Regardless of an individual’s background, the word “Bible” invokes deep emotions and understandings to almost everyone who hears it. Unfortunately, most of the time they are more negative than positive. The feeling that many have towards the Bible starts when people define what the Bible is. There is an old joke among mainline clergy of the pastor who got up in front of his congregation and said “If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for me!” He said this with the connotation that, the King James Version dated back to Jesus Christ. To him, this meant that everything in it was the way God wanted and there were no mistakes.
The truth of that version is that a King with a questionable lifestyle wrote it in the 1500’s. He used the writing of that version to further his political standing. While he did not change the overarching understandings or themes in the Bible, the translators made some translation choices that many scholars, today look back on and question. On one hand, it brought many “R” rated parts down to “PG” and introduced concepts, that we still debate today. One being, the sections having to do with homosexuality. Here, you can see the problem, many people read the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, but the Bible was written and translated by people, so while it may have begun pure, the versions we have today have lost a bit of that through the translations. This is why we encourage people to use multiple versions of the bible in bible studies.
Another issue is something that most 9 year-olds pick up on pretty quickly when they read the Adam and Eve story. Some will ask, “If everything was created, why would it be created again a different way?” But my favorite question is “If Adam and Eve were the first people, how come they found other people when they were kicked out of the garden?” Good questions!
The first, is a sign of the multiple writers of the Pentateuch and rest of the Old Testament. Tradition stated that the Old Testament was written all by Moses and another, that God wrote it himself; however, this is most likely not the case. As scholars have worked through the original texts, some that were merely fragments, they have seen distinct writing styles for different parts, suggesting that there were multiple people who were writing these witnesses. As we move to the New Testament, we know for sure that God did not write it, since the witness of each book is ascribed to a particular writer.
There is an underlying inconsistency in the Bible. The first and most obvious one is the question of Adam and Eve finding other people when they leave the garden. The Bible was NOT written to be a user's manual for life, nor was it written to be an accurate account of history. The Bible WAS written to be a faithful accounting of God. Therefore, all of the stories, poems, songs, laments, wisdom, and revelation all point to an inscrutable but loving God.
The problem is that when people make these blanket statements about inerrancy and infallibility in the Bible, they tend to miss the point that the Bible as a whole is a witness. Now as we know with witnessing anything, there are many limitations. Just think of my sermons each week and the discussions we have. Everyone interprets what I say a little differently based on his or her perspectives and understandings. Does it make their perspective any less valid? No! In fact, it makes it even more valid.
The Bible is a powerful witness that shows us over and over again the relationship that God longs to have with us. It speaks of God’s desire that we know love. While it is a witness, it is special because its inspiration and guidance come from God.
One of my favorite times of the year is Vacation Bible School. For one full week of the year, the church is bustling with activity. Moreover, it is a time when we tend to set aside everything that might get in the way and truly celebrate God. This year, with Chris’ leadership, we were able to see the joy and fun that goes with learning about God.
Learning about God and sharing faith is one of the most important parts about church. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons the church was established. Think back to the days of the early church. Worship, as we know, was mainly around a meal. The recognition that eating brought strength was not lost, especially in the struggles of that early church. The early Christians recognized that they could not be faithful if left to their own devices. Even if they could “get it right,” they needed the community for strength, since to believe was to literally put your life on the line, as we know from the stories of the martyrs.
The problem we often see in the modern church is that there is less openness to learning and a diminished sense of the need to learn. While I do not necessarily see this in any particular congregation I have served, over my 17 years of ordained ministry (my ordination date was July 15, 2001), there seems to be less and less of a desire to learn and be challenged, and more and more of a desire to hear things that support a specific point of view. When I say this, I am not just calling out one side of the church. Actually, it has been my experience, especially in light of our current political climate, that there is a need for openness to multiple points of view. Moreover, there is a need to get back to the place where we can openly share our struggles and witness to the power and strength of God.
