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.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen