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The cupboard in my soul that holds wonderings, trivia, and odd observations is overflowing once again. Time for another installment of random things. Here’s ten bits and pieces, in no particular order. If you don’t like one, try the next.

1.) Smokers seem to be one group of people it’s acceptable to dislike and discriminate against. I observe a little cadre puffing away, like modern-day lepers, huddled together against the cold drizzle or biting winds. Outcasts. Forced to stand about two-feet off the hospital’s grounds or across the street from the school campus. I wonder, isn’t this where Jesus would be hanging out?

2.) We just switched from red to green a couple weeks ago in our congregation. I’m talking about the color of the church season — and the chancel paraments and stoles we wear. Consensus says we should have been green since mid-June. We keep red up for a variety of reasons, not least because red seems to be shortchanged in the agreed-upon calendar. I was talking about this with a colleague more informed and invested in such matters than I. I loved his flippant reply, “We’re Protestants. We can do whatever we like!”

3.) Increased crying is a symptom for several diseases. I’m pretty sure that I, and many of my good male friends — men of a certain age — don’t have those diseases. But we’ve all confided in one another that we cry embarrassingly easily these days! No one warned us of the onset of incontinent tear glands. Is our condition related to Covid? Are we making up for lost time? People embracing. Subaru commercials. Sweet memories. Dog rescue videos. Singing hymns. Grandchildren. All these things and more can set us off. Glennon Doyle says, “Why do I cry so often? For the same reason I laugh so often. Because I’m paying attention.”

4.) If I, rather than Guido de Bres, had written the Belgic Confession, I think the two means of knowing God would have been Jesus Christ and Bob Dylan. (FYI: the Belgic tells us they are “the creation, preservation and government of the universe,” and the “holy and divine Word.” And following Karl Barth, I always wonder if this isn’t a bit off-target. . .anyway.) Like scripture, Bob’s music continually surprises and refreshes. Words I’ve heard 100 times suddenly jump out at me. The depths, the hidden treasures, the turns of phrase. A recent example, “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain” from 1997’s, Not Dark Yet. If you want some apocalyptic energy try When the Ship Comes In (1964). For nostalgic longing, Bob Dylan’s Dream (1963). And the cover of his 1963 Freewheelin’ album has to be the purest expression of youth, energy, and love ever.

5.) A while back on NPR I heard a segment on “How to Pick a Therapist.” It wasn’t trying to convince you that therapy would be good for you. Its aim was more like, if you’re nearly ready, then here are things to watch for, questions to ask, red flags, and more. I wish someone would do a “How to Pick a Church.” It wouldn’t be about theology or “worship style.” In other words, not “If you don’t believe, here’s how…” or “Why Methodists are best” or even “What to look for in a great lead guitarist in a praise band.” Instead, it would be more social and “horizontal” cues. How can you suss out a strong and welcoming community? What are indicators of health and what are red flags that you can detect rather quickly and easily? What practices should you watch for and what might you want to watch out for? I’m not the person to do this. But I invite you to share your insights and experiences.

6.) Last spring while in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we saw the “miraculous” staircase in the Loretta Chapel. It’s a rare and genius type of spiral staircase. To make it even better, there’s a story that it was built by a mysterious, itinerant carpenter who appeared and then disappeared without explanation. Many believe it was none other than St. Joseph the carpenter, himself. Okay, I am fond of little, endearing churchy tales, especially if there is an obscure saint involved. And of course, I hold them lightly. But as I was having my heart strangely warmed, I wondered, “Do tales like this make Christians look gullible and obtuse?” To many a secular person, we might as well claim that the Seven Dwarfs built the staircase. Enchanting or embarrassing? What do you think? (I’ve since learned that historians are quite certain the staircase was built by a reclusive, French rancher.)

7.) After 9/11, I recall moderate Muslims being told, “If you don’t want to be perceived as dangerous, you must control your radicals.” Seems like these days moderate Christians and moderate Republicans face a similar (impossible?) task.

8.) Proposal for a gigantic research project for some brave soul. Find every new church plant that in some way existed, no matter how fleetingly, since 2000 in the Reformed Church in America. How long did it last? Overall, what is their average life expectancy? How many ever made it to being formally organized as a congregation? How many still exist today? How many are staying with the RCA in the current fracturing? Finally, how much money has been spent on these projects?

9. The war in Ukraine seems like the first “good war” in a long, long time. I mean a war with almost no protestors and broad public support in the US (until gas hit $5 a gallon). I haven’t even heard anything from the historic peace churches — Mennonite, Brethren, Quaker. I’m not calling them out, just curious. Given the historic Mennonite tie to Ukraine, I’m puzzled. Or out of the loop.

10.) You don’t have to agree with me on welcoming and affirming LGBTQ persons in the church. But if you say something like, “Scripture is crystal clear…” or “All true Christians know…” then you have a very shallow understanding of scripture and you sound a bit like a cult leader.
Last winter, our Elders and pastors were invited to meet with the Classis Exec Team after our congregation issued its Welcome Statement. The conversation was a bit stilted but amicable. At the close of the meeting, my colleague and wife, ablaze with the Holy Spirit, said to the group, “You may not agree with us. That’s okay. What you may not do — if you have any integrity or do not want to bear false witness — is say that we do not know, trust, and love scripture, or that we are not Christians.” Amen!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

16 Comments

  • Kate kooyman says:

    Bob Dylan. 100%.

  • Mel VanderBrug says:

    #7. The Democrats don’t need to control their radicals?? Your political slip is showing.
    #8. Wouldn’t a good question be; How many souls were brought to a saving faith in Jesus Christ (or a richer, fuller one) by these Church plants.

