AfterWord – Reflecting on our Christmas Day Sermon

I thought I’d share some thoughts on the sermon I heard yesterday morning, delivered with  conviction from our Wyoming CRC pulpit by Rev. J. Hellinga. Not a précis, just some musings. I don’t think he’ll mind. Good preachers want you to not just hear their message, but to think about, make it your own, apply it in some way. Hopefully I won’t garble his points as I share … :-). I didn’t take notes, so I’m going by memory. This is the condensed version, the “interpretation according to Cathy.”

Pastor John began by asserting the value of the various gospel viewpoints, something I also just read about in an excellent Banner article by Meg Jenista. Each gospel adds a unique and complementary angle to the Christmas story. One event, multiple refractions, like a prism. Today’s sermon would come from Matthew 2 which provides, said Pastor John, a critical balance to Luke 2. While the narrative of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes offers the humble view, Matthew’s version reminds us that this is also, without question, a royal birth. The Magi come seeking a King.

Pastor Hellinga spent a few minutes discussing the star. He said it really didn’t matter if it was a star or a comet or an alignment of planets. It might be interesting to discuss and investigate what kind of celestial body it was, but that’s tangential to the main point which is that creation announced the birth of its king. He quoted Romans 1, referring to God’s invisible presence in creation, and also mentioned the Psalms where the heavens “declare the glory of God.”

The pastor identified the Magi as learned men from Iraq, astrologers, but not astronomers. He suggested that they propounded a pseudo-science and that astrology today continues to be a popular false spirituality. I agree that astrology is something that is neither science nor religion and should be identified for the empty thing it is. However, I’ve always thought of the Magi as genuine astronomers, true scholars as measured by the standards of their day. So I’d like to know more about them and do further research and reading. Pastor Hellinga shared one idea about the Magi, though, that really grabbed my attention. I’ve wondered, now and then, why the Magi connected a new star to the arrival of a King. That assumption always seemed kind of random to me. Why did the star have to signal that? Why not a bountiful year? Or an upcoming victory in a military campaign?  I guess I always assumed it was an arbitrary divine intervening – a vision or intuition or revelation – that the Holy Spirit must have provided. But Pastor Hellinga noted that Iraq was formerly known as Persia and, before that, as Babylon. So during the exile and captivity, while Israel sat and wept, they also, no doubt, planted the seed. Or perhaps it was the daring of Daniel and his faithful band. But the Messianic promise was whispered even there, in hostile and heathen lands, for centuries. This struck me as remarkable, both for the fact that I never connected the dots in this way before, but also because of how absolutely fitting it was. I wanted to jump up and say, “Hallelujah!” My mind jumped to the passage in Luke where grizzled old Simeon, holding a tender-fleshed baby, praised God for “your salvation, prepared in the sight of all people.”  It was like the smooth joining of a ball and socket, or the satisfactory click of a key opening a door. The salvation was “for all people.”  The Magi had been linked into the salvation chain long before either they or Simeon were born. The Jews and the unclean Gentiles were coupled while still enemies, the chosen and the to-be-chosen. The Magi’s presence in the story was not so mysterious and surprising after all, but deftly foreshadowed in OT events. (Pastor Hellinga also pointed out briefly, but refreshingly, that God works in the unholy places and people as much as in the holy. God uses the wise men from heathen nations as well as characters from within Israel.)

Ok, back to the sermon. Pastor Hellinga noted that Herod had to ask his advisors where the promised king was to be born. They consulted the Scriptures and found the prophecy in Micah that predicted Bethlehem would be the birthplace. Here, said the pastor, is where creation’s word, the star, is backed up by the “written” word. He assured us that God’s creation will never contradict God’s revealed Word.  Both emanate from God. We should remain calm and not get disputatious about these matters.

Pastor Hellinga went on to talk about the Magi finding the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus himself, in a house in Bethlehem. They worshipped and adored him. I loved his progression through the sermon, the triad of Words:  the creational word, the scriptural word, and the incarnate word.  But, finally, and even better (kudos to Pastor John!) he brought us to the house we were in that very morning, the Wyoming CRC. The Word of God is here, too, he reminded us, and, like the Magi, we must worship and adore him, our Saviour and Lord.

A sermon that made an impression.  Taught me something new and pointed to paths for further exploration.

