The beginning of the year always makes me feel ready for change. I remember building earthquake-proof bridges in high school physics class, one of the more enjoyable tasks. Now the materials were all the same, popsicle sticks and glue. Those who did well made their bridge both flexible and strong. There was always a bit of give¾well, not always. The very first one in our class to become compromised was the bridge that had layers of sticks piled on so it was still and tough. That person did not read the chapter, and within seconds, crash!
The summer after I graduated from high school was the time when I learned I really needed to change. I was sent by my congregation to spend the summer on the Sisseton reservation in Northeast South Dakota. This was my first of many cultural immersions and was challenging for many reasons. Naperville, where I grew up, was diverse racially, but economically, we were all middle to upper middle class. So while we had differences in the languages at home or the background of our families, we all shared the benefits and stresses of middle class America. Going to South Dakota was a completely new reality.
It was a reality that made me question a lot about what I thought I knew and what truth was. My church did not send me alone. Another teen was there who helped with the work we were doing, and most importantly, the church gave us the gift of a mentor, Sid Byrd. Sid was a retired Presbyterian Dakota pastor who grew up in the Lakota Tribe.
At 18, I was most focused on college and what I would be able to expect. Faith-wise, I had my answers. Things were black-and-white, for the most part. We had been drilled both against cults, which were big in the ’80s and early ’90s, or so my church told us, and things that were not Christian, making sure that we only worshipped God, not things. The first part was clear and easy to follow. The second was harder, if only in definitions. For most of us, that fear of things “non-Christian” created in us a very narrow understanding of faith. I know this was not what they were going for, but we were kids, and I knew that I just wanted to do the right thing.
Sid was a fascinating balance between Christianity and Native American religion. Sid did something very important for me, and that was to get me to think about why I believed what I did. In doing so, he opened Christianity up for me. Sid was a devout Christian, but like me, it was not something that he sought out. Born into a Christian family, his parents were ministers; that was where he started and fully believed. However, as he began to explore during his life, he became connected to his cultural tradition, finding ways to integrate the Dakota faith with his Christian faith. However, belief in Christ was the dominating thing. This meant that where the two were not compatible, he went the Christian way. His statement was basically that our way is the way for us, while their way is equally legitimate.
I think, more than anything, I have been enlightened by Micah 4:3-5:
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; 4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. 5 For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.
Thus, here is my basic credo: my way is the Christian way, and that is where God has called me. Your way is yours, and you need to follow it the best you can. But together, we need to know and grow in the understanding of each and where they converge. Being Calvinistic, I celebrate the sovereignty of God and realize that God’s ways are not ours, and that God can do whatever, so why would he not have created other traditions and celebrations of God’s self? Therefore, I am a pluralist; but I am also an exclusivist, because I think that my way is the Christian way and when various traditions converge, I am unapologetically Christian.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen