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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Who’s in charge?

(Christian Courier, June 2016)
      When you’re a teacher, you’re a leader. I once attended a workshop where the presenter asked, “Who’s in charge of your classroom?” After two incorrect responses from the audience, I raised my hand and said, “I am.” That’s the answer he was looking for.
      In practical terms, that’s true. The teacher is the de facto administrator, disciplinarian, motivator and strategist of the classroom. A dedicated teacher implements management structures that are intended to promote success for all while building in some flexibility to account for individual student gifts and challenges. For me, anyway, it came down to this: if my classroom wasn’t running well, I needed to change something. It was up to me. I was in charge.
      But most importantly, a Christian teacher longs for her students to follow Christ. When I was busy with the daily nitty-gritty of lesson plans, timetables and recess duty, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the pride and joy I’d feel when my students became Christian leaders themselves. But what a retirement perk!
      Some were destined for leadership. You could tell. Gifted go-getters, achievement-oriented right from the start. Still, it’s gratifying to see them fulfill their promise. Among my former students are pastors, teachers, engineers, nurses and business leaders who travel the world. Students who went on to study longer and harder than I ever could … attaining their MAs and PhDs. There’s a Dordt College education prof among them who wrote me one of my most cherished thank you notes!
      But even more heartwarming are those students who graduated to leadership in ways I never could have foreseen. The class clown, the con artist, the poor reader, the bullied. The students I worried about, cringed at, shed tears over, gave up on.
IMG_1506      Take Scott, for example. Scott* was a slippery kid in Grade 8. He was smart, but didn’t care for some of the work I was requiring of him. He claimed he handed in his poetry project. I didn’t have it. We went back and forth. He was convincing. It was year-end; I was exhausted. Maybe I had lost it? Not outside the realm of possibility. I let it go. Years later, he chuckled as he confessed that he had never completed it. Today Scott is a father of five and a solid leader in my church. He’s been a Cadet Counsellor, catechism teacher and deacon several times over. Now he’s an elder. His sincerity and maturity astound me and fill me with thankfulness to God.
      Yes, I praise God for all the unanticipated leaders. The unruly and unmotivated who grew into Sunday school teachers and Gems counsellors. The shy and insecure who became loving fathers and strong mothers. The rebellious — now faithful doers of the Word. If I could have peered into the future, perhaps I would have fretted less, laughed more.
      But our culture is goal-oriented and results-driven. Leaders are particularly susceptible to this pressure. In a recent blog post (perspectivesjournal.org) RCA pastor Brian Keepers reflects on this, referencing The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap by John Koessler. Keepers notes, “Our ‘culture of productivity’ assumes that busier is better and that devotion equals more activity.” He quotes Koessler: “No matter what we are doing now, we should do more. No matter what we have done in the past, it has not been enough.”
      As Christians, especially as Christian leaders, we’re invited to turn from this flurry of activity, rest in the Lord and surrender ourselves to his care. And not just ourselves, but, hallelujah, the whole world. This is not to encourage shirking or to condone slacktivism. It’s to inhale the blessed assurance that it’s not all up to us, after all. We’re only temporarily in charge. Keepers frames it, simply, as faith. “We trust that God will take care of us and that the world will go on even without our activity and effort. This makes rest, at its most fundamental level, an exercise of faith.”
      As a footnote, Christian leaders, let’s learn to follow. The day comes when the student is the teacher. Let’s relinquish control with supportive grace. Let’s embrace the miracle of God’s Spirit poured out even in these days to raise up and equip new leaders. To quote Jean Paul Richter, the 19th century German writer: “How calmly may we commit ourselves to the hands of him who bears up the world.”
 *Thanks, Scott, for permission to share our past and present.