After the service, I was on coffee duty. It was a treat to hand the steaming cups to my fellow parishioners, to shake their hands and say “Merry Christmas.” There were people present from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the Netherlands, the United States and probably a host of other places. As I exited the sanctuary a bit early to serve the coffee, “Ere Zij God/Glory to God” was ringing around me in both Dutch and English. A fitting doxology.  As Simeon had predicted: “For glory to your people Israel” and “For revelation to the Gentiles.” All are bathed in the glory. All belong.

Christmas Eve Reflection

It’s been a quiet day. More of them are these days. That’s OK. The frenzied decades slide into calmer waters. You think they’ll never come. You cover your eyes from the glare of the sun and check the horizon periodically, but you don’t see any change in the distance. You keep doing your chores, your duties, the things you do. Then, one day you look up in surprise to realize that something’s different. Somehow the landscape’s been transformed. It was so gradual, glacial, that you never even noticed.

I remember one Christmas Eve not that long ago. I was still working full-time. I got really sick right before Christmas. Some kind of bronchial infection or walking pneumonia. Who knows? Who has time to go to a doctor? I was coughing up my throat, my lungs and probably my toenails. I was coughing incessantly, and not sleeping well because the misery was worse at night. I couldn’t finish out the semester and felt so bad for my co-workers who had to cover my duties and classes when they were end-of-term weary themselves.

 Because I’d been so busy and then so relentlessly ill, I hadn’t had time or energy to decorate the house. So, I was madly hanging ornaments on the tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, still barking and hacking. The kids were coming home. There had to be some semblance of Christmas. I remember crying a bit as I hurriedly hung the ornaments on the tree. Too hectic. Too run-down. It was all wrong.

 Today my house is decorated and cozy. My village is lit up, nestled on “snow” on top of the wall unit. The Victorian with the wraparound porch and gingerbread trim, the bed and breakfast hotel with the big front window through which you can see a little girl playing piano, the schoolhouse and railroad station house the memories of the people who gave them to me. The little white church was my first acquisition, a gift from my mother-in-law. The following year she gave me a bank. I bought the windmill myself, persuaded by my sister-in-law, who insisted that the village should include a nod to my Dutch heritage. At night, if you walk down my street, you can look up and see the village winking at you through the living room window pane.

 

 

 

In the kitchen I have a Nativity made by my father-in-law set up on a little table. It’s a rough-hewn manger, but it’s lit up too. The figurines are from Dollarama, so please don’t picture an elegant Mary or three imposing kings. Still, I rather like it. My granddaughter was playing with it and she put all the people and animals crowded right up against the manger. Somehow that’s a compelling arrangement. The ceramic Christmas tree on my desk is lit up, too, made by Aunt Eleanor who used to run a shop called Ellie’s Dolls. My in-laws and Aunt Eleanor are gone now, but live on, forever connected to me, especially at Christmas.

A digital frame in my living room, a gift from the kids, rolls through Christmases past, reliving old memories. The photos mark the passing of time in the ever-changing hairstyles, the addition of new faces, the absence of others.

 I’m typing this on my laptop, watching CMT and enjoying Christmas music by Martina McBride and Faith Hill. I’ve had time today to vacuum, take a walk, peel potatoes for tomorrow’s dinner, make soup for supper tonight and run to Europa Bakery for some treats to bring to my sister’s later. Mark has been puttering around the house working on some remodelling projects.  He put a battery in the wreath on our front door, so it lights up once again. We stopped to have coffee together a few times. Right now he’s reading a book on the KOBO e-reader that the kids gave him last year.

 This sounds like a story about the rewards of the golden years, doesn’t it? You live through the harried times and emerge on the other side to appreciate all you’ve got. Some peace, perhaps. Sure, there’s some of that. But the truth is, the older you get, the more your family grows, the longer you stay in one place and put down roots and come to know your friends and neighbours intimately, the longer your prayer list gets. Every minute of every day could be spent praying for the broken and troubled marriages, the cancers, the accidents, the aging, the addictions, the misspoken words, the harmed childhoods, the famines in far off places, troubled waters swirling around your feet. It’s enough to make you cry even when your house is decked to the nines, your poinsettias and cranberry wreaths match, and you’re not infectious.

