Category Archives: Church

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: 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.

 

A letter to Martin Luther on Reformation Day

IMG_0601.JPGDear Martin,

Here we are, October 31st almost five hundred years after you posted your concerns on the town bulletin board, and the church is more divided than it has ever been. For better or for worse, that date has gone down in the annals of history as the day we broke the church. That day that we began to redefine what it means to be a church.

You had legitimate concerns and protests. There were serious problems in the church that needed to be addressed. Would they have been dealt with eventually had you not tacked up your thoughts? Who knows. It is impossible to know for sure what would or would not have happened. But you did, and that the train began moving. Heading down a steep hill, it took a wrong turn, or at least an unexpected one, and the brake lever broke off, and at that point it officially became a runaway train.

I wonder if, knowing the state of the church today, you would have done anything differently.

For me, it is hard to “celebrate” Reformation Day. Instead, I think of it as a remembrance. I hope that is okay with you. I am thankful for your boldness to speak out for your convictions, to stand in the face of power and be a dissenting voice. This is the wonderful heritage of the Reformation. But the shadow side, is that we feel empowered to break fellowship with other Christians whenever we disagree on something that we deem to be important enough. In some ways, it is hard to speak of the Church, any longer, but rather churches. It is even hard to speak of Christianity, because of the diversity of opinions of the meaning of the faith. This is not necessarily unequivocally bad, it is simply different, and brings with it new challenges.

On the difficult days, I sometimes wish that you hadn’t opened that Pandora’s Box, that you hadn’t put that train into motion. When I sit in church meetings or have letters come across my desk and people and churches talk of leaving and splitting and seceding for various reasons, it bothers me. I think that it hurts Christ when we do this.

But it is not all doom and gloom these centuries later. Steps have been taken toward healing. We have learned that we don’t have to agree on everything to agree on some things, and that we don’ t have to agree on everything to work together. It has been a long and hard lesson, but I hope that we can keep working on it. You have left us with important lessons, particularly the Three Solae which have become central in our churches.

So, in remembrance of Reformation Day, I am reading the Bible in my own language, I am praying directly to God through Christ, and tomorrow, our church will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and everyone will receive both elements. Later today, I will be going to a local pub and I will raise a pint to you, Martin. For although we broke the church, we can take comfort in the fact that ultimately Christ will gather the church into the glorious Kingdom of God.

Yours sincerely,

Matthew

 

 

Wounds in the Body of Christ

Oklahoma City Bombing National Memorial

(cc) Tabitha Kaylee Hawk

Eendracht maakt Macht

These words adorn the banner at the bottom of the crest of the Reformed Church in America. Often the translation into English is, “Unity makes strength” but, as I understand it, a better translation is “Concord makes strength” — a pulling together like a team of horses.

***

The Christian church today is fractured, but it has not always been. For nearly a thousand years, the Christian church was essentially unified throughout the world. This changed significantly with the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern church (Orthodox) and the Western church (Roman Catholic) excommunicated one another. For another five hundred years these remained the primary divisions within the Body of Christ.

The Western church experienced yet another major fracture when Martin Luther, in his attempt to reform the church, found himself considered to be a heretic and was cast out of the church. From this moment, the Protestant branch of the Christian church was born and continued splitting and fracturing over significant things such as the Doctrine of the Trinity and more trivial things such as the introduction of hymns in worship alongside the Psalms.

I, myself, am also aware of my own history and I, too, am involved in the fracturing the Body of Christ. In the nineteenth century, there was a split in the Reformed church in the Netherlands. As some of the Dutch immigrated to the United States, the Reformed people joined together and several then joined with the established Reformed Church in the United States. For a number of them, however, this union was short lived and they seceded and came together to form a second Reformed denomination on this continent. It is into this latter denomination that I was baptized and raised, and it was here that I learned the essentials of the faith. My ancestors were secessionists and it is through them that I participate in this…

Today I’m at That Reformed Blog. Head over there to finish reading…

Assembling the church with young adults at the table

On Tuesday I leave for the meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, the broadest assembly of my denomination, comprised of delegates from every region of the church from around the United States and Canada. It is the 207th regular session of the venerable assembly, and I never forget of the heritage in which delegates to this assembly stand.

I do not go as a delegate, however, I serve as temporary staff. For the last few years I have had the opportunity to facilitate the group of college students who come from the denominational colleges and the young adults who are sent from the regional synods. Although I cannot vote and I cannot address the assembly, my role of shepherding these students is an important one, and one which I love very much.

Amongst the students that go, the experience often does two things at the same time: It inspires them to continued and deeper involvement with the church, regardless of whether or not this leads to professional ministry; and it provides a rather high degree of disillusionment of the church. Each year there is something which comes to the assembly which causes significant disagreement, and can often lead to in-fighting. Not simply impassioned speeches, but simply behaving in a mean way toward those on the “other side” of the issue. But this is the church, a broken, sinful, holy, hands-of-Jesus institution with all of the contradictions that go along with that.

