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Once again, the grab bag presents itself. Ten bits and pieces to sample. I hope at least one will make you smile or cry, wince or wonder.

1. On the prudish to libertine scale, I tilt prudish. Still I was pleased, even touched, when I discovered this figure on a Civil War monument near the capitol of Iowa in Des Moines. The monument, designed by a woman, portrays Iowa as a young woman offering herself, her nourishment, her fruitfulness, and her life to the nation and the world. I find it memorable and innocent. I can’t imagine such a statue being commissioned today, but somehow it was acceptable in 1894. Elementary school teachers tell me that they often try to steer their young students around the figure while on tours of the capitol grounds.

2. “Parents of young children are the most inflexible, protective, accusatory, and know-it-all.” So said a social worker/family therapist to me — in response to me expressing surprise at some young parents’ vituperative tone. “In contrast, those who have lived through an adolescent child have learned some humility and ambiguity; that there are many things beyond their control.”

3. Speaking of age and generations, I was relieved to learn that I am not really a full-fledged baby-boomer. From what I gather, the Jones generation, named because they were always Jonesing the boomers’ experience, is the later portion of the boomers. Boomers went to Woodstock and Vietnam. We saw it on TV. They smoked pot. We received anti-drug lectures from our grade school teachers. What is still unclear to me is whether Jonesers have different propensities, priorities, or politics.

4. “Our church has girl pastors!” — a six year old girl explaining our congregation to her friends.

Shtisel

5. Can’t recommend highly enough the Netflix series, Shtisel. It follows an ultra-orthodox, Haredi Jewish family in modern Jerusalem. Tradition versus creativity. Family versus individual. The Haredi are not Zionists. Their rationale is complex, but it made me think that secular people tend to seek secular solutions, while religious people seek religious solutions.

6. “I can’t care more than they do.” Usually I hear pastors saying this. It’s an expression of frustration and disappointment with what they perceive to be a lack of commitment from their congregation. Honestly, it is often a sign of over-functioning or verging on burnout. Recently someone said it about the twenty years of US involvement in Afghanistan. I’m not sure that’s accurate or fair to the Afghan people. But it jumped out at me when I heard it.

7. According to the story I was told, when the Dutch Reformed immigrated to the US in the 1800s, they still had wounds and bad memories of disentangling themselves from the established church in the Netherlands. When they arrived in the US, many were wary and in no hurry to join an existing church — the Reformed Church in America, or the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church as it was then known. Hence, the Christian Reformed Church, or at least one of the reasons for the CRC. I wonder if similar impulses are not at work today as congregations threaten to leave the RCA. One church leader tells me that he could find suitable denominations where each departing congregation would fit — everything from the Presbyterian Church in America to the Vineyard. But none are interested in joining an existing group. Word on the street is that even the newly-established Alliance of Reformed Churches (ARC), designed to be the landing place for departing RCA congregations, seems to be having a difficult time attracting them. This might be because the ARC itself is too big a tent, trying to hold together both Apostolic neo-Pentecostals and the stuffiest, narrowest Reformed. Right now it looks like many departing congregations are more inclined to form small, local networks rather than sign on with ARC.

8. I was a young kid when I saw a photo like this in Life or Look magazine after the Detroit riots of 1967. Someone had splashed black paint on the face of a statue of Jesus. The Catholic seminary decided to leave the paint on the statue. The photo and the seminary’s decision left an impression on me. This came back recently when blood red paint was splashed on the doors of several Canadian church buildings after the discovery of more mass graves at church-sponsored residential schools for First Nations’ children. At least one of the Canadian congregations decided to leave the paint there. While it’s not quite apples-to-apples, when I saw the bawdy musical Book of Mormon, there was an understated ad in the program from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It simply said, “You’ve seen the play. Now read the Book.” When criticized, derided or lampooned, maybe the Church’s first and best reaction is to sit with it for a while.

9. “I’m religious, not spiritual.” So says a colleague, tongue only partially in cheek. What does she mean? She likes Lent and liturgy, history and tradition. She’s looking for structure, institutions, rubrics, and ritual, more than transcendent moments and personal enlightenment.

10. An astute colleague pointed to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus when we were talking about the pleadings to get the shot, last minute changes of heart, and the deathbed conversions of anti-vaxxers and Covid-deniers. “There is a great chasm between us and no one can cross over it. . .They didn’t listen to science, Fauci, the latest studies, the CDC or even scripture. They won’t listen to you from your deathbed. They wouldn’t even be convinced if someone were to rise from the dead.”




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.

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