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The third-annual collection of bits, pieces, and trivia. I hope you find a couple that are interesting, or at least one that is annoying.

1.) I read that pagan, pre-Christian religions are making a bit of a comeback in some Scandinavian countries—Norse stuff. Apparently they are very nativist and rather violent. Seems like more good news from the end of Christendom. Christianity, in contrast, can reclaim its place as a broad, non-nationalistic, peace-making religion.

2.) Speaking of paganism, every Sunday this fall, the children in our congregation are searching for the “Green Man”—think sprite, gnome, fairy. The story I’m told is that it began as a game at old church buildings in England. Children looked to find the Green Man among the churches’ carvings and gargoyles. He became a teaching tool to remind children of our human connection with all of God’s creation. Soon churches whose buildings didn’t have stone carvings and gargoyles wanted their own Green Man so someone crafted one out of plastic-resin. That’s what we have. Not too worried about pagan influence or kids believing in gnomes and trolls. Christians believed in sprites and fairies for centuries with no apparent ill effects. Hope it simply reminds us all of our place in and relationship with God’s good creation.

3.) In discussing the gifts and role of our congregation in the larger work of God, one person said “we value the golden cord that connects us back to the great traditions of the church.” I think that’s a nice way of saying that on occasion we still mention the Heidelberg Catechism, Justin Martyr, Hildegard, and more. Here’s my question or pondering: how do we value tradition without seeming to value sentimentality and nostalgia, stuffiness and stodginess?

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

4.) Near to where I grew up there was a cemetery named “Holyrood.” Being a little Protestant kid, I always called it “Holly Rod.” Somehow I stumbled on the tidbit that the word “cross” did not enter the English language until the 13th century. Before that, it was rood, same root as the word rod. Rood. Is it because it is a homophone of rude? It rhymes with crude? Is it because it evokes a stark and violent stake? Somehow rood conveys something more brutal and primitive than cross. Hooray for holyrood.

 

5.) Demographically, I’m a boomer. But because I was near the tail end, I often felt more like an observer, watching what those older, cool kids were doing. I’ll also add that I was never really into disco, although I did have a pair of platform shoes. Not long ago, I heard someone say that disco was the turning point, the demise of the boomers, and from there, American society. It was where we went from stardust and give-peace-a-chance to boogie nights and before long, “greed is good.” Then, it was an easy slide to become the most bloated, self-absorbed of all generations. Blame it on disco!

6.) In my never-ending search to find Reformed theology in pop culture, I recently saw this at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

7.) A while back, I blogged here about using roadkill—the squirrels, possums, and raccoons I see squished along the highway—as a prod to prayer. This animal carnage on the roadside is often the most gruesome thing I see in my safe and sanitary existence. The bloodied and twisted carcasses remind me of the bloody and twisted people I never see. Like every prod, they need to be sharpened and rebuilt every once in a while. Lately when I see a squished critter, I try to give it a name—Hubert, Geraldine, Francesca, Leo—to connect them to a person somewhere facing a terrible, painful time. Maybe this would work for you too.

8.) Perhaps it’s a case of finding or making meaning after the fact. We rescued some old chancel furniture buried in an out-of-the-way storage area. The old Communion Table was the perfect size for various sign-up sheets and service opportunities. At first it felt a bit irreverent, from the Sacrament to mundane business. Now, years later, I love it. “This Do in Remembrance of Me”—teach Sunday School, work in the community garden, make lunches for children during summer vacation, and more.

Two phrases I’ve noticed that I’ve been using more frequently:

9.) First, “Not every knee has bowed to Baal.” It is a paraphrase of God’s reply to the dispirited prophet Elijah. I say it when I find some nugget of hope, some shard of human kindness. Most recently I uttered it when a beautifully prepared plate of food was placed in front of me. Such a wonderful change from the food-like-substances that typically sustain us. Never really considered myself Elijah-like. Maybe it tells me I feel outnumbered.

10.) Second, “If it isn’t, it should be.” Another recent joiner to my lexicon. A handy reply to concerns like “Is that okay? Is this allowed? Is that story true?” Maybe I’m sliding down a slippery slope but I think this phrase tells me I’m becoming less and less concerned with literalism, rigidity, correctness, and rules. I hope that’s a good thing.