This is why I love Vacation Bible School so much. For the kids, it is a great experience. The joy and smiles when they leave warm even the toughest parts of one’s soul. But for most of the adults, it is difficult. From maintaining the high energy to keep up with the kids to always being alert, it takes a lot! Whenever I struggle with anything to do with children’s ministry, the image that first comes to my mind is Matthew 19:14 (NRSV): but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
This is an important image for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the passage recognizes a special grounding that children have. In their ignorance of the world, they can more clearly see and witness to who Christ really is, more so than even the disciples, who try to shoo them away. It also reflects a need that the children sense to be close to Christ. In a way, it is a subtle fight that goes back and forth between Jesus and the disciples: Jesus desires people to come closer, while the disciples are trying to protect Him from harm, especially from the children, who might be seen to taint Christ (this is another letter, but trust me on that).
What children do, in their excitement and sometimes even insights, is help us to see a better picture of who Christ is. They also help us to grow into an openness for what God is calling us to today. Through their gifts, they remind us of the importance of this calling to be Christian. Most significantly, we are all energized by the faith they show. Even if some of our leaders are physically tired after VBS, spiritually most of us are left at a high above all others.
I am really thankful for everyone who helped—those who were up front, those who were not, even those who only did one or two things. It was you who made this example a true blessing and witness of Jesus Christ.
This week in VBS we are talking about heroes. Now, I love a good superhero movie or series on TV. It is the ultimate in escapism. Like fairy tales, they pit good vs. evil. Even when they try to throw in a twist, that only goes so far and you catch on, but that is why we like them so much! Their predictability brings comfort, and knowing that eventually good will triumph brings us hope.
However, the heroes of superhero movies and shows are somewhat problematic. First of all, there is the violence. In most superhero movies, there is an underlying militancy. The lesson is that through force and fighting, one can save all. The second problem with superhero movies is that they suggest that only certain people can be heroes. Most of our favorite heroes have some kind of gift, whether genetic, alien, intellectual, financial or some combination thereof.
So, while we have deemed them “superheroes,” I am not sure that they are really are that super—they are just using their gifts to make a difference. But that should not make them super, other than the fantastical powers they have, which, when diving into the stories, are as much a burden as anything else.
To me, a real hero is someone with the courage to be who God created them to be and to use the gifts they have to make a difference in this world. In fact, I believe that we all are heroes when we are authentic to our calling and work for the best community possible.
One of the heroes in my life is a man named Jim McKay. Jim was an adolescent trapped in the body of a middle-aged man when he came to my church as our youth director. The very first time we met, I had no clue who he was. Like most of the boys do here during VBS, my friends and I were running around the church, playing tag or something like that. Jim had just been hired, so we had no clue who he was. When we ran into the sanctuary, there was this big man doing something; now that I look back, I think he was praying.
He looked at us and said the obligatory adult thing, "Are you guys supposed to be in here?" We looked at each other and readied ourselves for the wrath to come. Then Jim did something unexpected. He looked around a little bit and said, "Have you guys ever done pew races?"
Now we were really confused. Our sanctuary was large and flat, with carpet down the center aisle and a tile floor underneath the pews. He noticed our stares and said, "Pew races go like this: you lie on your backs underneath the pews and slide from the front of the sanctuary to the back." It sounded fun, so we started to have pew races, a new tradition for our group.
Our first introduction to Jim was acceptance and love (and FUN!). He knew that the program had not started; he knew that our parents were all preparing things throughout the church; and most of all, he knew that if we were comfortable in church, we would be far more comfortable learning about God.
I could not help but think about that when I watched the blur of all the kids running through the church playing tag. Though they are young and well on their way to developing their faith, I could not help but think of how important it is that we maintain a fellowship that is welcoming and safe for everybody. In doing that, we may become real heroes to these kids.
I think that this is one of the reasons that I love Vacation Bible School so much! For me, it is the most intensive way that the church can exemplify Christian living and love. It teaches the children and helps the adults to relearn what it means to be in community. In the case of our church, it is not just welcoming our community but opening up to a larger community.
Happy Fourth of July!
This week we celebrate a holiday that is very special to our country and remarkable upon the global stage. Inspired by the tyrannical acts of unfair taxation, among other abuses of the British government, the leaders of our nation claimed independence from this tyranny. The founders risked their lives and livelihoods to follow a dream of independence and the ability to have self-governance.
