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The month of June begins tomorrow and whatever else this new month might contain, the meeting of the Christian Reformed Synod is prominent in the minds of many people in my circles. I have written some blogs and a Reformed Journal article that touch on issues surrounding the upcoming Human Sexuality Report (HSR). Today I want to write a partial answer to a question a number of people have asked me in recent weeks: What do you hope will emerge from Synod 2022?
By way of a roundabout answer to that question, I will first detail something my colleague Neal Plantinga talks about in the preaching seminar “Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching”—a week-long seminar for pastors that we have co-led many times over the last twenty years. When we talk about why it is important for preachers to have a robust program of general reading, one of the things Neal highlights is that reading thoughtful books—including thoughtful fiction in novels and short stories—can help preachers come to what Neal calls “middle wisdom.”
Wisdom in Scripture is differentiated from knowledge. Knowledge is what you learn in school. It’s book learning. It’s the periodic table of elements, the facts of history, multiplication tables. Wisdom, though, comes not from classrooms but from observing how things work in the world. Sometimes wisdom comes from the school of hard knocks. Other times it emerges when we just look around us and discern what makes for flourishing in this world and what makes for misery.
As such, wisdom can traffic in things that require a lot of thought and nuance. Even the biblical Book of Proverbs shows this. It takes wisdom to apply wisdom which is why you can encounter such apparently contradictory proverbs in the Bible. One text tells you that the best way to deal with a fool is to leave him alone—just walk away quietly and try not to make any sudden movements. But then a bit later you encounter another verse that advises that the best way to handle a fool is to rebuke her harshly lest she persist in her folly. So which is it? Well, it depends on the fool and on the specific nature of the folly you see. Life does not always proffer one-size-fits-all solutions.
Of course, wisdom can also be a matter of having common sense in very ordinary matters. Spitting into the wind and sawing off the branch you are sitting on are not smart things to do. Common sense tells you that much and there are a thousand examples of such things.
But there is also a kind of middle wisdom. Maybe it’s not an example of world-class proverbial wisdom but neither is it an obvious matter of basic common sense. An example Neal uses in our seminar is from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In a scene set inside a roadside diner we see the hard-bitten short order cook Al working the stove in the kitchen and also the waitress Mae who is chatting with a couple truckers at the lunch counter. Then a poor Oakie and his two small children come in. The man asks Mae if he can buy a loaf of bread. Mae refuses. “This ain’t no grocery store.” Instead she offers to sell him various sandwiches or hamburgers that they serve on the bread.
But no, the man has their finances figured pretty close and he can only afford a dime for the bread itself. Mae isn’t budging until Al yells at her from the kitchen to sell him the damn bread. Mae relents and when the man takes the dime out of his coin pouch, a penny falls out onto the counter too. Meanwhile the man’s two children are gob smacked as they stare longingly at the peppermint stick candies in the glass case. The man asks Mae how much those cost. Mae says they are two for a penny, so the man buys them for his kids and leaves. The truckers then tell Mae they know full well those candies are a nickel a piece but Mae tells them to shut up. When the truckers leave, they each give Mae a whopping 50-cent tip, even though the pie they had eaten had been only 15 cents plus the coffee.
What middle wisdom might one glean from a scene like this? That people are more prone to show compassion than we might sometimes think and when a tough guy like Al gets the compassion ball rolling, others take permission and get in on the action. As wise observations go, this falls somewhere between big-time proverbs and common sense. But it’s important to develop skills at discerning such things.
So what does all that have to do with what I might hope to see emerge from the CRCNA Synod in June? I hope a middle wisdom can be found. I hope that a discerning Advisory Committee will process the HSR for the floor of Synod in ways that avoid extremes, that take a nuanced look at an array of issues with which it will be confronted and find a way to put it forward that will set a tone for conversations that will be loving and constructive. Synod does not need definitively to cut any Gordian knots or wow the church (or the world) with amazing breakthroughs in insight.
Instead it may be enough to recognize which issues and sub-issues can wait for now and which need to be engaged. It may be enough to recognize that some of the scientific issues as well as some of the personal and pastoral issues need time for refinement and further contemplation and study. Just as the short order cook Al was able to get a virtuous ball rolling with one simple act of kindness, so the Advisory Committee and others in leadership may be able to signal a posture that will help others take permission to do likewise.
Yes, this may mean not everything will be settled on things like confessional status or more acute pastoral and biblical questions. This in turn may feel incomplete to some (even as others may chalk it up to failure to uphold this or that standard). But if somehow Synod 2022 manages to produce an outcome that shows respect for multiple ideas and that keeps dialogue going, then it may be because someone found the middle wisdom of the Spirit to help move the church to the next stage, whatever that stage precisely turns out to be.
Some may not regard anything along these lines as the best outcome but maybe it will be the best that can be achieved for now. And that would not be the worst thing one could hope for.