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I’m excited to welcome Reverend Abby Norton-Levering (Ministries Coordinator at the Regional Synod of Albany) and Reverend Marla Rotman (Pastor at Peace Church in Eagan, Minnesota) today! All three of us were delegates at General Synod and want to offer our collective reflections about our time together in Chicago last week. Here are some of our thoughts about what happened at General Synod….
How would you describe our work together at GS and the type of conversations we had?
Pastor Abby: I’ve been participating in the Ridder Church Renewal process for the past couple of years. One of the things I’ve learned about through this process is “defensive routines,” which are are ways people respond when there is anxiety in a system that get in the way of listening well and being present. Often our defensive routines have been practiced for so long, we don’t see them any longer. Through Ridder I’ve begun to see more clearly that when I feel threatened, I retreat to right/wrong thinking. I’m right, you’re wrong. It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Because of my Ridder practices, I came to General Synod this year with the intention of noticing when I was getting defensive and making other people wrong. You won’t be surprised to hear that I made other people wrong a lot. This took multiple forms. I labeled people “wrong” in my mind. I made snide comments about the wrongness of the “opposition” to other people who I perceived to be right. Sometimes I even told people straight out that I thought they were wrong.
What became obvious to me at General Synod was that the structure of our meetings is not conducive to prayerful consideration and deep listening. In plenary sessions, there was a lot of winning and losing, talking past one another, and deep feelings not acknowledged by people of differing views. It’s discouraging.
I had a very different sort of experience in the short periods of time when we talked at tables about the proposal for interfaith dialogue and the Commission on History report. Another time of deep conversation was the Sunday afternoon workshop I attended on healthy conflict. I wished for more opportunities like this.
Pastor Marla: A future pastor for the RCA joined me for a day at General Synod. She wasn’t sure what to expect, and I didn’t want her to be unprepared for what could be a seemingly ugly exchange of thoughts and opinions. General Synod can be like that: an ugly exchange of thoughts and opinions. Being in the same denomination, confessing the same standards and creeds, attesting to the same scriptural Truths, and worshipping the one true God does not mean that our members agree wholeheartedly on every detail. This has been historically true in the Reformed Church in America, and this year did not differ. I am grateful that we aren’t arguing the things that matter most. As a whole, we believe there is One God. We agree on the doctrine of the Trinity. We are settled on the fact that Christ was both entirely human and entirely divine. And, we even profess the scriptures to be our only rule for faith and life. Frankly, we already fought to the death on those topics in the 1st century.
It’s when we talk about the modern day hot button topics (IE: immigration, gender and sexual identity, musical preferences for worship) that we get ugly with each other. It is the ‘politics’ of the denomination that bring out the inner wrestlers among us. And do we ever wrestle! We metaphorically throw each other into the ropes, hoping to bind our opponents with a half nelson, silencing with a chokehold and finishing with an atomic drop. Of course, we do this in a polite and orderly manner. We have Roberts Rules of Order to see that we are civilized.
Maybe this sounds a bit more dramatic than some would describe it, but I’d argue that wrestling with each other is essential to being the church. Like Jacob at the River Jabbok, we must throw ourselves into the conversations at General Synod so that we can BE the body of Christ. Sure, it’s often an ugly exchange of thoughts and opinions, but in the wrestling God strikes. In the wrestling, we walk away changed. In the wrestling we discover that pain serves a purpose. In the wrestling, like Jacob, we seek forgiveness, we pursue reconciliation, and we seek restoration.
Pastor Jes: The hope for General Synod is that we worship together in ways that are both edifying to the body and edifying to our God and then we work together in the business we are called to on the floor. I think we struggled in our worship and we struggled on how to work together on the floor. I saw courageous people across the divides reach out to attempt honest relationship; that’s hard and I commend the compassion and the bravery.
What discouraged you?
Pastor Abby: What was most discouraging for me was the times of worship. I am happy to worship through the singing of praise songs, and I appreciated the diversity of speakers at the various worship services. But there was very little scripture read, and the speakers spent little time thoughtfully drawing out the meaning of the word. There was little time spent in silence together. The music was ALL LOUD, and nearly all of one kind–praise music. The worship ended up feeling profoundly inhospitable to me, and at times verged on feeling like an assault.
Why was this discouraging? Because in the past few years, I’ve been to two synods and another RCA event (Conversations) where worship was in this same vein–and I’ve asked afterwards, each time, for the worship to be diversified. And there has been no change. I am discouraged because I feel like nobody is listening.
Pastor Marla: When we forget that there are people behind the recommendations and overtures, whose stories are lost in the politics of the arguments, I find myself most discouraged. If I could wish one thing for participants of General Synod, it is this: That we would listen to understand before we seek to be heard.
Pastor Jes: Like Pastor Abby, I too, found the worship to be the most discouraging. This is not a worship style critique. I serve a church where there is beautiful, thoughtful organ (sometimes piano) hymnody and I will listen to Hillsong or Kirk Franklin worship music on my iPhone. When an organ, or a band, overpowers the voices of the people of God that is not good worship. When I can hear the voice of a brother or sister in worship, who I passionately disagree with, sing “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” then I can hear God lifting my gaze from my navel to see the one I disagree with on equal ground before the cross of Christ. When I can’t hear the voices of the people of God, when every second is filled with noise, that is not good worship.
