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The call came in part way through a three or four-day retreat. Part of the seminary’s January term, the entire first year class had travelled down from Michigan to a Catholic retreat center (and convent) in northern Indiana to study and to practice spiritual disciplines. Seems a little ironic, a Reformed seminary going to a Roman Catholic institution. And while we were lead mostly by Western Seminary faculty, I do recall a spritely sister in her young eighties who lead us in a lesson of centering prayer… It was probably the second day that the call came. The mother of one of our classmates was battling cancer and had taken a turn for the worse. Her daughter—our classmate who had become our friend—had to return home as soon as she could to Iowa. In the ensuing days her mother would pass on to the nearer presence of the Lord.
A group of us decided to make the trip out from Michigan to northwest Iowa to support our friend. A road trip made not for the adventure of traveling through the upper Midwest in January, but because, well, that’s what you do as a friend and sister/brother in Christ. You eat ham on bun (literally, a piece of ham on a bun); you pray; you visit.
This was my first time ever in Iowa. And not just anyplace in Iowa, but Sioux county! Driving that dark wintery night from Sheldon west to Hull and then down to Sioux Center for the funeral visitation, my friends and I turned on the radio to find a local high school basketball game in progress. I smile even now remembering the announcer, “Van [so-and-so] throws to De [Somethings-ma]…” Every single name called was Dutch (or Friesian) in origin. If not before, then now, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore, so-to-speak, or even west Michigan.
That was nearly 13 years ago or so. The carload of friends, we all became Reformed Church ministers, including the one we went to console. (Just received in the mail a package of coffee she sent to me from a project she’s part of involving Ethiopia and children’s literacy.)
And now just about every summer I often end up in Iowa to visit former classmates and colleagues who have become trusted and true friends.
I guess you’d say these are the ties that bind.
Last Sunday our congregation celebrated Reformation Sunday. We sang “A Mighty Fortress” and gave a solid nod to the important work that the church did and continues to do in reforming. With many of our folks from Germany, we have strong ties that bind us to that history and tradition. There was perhaps a little trepidation too. We confessed and mourned the harm and disunity that the Reformation brought and with which we still deal and we prayed for the unity and reconciliation to which Christ calls us. Maybe it becomes just a little too easy to be so firmly convinced that you are right, your side, your team, your tradition, even your church.
Like many congregations, we have folks from a variety of religious and denominational backgrounds. I asked one of our “members”—committed as all get out to our church, married into it, children and family are members here, but he’s not officially a member and self-identifies still as Roman Catholic—I asked him, “how do you think we did this Reformation Day, you know, recognizing and celebrating, but not bashing?” He replied, “Good; it was a good service.” Good. Sometimes you aim for good: good behaviour, good language, good work, good relations.
This coming Sunday we will collect canned goods and funds for the food pantry hosted by a neighboring Catholic parish that we cooperate with. This past Monday, our members worked at the same parish’s soup kitchen lunch program. An evening meal is served at another church—a program that we participate along with two Catholic churches and a Presbyterian congregation. The point in sharing all this is to say, we the church have come a long way. Certainly, we’ve still got a ways to go. Catholic, Protestant, Reformation or not, there are still ties that bind.
The New Utrecht Reformed Church of Brooklyn celebrated their 335th anniversary this past Sunday. We shared that good news in our congregation’s announcements and prayers. Following worship, one of my members said, when she was a young woman many years ago that she was baptized in that church. That might not seem like it’s that big of a deal for some. By the way the crow flies it’s only about ten miles from where our church meets and New Utrecht is located. But in between from when this woman was baptized to now is over fifty years of New York City history and happenings. She grew up in a tenement building to a secular Jewish family in post World War II Brooklyn and as a young adult sought out faith and a relationship with God that she eventually experienced at the New Utrecht Reformed Church. All these many years later and having lived in a variety of neighborhoods she is still growing in her relationship with God and experiencing her faith in a Reformed Church, old ties that continue to keep her.
Last week Lynn Japinga blogged here in a post entitled “Loyalty” about the historical precedence of divisions in the RCA and the accompanying irritations it brought. In particular she shared the sentiments of one member having experienced those situations yet “his loyalty to the whole RCA transcended his irritation with some of its members and decisions.” Through the concept of loyalty, Japinga wondered if we RCA members are still “loyal to one another” and “when can loyalty no longer be sustained.” It was a very good post and drew quite a few comments. And I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I’m not sure loyalty is exactly the way I’d frame it. Or at least, “our” loyalty.
What are the ties that bind us? Certainly, there is the shared experience, possibly a shared theology and history, backgrounds and what not. But ultimately, I’m not loyal to any of that, as important as that is. And it is important! Ultimately, it doesn’t seem as though it’s about loyalty to the denomination or church. Rather, and allow me this Sunday School answer, it’s loyalty to Jesus. And frankly, even that seems pretty insincere, as sincerely as I really do mean it.
Because, it seems my loyalty isn’t sustainable, even to Jesus. So ultimately, I wonder if it not about loyalty at all, or at least our loyalty, but rather the loyalty of Christ towards us. For you Heidelberg types, that whole belonging to God thing is in my thoughts. “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit…makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
I wonder if some previous generations got that better.
Perhaps this is all semantics, following that grace/gratitude distinction…
When it comes to the church, and the RCA specifically, I’ve certainly been irritated. And sometimes disappointed. But, if I can mix my metaphor, I don’t want to pick up my ship and go home. I don’t think that’s about loyalty. Nor do I intend to be irresponsible. Rather, I think it’s about trusting in God’s covenant in the church, even the RCA, reforming and mourning along the way.
But maybe I’m entirely off base. How about you? Thoughts?
One more thing: It seems like it’s easy to get caught up in “the church is going to hell” kind of mind frame. I sometimes do. It’s easy to be cynical. I often am. But I really do have hope in and for us. And in light of what much of the East Coast is experiencing right now in recovery and rebuilding from Super storm Sandy, I have been so blown away by the support the RCA has shown—from the Classis, to the Regional Synod, to the General Synod levels—and other parts of the church beyond across the county. It’s not a question of loyalty, but I sure do appreciate the RCA right now. Thank you! And please keep us out here in your prayers.
And finally, Happy All Saints Day!