Monday, April 1, 2013

Was it My Fault in 1984?

I have been carrying a burden of guilt for almost 30 years, and it is time for me to come clean.

In October of 1984, the Cubs were in the playoffs for the first time in my life.  It was a great summer.  Ryne Sandberg was the MVP for the National League.  Rick Sutcliffe was the Cy Young winner.  They Cubs had the best record in the National League, and should have had the home field advantage in the playoffs.  However, because they did not have the ability to host a night game, they had to forfeit the advantage to the Padres.

The National League Divisional Series started out perfectly.  The Cubs won the first two games at Wrigley Field, and seemed to be destined to play the Tigers in the World Series.  When they lost the first game in SanDiego, I was not worried.  When they lost the second game, I remained confident, because I knew that the Cubs ace, Rick Sutcliffe, was going to pitch for the fifth and deciding game of the series, and the Cubs would advance to their first World Series in my lifetime.

The deciding game was on Sunday, October 7, 1984.  It looked like everything was going according to plan.  The Cubs were winning 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh.

At this point in the game, I started to worry.  I had been watching Cubs baseball for most of my life.  I was a die-hard Chicago sports fan, and I had never seen a championship from any of my favorite professional teams.  I was not, however, worried about the result of the game.  I was afraid that I was going to miss the celebration.

You see, the Cubs game was running late on that Sunday afternoon, and our family always went to the morning and evening worship services at church.  We had already attended the morning service, and during the seventh inning, it was time to start getting ready for church.  I was not angry about going to church, but I was disappointed that we were going to miss the champagne celebration in the Cubs locker room and the feeling of elation as my favorite team advanced to the World Series.

Just as these thoughts in my mind were escalating my anxiety, my dad turned to me, and said something that I never thought I would hear him say, "Do you want to stay home from church and watch the rest of the game?"

My disappointment was lifted in a moment.  I was thrilled as I thought of the display I would witness on TV.  The Cubs would win the game and pile on top of each other in a celebration.  I would jump up and down in our family living room as the television announcers went into the Cubs locker room and got soaked in the midst of the festivities.  Initially, I felt no guilt about skipping church.

That guilt-free feeling changed within a moment of my mom leaving for church.  The car was barely out of our driveway, when the unspeakable became a reality.  Leon Durham, the Cubs first baseman, (who was supposed to be the game's hero for hitting a two-run homer) botched what seemed to be a routine ground ball, and allowed the tying run to score.  By the end of the inning, the Cubs were losing 6-3, and they never recovered.

For years, I had this gnawing sense that I had cost the Cubs the opportunity to go to the World Series.  I feared that my decision to skip church had somehow turned around in a justifiable fashion to cause the downfall of my favorite sports team.

My view of God and the call to observe the Sabbath was not fully developed at the age of 14.  I had this warped image of God as an all-powerful being who took some kind of delight in punishing me for each of my misdeeds.  So when I chose to skip church (and therefore violate the Sabbath) in order to watch the MLB Playoffs, I believed God was justified in punishing me by causing my favorite team to lose.  I did not understand that Sabbath keeping was a gift, rather than a chore.  It took me a long time to see God as loving and caring, rather than someone who took an almost sadistic delight in enforcing consequences for those who violated His commandments.  I had to learn that sabbath keeping was intended to help me develop life-long habits to make space for God in my life that would ultimately benefit me, rather than restrict my personal pleasures on one day a week.

Over the years, that overwhelming sense of guilt has subsided, even though the Cubs have continued to disappoint.  I was hopeful in 2003, 2007, and 2008 that the Cubs would end their dry spell.  I have witnessed the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and even the White Sox win championships, while the Cubs fans still go without the ultimate celebration.  Every time the Cubs come close and fall short, my dad and I will talk about that decision to stay home from church in 1984.

But at least I have grown past my sense of irrational guilt.  I can say with confidence that I no longer feel responsible for the Cubs unimaginable streak of unfruitful pursuits of a World Series Championships.

Now I blame my dad...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Belhar Confession: Disappointed with Debate

For the past few years, the Christian Reformed Church has been discussing whether or not to adopt another confession.  The Belhar Confession comes from the Reformed Churches of South Africa, and was written as a response to the racist policies of Apartheid.

When I first read the Belhar Confession, I was immediately impressed with the kind of challenge it offered Christians to strive for Unity, Justice, and Reconciliation.  I also appreciated the strong stance it took against racism.

The Christian Reformed Church of North America has not always taken a strong stance against racism, and there are many who have misused Calvinist teachings to support racism and slavery.  As a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, I was pleased to see the opportunity for our denomination to make this kind of strong stance against the misuse of the Bible to support racist and discriminatory practices and attitudes.

