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(Lucky) Thirteen More Profundities

Back by popular demand! If one doesn’t do it for you, maybe the next one will!

1. This is an idea I got somewhere on the internet and then adapted a bit. Take What You Need says the poster. For a few years now, we’ve had one regularly on a bulletin board in a heavily trafficked area of the church. I’m amazed at the results it gets. Little tabs bearing the different fruits of the Spirit disappear regularly. “Patience” is always taken first. Not sure who takes them. Maybe it is just middle schoolers messing around. That’s okay too.

2. As the Reformed Church in America bickers and battles over welcoming and affirming LGTBQ persons, the “correct” thing to say—for both sides—is that we don’t want to split, that we should look for a  better way forward, that church unity matters deeply. I believe it is a genuine desire. But recently someone I respect murmured, “Maybe we should just split and be done with it!” Was that just venting some exasperation? Or does it a signal a significant shift?

3. Swearing Like Jesus Swears—sounds like a possible popular book title or great clickbait. A few weeks back, I silently called someone not the nicest of names. I wasn’t pleased with myself. As I thought about this, I tried to recall how did Jesus swear? Or at least, what derogatory names did he use to express displeasure with someone? What if I would call my nemesis, “You whitewashed grave”? Or maybe, “You sniveling varmint!” (Luke 13:32). Perhaps borrow his cousin’s colorful phrase, “You brood of vipers!” I’m almost certain my use of insulting names would decrease.

4. We often hear about the graying of the church, how the American church is aging. It is a serious concern. However, I can’t believe we are aging any faster than season-ticket holders for the symphony, art-house movie patrons for the matinee, or PBS viewers after 6pm. Do you ever notice that only old men ride Harley Davidsons or drive Corvettes? These audiences and markets have to be aware of their demographics. I wonder how they address it?

5. Perceptions change over time. This is a homemade sign along a road I sometimes bike. R U Heavenbound? It used to annoy me. I read it as accusatory and fear-mongering. Maybe it actually is. But now as I’ve gone by numerous times, I read it differently, as more invitational. I gladly answer, “Indeed, I am” and pedal on joyfully.

6. What could convince me that abortion foes are truly “pro-life”? Sure, they could be more concerned about children’s nutrition and health care, capital punishment and climate change. Even then, why do I so often get the feeling that too many abortion foes are really motivated by a desire to punish people for having sex? “You had your fun, now you must pay!”—seems to be an underlying attitude of many. Of course we can’t overlook the connection between sex and conception. Nonetheless, abortion foes would ring truer if they could distance themselves from that cliché accusation that they are the kind of people who are always afraid that someone somewhere is having fun.

7. “What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever witnessed a stranger do for someone?” a website recently asked. Doesn’t quite fit the category, but it brought to mind my father. When he finished washing his hands in a public restroom, he would take a final paper towel to wipe down the countertop, edge of the sink and faucet handles for the next person. It’s a habit I should acquire.

8. Heard someone suggest recently that instead of “Father,” we might do better comparing God to a grandparent. Even those of us with the best of fathers have issues of approval and expectations and anxiety surrounding dad. Grandparents just have this wholehearted delight and hope and trust in their grandchildren. Maybe God’s love for us is more grandparenty.

9. We know about the colored triangles that the Nazis used to identify prisoners at their death camps. Double yellow to form a star of David for Jews, pink for homosexuals. But I had not heard of purple triangles for religious prisoners—primarily Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m not prone to compliment Jehovah Witnesses. But if Nazis want to eliminate you, maybe it means you’re doing something right. A few religious pacifists and seminary students also wore a purple triangle. Is there some way we could redeem or appropriate the purple triangle today?

10. My biggest purchase during a recent trip to France was a replica of what Protestant women prisoners painstakingly scratched in the stone of their cell. Resister. Resist! The etching is commonly attributed to Marie Durand. She was imprisoned for her faith at age 19, spending the next 38 years, 1730-1768, in the Tower of Constance in Aigues Mortes, France. How many years did it take Marie to inscribe that word in stone with no real tools? Resist, indeed!

11. While traveling, I was next to the gate for Grand Rapids in the airport. I think the Grand Rapids airport is one of my least favorite places in the whole world. Before all you civic-minded Grand Rapidians get upset, let me say it is a fine airport. Just laden with too many bad memories—difficult meetings, disappointing decisions, painful rejections, good-byes, exhaustion, cancer, and funerals. Do you have locations you try to keep away from, painful places that you avoid?