 Today, on my walk I saw some things. I saw the shining sun, not up in the sky, but glinting off the leaden water in a mud puddle. I waited for a train to pass. I saw the usual graffiti, but one black car raced by completely covered with a superbly executed gang name in vivid green and yellow. Dramatic. Masterful. It was there and gone before I had time to even decipher what it said. Then, in my own drab December garden, perched in the middle of bedraggled sedums, bent stalks of grass and lumps of wet brown leaves, a lime-green heuchera – preening its frilly plumage just like a cocky parrot inordinately proud of its bright sheen.

 Tomorrow, I think, I will take a breath. I will let myself be at peace for just one day. I will believe that tiny surprises like sunlight dancing in a mud puddle or graffiti art whipping down the track or chartreuse leaves glowing in a dead garden are signs. Blinking bits of unexpected glory. Like beauty in a barn, worth huddling in for a closer look. Tomorrow I won’t focus on what’s wrong. For one day, I’ll strain to see what’s right.

Back to the Future

(Published in Christian Courier, November 28, 2011)

This is my twelfth and final year of teaching catechism. I joke that I’ve finally learned enough church history to graduate! I always begin by telling my students that I enjoyed catechism as a teenager. They smirk. I tell them we’re going to have fun. They roll their eyes.  No really, I say.  I perform, with serious gangsta attitude, a catechism rap I “invented.” They perk up.

Wake up, kids, it’s half-past eight!

Ain’t nothin really changin’ but the date.

You’re a real grandslammer, but you’re no Babe Ruth.

You gotta learn how to relate,

Or you’ll be stoppin’ at the Pearly Gate!

Now Luther and Calvin’s who I’m representin’

Ain’t nobody better in my hood…

They say the only way’s by repentin’

And not by any works that you might call good.

So, wake up, kids, listen to what I say!

This ain’t no cheap rhyme display.

If you wanna get to Reformation Day…

It’s Geneva and Wittenburg, all the way. Yo!

On our first night together, I ask my students why they go to our church. Invariably, with amusement or derision, they answer, “Because my parents make me.” We go on a field trip and check out all the churches in our village – Baptist, United, Presbyterian. There are seven other churches in our bite-sized community! We slide through Tim Hortons for some donuts. I leave them with this question: Why don’t your parents (and you) belong to those churches? The next week we’re off and running, travelling back in time to figure out how we got here – to the classic white-sided church on  4524 Confederation Line in Wyoming, Ont.

Recently I had a chance to visit a museum in the basement of the Graafschap Christian Reformed Church, near Holland, Michigan. (Huge shout out to Bill Sytsma and friends who had the foresight and dedication to create this archival treasure). The artefacts and displays tell the story of the birth of the CRCNA. Those stubborn Dutch pioneers overcame tremendous obstacles to build a church and carve a community out of the inhospitable Michigan forest. I marvel at my ecclesiastical bloodline, simultaneously herculean and petty. In 1865, a scant eight years after secession and the formation of a “denomination” of four tiny congregations, they are squabbling about fire insurance. If you buy fire insurance, you betray your lack of trust in God and tarnish the church’s witness. After vehement  wrangling, the issue is finally resolved … you can participate in the Lord’s Supper if you own fire insurance, but can’t serve as  deacon or elder. Such austere faith was put to the test in 1871 when most of  Holland, Michigan was burned to the ground.  Insured or not, the settlers carried on. They rebuilt their town and their lives. They kept on going to church.

This year, one last time, I’ll guide my lone catechumen (no one really calls them that, anymore), yes, my ONE student, down the historical path from Paul’s missionary journeys to the Inquisition to Graafschap CRC to the Wyoming CRC. We’ll talk about her hopes and dreams, her faith, her choices about church membership.

I’ll testify to my love for the CRC and make a pitch for it being the church she should cling to as she matures. I’ll use every teacher’s trick I know – a rap song, video clips, and those old tried and true mnemonic devices like GRACE( God’s riches at Christ’s expense), ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), and SIN, SALVATION, SERVICE (The Heidelberg Catechism). I’ll try to impart some sense of what drove her spiritual ancestors to sail across the ocean to nothing but hunger and hardship  – all for the exultation of worshipping God without fire insurance. In Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, Richard Mouw says, “For some of us at least, to be a Calvinist today also means that we will have to work at keeping alive the memories of older sayings and teachings in the hope that there will soon come a day when many others will want to learn such things again.”  

