Every now and again and again, I offer here a buffet of little notes. So please line up to see what looks tasty to you, and what looks like lime jello. This time I’ve included some scripture passages that have seemed especially pertinent to me as of late. Trying to brush off a little rust, we’ll use Roman numerals. As someone observed, we only use them for popes and Super Bowls anymore.

I. Since the pandemic, I’ve been working out downstairs with water jugs as weights, instead of going to the gym. As I exercise, out of the corner of my eye I see a photo of my grandfather as an infant, with his older sister Anna. She died in 1919, at age 25, from chronic nosebleeds — or so I was always told. Never married. No children. I’m her great nephew. Without that photo would I even remember her? Honestly, I wonder if anyone besides me does, and I know next-to-nothing about her. At deaths we often say, “We will always remember” or “You’ll live in our hearts forever.” Yet we can barely muster a century of remembering. That’s not meant as a downer, but a reminder that our hope for being remembered and being significant has to be grounded in something beyond human memory.

Steve and Anna with their parents, circa 1897

II. At age 79, Bob Dylan’s recent release, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is quite something. Incredible words and images continue to tumble out of him, only increasing with age. But I’ve been poking around in his “born-again era,” now forty years ago. Much derided at the time, many songs from that era hold up better than expected. Every Grain of Sand may be the best of all. Literary sorts might notice allusions to William Blake, and I might hope for more overt christocentrism. Reformed folk will chime in with Dylan’s pointing to spiritual sloth and troubles too tangled to be undone — yet still a sense of being pursued, drawn in by “the Master’s hand.” Knowing not everyone appreciates Bob’s vocalizing, this version by Lizz Wright has been unction for me as of late.

III. “Some religious authorities overheard Jesus and said to him, ‘What? Are you suggesting that we are blind?’ Jesus replied, ‘If you were truly blind, you would be blameless. But since you insist on claiming that you can see, you are accountable for what you fail to see.’”

IV. The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court means the high court now consists of six Roman Catholics, two Jews, and the one Protestant — Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch — was raised by a devout Catholic mother and attended a Jesuit high school. I don’t think Protestants should be complaining about “under-representation.” Instead, the prevalence of Catholics demonstrates how the Catholic natural law tradition is more comfortable and adept with the nexus between the religious/particular and the public/universal. I’d also suggest that natural law, almost by definition, leans conservative, preserving more than pioneering. Protestants have been wary of natural law — rightly, in my opinion. But certainly some of the Reformed folk reading this know how Abraham Kuyper and his neo-Calvinist followers sought to develop a sort of natural law. Could a Kuyperian end up on the high court before too long?

V. “Woe to you, parsers of scripture and hypocrites. You build tombs for the prophets and decorate monuments to the righteous. You say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in killing the prophets.’ You show that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead then, and finish what your ancestors did.”

VI. Last summer, Kevin DeYoung stirred up a controversy by suggesting Christian conservatives should have more children as a strategy to win the culture wars. Maybe that made me more observant, but I’m seeing numerous families who can’t fit into the conventional minivan but instead need twelve or fifteen passenger vans! Is a Mercedes Benz Sprinter the new status symbol? A Trump 2020 bumper sticker optional but unsurprising.

VII. Not long ago, I wrote here about virtue signaling — “conspicuously expressing opinions and sentiments, often on social media, to publicly confirm one’s moral correctness and good character.” As professional and major college sports have returned but often to lower TV ratings, some have contended this is due, at least in part, to the virtue signaling done by athletes, teams, and leagues. Jerseys that say “Justice,” banners declaring “Black Lives Matter” or patches emblazoned with “Breonna Taylor,” for example. I often visit a nerdy, very-niche site called Uni-Watch: The Obsessive Study of Athletic Aesthetics. Recently, they did a nice job of exploring how sports has been virtue signaling for years — flag decals on helmets, pink cleats for breast cancer awareness, memorial patches for hall-of-famers who died, camouflage uniforms to honor the military, and much more. In other words, maybe those complaining about the recent virtue signaling simply don’t like this particular virtue being signaled. And if you advocate for no virtue signaling are you implicitly conveying that you’re fine with the status-quo? It seems like the same could be said for virtue signaling on social media. Everything on social media is virtue signaling of one sort or another. I value my family. I’m funny. I traveled recently. My friends and I have fun together. When you complain about someone’s virtue signaling, it’s worth asking yourself if you really dislike virtue signaling or simply dislike the particular virtue being signaled.

VIII. “To what shall I compare the people of this generation? How shall I describe them? They are like children sitting in the marketplace calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you wouldn’t dance. We wailed but you wouldn’t weep.’”

IX. Want more music and less reading? Here’s The Porter’s Gate Worship Project offering Wake Up, Jesus.

X. The Great Winnowing — is it upon us? Many seem to think that the Covid pandemic is only speeding up the decline of white Protestant churches in the US. Long-simmering disagreements and tensions that the church was barely able to hold in check, now seem too much. Division or simply walking away are apparently what the future holds. A wise colleague suggests the pandemic has further discredited the American church by revealing how it has resisted and been unprepared for honest conversations with both science and cultural-religious diversity. He adds, “Christianity is only attractive when it inspires self-giving love.”

XI. From that macro perspective to the micro. Listen to the voice of a pastor-colleague about what he’s experiencing. “I know some of our people are now worshiping elsewhere — either permanently or until we don’t require masks any more. It’s been unbelievably frustrating, and terribly saddening that people have broken fellowship over this issue. I’ve really struggled with it and can move from grief to anger to insecurity to everything in between. Then there are also those who have simply stopped attending — not because they’re vulnerable or seem to have any good reason. I can go crazy trying to figure it out. I think some people have gotten into bad habits and patterns. It’s like the pandemic has given them their little excuse to disappear. I know when/if all comes back to ‘normal,’ we’ll definitely not be the same church.”

XII. “For freedom Christ has set you free…But freedom is not the right to do whatever you want. True freedom is this — to serve one another in love.”

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.

9 Comments

  • Daniel Carlson says:

    I’m better for having read your intriguing admixture of observation, Scripture, reflection, and suggestion, Steve. Thank you! (And look forward to checking out Dylan’s new artistry and returning to his older works and imitable voice ; – )

  • Laura de Jong says:

    This is so, so great. Such winsome wisdom! Thanks Steve.

  • Pam Adams says:

    I too love the recent Dylan album but I love all of Dylan’s work. He has gone through phases but it always is close to reality. His voice is wonderful to me.

  • Henry Hess says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking column. I was surprised to hear that Dylan has a new album. I heard him live a few years ago and it was sad. He was just a pale shadow of his former self. Looking forward to checking out the album.

  • Nolan D Palsma says:

    Steve, you have put into words what all of us pastors are feeling as we sit at our desk pondering the future.

  • George Vink says:

    Thanks for a great waking up to the day series of observations. Particularly enjoyed VI on the van with the touch of a T sticker. Your observations are spot on, and I’ll try to picture of your doing weights with water jugs….quite the picture!

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    What have you got against lime Jello?

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Nothing, of course, Karl! Brings back memories of the old salad bars with salads like chocolate pudding or just these gigantic bowls of rubbery-looking jello. Those are health foods, aren’t they?

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    “our hope for being remembered and being significant has to be grounded in something beyond human memory.” Yes. Thank you for this.

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