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So, I’m sort of proud of it. Sort of embarrassed. Sort of doubting it. Still, I’ll put it out there bluntly and without caveat. I believe I had a vision last month at General Synod.

It’s caused me to wonder about visions and dreams more broadly. What qualifies? It’s caused me to think about the place of visions in discernment, in leadership, in moral guidance. I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams.

But first, you want to hear about my specific experience, don’t you?

It happened “on the floor” of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, this past June. This isn’t the contentious General Synod of the Christian Reformed Church we’ve been hearing so much about. In comparison, our RCA Synod of 2022 was pretty placid and drama-free.

Picture a cold and cavernous athletic field house, a dais and big screens in front, and then lots and lots of round tables occupied by diligent-looking delegates.

We were receiving a report from a task-force that is viewed as pretty important. More telling, I sensed that they see their assignment as very significant, even momentous. They came across as earnest, anxious, solemn, burdened by a sense of trepidation. An Eagle Scout facing a serious responsibility came to mind.

They were leading us through a time of meditation, quiet, and prayer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s supposed to steer us away from rancor, hasty conclusions, and an overly-heady tone. But we do too much of this at Synod these days. You can only sing kum-ba-yah so many times.

I was right on the cusp of sleep. You know that hazy, la-la land where you think you’re awake, but maybe you are deeper in the clouds than you realize?

I was recalling all the different themes, programs, and five-year plans I have lived through at General Synods. Putting-People-In-Mission. 98 by ‘98. A thousand churches in a million ways doing one thing. Transformed and Transforming.

From there my murky mind segued to some of “great” campaigns of Maoist China. Let 100 flowers bloom. The Great Leap Forward. Probably trying to tame my cynical beast, I switched to mottoes and programs associated with US presidents. Gerald Ford’s Whip-Inflation-Now surfaced in my mind. WIN!

Are you still with me?

From “inflation” my mind unearthed a memory of a cafe in Italy during a period of hyper-inflation (The 1970s or 80s, probably? Paging all scholars of late 20th century Italian history.) Money was so worthless the cafe owner papered the walls of his establishment with lire. An unforgettable image.

Here comes my vision.

Then I saw walls and floors papered with reports from General Synod.

For those who don’t know or remember, in the days before wifi and laptops, each Synod delegate received a huge three-ring notebook filled with pages and pages of paper reports.

This vision, of General Synod reports stuck, willy-nilly to the walls and floor, filled me with peace, calm, hope, release, and a deep trust in God’s goodness and guidance.

My “vision” wasn’t as exuberant or chaotic as this last-day-of-school paper toss, but both have a lot of paper!

I was also amused. But don’t hear my vision as one of despair or disillusionment, absurdity or futility, mocking all our General Synod labors. Over the years, I’ve written and contributed to many General Synod reports. I think they were pretty good. I took my responsibilities seriously. I’m certain almost every other report was done with the same devotion.

And probably they mattered. Maybe they helpfully steered us to some of the good places we are today. A bit like those Italian lire they had value, a time when they mattered. Maybe even mattered a lot. But also like the lire, their value was fleeting and limited.

As my time of attending General Synods draws to a close, this vision gave me assurance that the Holy Spirit has not and will not abandon us. We can form task-forces and commissions. We can and should write reports and do business decently and in order. We can make decisions — some regrettable and some commendable. But the Spirit will get us where we need to be. That’s not a call for indifference, to disengage, or to be naively optimistic. It’s a call to quiet trust. Take General Synods seriously, but not too seriously.

All of this also caused me to think more broadly about visions and dreams. Are they real? Are they the sole domain of Pentecostals? Or worse, the domain of the unstable and superstitious? Are they truly from the Spirit? Should they have any traction in personal or church decision-making? What if we listened to each other’s dreams and visions as we make decisions?

While this particular vision was more focused than any I can recall, I began to realize that visions are often a way I sense things that are beyond words and prose. I suspect I’m not alone with this. Hopes for my life, my church, my children, Christ’s return, God’s future, and even the Reformed Journal are all visions of a sort — something beautiful, budding, complex, lavish, unfinished.

To the task-force whose General Synod report sparked my vision, I thank you. I also counsel you, and all who are striving for the church and synods and committees, to relax just a little bit. Do your job well. But trust and be glad that the future of the Church, let alone God’s work in the world, doesn’t rely solely on you.

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.

7 Comments

  • Amen, Steve. God is the boss.

  • Nancy Boote says:

    Amen, Steve! Thank you, Steve for sharing your vision with us. The Spirit definitely speaks to us in our dreams and visions (we just need to pay attention!). And they are not just for the Pentecostals, or the unstable. 🙂 And we should be sharing them with each other, for sure. I am reminded of Brian Keeper’s blog about his inspiring dream for the church that he recently shared with us here in this forum. We need to see/listen to these dreams and visions, test them, share them and most importantly pray into them! And trust the Spirit to fulfill them. God still speaks!

    I am grateful for the deep trust that your vision brought to you and for us – that the Lord is bigger than all our reports etc. and calls us to that quiet trust in Him. Yes, we are to do our faithful work! But it is the Lord who reigns and will see us through. The Lord is not finished with the RCA – we are in a new beginning. I have hope! It is exciting, scary, and unnerving. But we are called to quietly trust in the One who reigns on the throne. Thanks again for sharing!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Thank you Steve. . . .and Nancy. You speak my mindset. BPGIFWMY [Be patient. God isn’t finished with me/us yet].

  • Cheryl L Scherr says:

    Love it Steve. The only reason I am not sharing is that only us Reformed geeks will understand this. But, it is filled with your logical and healthy warming grace.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    One of the things that seems critical to me – no matter what direction the Spirit chooses to blow – is that we don’t build too many windbreaks to stifle those winds. The RCA has, over the years, chosen a rather loose-ish way of being together. We have creeds, and we have ‘doctrinal standards’ or ‘forms of unity’ – though what, exactly, they are, beyond faithful bearers of witness, remains a subject of considerable discussion. We have an order that defines networks (classes, regional synods, general synod) but inasmuch as they act as assemblies, they act more like gardens (cross-pollination) than like hierarchies. We have this minuscule government that says “solve issues by talking to each other” rather than “make a new rule.” A worship life that is, for the most part, says “do as seems right in your community.” Is it perfect? By no means. But what it does do – when all are healthy – is to allow the wind of the Spirit to blow, so that we can continue being reformed by the living presence of Christ the Word. Your vision highlights that manner of being together. As we put it in the congregation I serve, we ‘wait upon the Holy Spirit, and listen for the Word of God.” Thanks!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your insight into dreams and visions. It sounds like you want to be reasonable and balanced in your approach. But of course, reason doesn’t play into interpreting such visions (as you are suggesting) unless the vision is pertinent only to one’s own life. That way you won’t hurt anyone’s life but your own. It’s not wise to suggest that my vision is normative for the whole congregation, church, or denomination. That’s the case because, likely, at the same time I’m having a particular vison, someone else is envisioning something entirely different. Just take the recent CRC Synod as an example. Then it may be up to the elders to determine the true vision from God, even as some churches also look to the elders to determine the correct interpretation of someone’s speaking in tongues. This all happens apart from reason or even common sense. Visions are, for the most part, made up from intangibles or in an intangible arena. So who knows the validity of any vision. Thanks, Steve, for yourt input.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m glad you got something out of that exercise at General Synod. My table thought it was a waste of an evening. It was an inauspicious debut by the Restructuring Team.

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