Some might say that the desire for independence started before the Europeans ever landed on the continent. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the West (similar technologies had been found in the East, but those were by-and-large unknown to Westerners). With the ability to print more Bibles, the price came down sufficiently that people could afford their own and, in time, read them and realize that what the church had been telling them about their faith was wrong and, at times, abusive. By 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the church, many people were ready for a revolution of faith, recognizing that what they had been told was not true.
At this same time Europeans found their way to the Americas, and as the Reformation allowed people to question their faith, it also allowed them to question their government. In Britain, the authorities were more than happy to let people seeking religious freedom go over to the colonies. In many ways, the colonists were left alone, not only enjoying their faith without persecution, but also self-governance. That is, until things changed. Historians have written books about all of the intricacies of this, but, in short, by the time the war started, people knew too much about the British government and no longer could accept its repressive actions.
For John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), the tyranny of the British government was not just financial but also spiritual. New laws were created to force a hierarchical governance of the churches, following the Episcopal model. That is a governance with bishops and individuals who could assert control over local congregations, something which we as Presbyterians do not believe in.
While the Declaration of Independence was not a religious movement, the religious concerns were present because whenever government restricts personal freedom, they also inevitably restrict religious freedom, as we saw with the British government at that time. This was why freedom was so very important to the reformers, and why it still is today.
Unfortunately, we are in a scary time where our freedom is being challenged, both in a religious and secular context. Unlike before the printing press was invented, we are in a time when there is so much information, the art of thinking and the openness to understanding have declined. Tyranny comes in many forms, but when you see it, you know it. As many philosophers have pointed out, wherever there is power, tyranny can happen, and whenever power is unchecked, tyranny will flourish. This is what happened in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, both in the church and the government. But it did not end with the Enlightenment. The biggest example, of course, is Nazi Germany, to which we have the Barmen Declaration (http://www.westpres-sj.org/barmen.html).
We need to remember, both as people of faith and Americans, what the Declaration of Independence stands for and to do our best to make sure that we do not become the tyrannical oppressors, but rather beacons of hope and freedom.
With the close of our biennial General Assembly on Saturday and my guilt about not going this year because of everything going on here, I was thinking about what it means to be Presbyterian.
This was the first question that I was asked when I entered the process of becoming a minister. I did not really know how to answer the question. On one hand, being Presbyterian was not really a choice I had made. My parents raised me in a Presbyterian church; I went to a [nominal] Presbyterian college and had always worked in Presbyterian churches. For the most part, any Presbyterian church I ever entered, I felt comfortable and at home.
On the other hand, because of the way I was raised, being Presbyterian had as much to do with my culture as it did with my faith. As a Presbyterian, I engaged the world with a healthy mix of skepticism and hope, a certain understanding that while we are imperfect, with the right systems and order, we can begin to create a way of living that can give a glimpse of Heaven on Earth.
So, at 20 years old, in my first formal meeting with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, a little nervous and a lot scared, I gave them the answer, “I just am Presbyterian.” They gave me really odd looks. I explained growing up Presbyterian; I talked about the cultural side—that was a new one to them; and I said, “From what I have seen, I cannot think of being anything else. Presbyterians are nowhere close to being perfect, but at least we can admit it!” They liked that, and obviously let me move forward.
Interestingly, folks like me, those who grew up in the Presbyterian Church, are more the exceptions than the rule. While there has always been a core that grew up in the Presbyterian Church, many of those who have joined the Presbyterian Church come from outside the denomination. Some join because of the theology, some join because of the community, some because of youth and children’s programs, but most join because they feel connected spiritually. Whatever the reason people join, the diversity of theological perspective and personal background is a certain strength that comes from a reminder that no one person has all the answers. Moreover, that we all fall short and need each other.
What I often miss and lament over in our denomination is a certain level of grace and levity. I remember having an ability to laugh at our ways, which allowed us to be humbled in our imperfection. This was exemplified by one of the funniest fundraisers a church has done that I know of! In the late '70s, the Presbytery of Des Moines did a fundraiser selling shirts that pronounced on the front “Presbyterians Do It” and on the back “Decently and In Order” (innuendo fully implied). Granted, this saying was not coined by the Presbytery of Des Moines.
This fundraiser was an enjoyable point of self-deprecation. It came from the fact that many Presbyterians often use a process that frequently takes a long time and can sometimes be frustrating; nevertheless, we also know that, as annoying as it can be, something good is often found when we complete the process. More than that, it was a sign that while we know our system is not perfect, we can make the best of it, and at least recognize our humanity. For me, maybe the biggest part of being Presbyterian is acceptance. Acceptance not only of other people, but maybe even more importantly, of ourselves.
When we can name our imperfections through laughter, or any other means, we can begin to see how God might be using what we might think to be deficits to be places of growth. Moreover, when we recognize that our way might not be perfect and accept it for what it is, we begin to see the incredible works of God. It is quite simple: when we accept what we have in tools and faith, we use our energy in making them work for us in doing God’s mission, rather than focusing inwardly and perhaps forgetting about God’s mission altogether. In fact, other than God or Christ, there is not an example of a time where perfection achieved (or perceived) resulted in anything good.
To me, this gets to the core of the theological understanding of the reformed movement and subsequently, the Presbyterian Church, and that is the state of total depravity. Or as I like to say, a recognition that we’re prisoners to the human condition and therefore require the grace of God because even when we are sure we’re right, we probably aren’t, and that is OK.
So if I were to answer the question I was asked 19 years ago, I would say that to me, ideally, being a Presbyterian is about living as a community of folks who are trying to be faithful with grace, love, and acceptance. Our challenge is recognizing and accepting the ways in which God is using us through our imperfect ways to create something more connected and more real, helping us to spread God’s message of grace, love and acceptance to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
The journey to a deeper faith can take us down many paths. By spending the last few weeks and the bulk of the rest of the summer exploring a “Way to God,” we aim to build up a spiritual toolbox for beginning to think holistically about faith. Kind of like the foodie trend of a “deconstructed meal,” we are separating out specific aspects of faith to learn and appreciate all the elements that make up a faithful life. However, when we journey to seek out a “Way to God,” we also have to remember that there really is no formula for how to be faithful or reach an enlightened state.
The push for a uniform faith and approach causes many to explore the non-Christian forms of enlightenment through meditation, seeking interpersonal revelation, or something else to find the answers that seem to be lacking, because often the church is afraid to engage a questioning faith with nurture instead of answers. This means, as we are finding out, that when we engage a discussion on the topic of a “Way to God,” we find that it is not an easy path. In fact, it is quite hard!
So far, we have explored being gracious and trusting. Being gracious can feel impossible when you do not feel very gracious. Trust can be equally difficult when your mind can go to every reason possible why you should not trust. This makes practicing grace and trust out of reach for most people. Being human, this is a great roadblock, but, as we will learn as we continue our quest, when we learn to “let go and let God,” we begin to find trust because our values and expectations become aligned with God.
Think about it this way. Pretend you have a teenager, and you see him/her biking without wearing a helmet. You run out and scold the child for not wearing the helmet, and they come back at you for how unfair you are for making them look stupid in that helmet. You, as the adult, know that the safety issue is paramount to the coolness factor, though your child can only see it from the perspective of being a teenager with the idea/understanding that they are invincible and coolness is way more important. We know that God has more knowledge than we do, just as the parent has more knowledge than the child. Once we accept that fact, it becomes easier to trust and subsequently easier to be gracious.
This week we lift up the topic of hope. Hope and trust are integrally linked since one cannot trust without hope, and that hope is what allows us to live. Without hope in the future, our lives become focused on the now, and our future is lost to survivalism or egotism, both of which take us to an empty life. However, when we have hope in God, we are living for something bigger than ourselves. This means that our values realign to a focus on living to God, rather than the reality of living for today. This means that the overriding question of our lives is not “what is best for me”; rather, it is what the greater good in fulfilling God’s mission might be.