Housing God

(Christian Courier column, May 2016)
     April 14th marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I journaled throughout his ten-year illness in the hopes of someday writing a book about it. Maybe I’ll still get to that, but if I haven’t managed to do so in 20 years, what are the odds?
     Once I had a conversation with friends on this intriguing topic: “Who are the five people in your life who’ve had the strongest impact on your faith?” Topping my list was my dad. It would take – you guessed it – a book to write about his influence on me with appropriate clarity and comprehensiveness. But here’s a teaser.
      Dad wasn’t preachy. The closest thing to a sermon might be an emphatic declaration, punctuated with a pointing finger, that you can’t expect a man who is hungry and has no shoes to listen to the gospel. First, you feed him and give him shoes; then you tell him about Jesus. He had a pronounced bias toward a “social gospel.” So I wasn’t completely surprised when, many years after he was gone, Mom revealed to me that her father had once called him a “communist.” As a young whippersnapper working in a cement factory, Dad had the temerity to criticize management and speak up on behalf of the employees. He always sided with “the little man.” No surprise, really. He grew up on “margarine street,” a disparaging Dutch phrase for government-subsidized housing.
      When asked to serve his church, Dad didn’t hesitate. He helped organized the Cadet program in Sarnia’s Second CRC and also in the Wyoming CRC, serving there as the club’s first Head Counsellor. Mom still has the faded certificate commending his dedication. He was an elder in both of those churches, too, and served a term as Board Chair for the John Knox Christian School Society.
      Dad’s convictions extended beyond his CRC community. Once he met a desperate and penniless Scottish family stranded at the Sarnia train station. He invited these strangers into our home and they stayed with us for several weeks. He spoke up at his local union hall promoting Sunday as a day of rest. Later in life, as a hog farmer, Dad regularly donated pork to widows.
Off to church.      These commendable examples of Christian witness were but the public expression of Dad the family man. He loved our mom. He valued her work as mother and housewife. He complimented her meals in our presence and made sure we understood that a clean and orderly home was not a gift to be disrespected. It all sounds a bit too good to be true, I know, but I do have the corroborating testimony of five siblings.
      He treated us kids well, too, patient, encouraging, never given to harshness. I’ll confess I was the most challenging. One night I skipped Young Peoples to meet up with an unchurched guy. I was careful, I thought, to return to church in time to get picked up. I hid in the washroom waiting for the right moment to join the others as they exited the classrooms. Suddenly I heard my dad’s voice. Alas, he’d come early and discovered I hadn’t been there! By the time I worked up the courage to face him, he’d already left.
      Flummoxed, I ended up at a friend’s house and had to call for a ride home. Dad said nothing as we drove in the inky night. Finally, turning into our lane, he quietly expressed how disappointed he was in me. He didn’t ask where I’d been or what I’d been doing. I may have mumbled a half-hearted “sorry,” I don’t recall, but his merciful restraint reverberates in my memory.
IMG_1836     When I was a child, our church constructed a Wayside Chapel for Travelers that stood for decades on the highway, a shining jewel box when lit up at night, stocked with tracts and a taped sermon by Rev. A. DeJager. Dad helped build or maintain this miniature church (we’re no longer sure which), a storybook edifice that charmed me whenever we drove past.
     Suddenly I understand. Dad is that church. A “little man” housing God. An everyday Christian hostel. Come stay with us, soup’s on, pick out a pair of shoes.
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Dad wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. But that’s for the book. Here’s today’s takeaway: Weary, perplexed Christian parent, take heart. You are foundation, tabernacle, temple. Glory is your cornerstone. Have faith, keep faith: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

“Participating in resurrection”

DSCN0097(Christian Courier column, Feb. 22, 2016)

I worship at Bradenton CRC when wintering in Florida. By my standards, it’s a megachurch. Let me tell you how they do Christmas. The huge stage showcases six tastefully-decorated Christmas trees. A gorgeous tablescape displays a massive Advent candelabra and dozens of white poinsettias. Sumptuous wreaths hang on either side of a screen scrolling through a tapestry of seasonal images — like an animated scene with evening snow falling gently on a rustic stable and palm trees. Perhaps not meteorologically faithful to Bethlehem (or Florida), but lovely.

The visually lush interior invites wonder. Now add in musical gifts of professional depth and skill every week. As twinkling lights dapple her instrument, a violinist plays a heavenly version of “What Child is This?” The choir presents a layered and nuanced hymn, “Christ Has Come.” A soloist sings a simple and unaffected “The Lord’s Prayer.” Best of all, on the organ, the “Hallelujah Chorus” as a postlude. I can’t leave the sanctuary. I sit until the last note dies away, transfixed by the organist’s virtuosity.

The music director introduces various parts of the liturgy in synchronized flow with the pastor. No pauses … the service just rolls. The pastor is preaching through John 17, a series about why Christ came to earth. He’s comfortable, adept at using the remote control to seamlessly add or subtract slides in conjunction with his sermon. I like what I’m learning. He says, for example, that the invitation for the disciples to call God “Father” is a new and radical addition to traditional Jewish prayer; in the Old Testament, God was addressed as Father of the nation, but never as an individual’s personal Father. It’s a detail I’ve not heard before.