Mouw’s right. Thank you, Bill Systma, curator of our heritage. Thank you, Rev. John Wierenga, my first catechism teacher. And thank you, dear Hannah Klazinga, for showing up each Tuesday night and listening. For wanting to learn.  Another teenager, Graafschap settler Egbert Fredriks, wrote, “Even in the midst of this misery, prayers to God for mercy were heard and the woods rang with psalms. We remained firm in the belief that we journeyed with him. We kept believing on his promises that light would shine upon us out of the darkness and better times would come.”

                     

Seated beside Hannah, in a plain church basement room, reading from A.D.: A Study of Church History, I can still believe it: “The light will shine out of the darkness and better times will come.”

 

New Atheism Hits Home

(Feature article published in Christian Courier, Oct. 8, 2011)

In my church we often pray for those “who have strayed from the fold.” There’s an old-fashioned restraint to those words, a politeness that veils the pain of having family members leave the faith. Our children and grandchildren have slipped away to live a different life than the churchly one we love. Sometimes it’s tempting to rationalize that they still “love Christ, but don’t love his church” as author Ann Rice proclaimed about her own public stepping away. But I can’t engage in even that kind of comforting equivocation. One of my children is a committed Christian, while the two others, influenced by Dawkins and Hitchens, call themselves atheists.

Seeing my children blatantly reject my faith produces a devious kind of suffering, mostly kept under wraps. Once, in my online discussion group, a new member introduced himself by sharing that his children and their spouses and all his grandchildren follow the Lord. I was stung. No, lacerated. When others share that kind of blessing, it’s a boast blaring in my ears. It wasn’t meant that way. How could he know that I’m an open oozing sore on this topic? After faithful church attendance and support for Christian school at all three levels, devotions at meals and at bedtime, and as long a list as anyone can produce of spiritual habits and resources consistently implemented to encourage faith in my offspring, I counted on the Lord to bless my due diligence. I certainly didn’t expect atheism.

It’s a debilitating kind of pain that doesn’t resolve, the guilty kind that comes with questions of responsibility and perennial what-ifs hovering in the background each day and bloating as the years spin on. It is, after all, the most seductive thing in the world to imagine that we can mould  our children, that we can input some spiritual data and print out a carbon-copy Christian mini-me. A careless reading of Scripture even seems to guarantee it: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and in the end he will not depart from it.” But that’s a proverb, not a money-back warranty. We persistently misconstrue our blessings as personal achievements because it happens just often enough that if we add a and b, we get c. Children raised in the fold, mostly stay in the fold. But life isn’t math, we’re not in control, and the Lord is in the heavens doing as he pleases (Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135: 6). How can we reconcile the fact that our Heavenly Father, who holds our lives in his hands, permits our precious covenant children, brought to the font and raised before his face, to walk away from that inheritance?

And why do our children choose to turn their backs on the church? Why have mine chosen to become atheists, of all things? You can’t begin to guess the nights I’ve spent awake tearing apart my life, analyzing where I went wrong, trying to understand why they reject the faith that is my very life-blood, so I can fix it, so I can change it. It’s wearying, and, of course, I can’t.

 Tentative conclusions:

But, over time, I’ve arrived at some tentative conclusions.

1. The choice for atheism is not exclusively a rejection of the Christian faith, though it’s frequently portrayed as such, but a recoiling from all faith. It rejects the fanaticism of Islam and the rigidity of Orthodox Judaism as well. Given our increasingly polarized globe, it’s not surprising that atheism is experiencing resurgence. New York Times editor, David Brooks, in “If It Feels Right…” (Sept. 12, 2011), describes the most recent research conducted by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith about moral virtue and American youth. Smith’s book, Lost in Transitions, concludes: “The default position, which most [respondents]  came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’” Brooks writes, “Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.”  I wonder if atheism legitimizes this individualism and gives it structure, a coat hook upon which to throw one’s hat.