Living into hope is very basic; it is the acceptance that there is something more than what we have, or as Donald McKim puts it, “the Christian anticipation of the future as the fulfillment of God’s purpose based on God’s covenant faithfulness and the resurrection of Jesus Christ as known by the work of the Holy Spirit in the church.”
In lay terms, hope is the knowledge that God has a greater plan for the future, which he has shown us through the promise he made to us through the life and death of Christ, which we exemplify through the church that witnesses to each other the work of the Holy Spirit.
Ah, the mustard seed! We have come to the reading about the mustard seed, a unique seed in its simplicity, perfection, and size. As one of the smallest seeds people regularly work with, the mustard seed has become a natural example of how something very small can grow to be extremely big. The mustard plant can get quite large; in fact, in time it will grow to resemble a tree. The mustard seed, though small, also has the ability to multiply over and over, so that the seed by itself can produce an uncountable number of offspring.
Jesus uses this well-known imagery as a basis for a few teachings in the Gospels. Specifically, this week we look at two of these parables: the growing seed and the mustard seed plant. Both of these teachings use this imagery to talk about the power of God. While God may seem small and remote, the reality is the opposite.
Take the first parable this week, the growing seed. This may not seem relevant, since we know the scientific process of how a seed turns into a plant. But even with all our knowledge, most professional and amateur horticulturalists still maintain an awe as they watch the process of a seed growing into a plant and then to seed again. Even with all the knowledge of how this happens, we can still marvel at this process and be thankful to God for the bounty. Moreover, we can recognize that God needs us to sow the seeds, care for the plants, but when the harvest comes, God will provide.
The second parable is like the first. Here the mustard seed is planted and grows and grows. The seed itself is forgotten about as the plant grows and eventually becomes a home for birds to nest and reproduce themselves. This means that the seed is no longer just about propagating itself, but now has a dual role of growing and being a catalyst for growth in another species.
As you can see, there are a lot of implications for the church. All congregations start small, with a vision or seed. Those who join nurture the seed, care for it, and help it along its path. If we are faithful, it grows, and at times, it will produce its own offspring. But the church is also not only about itself, because it has a role to help be a catalyst for the community's growth and health. While the church may not benefit from this role, and at times, it may even cause some damage, because of who we are, our home is expected to be a home for all who need it.
Personally, these parables have a lot to say about our faith as well. Many people struggle with faith. Let’s face it—from the beginning, logical and reasoned arguments have been made which discount faith. Often we are stuck in places where our faith feels small and seemingly remote. But if we find that seed and nurture it, we can watch it grow and develop. We can get to the point where our faith has matured enough that we share it with others, and that becomes the start of faith in their lives.
So this week, think about that mustard seed of faith in your life, or in our congregation. Where is it? Are you nurturing it? Does it need replanting?
On a day like today, with a beautiful blue sky and light, cool breeze to kiss my cheek, I think of life in its fullness. It is hard not to be in awe with the birds chirping and the tree leaves moving ever so slightly. The awesome nature of creation can overwhelm us. But it can also remind us of something powerful: God’s creation is ever-working in our world. Now, this may seem like a cliché, but our world is in a constant state of creation and re-creation. In this constantly changing world, we are both learning more about God and realizing the greater mystery of God.
Growing up in a home deeply rooted in both Christianity and science, I was taught to appreciate both the order and circle of life, and the role God played in it. As a good friend of our family—a top research scientist at the national laboratories outside of Chicago—said, “Science and faith, they prove each other.” In his spare time, he developed a theory linking evolution and the creation stories of the Bible.
I often struggle with the antiseptic understanding of creation that is given in Genesis and the scientific, chaotic types of creation still present in our world. I believe that we are still in a time of creation and re-creation. I don’t believe that the world is going to end any time soon, and that the struggles that we encounter have more to do with our human resistance to change than God’s enduring wrath.
I heard a story a few years back on National Public Radio talking about the scientific reasons that the Stradivarius has such a beautiful sound that could not be duplicated today. The speaker said that it had to do with the weather previously being colder and the trees denser, creating a special kind of wood.