He’s already preached the same sermon at the 8:30 AM service. Services are arranged this way to accommodate us — the snowbirds. Bradenton CRC deserves praise for its hospitality. The influx of winter visitors could be viewed as an annoying disruption to normal church routines. Instead, we are warmly welcomed by way of friendly greeters, name tags and volunteers who direct traffic flow. The bulletin is clearly designed to assist newcomers. Brochures introduce ways in which snowbirds can become involved in church activities.

Sacrifice of praise

This past year, though, I was home for Christmas, worshipping in my own church. Although the scale of pageantry is not as grand as that of Bradenton CRC, there was plenty to appreciate. Vibrant and celebratory Advent banners, lovingly stitched by one of our own. A luxe Advent candle set, a gift from church members. Evocative powerpoint images carefully selected by a volunteer. Special music provided by those with musical talent. A candlelight service organized by the youth group. The exuberance of Sunday School kids ringing their jingle bells on Christmas morning.

There’s really nothing like worshipping at home. When you have insider knowledge of all that goes on behind-the-scenes to create meaningful worship, you begin to understand that rather odd phrase, a “sacrifice of praise.” The sound guy has managed to wedge in a Thursday evening rehearsal with the praise team while juggling holiday overtime shifts. I’m still having Sunday morning breakfast when some anonymous farmer in his John Deere tractor is clearing the parking lot of snow. The flautist is already there too, warming up, while the custodian is hurriedly throwing salt on the sidewalks.

In an essay entitled “Ambition: Lilies that Fester” author and pastor Eugene Peterson credits another author, Wendell Berry, for schooling him in the priceless value of the homegrown: “… the more local life is, the more intense, more colourful, more rich because it has limits. These limits, instead of being interpreted as limitations to be broken through, are treasured as boundaries to respect.” However small the farm, insists Berry, or however humble the parish, Peterson concurs, it’s a place of inestimable worth.

As I worship in my familiar pew, closer to the front than the back, on the west side of the sanctuary, I tuck Peterson’s conclusion, inspired by Berry, close to my heart, a ringing endorsement, not only of my Wyoming church and Bradenton CRC, but of every faithful Christian fellowship: “The congregation is topsoil – seething with energy and organisms that have incredible capacities for assimilating death and participating in resurrection. The only biblical stance is awe, fear of the Lord. When I see what is before me, really before me, I take off my shoes before the burning bush of congregationalism.”

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Meadowview Talk – August 31, 2014

Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of John. The story of the Samaritan Woman … John 4: 1-42.

This morning I’d like to delve into the story of the woman at the well and explore what it meant for Jesus to announce himself as the Living Water and Messiah to a Samaritan woman and what that might mean for us today.

It’s a radical, unbelievable act when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for water. In the context of Jewish tradition, he should not have even asked a Samaritan man for water. Speaking to a Samaritan woman was even worse! Moreover, he initiates this conversation with a Samaritan woman who has a sexually compromised past. The note in my NIV Bible says that Jews held that a woman might be divorced twice, or, at the most, three times. To the Jews, this woman, having had five husbands, was “exceedingly immoral.” And apparently she had not even bothered to marry her current and sixth “husband.”

John writes that the disciples were surprised, flabbergasted, when they discover Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. John himself seems astonished when he adds this editorial comment — not one of them asked “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” Obviously there was something about this interaction that permitted no interference or interruption from the disciples.

There is a comical side to this dialogue that escaped me until I was much older. This is one brassy lady. There is nothing submissive in her demeanor. For some reason, I was always given to understand that she was shy, a guilty outcast. I suppose this idea was based on the fact that she was alone and that the noon hour was not the usual time for community women to draw water from the well.

That may be true. It’s likely she was shunned by the women of her village, but I hear no shyness or hesitation in her words. When Jesus asks her for water, her answer is simple and direct. “You are a Jew, I am a Samaritan woman.”  As if to say, “Are you kidding me?” When Jesus responds that if she knew who he was, she would ask him for living water, her retort has a definite sarcastic ring. “Uh, you don’t have a pail, mister. Who do you think you are, anyway? Jacob?”

Jesus persists and claims that the water he gives will well up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman, no slouch, instantly sees a chance here to reduce her workload. “Great! Give me some of that, so that I don’t have to keep coming here every day. I’ve got better things to do.” When Jesus invites her to get her husband, she’s forthright: “I have no husband.”

