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Essay

Why Stay?

By June 25, 2015 7 Comments
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“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child…”

Growing up, the story was oft told of when my mother and little brother returned from the hospital following his birth that I gave them the silent treatment for days, not very happy to have another baby in the house. This tale may be a bit apocryphal as I was only a year and a half, I’d like to imagine it took me a little longer to develop more passive aggressive behavior. Still, there was a sentiment of truth expressed nonetheless—or perpetuated—as my little brother and I would have a typical sibling relationship throughout much of our childhood, often caring, just as often contentious. Being the sane logical older brother, who incidentally could easily relate to the same in the parable of the prodigal, I would explain to my folks had they only decided to leave my little brother in the hospital where they apparently found him life would have been better all around!

Regardless, we were stuck with him. I was stuck with him.

“…when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

I should note that my little brother and I now get along quite well. We grew up. We certainly don’t see the world the same way or agree on everything. We cope. We care. We’re brothers! At a certain point you realize that you have to get along. Sure, you could simply ignore each other, but seriously, that doesn’t work well or really accomplish anything. (We do live 400 miles apart, so maybe that helps.) But ultimately the reality is that we are siblings. It was not our choice but ordained by others. Obviously we get to choose how we live that reality out but we don’t get to change that reality.

This may be naïve or simplistic, but this is how I approach the church too. We are siblings, sisters and brothers in faith, together.

Having returned recently from the 209th Meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America I have been processing the work of the church and what took place. In particular I’ve been mulling over two specific questions. The first question was asked of me by a friend and minister colleague with whom I have much in common and share a similar perspective. After a particularly trying morning, challenging and filled with a goodly amount of discouragement he asked, “Why do you stay?” The second question very similar to the first was asked of another dear friend and minister colleague, again someone with whom I have much in common and share a similar perspective by someone—it is fair to say—who differs with us significantly in perspective and understanding. He was asked, “Why don’t you just leave?”

Why do I stay? Why don’t I just leave?

On the second night of synod after a pretty rough day where anxiety was apparent and the lack of unity was palpable, the delegates were introduced to an ecumenical panel of guests from vastly different Christian traditions and communions who all participate in Christian Churches Together. The panel included a Roman Catholic Archbishop from St. Louis, an Armenian priest from Chicago, and a Korean-American Pentecostal theologian from Tennessee. Walking alongside this panel was the RCA’s own Ecumenical Minister and General Secretary Emeritus, Wes Granberg-Michaelson. The questions asked of the panel were wide-ranging and the viewpoints expressed vast. But the impression left by these four churchmen (and sadly, in this case they were all men) was that while their differences were indeed immense, the reality of the oneness of the church compelled them to work together and seek unity. It was a unity not found in form or structure or conformity or agreement or even theologies—for their differences were significant—but was grounded in a greater truth that in Christ they were already one. One could not hear the panel speak without hearing the echoes of the Confession of Belhar,

that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.

It seemed an indictment upon if not the work of the day, then our divisive attitude, unity as a reality.

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Following the ecumenical panel was a Global Mission presentation that included a celebration of the Chiapas ministry. Since the 1920’s the RCA has partnered with indigenous peoples of Chiapas in equipping the church. The Church has grown exceedingly and now the RCA is concluding its time of mission there with the retirement of our last mission staff located in Chiapas. To commemorate this milestone sixteen missionaries who served in Chiapas shared a portion of their story and the work they did. The story of the Chiapas mission is inspiring and is something the RCA should celebrate. What struck me that evening, however, is just how significant the Chiapas mission has been in my RCA life, even though I have never been there. On that stage that evening were five different couples (and others who were not able to attend) who have directly and indirectly formed my life and ministry: parents of a college roommate, professors at seminary, classmates and congregants at the same church, friends. Some of their homes I have visited and others I have participated alongside them in their children’s weddings. Even though I have never been to Chiapas the ministry there has certainly impacted my life. They are part of my RCA family. We are sisters and brothers. That is a reality and not simply a choice. That is in part why I stay. That is why I don’t leave.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Don’t get me wrong here folks. I know our challenges our complex. And sometimes, our problems are very real. And nowhere and in no way should my familial theological sentiment be seen as a cause to stay in an abusive relationship—be that in the church or any other relationship. But in the RCA, I stay because we are family. Walking away wouldn’t change that. And just like in my childhood relationship with my brother I admit that I may know more now than I did thirty years ago. We might all learn more in the future, even from one another.

How about for you, in the church that you are a part of or perhaps no longer a part of? Why do you stay? Why don’t you just leave? Or if you did not stay, why?

7 Comments

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Thank you for these wise and hopeful words, Tom. I’m grateful that my parents modeled sticking with my church family through good times and tough times. It certainly does apply to denominations too. We need people who will stay at the table. Thank you for being willing to do that!

  • Victoria Karssen says:

    Following General Synod I felt shell-shocked. Having long heard commentaries of the divisions regarding homosexuality, I was yet ill-prepared. Never had I eye-witnessed the bullying, nor seen the resulting physical, emotional and spiritual burden — perpetrated on one body of my RCA family… …by another body of my RCA family.

    Why do we stay?

    Because we know God’s affections are not delineated by those with a limited view. Because our voice is calm, still, and ever-growing. Because our youth will return to the history of this ill-mannered debate and ask, “Why such a big deal?”. Because these youth will view us as the ones who did not respond in-kind, but kept a steady cadence of forward movement toward blessed inclusion.

    Why do we stay?

    Because we can take it…

    For our RCA family who need friendly, compassionate faces to reflect their own… For those who have called the RCA “home” from tender youth and desire to remain a part of this familial bond… For those who are not strong today – but may access our strength for tomorrow… we can take it….

    Why do we stay?

    Because God’s love is not just for these fearful, loud, and angry few. Truly, they are acting and speaking out of fear – and that fear increases as they are aware the views of the RCA in the world are changing away from theirs. Take joy that this is an indication that we are indeed progressing forward.

    Some of what occurred at General Synod was a witnessing of the abuse. I expect people will respond in defense. It is possible that the bullying will be made the best of God’s plan – to call people to action.

    I will stay, dear friend, as long as you are able to stay.

    Do not allow your mind to be drawn to re-experience the faces, voices, or words of fear.

    See the welcoming faces, hear the warm and loving voices, reflect on the affirming words God has been speaking every hour, every day – to you.

  • I am still fairly new to the RCA. I’m not Dutch; I’m a recovering Lutheran; I’m socially, theologically and politically liberal; and I’m a woman living in Arizona. Yet I was welcomed with open arms into the RCA and it felt like coming home. The RCA is made up of people of various colors, ethnicities, opinions, and gender expressions, even though we don’t always admit it. There are dog-people, and cat-people, worm farmers, and even a few folks who like chickens. I stay because the people in the RCA are my tribe. Even if we disagree, like siblings, we are still a family. (I also suspect that if I ever found a church that agreed on every single thing with no dissension, I’d promptly dismiss them as a cult.) Thanks for this post, my dear brother!

  • Nick Miles says:

    Thanks, Tom, for your insightful reflection. As Wes said, we need to celebrate unity, not uniformity.

  • Rev. Brian Engel says:

    Dan, as a friend and brother in Christ, I appreciate your sentiments and have thought many times over the years about what it would take for me leave the denomination… I have attended GS four times since 2005 and have seen how hurtful and divisive the discussions over homosexuality are. At some point though, I think about the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John/Mark, and how they “forced” to go their separate ways. I’d like to think that each remained faithful and fruitful despite of their diverging journeys.

  • Grace Veldhuisen says:

    I so appreciate your writing. I am one of the founding members of All One Body in the CRC. I am not convinced I will stay. But I do know that I have no way to help make the change if I am not in it. So as long as I feel I can keep the conversation alive, I will stay. If I am silenced, I will go. I feel very sad about the thought.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I stay because I am called by God to be here, gathered, protected, and preserved by Christ. My Calvinism doesn’t allow for the notion that God got it wrong somehow, so I am going to stay and try to learn whatever I am being called to learn. If others want to throw me out, they will have to do so. If others choose to leave, I will mourn their departure, and even try to counsel them not to go, but I will continue to preach what I am called to preach, being as true to the Scriptures, the Standards, and the Word of God as I can be, and I will not depart.

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