Reflecting on General Synod As Incarnation

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Our Friend, the risen Christ,
makes us and all things new,
a promise and surprise
that shows what love can do.
So, here and now, we dare rejoice
and lift our voice in awestruck “Wow!”

Believe it or not, those words were inspired by a plenary session of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America (RCA)–yes, our RCA. This was the Synod of 2007, to be precise, on the day when we provisionally approved the Belhar Confession as a new doctrinal standard and elected Carol Bechtel as the first female minister of the Word and Sacrament to ever serve as the Synod’s vice president. To be sure, that was an exceptionally good day for an RCA Synod, and we have been known to have many exceptionally bad days at other Synods. In fact, later in that same session, we came within a whisker of the same Synod which adopted the Belhar, with its very next collective breath, declaring that torture was okay.

I was part of the 2014 General Synod just over a week ago (my fifteenth, I think), and it was neither spectacularly good nor spectacularly bad. Looking up at the line of past presidents who were among us as we elected another white male to the presidency, several people correctly observed that we look awfully white, awfully male, and awfully old for a church that says we feel called to be transformed and transforming and reaching out to the millenial generation of twenty-first century North America. By Friday afternoon, day two of the Synod, we had already heard the word “radically” used so much that, had I been a voting delegate, I would have moved to forbid its utterance by denominational staff or officers for a period of two years (in the words of Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride,” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”). We seemed, oftentimes, to be far too timid, far too numbers-oriented, and far, far too polarized to really be being transformed by the renewing of our minds to know what is good and acceptable and perfect (see Romans 12:2), much less to have any business transforming others.

Where mortal laws say “No,”
God’s Word says “Come and see,”
and falling walls show who
we all might rise to be.
How could we guess? A trumpet sounds
and what surrounds us? Our Friend’s “Yes!”

And yet, for all of its flaws, for all that the 2014 Synod was very fully human, there were moments, brief glimmers, when it was so much more. There were conversations between people with sharply different political and theological positions around tables—not so much the engineered conversations in the plenary gymnasium as the spontaneous ones at cafeteria tables and in local watering holes. Our Christian Reformed brothers and sisters—meeting with the RCA in the first joint synod session for our two denominations—saw a woman, one of their women, in leadership at a synod meeting, and several of them responded with interest to how our Synod related to staff very differently from theirs. Our two denominations signed a covenant together that provided a step toward greater visible unity (living up to both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belhar Confession). Moments after the body defeated what was clearly an unpopular assessment increase, the same body, which could have simply walked away with a clear victory for the majority, instead immediately voted in a compromise.

As I sat in that plenary hall as a corresponding delegate, I spent some of my time being a pastor, writing my pastoral letter for Blooming Grove’s newsletter and e-mailing it home. I reflected on how what I was doing there in Iowa was sitting in church—not because of the worship, not because of the frequent pauses for prayer, but because we were being the body of Christ—very fully human, but also, in our best moments, fully divine. To be sure, we are far better at the fully human stuff, and, where our Savior perfectly balanced his two natures to be the most complete person, we are constantly shifting back and forth, never getting the balance quite right, and constantly panicking and overcompensating. In the short term, we all have stories of Synods—and other assemblies, and our own congregations—getting the balance dramatically, shockingly, stupendously wrong, and never in the direction of the divinity. But that isn’t the whole story.

At one of my first synods—in 1990—after a particularly human day, I remember sitting with John Walter Beardslee, III, late professor of Church History at New Brunswick Seminary, as several of us moaned over libations. Beardslee chided us, leaned back in his chair—he drank us all under the table that night—and pointed out that various synods have small diversions this way and that, but that the broad sweep of history showed, over decades and centuries, a progressive direction for the RCA. He wanted us to trust the Holy Spirit at work.

At the far-from-perfect 2014 General Synod, neither the best nor the worst I have ever seen, I saw enough to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work, not in the shiny programs, not in the sundry reports, but in the messy moments when the synod was being the synod, walking together in the Spirit, sometimes despite ourselves. This, I believe, is true of the Church in all of its incarnations, be they RCA, CRC, PCUSA, PCA, UCC, ELCA, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, or none of the above. Somehow, both because of us and despite us, as we live together in the groups Christ has gathered that we cannot comprehend, Jesus is manifest among us, in us, and through us. That is not just a possibility; it is part of our sure and certain hope. And it gives me hope—not in denominational programs, or staff, or commissions, or even out polity, but in the saving power of our Friend.

We safely slip through flood,
and rise to Holy Fire.
First-fruits of freedom feed
us, prod us, and require
old lives to end as our rebirth
helps build this earth for our dear Friend.

The hymn “Our Friend, the risen Christ,” is copyright 2014 by Wayne Leupold Editions, Colfax, NC, and appears in the book Alleluias All Our Days (Wayne Leupold Editions, 2014). It is used here by permission of the author.

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15 thoughts on “Reflecting on General Synod As Incarnation

  1. And as a denomination, the RCA should learn from what the Columbia-Greene Classis did this week……..I give thanks for the men and women who met at the Kiskatom Reformed Church and affirmed that God is still speaking….and that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!

      • They set aside an action of the Classis of July 17, 980 which had deposed me since I had been found guilty of the offensive lifestyle of homosexcuality. In Judicial Session I was again ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the RCA…Praise God…..Never place a period, where God has placed a comma……. God is still speaking! –Amen

      • Bless you dear brother!! Congratulations n thank you for hanging in there till the tide changed.

  2. Rev. Kuiper and David, thank you both for your replies to this post. Rev. Kuiper, I rejoice with you about your reinstatement!!! David, I thank you for the clarifying question.

  3. I only wish the diversity initiatives at Synod provided a place for people with disabilities who are woefully underrepresented. Imagine if someone with aspergers syndrome had a position of influence, perhaps someone who didn’t believe in words, only actions. It won’t be me but as an aspie I’m going to give suggestions since this is a space I have more power than in “real life” where people (especially Christians) ignore me and try to shuffle out of conversations with me.

    Make sure you’re giving out at least two rides a week to carless people (who need transportation to the food pantry, medical appointments, farmer’s markets, or other places). If you aren’t willing to give someone without a car a ride, please stop praying for them.

    Give at-risk kids (particularly households with boys) an air conditioner if they don’t have one. This reason is obvious, poor males (including me) are often in a state of perennial anger and heat exacerbates this, causing them to boil over.

    Put $30 in commissary accounts of people in jail or prison, starting with people who have some kind of relationship with people in the church.

    Stop being siloed. This means reaching out to other churches and organizations and collaborating. To that end I did start a mobile web page of resources in Grand Rapids.

    Notice that none of my suggestions came about by the “spirit’s leading”, they all came from logical thinking (not that spiritual leading is bad, it’s just that the church is already flush with spiritual leading).

    (I think you can tell by now the only Christian that really moved me was Tony Campolo)

    • We do sometimes use spiritual leading as a cop-out to not do the work God has called us to. And as a fellow person with a disability, I LOVE your suggestions. If I were working in a church, I’d be fighting as hard as I could to make these things happen.

  4. People who refuse to be guided by Scripture and celebrate their gay lifestyles will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Pastors in the RCA who
    support this abomination and defend it are in serious need of changing their vocations or they will continue to be the blind leading the blind. Rev Acerno
    That goes for Synods and classis as well.

    • Have you ever eaten shrimp? Was that a pork chop you ate the other day? Do any of the women in your church wear pants or make-up? In Leviticus they too are called abominations. I suggest you should read Galatians 3 carefully…..Christ set us free from bondage to the law,…..

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