Good worship leads to good work on the floor during our business meetings.
Another thing that discouraged me about worship was the lack of women leading worship. It was incredibly disheartening that a woman did not preach at the open or closing worship. We have such a long way to go in gender equality in our church.
What gave you hope? Where did you see God?
Pastor Abby: Meeting many new, creative, thoughtful young leaders who were willing to step up to the mike, say some courageous things, and to be vulnerable. This includes the two of you, Jes and Marla!
And there were a few moments when I saw the various parties on opposite sides come to moments of compromise. This happened during the judicial business session focused on New Brunswick classis and the synod of the Mid-Atlantics. It also happened with the decision to refer the reparative therapy recommendation to the Christian Action Commission and to remove the references to reparative therapy from the RCA website.
Pastor Marla: At General Synod 2015, a decision was made to create a special council, consisting of past General Synod presidents, classis members, and thirty hand selected participants from the greater church to address the questions of human sexuality as it relates to ordination and marriage in the RCA. This council will report to the General Synod of 2016. This, alone, does not bring me hope. What brings me hope is that, as scripture promises, where two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is there with them. And, just THINK about the things that God has done with groups of people gathered in his name! Chains have been broken! Gates have been thrown open! The Holy Spirit like tongues of fire has descended upon God’s people and countless lives have been saved! People have been healed! Demons have been vanquished! No, my hope is not in the gathering of the wise council – it is in the power of God to do immeasurably more than we could hope or imagine, to Him be glory in the church and in Jesus Christ to all generations forever and amen!
Where did I see God at General Synod? I saw God in the face person who picked me up from the airport. I saw God in the servers at the lunch line. I saw God in the golf-cart drivers who whisked us through the pouring rain. I saw God in the worshippers around me as we sung to the memory of those who have finished the good fight. I saw God in the bread and the wine that we shared around the table. I saw God in the whispered, “amen” from my neighbor in prayer, and in the shouted “Yes” and “No” as the votes were tallied. God was everywhere among us.
Pastor Jes: Pastor Marla and Pastor Abby gave me hope! Delegates who used their mind, heart, and soul when talking about delicate topics gave me hope. Meeting new creative emerging leaders gave me hope. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s evening plenary discussion gave me great hope. Meeting new delegates on Twitter gave me hope.
I saw God in a sermon I heard from Pastor Annie Reilly on Sunday afternoon. It was the first space all week that LGBTQ people and allies were reminded that we belong in the love of Christ. That was like a healing balm to my aching heart.
I saw God in the laughter and joy experienced in friends and surprising new connections. I pay attention to when joy shows up.
What do you hope for in the future of the RCA?
Pastor Abby: I really do have great hope for the future of the RCA in the Ridder Church Renewal process–and I would love to see Ridder leaders from across the denomination gathering to talk more intentionally about how we might change the culture of the RCA. How can we create more space for people be vulnerable? How can we be better listeners? How can we tolerate our differences and the pain that results from those differences? How can we live productively in the tension? After all, a working definition of emotional maturity is being able live in the tension. If we can work on this, we will grow in our health, as individuals, congregations, and governing bodies.
There was a lot of talk at this General Synod about people wanting “clarity,” and I’m afraid that’s just code for “forcing everybody to think the way I do.” There was a lot of threatening to leave. The General Synod professors at the end of our last day helpfully drew a distinction between uniformity and unity. Uniformity is going to be impossible for the RCA to attain on any issue, let alone one as divisive as human sexuality. Unity, on the other hand, is an eschatological reality in Christ, not of our own doing but of God’s. I experienced it most profoundly at synod at the Lord’s Table.
Pastor Marla: With all my heart, I hope that we continue to wrestle with each other through the ‘politics’ of the church. Because, I suspect, somewhere along the way we will discover that we don’t just wrestle with one another; We wrestle with God.
Pastor Jes: I hope for five things specifically.
- I hope we gather around Word and Sacrament and meet the living Jesus.
- I love my classis, NY Classis. We do not all agree. I think some think because I’m from NYC we all agree on the same things. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. We have strong opinions about different topics, but we love each other. We bless each other’s ministries. There is healthiness in NY Classis that I long for in the entire body of our denomination. There is room for all.
- That we are people known for delighting in our God and delighting in people.
- We join #BlackLivesMatter conversations and work to end white supremacy and racism in our churches. That we work to heal and hope. That we have hard conversations and seek reconciliation.
- We expand our reach and look to our ecumenical relations in friendship and look to our inter-religious relations to work together for the common good. Just like we individually can become navel gazers, I think denominations can collectively become navel gazers. Let’s look out and expand our reach for compassionate connection.
Thanks to Pastor Abby and Pastor Marla for sharing their reflections with us today. I’m grateful for their big hearts and good thinking as well as their leadership in the church! For another excellent reflection check out this piece on the YALT blog by Reverend Rachel Daley.