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A People Who (Used to?) Belong …

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Jeff Japinga is substituting today for Lynn Japinga, who is substituting for Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell while he is on sabbatical. Jeff is an ordained RCA minister currently serving as associate dean for doctor-of-ministry and continuing-education programs at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

On All Saints Day I’ll mark the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the office of minister of Word and sacrament—all twenty-five years working in administrative service to the church, most of them on staff of the Reformed Church in America.

Looking back, I’m struck by how much of what seemed so urgent and important during those years has already been forgotten, certainly by you and even by me—curriculum, programs, workshops, and all those carefully crafted General Synod reports and Church Herald editorials. But while many of those details have faded, the journey has not—one that saw me worship or teach or eat or have a meeting or just listen in every RCA classis but one (sorry, Canadian Prairies—it was me, not you). East, Midwest, west; in big cities and the smallest towns; with conservatives, moderates, even a real-live liberal or two; among visionary leaders and dedicated followers, mostly nice, some grumpy, and only a few downright mean.

I remember studying Scripture one Sunday morning with the adult Bible class of the Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, South Dakota, then, quite remarkably, talking through the same text just a couple of weeks later with a gathering of youth in Warwick, New York. I remember observing the angst of General Synod Executive Committee members laboring, and praying, over difficult decisions, and the very next week interviewing people who questioned what in God’s name their RCA leaders were doing. I remember a group of deeply faithful gay and lesbian Christians wondering whether they would ever be accepted in their “conservative denomination,” and, a few weeks earlier, met a church consistory who mourned an RCA grown “way too liberal.” And virtually all of them were convinced by the truth of their own understandings about the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if many wouldn’t acknowledge that others might be truthful, too.

That was us—the denomination who, in the late 80s, rolled to the theme of “a people who belong, to God and to each other…” A lot of us snickered back then at so sappy an idea(l), and it too eventually was forgotten; but I also sensed that an awful lot of us also wanted to believe it, even in our disagreements, maybe even work for it. I know I did.

Whether this trip down memory lane is just typical 25-year nostalgia, or whether it was prompted by my summer return to denominational life—first as a delegate (of the corresponding variety) to the General Synod of the RCA and then as a delegate (ecumenical advisory) to the General Assembly of the PCUSA—I’ve been thinking about those “people who belong(ed), to God and to each other.” We probably never really did. But we certainly don’t now. How bitterly we fought each other this summer, and how divided we were—both denominations—on so many matters. How intractable, and inflexible, and fear-based, the arguments seemed, and felt. How often, too often, the gospel we spoke sounded not like one of mercy and grace, but one of defiance. How much we seem to have hardened toward each other. How much us versus them language we used, about people who were all us.

In my backpack at General Synod was a folder full of articles about the kind of leaders and churches who will thrive in post-Christendom North America: ones who, in a complex and quickly changing world, are inclusive, not exclusive, functional, not positional; ones where people are valued, trusted, challenged, encouraged, and equipped to transform their everyday experiences into the kind of meaning that can shape and guide their lives; ones that promote and foster engagement, continued learning, and hard—but holy—conversations.

It struck me that those articles were in many ways talking about a people who belong, to God and to each other. We in RCA probably never really did. Maybe we ought to make a motion to re-consider.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

2 Comments

  • Jessica Bratt says:

    I second that motion.
    Thanks for your reflections Jeff!

  • Al Janssen says:

    I share the nostalgia, and second your motion.

    However, I think something important has shifted in the RCA. I recall the old sense of family. But I must admit that it was a small and largely homogenous world then. We live in a more global universe — the world of Belhar. That is, we face the challenges of a diversity that is ethnic, cultural, racial and theological. The challenge is much greater.

    It helps me to recall that our unity — and our catholicity — is not in ourselves and not in our commitment to diversity. It isn't even in our common confession, but in Christ. And part of that is a sort of humble acknowledgement that we are divided and broken and find our union only at the cross — which liturgically is to say at the table.

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