“You live life looking forward,
you understand life looking backward.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard

For a few of you, perhaps, the byline you just passed may or may not be familiar. The person it names spent 31 years as a member of the Classis of Holland—more than two-thirds of it while in service to the congregations and people of the Reformed Church in America—before asking last summer that his standing and accountability be moved to his current place of service, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that an invitation to visit The Twelve these next three Sundays has prompted a bit of nostalgia. It’s been a kind of a mixed bag of emotions, the combination of a weighted blanket (that warm, cozy feeling) and an ice-bucket challenge.

Over twenty-one years with the Reformed Church in America, I worshiped or taught or ate or met or just listened to people talk in forty-five out of the RCA’s then forty-six classes (sorry, Canadian Prairies — it was me, not you), and with partner churches on five continents (it’s six now—are there churches in Antarctica, and what would it take to get an invite?). East, Midwest, West; conservative, moderate, even a real-live liberal or two; visionary leaders and dedicated followers; mostly nice, a few grumpy — I met a whole lot of you.

Once, I found myself studying Scripture with an adult Bible class at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, South Dakota, then, quite remarkably — and quite differently — talking through the same text just a couple of weeks later with a gathering of youth in Warwick, New York.

I remember observing the angst of General Synod Executive Committee members laboring, and praying, over difficult decisions, and the next week interviewing people who questioned what in God’s name their RCA leaders were doing.

I remember a group of deeply faithful gay and lesbian Christians wondering whether they would ever be accepted in their “conservative denomination,” and, just two weeks later, a church consistory who mourned an RCA grown “way too liberal.”

Looking back, I’m also struck by how much of what seemed so urgent and important during the ’90s and ’00s has already been forgotten, certainly by you and even in part by me — programs, initiatives, mission statements, all those carefully crafted General Synod reports, now just faded memories in dusty orange books and a few boxes in my basement.

These memories all make me wonder: did I make a difference? Was there something we — something I — should have done, a different word, a different tone, that would have turned the trajectory away from where the Reformed Church in America is today?

Don’t hear that as some kind of tortured, angst-ridden confession. Neither is it a subtle request for a pat on the head and a gentle “attaboy.” It really isn’t even about me at all.

It’s about us, about the church in the world today, and about the question I wrestle with about every day I do this work: What difference do we hope to make in the world around us? And in this deeply divided world, in a deeply divided church, on what basis do we know and live that?

In the late ’80s, the RCA rolled out the denominational theme, “a people who belong, to God and to each other…” Many snickered at such an idea(l), but there were a whole bunch of us who not only believed it, but dedicated our lives to it.

I must be getting old, because I find myself wondering whether all those years, all that work, all that commitment, really made any difference. And how we know.

If you’ll come back next Sunday, maybe we can think about that some more.

Jeff Japinga

Whether you remember him this way or not—and for most of you, it would be not—Jeff Japinga is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He currently serves as executive presbyter for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, following seven years as associate dean for doctor-of-ministry programs at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and twenty-one years in denominational staff service for the congregations and people of the Reformed Church in America.

6 Comments

  • Well put, Jeff as I share a similar nostalgia over the same slogan which, to me, is one of the best (of many over the years) to capture the foundational biblical narrative of the church. Belonging to God and each other are two phrases that cannot be divided. Too many today assume that they can.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks for this, and for the great Kierkegaard quotation, which fits marvelously with this morning’s sermon on Our Lord’s baptism. My service to the denomination has been minimal compared to yours, but I also wonder whether I made any positive difference. The Presbys are fortunate to have you. Looking forward to next Sunday’s post.

  • Joan Hoff says:

    Tonight I was with my 55 year old son. I asked him what he remembered about Family Festival, which was in the ’70″s. He took his phone and soon showed me a picture of our group from Second Reformed Wyckofff, NJ.
    The song we sang, led by Avery and Marsh was:
    “I am the church
    You are the church
    We all are the church together ”
    So, maybe we need to be more verbal to our church leaders that the programs do make a difference-even-many years after the program.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Hi Jeff,
    I’m eager to learn more of what you have to offer in the next two Sundays. Thanks for this.
    Yes, the RCA (CRC?) has its work cut out. But that’s always been true, hasn’t it?
    Belonging to believing to behaving, in that order I think.
    I remember visiting briefly with you at Russ’s Northtown when your dad was still living. Thanks for staying in touch with family; I mean that in its particular and general senses.
    Many of us wonder if the United Methodist decision to “split” into two denominations has implications for our Vision 2020 committee.
    We’ll see. Differences without division and unity without uniformity seems quite the challenge.

  • Cindi Veldheer DeYoung says:

    Thanks, Jeff; it is lovely to “hear” you in this.
    Terrific question about wondering if things matter…and how we can reflect on our influence.
    Many days I leave the hospital where I work wondering if I what I’d done that day had made any difference; most days, I figure my goal is to see if there’s a way I can be helpful. Not everything is measurable, so I try to remember that, too. I also know I run into ever so many people who mention that they remember something I did, or another chaplain did, that left a deep impression on them (my hope is that the impression is a good one!)

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