    • Lynn Japinga says:

      Mel … we don’t see radical Democrats storming the Capitol. Or lying about elections. Or hooking up with Qanon. Or excusing the stealing of top secret documents.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Mel, your faux both-sides-ism is showing. The Democrats’ failings and foibles are legion. They do not, however, include wearing bison headdresses while ransacking the capitol, building gallows on the capitol grounds for the Vice President, or performing cultic rituals in the Senate chambers. They don’t include denying clear election results, spreading gruesome conspiracy theories, calling for the establishment of a near-theocracy, or riding around in monster trucks waving flags that say “F**k Biden.” True Republicans (is that you?) should call this out plainly and say this is not who we are!

  • Tony Vis says:

    Two quick responses. 1) I’m confident that if you and I were to put our heads together, we could come up with an authoritative list we could call “The 10 Commandments of Church Shopping.” If we can get Daniel Meeter’s seal of approval, God will have spoken! Pretty sure!!

    2) It is always wise to end a piece like this with a quote from that salty, sassy, saintly, smart partner of yours. Cheers to Sophie! I could hear her speak every word of it. Truth!

  • James C Dekker says:

    1 and 10 are my faves.
    –But would J smoke? If so, would he bring his own or bum one?
    –Never been to Pella, so plz excuse this ignorant question and/or respond to it. I’m awed at 2nd Ref’s Welcome Statement and wonder how that was developed in central Iowa. Praise God.
    –BTW, I’d say Dylan are pretty much tied. No small coincidence that both are Jewish.

    Thanks so much.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Great list, Steve. I’m also intrigued by the church growth question. Don Luidens did a presentation at Hope Church yesterday about the anxiety that drove the Church Growth Movement and the fact that we continued a steady decline. I would add to your proposal a theological evaluation of the assumptions and strategies of the Church Growth efforts over the last seven decades, especially the last twenty years. ACTS 29 and its links with Mark Driscoll. Authoritarianism and Apostleship. The minimal role of women. Believer baptism. Anti-intellectualism. Fundamentalism, especially regarding the Bible. Certainly these things aren’t true of all church starts, but to what degree did they influence the RCA? How much unhealthy and unReformed evangelicalism was brought into the RCA via the church growth movement? And definitely, how much money was spent. I’m not big into conspiracy theories, but I’m guessing it will be very difficult to find answers to these questions. Especially now that we don’t have an archivist! I wonder if Lilly or the Louisville Institute or the Van Raalte Institute would fund this as a retirement project for you!!!

  • George Vink says:

    A delightful read once again…..
    I was doing fine, loving your 3, 5 & 7, and then you came up with the 8 and my mind went to too many places, having just perused one of our classis’ listing of small and decreasing churches with unique names etc.
    Love the line in 3 about “paying attention….” Need to reflect on that a bit more with wet eyes…
    Your 5 on picking a church could/should be written maybe by retiring pastors’ partners…..After years of the call to the church determining one’s church, it becomes a free fall moment.
    Your seven is not a slip showing moment, it’s a desperately needed call to sanity in a crazy, believing what we want….a country with as Paul put it, “with itching ears.” I’ll quit, and end with:
    Love your Sophie!

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Steve, that’s a very interesting mind and soul, and you should do regular inventory analysis for us. Thanks.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thanks for lightening my 2.5 hour trip home this morning. I was the passenger. 😊

  • Larry Barber says:

    As to #8, I can only tell you about one church plant. We are a RCA church plant that was planted in 2011 and just recently celebrated our 11th birthday. The funds we received from the denomination totaled $21,000.00 over three years. We have, and continue to receive support from RCA churches around the U.S. and Canada and from individuals who support our ministry. We have not organized, and under current requirements probably will never be able to organize. We are a small very diverse church of which 80-90% of our people are homeless or very low income, only being able to rent a room somewhere. Each Sunday following worship, we share a “family Sunday dinner” together. For many, the church has become family. We are the only ones who visit and pray for each other when anyone is sick and/or hospitalized. We have funerals for those who pass away and have no one to remember them but their friends on the streets. We are reformed, conservative, liturgical and loving. We try to be the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus, the church. And we plan to remain a part of the RCA as well.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Larry, Mel, and Lynn — thanks for weighing on new church plants. All your comments want to introduce something more than plain, sheer numbers and dollars into my imaginative study. I certainly hope some people have been introduced to Christ in church plants and that there are some congregations who are healthy that are staying with RCA. You can get defensive or celebrative once the data is there. And in reality, both personally and institutionally, we always are doing a soft form of cost-benefit analysis with our dollars. So I think it’s a fair question to admit church plants have done some good things while simultaneously asking if it was a good investment. BTW, I have no desire to be involved in any such study.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Someone said Bob Dylan is Jewish. He is at one level Jewish but he is a Christian in his heart. There are several albums where this is obvious but many others where you just have to reflect on what he says. For example one of my favorites is Oh Mercy. Just listen to Dylan in Everything is Broken, Man in the Long Black Coat, What Good Am I? and the rest of the entries on this excellent album. I have about 50 CDs and all of them reflect his insight which has a lot to offer us. He has been my favorite musician all my life, from teens up till now.

  • Arika says:

    I love many of these, but so much about #3 is giving me food for thought—not least of which your quoting of Glennon Doyle. I’m so intrigued that you know her work and deem her quotable! Random things indeed. 🙂 I hope you keep noticing these small wonders and sharing them with us.

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