What follows next is astounding. When Jesus proves that he knows all about her life, the woman drops the sarcasm, and jumps into a serious theological discussion with him about worship! She points out how the Samaritan tradition names Mount Gerizim as the proper place for worship and how the Jews have chosen Jerusalem as the holy place. Jesus tells her that salvation (the Messiah) comes from the Jews, and he points out that the Samaritan religion lacks substance, having only the first five books of the Bible as a guide for their knowledge about God. He predicts, though, that the time is coming when “true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” 

In response, the Samaritan woman makes a surprising statement. “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” The NIV footnote says that she might have been trying to end the dialogue, hinting that she and this stranger should part ways. But that is not how the text reads to me. It sounds like a confession of faith to me. It sounds like hope. And I think my interpretation of her words is supported by what happens next. Jesus affirms her faith and hope. He reveals himself to her. He announces for the very FIRST time that he is, in fact, the Messiah. He makes this proclamation to an immoral Samaritan woman. That’s a triple! Then he knocks it right out of the ballpark by inviting her to be the first evangelist. She accepts and goes to her town and tells people about Jesus, a whole group of villagers, not just her husband, and many “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Her testimony is heard and believed. In a patriarchal first century culture where women were not permitted to be witnesses in court because they were not considered reliable. Her “going and telling” receives the Lord’s blessing. Moreover, Jesus remains in that town for two more days, ministering to the Samaritans, reinforcing her efforts.

An intriguing component to this story is the parallel conversation Jesus has with his disciples. Jesus talks about living water with the woman, and then, while still at the well, brings up the identical issue with his disciples, substituting the metaphor of water with that of food. He says, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” The disciples take him literally, they misunderstand, much like the Samaritan woman also did, and they talk amongst themselves wondering what they’ve missed. “Could someone have brought him food?”

In an impassioned plea that carries a note of rebuke, Jesus says, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying, ‘One sows and another reaps,’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Who is the reaper harvesting the crop for eternal life?  The usual interpretation says the disciples are the reapers. Jesus is addressing them, so that makes sense. But, wait a minute. Could the reaper not also refer to the Samaritan woman? Yes, maybe. The reaper is referred to as “he”, the wages are “his”, so the reference becomes generalized, and the direct line between the reaper and the Samaritan woman is blurred. But, in the very next verse, as soon as Jesus has completed his parallel speech to the disciples about food, the focus immediately returns to the many Samaritans, clearly part of the “harvest,” who have come to believe in Jesus because of the  witness and labor of the Samaritan woman.

There is no competition here. The Samaritan woman and the disciples are planted side by side. Jesus focuses a bright light on their commonality. Their task is the same: to bring the Living Water and the Bread of Life to sinful, broken, thirsty and hungry people. And, finally, to reap the harvest and rejoice and “be glad together.”

Every Sunday, church services like the one we are having right here and now validate the prophecy of Jesus. God the Father has been seeking worshipers, worshipers who will worship in spirit and truth. Worshipers whose praise is not confined to Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem. They’ve been found, and their voices heard. Their skin is white or black, their hair is sparse and grey, or thick and blond, they live in North America or Uganda.

Now a personal worship story that I hope will tie back to the Samaritan woman … bear with me.

When I was in Florida last winter, I made a habit of attending vespers at our park. On a Sunday night, the main hall is set up for a church service with attendance about 100. You walk in and you’re greeted by nicely-dressed seniors with name tags. You put your donation in a basket. You pick up a hymnbook and sit down. On stage is a plain wooden cross.

One Sunday night I was slumped under a weight of sadness. Back home, here in Ontario, my brother-in-law had been rushed to the hospital. His cancer was spreading. I felt guilty, so far away from my family. Despite my mood, I wanted to go to church. I found a seat, but, preoccupied, I didn’t speak to the lady next to me on the right. On my other side were two empty chairs.

Minutes before the service started, a very old, very shaky, very stooped man tried to sit in one of the seats beside me. He moved precariously. No cane or walker. I worried about the possibility of a hard fall on the tile floor. Behind me arms reached out to steady the two chairs and voices were encouraging him, “You’re almost there. You can do it.” It wasn’t clear which of the two empty seats he wanted. He hovered for what seemed like an eternity. Then, ever so slowly, he folded his frame into the chair beside me. I smiled at him and the service began.

The guest pastor was from a church in Michigan. “Please stand for the opening hymn,” he boomed. Not his first time preaching at a 55+ park, I guess. He knew how to speak up! I was hoping the gentleman beside me would stay seated, but no. Shakily, using the chair in front of him as a support, he rose. I held my breath. At last he was up. It took all his concentration to stand. I shared my hymnbook, leaning in so he could read the words.

He sang beautifully. He knew all the words by heart. This old, old man, for whom every movement required supreme effort, was singing ardently about God’s goodness and grace. And suddenly, though I had expected to be too sad to sing at all — suddenly, I was singing with deep joy and peace. I was holding the hymnbook, but he was holding me up.

The sermon was about Sarah’s laughter at the announcement that she was going to have a child in her old age and God’s emphatic rebuke of her laughter: The Lord can do anything. The Lord is powerful. He has a plan and he will accomplish it. Age doesn’t matter. After the message, a ladies’ choir sang a few numbers. Then the  pastor invited us to sing again. My neighbor rose creakily to his feet, his frame pitched so forward that his nose almost touched the page. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” we sang.

After the service, I told him that it was fun to sing with him. I asked if he needed any assistance as he prepared to leave. He pointed at one of the choir ladies and said, “That’s my wife. She’ll come and get me.”

I walked home uplifted. This elderly gentleman had ministered to me without his even knowing it. And how does this relate to the Samaritan woman? It’s about the Messiah coming “to us, to all of us.” Age doesn’t matter. Whether you are a woman or a man doesn’t matter. Whether you are Jewish or Samaritan or Canadian doesn’t matter. Paul says in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What matters is Christ Jesus, the Messiah, the Living Water, the Bread of Life. What matters is the power in the Name of Jesus to redeem us all.

I encourage you to just keep believing and showing you believe. By coming here to church, by reading your Bible, by giving your offerings, by maintaining a cheerful and patient outlook in your daily routines. You might be uplifting someone without even knowing it.

A funeral, a wedding and two baptisms

(Christian Courier column, August 24, 2015)

075In June I attended the funeral of a dear aunt who passed away, as the program said, “Sure of her salvation through Jesus Christ, her Saviour.” Tante Jaike (Aunt Joyce) had lived an exemplary Christian life, serving in many capacities, including volunteering at a nursing home for decades. It was a blessing to hear comforting Scripture passages read aloud with deep reverence, to sing majestic hymns –“Be Thou My Vision,” “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” “In Christ Alone” — and to pray for God’s presence to surround us in our sorrow.

The simple experience of togetherness thrummed in my heart for days later. Frail, elderly faces from the past, cousins settled almost unrecognizably into middle age, convivial handshakes that conveyed mutual history not forgotten. To me, the gathering was quintessentially “church” – people interested in one another’s well-being, sharing hugs and coffee, united in faith.

In July I witnessed the wedding of one of my former students. Again the press of individuals assembled in a charming (and hot!) sanctuary, standing together hopefully before the face of God, affirming the vows of the happy couple. A palpable blessing. I didn’t know many of the people in the pews ahead of me. A few bald heads, one hipster long hair, a tyke with blond spikes. But I sensed a connectivity, invisible halos conducting shared joy. We sang: “By faith we see the hand of God … in the lives of those who prove his faithfulness, who walk by faith and not by sight.” Our presence at the wedding was just that, a walking by faith, proving God’s faithfulness for the next generation.

Now, it’s no secret, I’m a wannabe theologian. Not a day goes by that I’m not inhaling articles and blog posts on Christian topics from a wide array of perspectives. Sometimes the divergence of opinion – biblically well-articulated and well-supported — is dizzying.

What grounds me is the Body. Sitting in the pew among worshippers who are singing the same hymns, reciting the same Creeds, passing the bread and wine, and bowing their heads simultaneously to pray. It’s those lives, right next to me, who “prove his faithfulness,” who keep me from flying off into never-ending circuits of super-charged suppositions, statistics and arguments.

Holy imprints
Michelle Van Loon, a Patheos blogger, using historian David Bebbington’s distinctives (conversionism, activism, Biblicism, crucientrism) and Barna Group’s definition of “born-again” Christianity, explains why she is still evangelical and what’s good about it. But then she goes on to list some of evangelicalism’s deficits: “Evangelicalism … is a highly individualistic expression of faith. These definitions don’t include any reference to baptism, communion, community, or of picking up one’s cross and following him daily; there is no frame of reference for the kingdom of God.” Her criticisms are valid and pinpoint precisely what I treasure about church. That concretion of sin and redemption we are as a congregation, those aggregate bits of clay and holy imprint we plunk down beside each other every Lord’s Day, those “ties that bind,” provide essential context and responsibility for my faith. A sacramental life is lived in the round. My thinking, reading and writing, and my actions have local parameters. Belonging equals sacrifice. It’s the cost of love.

Sarah Zarr, in “Wrestling with Sunday Mornings,” (Image) explains why she is taking a break from church attendance: “I deeply want to better understand why church matters. Maybe it will take letting it go to figure that out.” She’s not giving up on Christianity, she says, but she’s just not sure about the institution. I want to ask her: Don’t you love the people in your church? Won’t you miss them? Won’t they miss you? Your church attendance is not just about you! I want to refer her to Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith where author Kathleen Norris relates the gentle rebuke of a pastor friend: “… we go to church for other people. Because someone may need you there.”

023Last Sunday we celebrated two baptisms. Cousins – a girl and a boy. Their fathers, brothers, have both served as deacons in our church. So has their dad, many times. Family members crowded the front pew, three generations hearing again the promises of a covenant-keeping God. Their lives are proving his faithfulness. And so is mine, as I witness the sacrament and promise to receive these children in love, to pray for them, and to help nurture them in the faith. God helping me.

Dec. column pic 2013

Letter to the new young elder

(Christian Courier column, Oct. 27, 2041)

Dear son,

You are too young to be an elder! (Grin).

I’m sorry that what I should have said first, I didn’t actually say until later: “I’m proud of you. Proud that your spiritual maturity has been recognized and affirmed, but even more so because you accepted the task of leadership in the church of Jesus Christ.” Not very long ago, in the CRC anyway, families would travel a considerable distance to attend the installation of a relative as an office bearer. It was deemed an honour worthy of celebration! After the service, the whole congregation would line up to congratulate the new office bearers. Those customs are fading, another obscure consequence, perhaps, of the democratizing individualism of our society with its subtle effacing of any rank or authority. Today people are reluctant to serve on Council for analogous reasons; it’s perceived as a thankless task offering no intrinsic reward, an intrusive commitment of time and energy into lives already fast-paced and heavily scheduled. Thus, how much more should your willingness to serve have sparked my immediate appreciation!

What emerged first, of course, was that involuntary exhalation of maternal protectiveness: “Oh, no, really?” I wasn’t prepared to have you experience the bald reality of being a church leader: that close-up view of the stark unloveliness of the sagging, scarred, unclothed Body. The stench of sin – adultery, shady business practice, abuse. The bile of petty bickering. The burdensome weight of confidentiality. Not because your church family is worse or more troubled than any other; but because we are all Gomer and now you are Hosea, called to love the church in a more particular way – with greater resolve, more forgiveness, more looking to Christ to learn devotion and sacrifice.

As a mom, selfishly, I didn’t want to see your youthful faith and positive outlook tainted. Frederick Dale Bruner, in his Commentary on John, wrote, “The gospel is for admitted failures, for confessed incompetents, in short, for people like all of us when we are honest. The incomprehension and incompetence, almost the rudeness and even perhaps the slight contempt detectible in both Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman may all be intended by John to say to readers: Jesus’ promises are for problematic people; get used to it; be grateful.”

Admonished, I will be grateful. Like Hannah, I will give you up. I will trust that if God sends you on stony paths, he will provide strong shoes, to quote Corrie Ten Boom. As an elder, yes, you will deal with problematic people. But beyond the conflicts and controversies, you will also be privileged to speak peace and spread joy. You are not only Hosea, but his contemporary Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for,” urges the Holy One of Israel (Is. 40: 1-5). So, in the baptisms and Lord’s Suppers, in the graduations, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, meetings and potlucks, be the voice of God’s faithfulness. Prophesy to the people in your church, your people, that the glory of the Lord will be revealed, has been revealed, and is being revealed every day to those who affix their hope to the cross of Christ.

Speak the good news, but know that your best leadership will be tapped in the habitual unsexy practice of kindness and caring attention. The elders who have blessed me are those who have smiled at my kids in the fellowship hall and learned their names. Who thanked me for my service as a catechism teacher. Who asked my opinion on church matters during home visits and then paid me the respect of listening. Who paid a short visit to your grandfather in the hospital, shared a bit of Scripture and the briefest prayer, and offered a compassionate handshake instead of a pious sermon. Who listened patiently to your grandmother as she relayed her worries about her family and then remembered to ask how things were going … weeks later. Who picked up a shovel on a wintry Sunday morning to scrape fresh snow off the sidewalk. Who stacked chairs after the congregational meeting.

In the confidence of your church, God comes calling. In your willingness, the Holy Spirit comes anointing. In your doing, the Word is embodied. In the serving, comes the blessing.

But let me be first: God bless you, son.

Tom off to church