12. For some people it is the Oxford comma, but one of my pet peeves in Christian writing is when “he,” “his” and “him” are capitalized when referring to God or Christ. There’s no good reason for it in the original language. Seems grandiose and pious—and not the good sort. By the way, do we have a definitive answer on whether Jesus in the possessive should have an S—Jesus’s? Use of the S in addition to the apostrophe seems to be gaining favor, but please don’t pronounce it as Jesuses.

13. Heard a favorite theologian of mine, James Alison, recently. One of his throw-away lines, a complete aside to the topic at hand, really amazed me. “We tend to think of our past as fixed and the future as open. But redemption through Jesus Christ means that our future is now fixed but re-understanding and reordering our past is still open.” Let that roll around in your soul for a while.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Tom says:

    I find myself looking for a biblical insult to hurl. I’ll pick a little fruit of patience and do my best to hold off but I do find your #6 extremely frustrating because it is a theme that I hear/read over and over again, mostly from people who share my faith:

    First, why not turn your question around and ask “why do so many people who purport to be ‘concerned about children’s nutrition and health care, capital punishment and climate change’ care nothing about the life of an unborn child?” In fact, why do they go even further than not caring and support the elimination of untold thousands of unborn lives? And why do they not care that the lives eliminated are disproportionately from the poor and minority populations they claim to care so much about?

    Second, I know many, many people who are pro-life, who are involved in ministries that support parents with unplanned pregnancies and who might, except for their support, opt for abortion. It is a gross insult to those active in the pro-life movement for you to say they are “motivated by a desire to punish people for having sex”. That’s not to say there is no cynicism in the pro-life camp, but I would wager that whatever the percentage of pro-lifers who are “motivated to punish”, a much greater percentage on the pro-abortion side supports abortion rights primarily because it allows them to selfishly solve their own problem at the expense of someone else’s life, not because they care about the plight of the poor.

    Third, I have nearly reached the end of my patience with the often expressed opinion that the only way to be ”concerned about children’s nutrition and health care, capital punishment and climate change” is to support a politically left solution. Believe it or not, it is possible to concurrently care deeply about children’s health care and be opposed to funding all health care through the federal government; or to care deeply about God’s creation and be opposed to spending trillions and trillions of dollars on “solutions” to climate change that appear to primarily driven by leftist political ideology.

    So maybe this is not concisely communicated by the above, – – I posted a comment to Scott Hoeze’s screed against the NRA a while back with the same theme. My point is not to convince you to support repeal of Obamacare, or full withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, or any other POLITICAL proposal, or even to argue the rightness or wrongness of either side of those arguments. My point is that your question: “What could convince me that abortion foes are truly ‘pro-life’”, has built into it the assumption that if you support a politically conservative agenda, you are NOT truly ‘pro-life’, you DON’T care about the poor, you DON’T care about children, etc., etc., etc. And built into that assumption is that leaning politically left is more spiritually in tune with God’s will than is leaning right. That seems to me patently and obviously false.

    The truth is, there are many deeply committed Christians on both sides of the aisle. These times are divisive enough without questioning the motives of our fellow travelers.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Tom, thank you for your patience, and including me in your fellow travelers—and also among those who want to see abortions decrease. What follows is intended to be an irony-free zone, since it can be difficult to sense “tone” on the internet. I don’t want to focus as much here on the political, but rather on the personal and experiential. Still, I find it hard to think that anyone who supported the recent rushed, incredibly poorly written attempts to repeal the ACA purely for political points can in any way still claim to be “pro-life.” Likewise, empirical evidence shows that there are plenty of ways to decrease abortion by offering women hope and a future. But in my experience because these proposals usually come from Democrats, most pro-lifers are not supportive.
      Now speaking anecdotally, I know there are many pro-life people who do noble, quiet, and patient work to care for pregnant women. I work with and support some of them. Sadly, however, when I have tried to work with some pro-life people in a college town, I have encountered a lot of punitive and prudish attitudes. There was virtually no interest in trying to build trust with young women before a crisis, or to be helpful in reducing unwanted pregnancies through easier access to birth control. Actually, there was suspicion and disdain for birth control in general, which I believe makes neither theological nor biological sense. I don’t think my experience is unusual, otherwise the clichéd accusations against anti-abortion people would decrease. Personally, I have a conservative sexual ethic, but I do not believe that hoping or trying to impose my sexual ethic is the way to reduce abortions.

      • Tom says:

        I can’t say that I disagree with your anecdotal experiences. There are people who do the right things for the right reasons, the wrong thing for the right reasons and the right thing for the wrong reasons. The truth is, society/government/the church/etc.(fill in the blank) would be perfect except for one thing – they all include people.

        My point was not to argue for the people in the pro-life movement or even to argue any political point, my point is that you (probably unconsciously) align your political views with a superior theology/spirituality/alignment with God’s will, and you did it again in your response.
        You say “I find it hard to think that anyone who supported the recent rushed, incredibly poorly written attempts to repeal the ACA purely for political points can in any way still claim to be ‘pro-life.’”
        Well, I agree that the repeal/replace legislation was badly written, but here’s what I think of the ACA in the first place. I believe it took all things that were completely screwed up in our systems for funding healthcare and doubled down on the worst aspects. I believe it was cynically written and enacted with the absolute certainty that it is financially un-sustainable and doomed to bankrupt itself; also with the certainty that once in place, it would be virtually impossible to unwind (as it is proving) and would inevitably lead to the preferred solution of the left: single payer healthcare run by the federal government. And I believe that left to run its course for any significant length of time, the result will be diminished levels of healthcare for everyone, where eventually those with the resources or connections to go outside the system can get what they need and the less well-off are stuck with the best the government can provide.

        And personally, I am absolutely convinced that a more market-based system, coupled with financial support to those who cannot afford what they need, would be better everyone, including the poor.
        I also believe that creating an environment that frees businesses to create jobs does more to offer “women hope and a future” than does throwing more money into social programs that have not proven to be highly effective.

        But that is also NOT my point. I may be right about what works better, I may be wrong; I expect you think I’m wrong, and that’s fine. My point is that your statement says, quite directly, that if I favor repealing and replacing the ACA, if I do not support left-leaning social programs, then I am opposed to “offering women hope and a future”. Well, I’m sorry but that’s wrong, I oppose those programs because I don’t think they work. You claim a moral high ground that does not exist and it smacks of the Pharisee’s prayer of thanks that he is not like the tax collector.
        I know this is running much too long, but I feel the need to stake out a position here because that moral superiority seems prevalent among so many Christians. Scott Hoeze effectively wrote that membership in the NRA puts you in league with the “principalities and powers”. Following last November’s election, two members of my church, both elders, posted comments on Facebook that a Christian world-view could not allow a vote for Donald Trump. Maybe they don’t realize what they are saying, but those are literally damning statements!

        Yet, the claim is that the divisiveness of the current climate is the fault of Donald Trump. My intent is not to defend Donald Trump, he deserves most of the criticism he gets, but when it comes to divisive statements, I would encourage working on the plank in your own eye. If you can’t see a Republican as a brother or sister in Christ, then our church, not to mention our nation, has a problem much bigger than Donald Trump.

        To close, I’ll add this: I do not believe your intent was to say that all Republicans are damned. I’m sure you don’t believe that. My concern is that the political divide in the US and around the world is growing and it’s not good. Our ability to change the political climate is pretty limited – the Alt-Right will be the Alt-Right, Antifa will be Antifa, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell will call each other names. But within our churches at least, can’t we remember that Jesus seemed to care little about public policy and instead cared very much about what was in our hearts. The politics is peripheral, that we are bound together as sinners saved only by God’s grace is the most fundamental fact of our lives here on earth, and both Democrats and Republicans can agree on that fact.

        So, feel free to argue in favor of single-payer healthcare, universal basic income, free birth control dispensers on every street corner, etc. I may disagree with the policies, but we can disagree in good faith (most of the time :)), so be careful in how you paint those who disagree with you.

  • Marty Wondaal says:


    Very well written response. I share your frustration with the inability of The Twelve writers, who are denominational and institutional leaders in the RCA and CRC (or at least on the payrolls), to demonstrate any accuracy, or at least curiousity, in how people like me (and you?) actually think.

    It’s a bit of a monoculture here. But I read these writers because I genuinely am curious as to how people with an unconstrained view of humanity think.

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