I love leading this group of young adults. They give me hope not only for the future of the church, but the church as it is now — after all, their presence is not just to observe, they participate in the life of the broadest assembly in the denomination with all of the excitement of provocative reports and recommendations as well as the mundane of budgets. Although the group changes each year, each year it is full of people who, although different in many ways, are passionate about the Gospel and passionate about the church.

While this is a busy time, it is also a time which I find refreshing and hopeful. I enjoy seeing other ministers with whom I already have a relationship, I enjoy meeting new people and building new relationships with people form all across the denomination. But perhaps most of all, I love shepherding this group of students, for they do far more for me than I can do for them. I can help them understand what is going on, they give me hope for the church.

“‘…for I am the LORD who heals you.'”

I have a parishioner, I will call him Larry.  Larry has been battling cancer for some time, and has seemed to be losing the battle.  It has metastasized in different places, and just a few short weeks ago, he did not expect to be here by Christmas. The pain was unbearable even with pain medicine, and he was continually worrying about those family members that he would leave behind.

Having had loved ones battle with, and some die from, cancer, I understand how this goes. I understand that when cancer spreads throughout one’s body, the handwriting is on the wall. Most people know this as well.

Just a couple of days ago, I spoke with Larry, and ask him how he was doing. He said that he was doing quite well, that the pain was still there but more manageable, and that a couple of the spots elsewhere in his body had disappeared!  Whereas Larry thought he would be gone by before Christmas, now it seems that Larry will be here past Christmas.  Most importantly, however, Larry was able to regain his hope for the future, he was able to enjoy life and savor it, he was able to look at his future without an expiration date stamped on his foot.

To be sure, Larry still had cancer that was slowly destroying his body. However, the outlook, at least for now, looked slightly better? Was it the radiation treatments?  That most certainly would have had an impact. Did God have involvement? Most definitely.  However, what the radiation treatments could not have done was to increase Larry’s outlook. They could not have given Larry a sense of peace, or hope for the future.

In my experience, divine healing is something which is often relegated to Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley. Consequently, I, and I suspect I am not alone, will speak of God as “the Great Physician”, and will pray for healing, but will often expect little in terms of something miraculous.

I am often guilty of thinking of healing in terms of something physical. In the Bible we often read of people who were blind, but were able to see; those who were lame, were able to walk. But we also have the disturbed Gerasene man. While the above named “healers” offer great theatrics, I do not think that this is where true healing is to be found, and I do not thing that for healing to happen there has to be a sudden miraculous moment where all cancer is gone, an incurable disease has suddenly disappeared, where the blind can see, or the lame can walk. Is it possible? Sure it is. Is this the only way? Certainly not.

Sometimes true healing comes in little bits. It comes in a spot of cancer which was there but has disappeared even though it still exists other places. It comes in pain which was unbearable but which is now manageable. It comes in a hope that did not exist but now does.

I have been reminded that God does heal, that God remains the Great Physician, and remains active. The rub, however, that it often comes in a form that we are not expecting, and consequently do not see. Sometimes the miraculous actually comes clothed in something mundane and ordinary.

this building is a mess

Haartz-Mason

By WickedVT on Flickr

At 8:30pm standing over a flooding floor drain with a wet/dry vacuum trying to control the incessant water is not how I typically picture spending my one day off.

However, this is exactly how I spent four and one half hours of my day off: sucking up water, and emptying the bucket.

The only redeeming quality is that my beloved was with me.  She was able to share some of the burden with me, and she was also a wonderful companion to keep me company, to talk with, and to keep me from doing anything rash like filling the whole church basement with concrete and pretending that it never existed.

This was a problem which could happen to anyone, anywhere. It is not anyone’s fault, and there was really no better solution than just to try to keep it as dry as possible for as long as possible until we could call a plumber.

“It’s just that nothing is dependable,” she told me.  She didn’t have to say anything more, I knew to what she was referring.  Our church struggles financially, so there is no real sense of security there.  Our building is old with a lot of deferred maintenance, and so each day one never knows what surprises the building might be hiding and preparing to reveal.  Our community has a lot of challenges, and I never know what I will face when I get up any given morning.

I have found that I cannot depend on anything except to expect the unexpected.

Perhaps this is true of more things than just our church, though.

Perhaps this is a good lesson for me, someone who is always seeking to find security, dependability, and consistency.  Perhaps this is all one big object lesson to teach that seeking security and dependability in all of this is superfluous; after all, the only true dependability can be found in God.

After our discussion, I went back to the kitchen, turned on the utility vacuum, and continued sucking up water.

This old building is a mess, I thought.  Yes, it is a mess.  But so am I, and so are all of us, when it really comes down to it. Perhaps this is what I am reacting to so strongly and not simply the water.  Perhaps it is that in the fact that the building is filled with problems, and it serves as a mirror where I can see all of my own problems more clearly, without anything to cover them up or gloss over them.

…God First Loved Us

Baptismal Font

By brandsvig on Flickr

I had the privilege of administering my first baptism yesterday.  It was an infant who was recently born of one of the families in our congregation.

It was a wonderful celebration of the sacrament of baptism.  The liturgy is beautiful, the child was adorable and dressed in this lovely white dress.  She fussed a little bit but it was not like the weeping and gnashing of teeth that sometimes occurs.  As a fellow pastor friend of mine once told me, “If the baby doesn’t cry you’re not doing it right.”  Which refers, of course, to the fact that in baptism we symbolically die with Christ, and as such, there should be at least a little bit of fussing.

The moment was a wonderful celebration of God’s grace, and God’s love for us even when we cannot yet love.  There is a portion of the liturgy when the minister speaks directly to the person to be baptized immediately preceding the administration of baptism with the Trinitarian formula.  In the case of an infant, it reads like this:

[Name],
For you Jesus came into the world;
For you he died and for you he conquered death;
all this he did for you, little one,
though you know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.

We love because God first loved us.  That is, of course, quote from 1 John 4:19.  This is also where the theology behind infant baptism all comes together.  I cannot find a better defense of infant baptism than this.  After these words were spoken, and I dipped my hand into the water, I felt as though we were all in the very presence of God.  I wish that we could have stayed in that holy moment forever.

However, that moment did not last.  Shortly after the service, the sinfulness that pollutes the world reared its ugly head.  Divisions, anger, self-centeredness and greed invaded the aftermath of this holy moment. It had been a very difficult couple days leading up to that day, and I felt as though I was delivered from the inferno to the very presence of God and then immediately dragged back to the inferno.  I quipped to my wife after we returned home that this experience is what Dante saw in his vision when writing the Inferno.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps, however, this was somehow a gift, it is an example of life in this world.  Our world is grossly imperfect, polluted by sin and evil.  Much of life is filled with trials and sufferings, but these are always punctuated by moments of heaven.

We baptize infants not because they are perfect, not because they are faithful Christians, not even because they are good.  We baptize infants because God first loved us, and therefore we are able to love God because God loves us first, and we are able to love others because God loves us first.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps it is fitting to experience both the heights of the experience of God’s grace and the depths of depravity.  This is, after all, what we experience in this life.  We have experiences when love is easy, when we feel loved.  We also have experiences in which love is difficult, and we have to love in spite of the fact that all we may receive is hate, anger, and bitterness.  We do not love because the other is nice, or because they are even deserving of our love.  We love because God loved us first — God loved us despite of our anger and bitterness and hate, and God requires that we treat others in the same way.

I wonder what that child thought of all that was going on.  I do know that she rubbed her forehead onto my shirt to dry it during the prayer after the baptism.  I’m sure she had no idea what was happening, and I am certain that she has no idea what the future holds for her.  I do know, however, that God’s grace is not ultimately dependent on what we can understand with our minds, but God’s grace is stronger than all of our weaknesses.  My ability to love people is often times weak, and I continue to hope and pray that God’s grace will not only transform the life of that child as she grows, but also transform my life as I am still in the process of becoming a Christian and learning how to truly love.

We love because God first loved us.

Earnestly Praying for Peace

Dove of peace

By Mafleen on Flickr

“Pray for peace.”  This is a common thing to say.  I pray for peace.  Mostly, however, I’ve prayed for the idea of peace, I’ve never had to actually earnestly pray for peace before.  The Milwaukee area is still on edge from the massacre at the Sikh temple in one of the south suburbs.  We have not yet begun to recover from this, and just this week, we had seven shootings in 24 hours in the City of Milwaukee.  One of these shootings was three blocks from the church — the same place where a shooting occurred less than a month ago.

Where is God in the midst of all this violence?

There are multitudes of people pointing out what is wrong with our neighborhood.  There are plenty of people who are too afraid to come to our neighborhood.  People in our community are nervous about spending time out and about.  Whenever people have the means to move out of the neighborhood, they usually do.

We need peace.

We don’t just need for the violence to end, we actually need peace.  Peace is not just the absence of violence, it is the presence of wholeness.  It is the presence of love, it is the presence of community.  It is the ability to live with other humans in the way that God intended.

We need more than just safety.  We need a wholeness in our community, we need for people to care about one another, we need true peacemakers.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Grant us peace, O God. Make our community whole, and transform us so that we can live into the way that you desire us to be. Amen.