another person is a very different thing. I like to say it is the difference of hitting your thumb with a hammer or someone reaching into your chest to crush your heart!
This is why, while I am not Black or Brown or even “ethnic,” the Black Lives movement is important. This movement spurred many to ask why it is that we let bias and prejudice run our society? Why are we so quick to label one group good and another bad. For me, I see this as a great injustice, forcing one to change their identity from being a gift, to being a burden or from being something of pride to being something of shame.
No matter what our background is we all feed into the stereotypes. This means that even with our best efforts we have judged others negatively based solely on perception. And if people are never allowed to find a positive understanding of their selves, how are they ever going to break those stereotypes? It almost becomes its own prison not allowing many to develop a strong positive identity. This is why we have to recognize all people equally and help all to develop and grow in their faith and live in the fullness of who God has created them to be and work for justice so that all are accepted equally!
At the end of the day some might ask why I, a male of central European descent, of a privileged status in our world be so passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement. Well, for me, it is simple: I would not be who I am today had people not helped me accept all the aspects of my life and identity and to see each one as a gift, even the ugly painful scars! We have a responsibility to all of God’s children to do the same for them, welcoming and accepting them for who God created them to be, not on who we perceive them to be.
When we accept people for who they are, keeping check on our bias and prejudice, we can begin to develop trust and relationships letting our knowledge of the other person be our facts and no longer discount people before they have had a chance to make the difference God has placed them here to make.
This fall the staff is working through a book called A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation: Embarking on a Journey of Transformation. We are only a few chapters in and we are already amazed at how relevant and real the messages are, especially when it comes to seeing ourselves as a missional body. Like almost every Presbyterian Church and most within other denominations, we are asking what it means to be the church, especially since our historic models just do not seem to work. And maybe that is a good thing?
While still in seminary I met a missionary from Mexico City. He had come up to a forum on missions and forever changed my mind on mission. His message was simple yet direct. He was so proud of the relationship he had with a church in LA and was proud of how many people in that LA church had come to a deeper relationship with God because they came to Mexico City on their mission. Americans and Europeans are often concerned about the rest of the world, but anytime I talk with Christians from outside the west, they are very concerned about us. And with good reason; far too often we see faith as something we do when it is convenient or merely something we support when it is on our terms.
It is one of the reasons I loved going on mission trips, because it taught those who went how to wait, be patient, let go and let God. Being real, as it did for the LA group that went to Mexico City, the mission was always far more for the people that went than the people they served, and often whenever a mission trip came home their eyes were opened to the needs all around them.
We are in a unique situation. Few churches in our denomination have the opportunities that this congregation does. Our reach touches the poorest and wealthiest communities in the area. We have senior and low income housing within walking distance of the church. We have many homeless that walk and live throughout our neighborhood as well as many other areas of social concern. Many schools surround from preschools to community colleges and even two major universities. Interestingly, we are technically the closest Presbyterian Church to Santa Clara University (actually the same exact distance, 2.1 miles, as FPC Santa Clara) and are starting to draw praise band folks from San Jose State!
So why talk about all of this in a stewardship letter? Well, it is simple; what we do as a church is mission. Much of the money does not go to pretty or flashy programs, actually most goes to staffing and building concerns. For a lot of reasons people have given over the years these are just not as important as supporting “missions” or programs that “make a difference.” The truth of the matter is that our church makes a big difference! If our church was not here, our neighbors would notice and our community would be lesser.
The respect for the church has allowed us to have a strong moral voice in our neighborhood, but the only way that we can continue is through the support that you give. So this year I am asking that you give what you can to support the Ministry of Westminster and help to keep our mission going in this community.
A pastor got out in front of his congregation one Stewardship Sunday and made the proclamation “I just upped my pledge, now UP YOURS!!” The congregation broke out in laughter! The pastor went red in the face realizing his mistake, but that year the pastor had the best response he ever had to a stewardship campaign. Afterwards he asked his congregation with such an obvious faux pas, why? The congregants said that it made them think about stewardship and instead of dreading stewardship season, for the first time they had fun with it. In fact, you never heard so many Christians saying “up yours” to each other, but always with a smile and even laughter!
By mistake the pastor helped his congregation recognize that giving can be fun and very rewarding. That congregation, like ours, had spent years struggling to meet the budget constraints, every year asking what is necessary and trimming their budget even more. They always made it and could always come back to say “by the grace of God” they were still open. But they were not really able to have fun within their constraints; they were too worried about the future. After they finished that campaign and got halfway into the next year they had a unique problem: more money than they had expected!