Now, we know scientifically that the weather is not constant. Some years it is cooler, others warmer. That just seems to be a natural pattern of our world. As I understand it, creation in the natural world is still happening. Every once in a while, I will read of a discovery of a new creature or a significant evolution of another.
It makes me think of “growing-up.” When we come into the world, we know only our little world. We have a defiant personality, though our limitations make that hard to express. The world around us begins to change and we begin to learn about our environment. As we are exposed to new things, we grow in our intellect and understanding of the world, which causes us to change.
Hence the statement by Paul in his letter to the people of Corinth, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” In other words, once you have grown, you are expected to move into your new reality. What would society be like if after graduation, nobody went to work or applied their skills and gifts to their community. Our society would eventually crumble, not only due to lack of labor, but also because it would stop growing and changing.
A great friend of mine, my college mentor, told me, “Life is about learning until you get to the point when you have learned that you know nothing, and then you begin to learn even more.” This is why we go back to read and reread the Bible. This is also why we come to church, even when we know the story that is going to be preached. Because even though we may know the stories and teachings backwards and forwards, our changing perspectives and understandings always give new insight and learning.
We have to remember that God’s creation is still at work in our world. The seasons bring us birth and death every year. People and our environments are ever-changing and growing. Our communities are always changing and re-creating themselves, and people are ever-changing and growing, and life continues to move forward.
It is always easy to get wrapped up in faith as if it were a fad. In the late '80s and early '90s, a new pop-culture Christianity started to make its way into the schools where I attended and the general culture. Like many pop-culture trends, it added to the culture but also lost some of the essential understandings of the faith. One of the strange fads that came with this movement was the wristbands that were labeled "WWJD." Strangely enough, it was a marketing gold mine, as WWJD–wear took off as if it were a high teen-fashion brand. In time, it could be seen marketed on clothing and jewelry, even on lunch boxes and school folders. It seemed to be everywhere. Unfortunately, one thing seemed to be missing: not everyone wearing the logo knew what it meant. In fact, many of my friends had the very popular bracelets, but few could express the meaning. Understanding the statement that they were making (asking the question "What Would Jesus Do?") was lost to the momentary fad of fashion.
As we celebrate the church and its role in our lives, I cannot help but think what others in my generation think of the church. Many claim that the church is a hypocritical institution, and some proclaim that all the church is interested in is money, while others say that church is merely irrelevant. Sometimes I even have a hard time defending it, as the debates and division within our churches are not even about the timeless issues. Sometimes I even wonder if we, as a denomination, might fall into the trap of following the fad of religion, going through the motions to keep up with others whose lives we so deeply wish we had, instead of reaching a real understanding of God and of faith.
As I thought about this, I remembered the prophet Micah. Micah is found among the minor prophets; "minor" with respect to size, not content. Micah was a prophet who was a contemporary of Isaiah. His book can be split into two similar, but distinct sections. Each section begins with prophecies of punishment and leads into prophecies of salvation, reminding us of God’s presence and desire for all to live in peace.
As with many of the prophets, even his name, Micah, is prophetic. Micah, in Hebrew, means "Who is like Yahweh?" (Yahweh is an academic construct of the name for God used throughout the Old Testament.) This is important, because Micah is speaking to what seems to be God’s perpetual battle with humanity, where we are constantly falling away from God, complaining over the destruction that ensues, ultimately resulting in God’s rebuilding toward peace.
The interesting thing is that Micah is constantly reminding us of God’s desire, even in the midst of the destruction. In a way, it is like when a parent spanks their child, saying, "This hurts me more than it does you!" For Micah, God gains no joy in seeing his people hurt and destroyed. Rather, he seeks what is good, posing the simple question,"What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In other words, one might argue that Micah is asking what is so hard that you cannot merely be just in what you do, love and strive to be kind toward others, and know a bit of humility by allowing God to take credit?
This is a powerful concept, and used as a guide, it helps us to understand and follow our calling. Many leaders in this country have quoted this as a part of their understanding of the political office they hold. President Jimmy Carter used this passage at his inauguration, as did John Ashcroft on the day he was nominated. It makes me think, if leaders truly followed it, maybe our world would be much different.
