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Yesterday the congregation that I love and serve celebrated its 50th birthday. It was fifty years ago to the day, on June 12, 1966, that the first worship service of Fellowship Reformed Church was held in the gymnasium of Waukazoo Elementary School in Holland, Michigan. I imagine Rev. James Schutt standing, Bible flipped open in hand, looking out at a sea of faces he didn’t know. Faces, so many of them, that didn’t know each other. Strangers who were called by God and gathered around Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit for one purpose: to be a local expression of the body of Christ on the north side of Holland.
We had a beautiful morning of worship, hearing testimonies from past pastors who served so faithfully, bearing witness to the triune God who is able to do abundantly far more than we can ever ask or imagine. What was once a gladiola farm (that’s the property upon which the church building was constructed) has blossomed into a place where a community of Christ-followers is continuing to be formed and transformed into a missional people, called and sent to embody the gospel in this particular time and place.
Yesterday was one of those moments where you pause and find yourself overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the gift of the church. Gratitude for the gift of these people. Gratitude for the gift of getting to be one of their pastors for eleven years now.
I also found myself experiencing a deep sense of gratitude for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, and my siblings in Christ who are currently at Trinity College in Palos Heights, Illinois for General Synod (our annual assembly). General Synod began last Thursday, June 9 and wraps up tomorrow, June 14. Others have written some very thoughtful reflections about General Synod on “The Twelve.” I’ve participated as a delegate in the past as well, and I know the days are long and the work can be hard. Especially as we engage issues and topics about which there remain a diversity of perspectives and deep convictions.
So many of us have committed to “praying without ceasing” for all of you who are faithfully serving as delegates (and participating in other ways). Thank you for the time, energy, imagination and deep posture of listening that you have given to this Synod. While decisions and outcomes are important, I suspect that what is of even greater importance is the kind of people we are becoming in the process of faithful discernment.
So in light of my congregation’s 50th birthday and the ongoing work of General Synod, I want to share two of my favorite quotes about Christian community. Outside of Scripture, these two voices in particular have had a profound influence on my own understanding of and commitment to Christ-centered community: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German pastor and theologian) and Jean Vanier (the founder of L’Arche communities). In their writings and practice, both embrace the divine nature of Christian community without dismissing the humanity of it. They remind us that Christian community is both gift and responsibility. Here, then, are the quotes:
“The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
“Almost everyone finds their early days in a community ideal. It all seems perfect. They feel they are surrounded by saints, heroes, or at the least, most exceptional people who are everything they want to be themselves. And then comes the let-down. The greater their idealization of the community at the start, the greater the disenchantment. If people manage to get through this second period, they come to a third phase—that of realism and true commitment. They no longer see other members of the community as saints or devils, but as people—each with a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, each growing and each with their own hope. The community is neither heaven nor hell, but planted firmly on earth, and they are ready to walk in it, and with it. They accept the community and the other members as they are; they are confident that together they can grow towards something more beautiful.” – Jean Vanier
As we seek to be faithful in our local congregations and as a denomination, I pray that we can stay focused on Jesus Christ and his work as “the one and only thing that is vital between us.” And in doing so, by God’s grace, may we continue to grow towards something more beautiful for God’s glory and the sake of the world.
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.