Instead of opening up the funds for things they had already done or just putting the whole amount in the bank, their session decided to have an “Up Yours” contest where every member was able to propose a project of any type, the only stipulation being that it be focused on doing God’s ministry. In good Presbyterian fashion they required documentation of all kinds, but they had almost 70 proposals from this congregation of about 85. Surprisingly, not one had anything to do with the current congregation. The proposals ranged from skate parks to tutoring programs, senior care to mobile medical clinics. The session was amazed, and when they made their pick, a community garden, everyone in the congregation rallied and worked to bring it to life, it was their investment.
The people in the community saw what was going on; many in the community had wanted a garden for a long time. Thankfully, the congregation was smart enough to have plenty of room for them to join in, and they did. By the next Stewardship campaign the pastor looked out at his congregation, which had grown significantly.
The pastor looked out at the congregation and began to apologize, he said:
“Last year I told you to up yours because I upped mine. I was wrong to do that, it was arrogant and even though I did not think through what I was saying it was inexcusably rude. But God is funny sometimes and uses where we are to make a big difference in our lives. We took something inexcusable and made it a catalyst for our Joyful giving and a way for us to find our way back to being in ministry with God. We let the gifts and tithes you give do what they were meant to do, God’s work, and instead of sitting here wondering how much longer we can keep going, we are celebrating new members and new life in this community. I’m not going to say it again, but now I want you to think about how much more we can do when you gave and have fun giving.”
By now you have all received my Stewardship letter; if you have not, please request a copy from the office. You know our situation and our struggles. And while you will hear that, listen through and wonder if we had the means to do anything God put before us what would it be, then think about how you can be part of it and participate through giving, through volunteering, through praying, and most importantly through the faith that says that anything is possible with God.
I have always been thankful that I have had great teachers all along my educational life that would encourage me and help me to learn perseverance. In college, like many freshmen, my first semester was a disaster. I had listened to my brother and ended up in all the wrong classes. Granted it cleared up that I was not going to take the business track my older two brothers took.
As I sat with my advisor and was trying to pick up the pieces he said that I should concentrate on things that really interested me. So I signed up for what I thought was an intro class on world religions and found at the beginning of the semester that I had inadvertently signed up for a junior-level class seminar. Eight people in the class and there would be no hiding if I were not prepared! However, for the first time in my academic career that was not an issue. I came excited and ready to learn.
I found myself mesmorized by Dr. Bodamer’s teachings. And it was in that class where I realized my call to ministry. I often joke that it was in a class on Hinduism and Buddhism where I found my call. It was a little more nuanced than that. A more accurate statement might be that it was in that class where everything coalesced and for the first time in my life I had a clear vision of where I wanted to go, even though the class had nothing to do with Christianity.
For the next three years I would study with Dr. Bodamer. Even with all my learning issues, he took me under his wing and helped me to learn not only faith, but how to be a faithful leader. In the dark recesses of the main hall at Millikin, I sat in his office contemplating Barth and Calvin and spent two years studying Greek with a text deemed too difficult for most seminaries. But he was patient, and when we came to the end of the book, we started over again because as he said, “you’ll always learn something new when you revisit a text.”
Dr. Bodamer was not your typical professor; he was a pastor and a theologian first and he taught me some very important things that are part of my very being today. He taught that Theology is not something reserved for the elite scholars and that some of the best theology came from the common person. Secondly, he changed the way I look at the Bible. He was the first to say to me “there are millions of people that can quote Bible passages who no longer believe; what’s important in faith is not what you know, but the relationships you have with God and each other.” He also said the Bible should never be memorized because to memorize it is to force it to lose both meaning and relevance because the tendency is to look at passages in isolation of their context.
A while back I witnessed a debate between folk who thought the only theology was what came straight from the Bible, others said that only Clergy could do theology, and others claimed that theology just did not matter at all, only the Bible or a good moral code. At any one time in my life I could have agreed to any of those points of view. But thanks to this mentor I realize that none of these statements are really right. Theology is about the words we use in talking about God and the most powerful theology is about the relationships that we build and the communities that we are in.
At 83, Dr. Bodamer joined the church eternal, leaving this earthly life last week. While I have not seen him in years I cannot help but remember his importance in my life and feel a loss for this very special man, but I know where he is and am thankful for all that he did for me!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen