Essay

A View from the Bleachers

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You probably heard the story of the Christian caught in a flood. An emergency responder pounds on his door, “Get out! Evacuate! The water is rising rapidly!”
“No, I’m staying. The Lord will rescue me.

Indeed the water does rise. In a few hours, someone in a canoe paddles up to the second story window. “Get in with me. The water is rising fast!”
“No. The Lord will rescue me.”helicopter

Finally, the man is up on the peak of the roof, raging water swirling around him. A helicopter hovers, dropping a rope ladder. “Grab on and climb up!”
“No! The Lord is going to save me!”
Moments later, the man is swept away and drowns.

At the pearly gates, the man confronts God. “I was faithful. You were supposed to rescue me!“
God replies, “What do you think the evacuation order, canoe, and helicopter were?”

I think of this as my church, the Reformed Church in America, continues to struggle with fully welcoming and including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, especially as our annual and broadest assembly, known as the General Synod, convenes shortly in Palos Heights, Illinois.

For the past three years, General Synod has formed groups to discuss, study, and return with proposals on the topic. Each time, the group has come back saying things like
**  This isn’t simple.
**  We came to like and trust each other more than we expected.
**  The way forward is friendship.
Murky, non-definitive responses. Relational responses when procedures, amendments, and mandates were sought. Each year, General Synod forms another group, once again, to discern God’s leading.

Did it ever dawn on us that perhaps God has been leading us already? Like the man who wouldn’t leave his house in a flood, why are we continually dissatisfied with the responses from God? We keep asking “When will God speak?” God just might be saying, “I gave you ‘the answer’ three times now. Maybe you should listen to those who say this is complicated, that relationships matter, that legislation isn’t the tool to address this.”

This past April, 74 people from across the Reformed Church gathered for a long weekend to find a way forward on “questions of human sexuality as it relates to ordination and marriage.” This unique “Special Council” had been established by last year’s General Synod on the recommendation of its president. I was a delegate at General Synod last year and spoke against the formation of the council. I said it was rash and premature, like to trying to chew on a giant jawbreaker. You just break your teeth. Give it some time to dissolve and become smaller. But the president’s proposal passed.

Among those who favored this council I heard talk like,
**  We can’t sit on the fence anymore!
**  It is time to decide. No more dilly-dallying!
** Once and for all, we need to take a stand.
To me, it felt like they were expecting something similar to Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal.

ElijahThat didn’t happen. I was not a part of the special council. My view from the bleachers is that it was a tough but good time. More honesty and conversation than you might have expected, especially given the anxiety in the days before. One sign of the respect and mutuality achieved, afterwards all the participants steered away from private retellings and prickly postings on social media. But I don’t believe that many (or any) minds were changed.

When a wise, old saint in my congregation asked what came from the special council, I shared that the process might have been stronger than the product, that conversations seemed more prevalent than conclusions. He smiled knowingly and said, “That’s the RCA.” He meant it as a compliment.

I can’t get into the specific recommendations of the special council that will come to General Synod. They are complex, and ask for further study, or the start of processes that will take years to unfold. They feel somewhat like a confusing and hurried mish-mash to me, another symptom of our artificial urgency. While I have qualms, quibbles, and reservations about them all, I am glad to report there are no fireballs from heaven or lines drawn in the sand. More time to suck on that jawbreaker.

General Synod, however, is far different body than the 74 who were part of the special council. Much less diverse, with even less time to develop trust. Typically, more prone to impatience and partisanship. With many other things on their agenda can they wisely process all the special council is bringing?

Yet one more time, will General Synod say “We need a clear and simple answer. When will God speak?”

I trust God will keep whispering, “Love and relationships.”

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.

10 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is a good one.

  • Thanks. I will try to keep your perspective in mind as I serve as a delegate to the GS … sigh.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    that is a great point, Steve. I hope you will make it at GS.

  • Thanks for this, Steve. Looking forward to connecting at General Synod.

  • Jan says:

    I hear you loud and clear Brother! Well written.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thank you. This is so wise.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thank you. This is indeed beautiful. And true! However, I wouldn’t mind God doing a little Elijah’s fire from heaven thing too. At least in limited places. Nothing too consuming. Just a warm the seat of the pants kind of movement of the Spirit if you will.

  • […] Like almost every other Christian body in North America, the Reformed Church has been wrestling with issues of human sexuality for some time now, specifically affirming and including LGBTQ persons. For the past 20 months or so, we have had a Vision 2020 Task Force working on a way forward — slated to make a report to our widest, annual assembly in June. (We’ve sent off small, diverse groups to study and discuss and pray several times before.) […]

  • Matthew G Zatkalik says:

    I, too, “think of this as my church, the Reformed Church in America… .” For clarity, “continues to struggle with fully welcoming and including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons,…” needs to be clearly explicated. What precisely does “welcoming” mean? According to Collins English Dictionary, “If someone is welcoming or if they behave in a welcoming way, they are friendly to you when you arrive somewhere, so that you feel happy and accepted.” Including “fully” i.e. “fully welcoming” must indicate something more than simply “welcoming”. “[F]ully welcoming and including”…] infers something more than “welcoming”. People are welcome to visit most businesses but there is a process of interviewing before they are considered employees. RCA Church Membership asks – prior to fully welcoming and including persons into membership – and the individual must answer affirmatively those question prior to being recommended for membership. “The Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice in the RCA. Its Constitution consists of the Doctrinal Standards (which are the Belhar Confession, Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort), the Liturgy with the Directory for Worship, the Government of the Reformed Church in America, and the Disciplinary Procedures.” P.S. God gave us the answer long before the RCA came into existence. Generations of RCA members and clergy – until quite recently – repeated and lived according to that standard.

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