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There was tension in the atmosphere as General Synod approached, figuratively and literally, with a tornado warning during the delegates’ arrival that necessitated a short break in registration so that folks could be safely moved to lower realms within the buildings of Central College in Pella, Iowa. The storms of weather moved pass quickly but other tensions remained in the air as the opening session began the following day. Shortly after the meeting was called to session new business was brought to the floor to disinvite the minister who was selected as that week’s worship leader. The presiding officer ruled that business out of order (as he was the one to have invited her in the first place) and immediately his ruling was challenged, a vote was taken, and the reality of brokenness and disunity was palpably obvious in the nearly equally divided vote tally. Thus began the 201st Meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America in June of 2007.
Seven years later, once again gathered on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa for the meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America the storms were not present, but a certain tension remains.
There is much that could be shared about Synod and the wider church and the various tensions that enliven us—or sicken us, depending upon one’s view. I choose to see it as enlivening. I want to join Joseph in his account of the workings of God recorded in Genesis 50:20, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today.” I choose to see the tensions as possibilities to bring about experiences of grace and reconciliation. I haven’t always viewed them as such…
There are particular images that for me have become emblematic of the church and the world in which we dwell. Seven years ago amidst the fraught climate of that particular General Synod meeting I encountered an old college friend and ministerial colleague. We had not kept up in the years following our college days but we were certainly aware of one another’s “presence” in the church. Over the years we had gradually moved in differing directions—in part theologically, more so in how we read scripture and our views social and political. We moved in different “camps” away from one another. (I hate using that word here, but it is accurately descriptive.) We had also grown decidedly discouraged by the direction we saw our beloved church, denomination, going. We were cynical and in good measure untrusting. Still, as is our history in the RCA, we had a relational connection. At one point during that meeting, standing in the back of Kuyper Fieldhouse during a rather dismal plenary session, we found ourselves with an arm around one another’s shoulders—you know, in that side-by-side buddy stance kind-of-way—and chatting about what we should do each believing that the church was apparently going to hell (although in opposite ways). Both being Reformed and having some sort of affection for our polity, we’d become Presbyterian (although obviously, of vastly different denominational affiliation!). It is not the image of this scene, however, of this “unity in our disunity” event that has made a lasting impression on me. Rather, it was the reaction of another friend and colleague walking by, glancing towards us, and reacting almost cartoonishly with a jaw-dropping gasp of surprise. The image of her reaction is what has stayed with me from a very challenging and discouraging synod meeting. And it gives me hope.
My old college friend and I have continued to move in opposite directions. He may just become a Presbyterian yet, or thus is the chatter around the interwebs. But not me. (No offence to the Presbyterians!) Which is not to say I’m no longer discouraged by things that happen in the RCA. I am. Even by our most recent General Synod. But it’s a measured discouragement, no longer brandished with cynicism. I’m also more hopeful. I see God doing something now and over the long haul. So I see my friend who gasped in surprise of two incredibly unlikely characters hanging out as a kind of admonishment on the church. Why should we be so surprised?
There is another image that harkens from the 2007 General Synod that looms largely in my mind. It involves an ecumenical address given to the Reformed Church delegates from a Christian Reformed Church’s representative. 2007 was the actual 150th anniversary of the CRC’s 1857 Secession and the CRC’s representative spoke not a little painfully of the brokenness that imparted to the church. What was plainly obvious however, was that the reason for division 150 years ago were no longer an issue and in hindsight, actually appeared comical. In the same light I wonder about our current tensions, how sadly comical they will appear to those who come after us.
This is not to take away from our current realities, but simply to see them through a different light.
I don’t mean to come across as Pollyannaish. There are significant issues that certainly divide Christians, both between denominations and within them. And not just issues, but pain that has been experienced and that continues to be inflicted by and among sisters and brothers of one Lord, one faith, one baptism. These are real. But I believe precisely because the grace of Jesus Christ is also real that we can do better.