Happy at Synod

(Christian Courier column, July 11, 2016)

Cover_20160817_0001Mona Simpson, novelist and Steve Jobs’s sister, once said, “The tincture of life most rarely found in art is happiness.” That quote was on my mind as I read the final story in Lawrence Dorr’s anthology, A Bearer of Divine Revelation (CC, July 11, 2016). At the celebration of his fiftieth wedding anniversary, narrator Laszlo, a traumatized former POW, recalls the individuals, and especially his wife Meg, who gently salved his suppurating afflictions, each one an “angel of His Presence.” He partakes in the Eucharist with an intensified awareness that here, in church, a “door in heaven was opened a crack for him to behold that which was to come: a place for them to gather where love, forgiveness, and peace sang, where hurt, pain, anger, and bad dreams were no more.” Dorr conveys the happiness of worship in such a believable and tender way that perhaps even Mona Simpson would be satisfied.

No doubt you’ve already heard a lot about Synod. The Banner’s Gayla Postma wrote, “Synod 2016 showed a church increasingly diverse and also increasingly divided.” But, before all the weighty discussions, I experienced a happy hour at Synod (ok, don’t get the wrong idea – grin) worshipping on Sunday in the Calvin College chapel. As my friend Diane and I entered the crowded sanctuary, fresh with yellow and purple blooms, the atmosphere was lively. Bubbly greetings, hugs and handshakes all around.

The Oakland University Brass, Calvin College Alumni Choir and other gifted musicians set the tone for uplifting praise — Mendelssohn, Bach and “Lead On, O King Eternal.” When we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy!” I was so enraptured I dared a descant, something I’m usually far too self-conscious to attempt. The triumphant music was complemented by expressive Scripture readings and a well-crafted, well-delivered message on “One Holy Church.”

We celebrated Holy Communion. The flow of the congregation to the Table was dynamic, almost processional, with a diversity of believers. A young guy with a ruddy beard, t-shirt and plaid shorts preceded me while a sophisticated woman with perfectly arranged silver curls came behind. I shared a humorous moment with the elder serving me the bread. As I tried to tear off a bit of the loaf, the crusty texture confounded me, requiring a sturdy, irreverent tug. The elder and I grinned at each other in silent merriment.

Why bother you with this secondhand church service? To spotlight how glad I was to be there. How privileged. Not to deny or minimize that a solemn grief bounded this hour of fellowship. The Orlando massacre had occurred in the early hours of the same day. Many CRC members were anxiously awaiting a verdict in the Tim Bosma case. In the pews were some, I knew, cradling their own suppurating wounds. But like embattled Paul in his prison cell, rejoice we did, baring our scars, bearing our hope.

IMG_2094So, when you read all the reports and opinions about Synod 2016, please keep this recollection in the mix. God was among us. He was exalted. The Body and Blood of Christ was shared. The Holy Spirit wafted the banners, moved in the music, smiled in the tinkling of tiny glasses dropped in a silver bowl.

With Laszlo, I saw the door of heaven opening a crack. I heard “love, forgiveness and peace” singing. With all the saints, I confessed the Word made flesh who dwelt among us and is now seated at the right hand of God.

In his victory I can live eschatologically, at peace within ambivalence, within the uncertain context of what Synod 2016 has done and what future synods may do, within the tension of past, present and future. I can offer respect to those who can’t live within those variable parameters, who seek either wider or more restrictive boundaries. I can strive, however falteringly, to be an “angel of His Presence” to all God’s children, those gathered around the Table and those who, for whatever reason, are not. Such flawed human love, as Laszlo reflects in the churchyard, is “a poor but glorious imitation of the redeeming Love that had made possible, in spite of everything, the overwhelming joy of the earth.”

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Sermons that stick

Hulst bookWhat’s the first sermon you can remember? I have a vivid recollection of the first message that impacted me enough to stick with me forever.

I was probably 12 or 13. The sermon was by Rev. Anthony DeJager, a minister who served Sarnia’s Second CRC from 1963-1970. DeJager was old-school, a dominee with a clerical robe, dignified demeanor and authoritative tone. But, surprisingly, his presence on the pulpit was not severe. He projected a lively love for his flock. I remember that …in addition to the sermon.

It was an Ascension Day message with one simple, memorable image. DeJager explained that Jesus, although ascended, was not far away nor too preoccupied to care about us. He’s in heaven and we’re on earth, said DeJager, yes, but it’s like living in a two-storey house. You’re the kid in the kitchen, but you can hear your mom or dad walking around upstairs. Somehow that solemn dominee conveyed an infinitely cozy and homey assurance to a gawky teen just learning to pay attention … Jesus is nearby.

That’s it. But how amazing that I’m still touched and comforted by that picture! That I have a resilient grasp on Ascension Day from a sermon in my childhood! My guess is every pastor hopes to leave such an indelible imprint.

Which brings me to a neat book I just read, A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten practical ways for a better sermon by Sunday by Mary S. Hulst, current chaplain of Calvin College. It’s a quick and easy read with a spritely style and spot-on advice. Hulst is collegial and humble, never arrogant. I’d recommend it not only to preachers, but to those in the pew.

Let me highlight one chapter that particularly resonated. “Grace-full Preaching” moved me precisely because a good chunk of my adult life was spent under the opposite kind of spiritual direction. A couple of my pastors were enamored of the kind of “congregational parent” preaching model Hulst critiques, hooked on the idea that the congregation needs to be “told what to do.” It was the 90s, that bitter stretch of endless conflict about women in church office, and my pastors were intent on persuading our congregation that we needed to leave the CRC. There was a relentless emphasis on what we needed to do: we needed to “stand up” for the Word, prove our commitment to Jesus, witness against worldliness. From Sunday to Sunday our willingness to defend God’s honor was measured and found wanting. I dragged myself to church for the weekly scolding. By way of refreshing contrast, “grace-full preaching” is not about what we do or don’t do. It focuses on God’s faithfulness and what he has done, inviting us to respond with gratitude. Our response, however, is not the main point of the sermon. God gets top billing. “The gospel, thanks be to God, is not about a transactional relationship,” reminds Hulst. “The gospel tells of a God who so loves us that he sent his only Son to save us. This is important. We do nothing. God does everything.” Or, as she succinctly summarizes in another chapter: “Preach about God. There’s nothing better.”

Hulst’s Handbook provides sensible guidelines for rookie or veteran pastors wishing to refine their sermons in terms of content and delivery. Salient topics include appropriate dress (“Our chief goal is to minimize anything that may be a distraction from the gospel message”), cross-generational preaching (“A helpful practice can be to walk through the text from the perspective of the different age groups in your church”), and boundaries for anecdotal “selfies” (“We don’t want our sermons to teach people about us”).

For her peers, Hulst’s expertise is pointed and useful. For people in the pew, like me, her guidance imparts a better comprehension of what goes into sermon preparation, perhaps even inspiring us to pray for pastors more intentionally and to listen more sympathetically.