I often wonder what the world would be like if everybody went to church to simply give glory to God and thank God for the lives that we have, then took that glory and love out the doors of the church and gave it as a gift to all whom we see, to all we meet throughout the next week, sharing the kindness we know to be right.
And what about sticking up for those who are unable to stick up for themselves because they have no voice or because they are weak? Instead of leaving them to be bullied and left alone, what if we gave them a place to be and be heard?
Here is the kicker: what if we did this and never let it be known what we did, keeping a true humility with God?
Unfortunately, some feel that once an individual experiences salvation, they need to only be focused on the relationship with God, and ask, "What does action have to do with faith?" Though faith is rooted in our relationship with God, it is serving God that builds up our faith and helps us to better understand God. See, what Micah points to so vividly in his prophesies is that the constant faith is from God. It is we—yes, all of us—who lose sight of God. Instead of helping, we hurt. Instead of giving, we take. Instead of acting in justice, kindness and humility, we buy a sticker or a wristband to prove our allegiance.
When I think of Memorial Day, I think back to the parade that I was in when I was in fifth grade. In Illinois, Memorial Day usually meant rain, but it could be sunny and 90 or cool and 50; it was one of those 90-degree years. Actually, hot weather would not have been so bad, had it not been for the pair of white slacks and the thick, red wool sweater with a big white “E” in the center I was wearing. I remember waiting for my chance to be like my brother and wear the cool sweater that he had worn years earlier. When I put it on, I remember feeling a little proud, but that changed pretty quickly.
By the end, the parade was like a scene from M*A*S*H: some kids crying, others catatonic. Some parents had removed the offending clothes and were dousing their kids with water, and most of us were just trying to drink whatever we could find. I don’t know what everyone else was like, but I know I was in quite a foul mood. Thankfully, no children that I knew of went to the hospital. And more thankfully, with help from the choir teacher (and clearly not really having a passion for the drums), the next year I got out of band and into something much more civilized, though, as you know, I can’t sing (just kidding).
On the surface, there was nothing wrong with the band outfit. They were nice old-style sweaters, and I am sure we all looked quite cute, but they just were not appropriate for what the day had in store.
Faith is sometimes like that. When we set out, we think we have everything we need, but often we find ourselves lacking in some way. It was like the day that I was confirmed. When I stood in front of the church with the other 55 kids who got confirmed that year, I felt proud, as if I was getting a new “spiritual outfit” that would carry me through anything. I soon found out that was not the case. As my life spiraled in various directions because of my health issues and being 14, I realized that I could not always just go back to the outfit that had worked in the past. I became aware that I had to make adjustments. Like the sweater that was inappropriate for that parade, my childhood faith was insufficient for the life-and-death trials that were ahead of me.
The problem that we often find within the church is that we long for our faith to be static, never changing. But all too often that does not work, since neither we, nor the world around us are without change. We live in a changing culture and changing times. If that spiritual outfit does not grow or adjust, we often find ourselves in a very dark place.
If we follow the teachings of Paul, from Galatians to Romans, we see that in his ministry, Paul is growing. As we watch his encounters, especially his imprisonments, we see a markedly different Paul in Galatians from that in Romans. When studying Paul, you begin to recognize that he is not very static in his faith, but is quite dynamic in how he adjusts to the times and trials of his life.
In our country, we all too often accept a faith that is given to us, without thinking and without developing. Unfortunately, when that happens, we often find ourselves lost in a strange wilderness. We wonder why God is not there for us, and we have a hard time reconciling our faith with our experiences. However, when we allow ourselves to step back, ask questions and explore, letting our faith be dynamic, we often find that our faith is strengthened. What worked once may not work again.
Looking back, I cannot help but chuckle as I think of the whole parade situation—what a mess, but we all survived. The band teacher was not bad, nor was he a bad guy; he utilized what was used before him instead of questioning or thinking in a different way. If he had only been able to adjust and take in more information, he might just have avoided that mess. But he went back to what had worked. Oh, and by the way, the next year, the kids were marching in T-shirts and shorts.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen