A Wonky Advent Wreath

We recently took our Advent/Christmas decorations down from the attic. The tree went up, we fought with the lights (as we always do), our two-year-old almost destroyed the ornaments, and we began the annual adventure of rediscovering what we actually have in the Advent/Christmas bins. One thing I knew that we had, however, was our home Advent wreath and candles.

Upon unwrapping the candles that we used last year, I noticed something was askew with them. And then it dawned on me that they had been in the attic. In the hot attic. All summer. Perhaps this was not the best place to store candles, but when the attic is nearly freezing when you put things away, the thought doesn’t cross one’s mind.

I had a good laugh, and I shared the photo and a lot of us had a good laugh at it, particularly when the candles are put into the holders in the wreath. It looks like Tim Burton, Edvard Munch,  Salvador Dali, and Dr. Seuss designed an Advent wreath. It still makes me laugh. But as I look at it, I’m not sure that I want to replace the candles. The wreath is all messed up and I wonder if there is something in there.

***

I’m a perfectionist. I like things to be straight, clean, even, symmetrical. When I annotate books, I use a ruler to get straight lines, I spend almost as much time cutting things off of my tatting projects as I do tatting, so as to eliminate as many mistakes as possible. I spend far too much time editing my social media posts, trying to get them to perfect, eliminating errors, changing word order, clarifying my intent. I’m convinced that the ability to edit posts and comments was the worst thing for me because it is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for perfectionism.

Perfectionism isn’t really about the thing itself, but something deeper. The thing itself is simply a mirror in which I see myself — and i suspect I’m not alone here — whether it is realized or not. The crooked lines or asymmetry is simply a mirror that reflects my crooked and asymmetrical places. The parts that are not quite right, the parts that are askew, the parts that are wonky–and not in a charming kind of way but a way that deeply disturbs to the core.

But even beyond oneself, it reflects the imperfection and chaos of a world which is broken, a world which is not quite right, a world which is crooked and asymmetrical, it reflects a world that is so often wrong. A world in which more often than not things don’t really make sense, where tragedies strike at random, where one cannot depend on good outcomes if there are good efforts, good intentions, even good choices and actions. And so we design buildings that are well balanced, symmetrical, that have crisp lines and right angles. Designs that meet some sort of platonic ideal of how things ought to be.

And while the perfection of a building or a chair, or a line may be striving after some sort of platonic ideal, the deep sense that something is wrong is not. There is something within us that knows that something is deeply wrong with the world, we know that things are not right, that things are not as they ought to be. And this can lead to two very opposite things: despair, and hope.

And this all brings us to the season that we enter on Sunday. Advent is largely a misunderstood season, as we tend to think of it as simply getting ready for Christmas. And too often, Advent is taken up with shopping and wrapping and parties and Christmas carols, which deprive us of the depth of Advent, and everything that Advent has to offer.

More than anything, Advent is a protest of hope against a broken world. 

Advent is what helps us to move to hope, rather than despair. Advent gives hope that things will be set right, that God is doing something that we cannot yet see, that somehow there will be good that comes out of this mess, even if we cannot understand it. And Advent is a time when I can be reminded that God can, somehow some way, make something good out of the mess that is me.

***

And this is what leads me back to these wonky candles. They are bent, though not bent the exact same ways. They don’t sit the same in the wreath, and they have lost the smooth and largely unblemished texture and are now a bit rough and a bit lumpy. They are crooked and askew, though not completely devoid of their function.

Kind of like me. And perhaps you. And likely all of us.

I think I’m going to keep these wonky candles. (Though I’m not sure if I’ll burn them, they look like they might be a fire hazard.) But there is something very Advent about them. Something very already but not yet, something that invites one to look deeper, to be aware of what is, but also to imagine what might be.

The candles are messed up and so am I. But there’s something better on the horizon.

And maybe, just maybe, there’s something beautiful, even inside those wonky candles.

The Light that Follows the Darkness: A Funeral Meditation

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” writes C.S. Lewis. The Cambridge Professor and writer lost his wife to cancer after only four years of marriage. His reflections written during that time were later published in a book titled, A Grief Observed. Lewis continues, “I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness…”

Grief is an experience that is hard to name, and even harder to describe. This is the nature of the human condition. This uncomfortable and confusing mixture of emotions is not something to run from, but to allow it space to dwell.

Grief involves both mourning our loss, but also remembering all that was good. And so today, we grieve his absence from us. We mourn his loss and we celebrate all of the light that he brought into the world.

And grief is so hard, it is so confusing, it is so messy, because we know in our heart of hearts, we know in our spirits, in the deepest parts of our being, we know with a deep knowledge that this is not how it is supposed to be. We know that this isn’t right. And it is okay to name that. It’s good to name that.

This is why we gather together. We do so not to avoid looking at death, but to stare it down. We look into the grave not because the grave has the final word, but so that we can stand over it, defiantly shaking our fists, and proclaiming with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

We look death straight in the eyes, because it is only by doing so that we, eventually, we might see through death. That we might see that the grave is not simply a pit of darkness, but that we might, eventually, see the light breaking forth in the darkness of the depths, that one can see the light of a new day. That even in the deep depths of death, the light of Christ can break through, even there.

***

And it is only when we look at the source of our grief, when we look at death, when we look at the grave, when we stare down the darkness as we wait for the light to shine forth can we say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It shall be well not because we ignore the pain, not because we turn away from it, not because we ignore it, but it shall be well because we trust that even in the midst of this, that God joins us where we are. That God experiences what we experience, that God feels what we feel, that God suffers alongside of us, and that, eventually, God will help us past this grief, past this suffering, past this pain. That God will lead us from darkness into the light.

All manner of thing shall be well because we do not grieve alone and we do not pick ourselves up alone. All manner of thing shall be well because death does not have the final word and the grave is not the most powerful force. All manner of thing shall be well because we have hope that life follows death just as the dawn follows the darkness of night.

We have hope because we trust that God is doing something beyond our vision. We have hope that God can bring good out of bad. We have hope that, as we read in the Psalms, “those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy.”

“Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, “for they will be comforted.”

The night brings darkness. But when you look into the darkness, you will, eventually, see the morning light breaking through as a sign that a new day has dawned.

Echoes of 1857

In 1857, the Reformed Church found itself fracturing when a faction saw themselves as purer than everyone else. Their separation had nothing to do with their ability to follow their consciences. They were not pushed out, they were not forced to function against their beliefs, and no one was forcing their beliefs or practices into a different direction. The secessionists simply saw themselves as too pure to be associated with those with whom they disagree.

Upon receiving several letters of secession, Albertus C. van Raalte, the Clerk of Classis at the time, spoke, and the following was recorded in the minutes. These words ring just as true today as they must have when they were spoken on April 8th, 1857.

…although there is noting else for the Classis to do than to receive these letters of secession as notification, as it is the fruit of a lust for schism already for a long time manifested by a few leaders, against which there is no weapon, which will do us less damage outside of the church than inside of it; and although the speaker has no desire to abridge the liberty of those who are separating themselves, also is even earnestly desirous that we may not be involved in quarrels, and [thus] arouse [mutual] bitterness among the Holland people, but may avoid everything that may give occasion thereto, and may, as far as possible, promote [mutual] love…nevertheless he is constrained with his whole soul to testify against this conduct that tears asunder the church of God, and warns each and every one against such a reckless course of conduct, which will bring ruin upon our posterity; [and to point out] that the whole affair (excepting a few leaders who fan the fire of distrust and suspicion), is a mixture of ignorance, sectarianism, and a trampling under foot of the brethren, of which the ministers of the [Classis] have been constantly for years the prey, which trampling under foot now extends itself to the entire old Dutch Reformed Church and the orthodox denominations — [a spirit] which has never been characteristic of the Reformed Church [and] which shall bear the judgement of God.

(Classis Holland: Minutes 1848-1858, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950, p. 244-245)

The issue then, as now, was not necessarily the separation, it was what brought it about. Pride, hubris, the necessity to bend everyone to your perspective or divide. And it was the pretending that separation was the holy option. At times, separation may be necessary (though these instances are very few). But it is sin. And to pretend that it is not does nothing to further the cause of Christ.

Of course, the most significant difference is that then the schismatics were in the clear minority, though today, there is possible that there is a numerical majority. But despite the American principle that numerical majority is right, the wide road does not necessarily lead to life.

To be Reformed is About Belonging

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…

What does it mean to be Reformed?

I fear that we haven’t done great P.R. of late, leading to some sobering definitions and associations with our tradition. Many have been taught that being Reformed is all about the “five points” (even though those five points are mislabeled, taken out of context, and given an authority much greater than was ever the intention) — that is, to be Reformed is nothing more than a certain soteriology (a doctrine of salvation). For others, the word Reformed calls to mind a person who is overly legalistic, patriarchal, and closed to anything outside of a narrow box. And for others, to be Reformed is to be cold, imagining God to be a cold and loveless giver of decrees and little more.

For me, to be Reformed is about belonging…

I’m over at The Twelve today, come on over and let’s share together…

The Hidden Life

Those who know me know that I have been called to a new place. No longer in the Midwest, I make my home in the East, in a place also settled by the Dutch, only this place was settled over a hundred years earlier than in my home. Though, the traces of Dutch settlement lie only in place names and the Dutch Reformed churches that dot the landscape in cities and villages, valleys and hills, flatlands and mountains.

And we have settled in a little village on the edge of a mountain and I pastor the church under the mountain and I live in the pastorie next door which was built at the same time as my church called its own minister. And for generations, over a century, the ministers of this little church under the mountain in our little village have resided in this house, walking on these floors, occupying these rooms, doing the ordinary things that comes with life. It is a place which bears the memory of changing people and times. It has many pieces that are original to when it was built in the late nineteenth century. It also has many pieces that have changed over the years.

A couple of months ago, when autumn advanced, we made our mark, or rather, will make our mark. Not an indelible mark but a mark of fleeting beauty. Hopefully. In the cool of autumn with the winds blowing we planted bulbs along our front walk. Daffodils and tulips, to offer the world color and joy come spring.

Is a bulb life, or is it potential life? I’m not really holding a plant, but a part of a plant, something which will become a plant given the right conditions. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this is that bulbs need to be in the ground through the winter. They need the cold, they need to freeze.

And so as I look out my window buried somewhere under the snow are those little patches of dirt that we turned and below that the bulbs that we nestled into the spaces created for them. Looking at it, one can see no difference between this space and the others, no one would know that this space was any different than the space next to it, or beyond it.

Even I forget, at times, of the bulbs which I planted. But whether I realize it or anyone realizes it, the fact remains that life is hidden, in waiting, just below the surface. And that in due time, the snow will melt and the ground will thaw and the days will lengthen and life will sprout forth from the ground.

Life which is hidden remains life, and sometimes what lies beneath the surface is known, other times it is a mystery. But the life which lies below the surface, hidden from view is nothing short of grace.

To Our Home’s New Owner

Welcome to your new home!

We are so happy that you were interested and even happier that you’ll be staying a while.

We are very sad to leave, perhaps it’s good for you to know that. We’re not leaving here to get away from here, but because we’ve been called elsewhere. We intended to stay here for many years, but life, at times, has different plans. And so we are moving across the country, and this space has been prepared for you.

A building is made of wood and plaster and nails and paint. It is a material thing which was, at one time, built; and will be, at another time, gone. It is a thing, not a living thing, but a thing which is made up of so many things which once were living but had died so that this house could be built. But in a way, It is living. Because, as I’m sure you understand, a house is made of wood and plaster and nails and paint, but it is much more than just that.

This house saw our family grow from two to three, and it was to first home to which we brought our son. It was within these walls that we had sleepless nights, laughed, cried, and began learning how to be parents. These walls saw his first smile, first sitting up, first crawling, first pulling up. These rooms echoed with laughter from dinner gatherings with friends and family. These walls heard of joy and sadness, hope and despair. In fact, this was the very first house that we ever owned.

Far more than a shelter from the elements, this house served as a respite from the trials of the world and was a place that was bursting with love, with all of the ups and downs that come along with that. And so we will take all of our things with us, and all that will be left will be the marks in the carpet where our furniture was. A desk, a table, the crib. And with time those marks will fade and any remnant of our time here will also fade away. But that’s okay, that’s the cycle of life.

You may be wondering why I’m sharing all this with you. There is, though, something within me that finds the process of selling a home less than satisfying. So impersonal, anonymous. Those times that you’ve been here, I’ve been gone. And we will likely never meet. And it is strange for me, to have this home that has been so much a part of our lives, and now to sell it to someone that I’ve never met. And perhaps you feel similar, wanting to meet the people who loved this home before you. And so this is why I’m sharing this with you. To let you know a bit of ourselves, and to welcome you to this space.

Even though we’ve only lived here a few years, so much life has happened here. And now it is time for a new chapter for this house. Our chapter has ended, and you are just beginning to add a piece of yourself to these walls and to the collective memory which is held within its bones.

I hope you add much life, and life in its fullness, to the memory of this home. The ups and downs, the twists and turns. Because it is not just the happiness that is meaningful, but all of it.

We hope that you enjoy it here. We have been blessed here. I hope you find the same blessing. 

 

Rethinking the Artificial Binary

In 1857, my church communion, the Reformed Church in America, experienced a secession of several churches because those churches and ministers thought that the things that divided them were greater than those which held them together. The fact of the matter, however, is that the things which divided were far smaller than those which united, but on those things which became their pet issues, they saw a binary choice — “you are either with us or against us.” The issues which they divided were held up to be gospel issues, issues in which there was no place for disagreement or a difference in perspective. Black and white, right or wrong. While some revisionist historians may argue that it was a disagreement understood at the time to be about cultural issues, even a cursory read of the letters of secession shows this to be wrong. While the things which caused the secession of 1857 were most certainly about nonessentials, the people involved saw them as things core to the gospel.

In 1882, there was another secessionist movement, this time over freemason lodge membership. There was nothing forcing boards of elders to allow members to be members of lodges, there was no statement by the General Synod allowing (or favoring) lodge membership. Indeed, the General Synod discouraged it. But because other churches somewhere else might allow their members to be members of lodges, a secession was required. Not because one is being forced to live and worship and practice their faith in a way that conflicted with their conscience, but because “somebody, somewhere might be doing or thinking something that I don’t like.” And so, this became a binary issue. Black or white, right or wrong. This became a gospel issue, and issue over which it was worth the risk of splitting the church apart again, leaving yet another wound in the body of Christ.

***

These are only two examples in my little corner of the Kingdom of God. Throughout history and across traditions, there have been topics, issues, that are held up as gospel issues that one must choose, you must choose this or that, black or white, right or wrong. No ability to wrestle, to struggle, to be in fellowship with disagreement. Whereas Joshua told his people to serve God or foreign gods (Josh 24:14-15), the narrative at times of tension and conflict are: choose this day your stance on this particular topic, because this topic determines whether or not you are a part of Christ.

This, however, is a false narrative, a false choice, a false dichotomy. To claim that we cannot be in relationship and fellowship and that we must break our covenantal promises because, while we all agree on the foundations of our faith and although we have all made the same promises, some see one topic differently.

This false narrative is rearing its ugly and sinful head in the Reformed Church yet again. One’s stance on human sexuality has become elevated to the single “gospel issue” which seems to matter by many in the fundamentalist/evangelical wing of the communion. The means of grace (the sacraments), the nature of covenant, salvation, or even the covenant promises that we had made to God and each other when we were ordained to ecclesiastical office, all these take second place. The narrative is that there must be a choice forced between two binary poles. This narrative, however, is artificial. This narrative is little more than a way to scorch the earth in order to try to force one into a sense of the worldly understanding of “victory.”

***

So often I hear, “We are tired of fighting!” To which I respond, “Then stop!” Stop fighting. Stop lobbing grenades over the walls, stop shooting artillery from your trenches. These are trenches that we have dug, they are walls that we have built, they are fights that we have initiated. Those who wish to cause the single issue of human sexuality to be the only thing that matters in covenantal fellowship wish to continue the fight until they either “win” or harm the church seeking a sense of victory. The goal is to continue the language of “us vs them” because it is known that if we are able to break free from this framework, that the fighting will stop, and no one except Christ and Christ’s church can claim victory.

And what about those who are not able or willing to make an artificial binary choice? What about those who think there is more to the church than sex, and who can have sex with whom? What about those who want to focus on living as disciples of Christ and living as a foretaste of the kingdom of God? What about those who want to love God and love others? What about those who are weary of the fighting, weary of the division, weary of the trenches and grenades and the war of attrition in which we are currently locked?

The choice is not binary. No two people can agree on everything, how much more for a church communion? The point is not to ignore differences, but to talk about them, even argue about them. For some, there are differences which are irreconcilable, but these are not the same for everyone. For one new and newly public faction, however, human sexuality seems to be a mark of the true church, but the means of grace are not. However, to insist that this must be the line in the sand for everyone is simply false.

***

So to those who wish to be the church, you are invited not into a faction, not into an alliance. You are invited, not by me, or by a leadership cadre. You are invited by Christ and by the saints who have gone before. You are invited into the church, you are invited into the Body of Christ, and into our corner of the Kingdom of Christ, the Reformed Church in America. Into this covenantal communion who have commitments to each other in the things that we see as essential (these can be found in the Government (and disciplinary and judicial procedures), the Liturgy, and the four Doctrinal Standards), while also allowing for difference with proper oversight (board of elders for members, consistory for church, classis for ministers and consistories), as well as ensuring that we live up to our covenantal promises, and fulfill the obligations which we have promised to fulfill (the synods, then, have a role in this).

There are those spinning this false narrative of an artificial binary choice which we must choose and choose in an instant, and if we allow this to control the conversation, we will never find peace, we will never find, unity, and we will never find purity. Indeed, there is no clear dividing line between the broad and problematic categories of “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative.” Indeed, there are conservatives who refuse to make this single issue the hill on which they are willing to die, and upon they are willing to, once again, carve up a part of Christ’s body.

We are not the world. We do not have parties, we do not have a binary opposition. We may disagree, but we are all working together for the same goal. Now we are to live into this. Understanding there are differences, and some of these differences are big. Understanding we can disagree about these differences and that we can even disagree strongly. But always understanding that Christ is far bigger than whether we sing hymns or Psalms or how we teach the Heidelberg Catechism, Christ is far bigger than the question of lodge membership, Christ is far bigger than human sexuality. Because if Christ is not enough to hold us together, then what is?

 

Digressions in Church Polity: The Reformed Church and Its Constitution

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) about the Constitution of the RCA and the role that it plays in the life of the church. Indeed, this culminated with a directive from the General Synod of 2015 which formed a large task force to find a constitutional pathway forward to deal with the different views of human sexuality within the communion. This, then, has brought the issue of constitutionality to the fore of the discussion of the communion, and it is a discussion that we are oft ill prepared to have.

What is a constitution? The word “constitution” is itself derived from the Latin term constituere, which means to set up, establish, arrange. So, then, a constitution refers to those basic things on which a body stands. It refers to the basic establishment or arrangement, it provides a framework to set up a body…

Continue Reading…

Digressions in Church Polity: There are no members of the Reformed Church in America

For anyone familiar with my ecclesiastical communion, the Reformed Church in America, or anyone who has read my writing elsewhere as of late, perhaps you are aware of the struggles that our communion is facing regarding differing understandings of human sexuality. However, the real issues are much deeper, the real issues are the things below the surface that we don’t talk about. I hope in this series of who-knows-how-long of digressions in church polity, I will have an opportunity to address some of these issues, and hopefully this (and other engagements) will serve to edify the church.

***

Part of the struggle within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) over differences in biblical interpretation is a misunderstanding of how a communion (or denomination) exists within our theological doctrine of the church. One of the biggest problems that perpetuates and enhances this misunderstanding is the concept of being a member of the RCA. The root of this misunderstanding is a misidentification of the locus of the church.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a member of the RCA. No one joins the RCA, people join local churches which are a part of a covenantal communion called the Reformed Church in America. While the RCA has a common glue that holds it together (Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government), the major bonding agent in that glue is our own willingness to submit ourselves to it. So while there are procedures to hold each other accountable to our covenantal commitments, these processes are to originate locally rather than from afar. There is no magisterium or college of bishops. The RCA does not have a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in New York, New York or Grand Rapids, Michigan or anywhere else.

The General Synod, then, is not a magisterium, it is not a collegial pope, and it is not the essence of the church. Instead, church is when the congregation gathers, shepherded by the offices, around pulpit, table, and font. Church is located in the local churches, not in synods. 

One of the ubiquitous statements arguing for the urgency of a lock-step uniformity on understandings of human sexuality (and interestingly enough, many of these same people also desire complete liberty for local interpretation of many other things, sometimes even those things which are of the essence of the church) is that people are leaving local churches because the RCA doesn’t have a lock-step uniformity on this one topic. The problem, however, is an apparent lack of understanding and education, on the part of office bearers, to help their flock understand how we, as Reformed Christians, understand the church.

The RCA is not a monolithic hierarchy . Unlike the Roman Catholic Church which has a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope, the Reformed Church is not a hierarchy and has never located church within an episcopacy or hierarchy. Rather assemblies operate within their sphere of responsibility, with the greater assemblies not infringing upon the lawful prerogatives of the lesser assemblies.

So as we discuss this, we need to stop talking about being members of the RCA, as there are only members of local churches (and in the case of ministers, members of the classis).

So rather than disregarding and discarding our doctrine of the church in the name of cultural utilitarianism, perhaps it would behoove us to live into our countercultural way of being and understanding our covenantal communion, and help the members of our churches to understand this.

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.