11.) I’m not a big Bonhoeffer devotee. Honestly, I’ve read only a bit of him, and that a long while ago. My misgivings are more about the way Bonhoeffer is quoted and used by many people (and there is a big fight about who are the rightful heirs of Bonhoeffer). To me it feels like he is often used to chastise the church and shame Christians (not that we don’t deserve it.) Lots of musts, shoulds, oughts, and unlesses. It frequently strikes me as immature impatience and finger-wagging. Bonhoeffer fans and scholars, correct me. Makes me wonder, had Bonhoeffer lived longer, how his tone might have changed as he aged. Sometimes, I wonder the same thing about Jesus.

13.) Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Paul tells us that when we do good to our enemies, we “heap burning coals on their heads.” Does Paul understand human motivation better than Jesus?

14.) This might be old news, but if you haven’t yet watched the Netflix series The Keepers, give it a try. While it is a sad and sordid tale about a nun’s murder and a sickening culture of sexual abuse at Catholic schools in Baltimore, it also inspires with people’s courage and commitment. My biggest take-away? When a woman comes forward to tell of her abuse, the most supportive thing you can do is to say, “I believe you.”

Ed & Luella Mulder

15.) I try not to make these posts too parochial—aimed solely at Reformed and Christian Reformed Church readers. Nonetheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent passing of two saints, Ed and Luella Mulder. Ed was a pastor who served as General Secretary of the RCA from 1983 to 1994. Both Ed and Luella were warm and encouraging people. But they were also brave and prophetic about ending apartheid in South Africa and including LGBTQ people in church. Sometime in the mid 1980’s I was a seminarian in New Jersey with very tenuous ties to the RCA. For no apparent reason I flipped on the local New York City TV news one evening. There was Ed Mulder being arrested outside the South African consulate in New York. Looking back, I wonder if I then began to believe I could make a home in the RCA. Thank you, Ed and Luella. Rest in peace. Rise in glory.

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

  • mstair says:

    “Then, it was an easy slide to become the most bloated, self-absorbed of all generations. Blame it on disco!”

    “What you doin’ on your back, aah
    What you doin’ on your back, aah?
    You should be dancing, yeah
    Dancing, yeah”

    … and all this time, I thought it was fast-food restaurants …

  • Mero says:

    A very meaningful blog but one caution. Lest we go back to the 50s when all a white girl had to say was “he did it” and everyone said ,”I believe you.” That was it he was guilty.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I was going to get right to work on my sermon but now I’ve got to look up “rood” in the OED.

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Not a big deal, but I was arrested alongside Ed that day in NYC. A much bigger deal, we can trace the demise of apartheid in large part to Ed. It’s a fascinating story that winds its way through a conservative Republican congressman of all people.

  • Daniel Walcott says:

    I would not say I am a devotee, but I really like Bonhoeffer’s wisdom on “cheap grace.” I am also not sure if he was in prison because of his faith or for being involved in an assassination attempt. But, I think it undeniable that he spoke Christian action into a world paralyzed by fear and propaganda, a world of “Christians” who sat by and said, “our prayers go out to you.” He believed faith without works is dead, so did James. He spoke prophetically to a culture that was willing to give Hitler a pass on his morality because the economy was good.

    • Dick M. Stravers says:

      Daniel Walcott, I am grateful that Steve’s comment about Bonhoeffer led to your reply about “a culture that was willing to give Hitler a pass on his morality because the economy was good”. Every American needs to read that and take it to heart. Thank you for sharing your thinking with us.

  • Daniell Bos says:

    I remember reading somewhere that “heaping coals on the head” is a way to make the face red, that is, to embarrass the person.

  • l says:

    Another saying I often echo, antidote to my all-too-serious upbringing, “Don’t lose your sense of humor!” I enjoyed yours, and the serious stuff also.

  • Dick Stravers says:

    Daniel Walcott, I am very grateful that you were led by Steve’s blog to share your thoughts about Hitler and the culture of his time. Today’s thinking in American is terrifyingly similar.

    Dick

  • Jon says:

    In the “Not every knee has bowed to Baal” category, I thought you might enjoy this:

    It’s your birthday. The phone rings. While it could be a family member or a friend wishing you well on your special day, the last thing you might expect to hear is a 99-year-old man on the other end of the call singing “Happy Birthday” to you.

    But that’s exactly what happens to those who attend Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Carl Webb has found his purpose, his “call” so to speak, in serving God. And that “call” is to be the birthday crooner of the church.

    In all of the 18 years of this unique ministry, Webb has had only five days off. And that’s only because on those days he didn’t have anyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to, he says. Webb has also kept track of the number of calls he has made over the years.

    “I’ve done between 35,000 and 36,000 ‘Happy Birthday’ calls to people at my church — even strangers,” Webb said.

    https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/pt-1018-99sing/

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