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.