You might protest, as I have done, “But surely our covenant children, raised in a community with a particularly clear moral paradigm, know better than their average North American peers! Perhaps we woefully underestimate the influence of culture on our children. Psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from late Teens through the Twenties, argues that our century will see a new category of life-stage emerge, similar to what happened with the arrival of the “teenager” in the previous one. Robin Marantz Henig, in her New York Times article, Documenting the Life of 20-Somethings (August 18, 2010), reveals the statistical facts upon which Arnett’s theory is based: “The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.” Every one of these descriptors applies to both my children who have declared themselves atheists.

2. I think the science/religion controversy is a pivotal point of angst. In New Atheist literature, science is revered and Christianity is mocked for its insistence on a literal six-day creation in the face of the overwhelming acceptance of evolution by the majority of respected scientists of our day. For my own children, the evolution versus Genesis debate has been a significant issue. The critical discussions we are now having about how to interpret Genesis in a way that serves both theological and scientific truth have come too late for many of our twenty-somethings. They are no longer listening.

3. We haven’t created a safe place for doubt. The triangle of church, home and school can be claustrophobic. I was complicit in creating confining boundaries for my own kids, too. I was so afraid that they would follow my own youthful rebellious flight from church that I sought doubly hard to impress upon them the “rightness” of my faith perspective. J. D. Kirk, a New Testament professor at Fuller Seminary, writes in his blog about Drew Dyck’s The Leavers, a book which explores why young people are leaving the church in droves. Kirk writes, “But the point that interested me most was when he probed the reasons given for folks leaving: ‘Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking insolent questions. Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them.” When Kirk tweeted, in response to Dyck’s book, “Apologetics is bad for my soul. I’d rather have no answer to my doubts than a bad one,” it hit a nerve and went viral.

4. Lastly, I think that the church doesn’t always do a good job of being church. Shawn Graves posted a piece in Christianity Today (3/28/2011) called “Why There Are Still Atheists: The heavens aren’t the only proclaimers (and are sometimes silent).” In a plea for humility as we interact with our atheist neighbours, he concludes: “We ought to confess that our religious proclamations haven’t been as clear and compelling as the heavens and the skies in proclaiming ‘the glory of God and the work of his hands,’ that our lives haven’t ‘made it plain’ that God exists.” I want to convey to my non-believing children a nuanced understanding – that the Body of Christ is full of sinners because perfect people don’t need a Saviour, and a place where sanctification grows, but sometimes falteringly. I want to explain that it takes an investment of time and loyalty to see and love the church as a broken – but still priceless –  vessel. But maybe such a vision can only be nurtured from within, and they are no longer in the building.

Lingering questions and beyond

In the case of my children’s atheist stance, no doubt their own personalities and familial factors play a role, too. I have their permission to write about this, but it’s possible they would offer a completely different spin. Our evolution into a family with opposing world and life views has had its raw and wounding moments. We’ve stepped back from dialogue, preferring, for now, not to tackle the “provocative” subjects. I pray for them; they temper their opinions around me. Perhaps someday there will be space for genuine dialogue. For now, I try to let my life speak for itself in the practice of my faith and in my unwavering love for them. And I have one child who is a professing Christian, so, in the end, I have no answers that satisfy. I’m left with lingering questions. Why only one believing child? Why not all?  

Only when I surrender to God the design of my life am I able to achieve equilibrium. When I recognize that it’s neither my conscientious parenting that wins my child for Christ, nor my failures that cause my child to walk away from Christ, I stumble gratefully into Gilead. Not my obedience or lack of it, but God’s sovereignty. I must relinquish control to the One who answers out of the storm (Job 38:1). I have to lay my life on the altar and confess: Lord, this is not what I expected or what I worked for. Forgive my prideful thinking that I could make it happen. Forgive my self-centeredness in always worrying about my own family, my constant whining to have things my own way. Help me to look around and notice that others have pain too. All kinds of it. Help me to minister to their pain.

And more: Lord, I really, really want the blessing of having all my children be faithful Christians. Yet you have decided that this isn’t my blessing to have right now. Maybe never. Help me submit to your will in all things, even in this. You have given me other blessings. Help me to use those blessings to be Christ to all I meet.

When I can pray this way, it’s possible to refrain from picking at my own scabs. It’s possible to love my children without nagging or manipulation. It’s possible to rejoice in the blessings of others. It’s possible to have and to be the peace of Christ.