In the past year, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not the Belhar Confession should be approved as a standard for our denomination.  If it were declared a confession, pastors, ministry associates, elders, and deacons would be required to sign a form voicing their agreement with the doctrines of the document.

In June, 2012, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church decided to voice their approval of the Belhar Confession but did not add it as a binding confession for our denomination.  This means that we have affirmed that the Belhar is worth studying, but we will not make members, pastor, or church leaders sign a statement to signify their agreement.

The discussion surrounding the Belhar Confession seemed to revolve around whether the statement was worthy of being approved as a full confession.  While many liked the document, there were concerns that it remained vague about doctrinal issues that our other confessions addressed more thoroughly. 

Because of the debate and concerns surrounding the Belhar, I think our Synod made a good decision in how to receive this document.  However, the discussions of the past year leave a bad taste in my mouth.

When I first started studying the Belhar, I thought this discussion would offer a great opportunity for our denomination to address some of our struggles to become a multi-ethnic body of believers.  Because our church can trace its historical roots to the Netherlands, we have often struggled with the characterization of being a “Dutch church.” 

I had hoped the discussion of the Belhar would prompt our church to some reflective self analysis, so that we could consider whether we harbor unfair characterizations of people from different races, or so that we could evaluate whether some of our traditional practices have deeper roots in our cultural heritage than in Biblical instruction.

I had also hoped that the discussion of the Belhar would help many white Christians realize the damage that the history of racism has created in our world.  It is very easy for those of us who are Caucasian to downplay the damage of racism as a problem of the past.  We can point to the changes in legal and corporate policies in the past fifty years, and believe that the problem of racism has been completely eradicated.  When we do this, we fail to realize that there are still some who harbor discriminatory, prejudiced, and even hateful attitudes towards others simply on the basis of skin color.

Furthermore, even if we could magically eliminate all racial prejudices in people’s hearts today, we would still have many people who feel bitterness and resentment because of the way they have been treated in the past.  The problem is racism is bigger than we might be willing to acknowledge.  I had hoped that the introduction of the Belhar would prompt more discussion about our efforts to pursue unity, in spite of the damage of racism.  Instead, we talked about the definitions and expectations of a confession.

Although the discussion about the Belhar had value – because it is worthwhile for us to consider the meaning and value of our confessional standards – I was disappointed because I had hoped for a different tone to our conversation.  I still hope the use of the Belhar will stir members of our churches to pursue Unity, Justice, and Reconciliation; but the direction of the conversation regarding the Belhar Confession did not move us into that discussion.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Covenant for Officebearers

In the Christian Reformed Church, whenever church leaders are installed as a pastors, ministry associates, elders, or deacons; they are expected to sign a letter that signifies their agreements with the doctrinal teachings of our church.  Until 2012, this letter was called the “Form of Subscription.”  This year, our denomination adopted a new letter that has been called “Covenant for Officebearers.”

The discussion over this new form started years ago, in order to clarify and update the language of the old Form of Subscription.  In 2011, a new document was presented to Synod for consideration, but Synod asked for some revisions to be made.

The Christian Reformed Church has always asked their church leaders to sign this kind of a statement, in order to make sure that officers in our churches believe the Word of God, and agree with the doctrines that are taught in our Creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed) and Confessions (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort).  The new Covenant for Officebearers also adds a paragraph that recognizes the Contemporary Testimony, “Our World Belongs to God.” 

Prior to the final revisions to the new Covenant for Officebearers, some were concerned that a new document would allow leaders in our church greater leeway in their differences with the teachings of our church.  However, the final document seems to be well received by those who had these concerns.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Confessional Identity

This week, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church is meeting at Redeemer College in Ontario.  Each year, Synod gathers to discuss and make decisions on matters for our denomination.

This year, the prominent issues that are being discussed revolve around the theme of Confessional Identity. 

The first issue is the updating of the Form of Subscription.  For years, Pastors, Elders, and Deacons have signed the form of subscription when they become officers in the church.  The form signifies that they believe the Word of God, and that they believe the teachings of the Bible are accurately taught in the doctrines of some historical statements: Apostle’s Creed, Athanasian Creed, Nicene Creed, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort (all of these statements can be found in the back of the official songbook of the Christian Reformed Church, the Psalter Hymnal).  The new Form of Subscription has been renamed the Covenant for Officebearers, and the intent of the changes is to make the statement clearer and simpler to understand.  Some have expressed concern that the updated language may decrease the significance of our commitment to the doctrines of these historic statements.

The second issue is how our denomination receives the Belhar Confession, a statement from South African Churches that came from the culture of Apartheid.  The document calls for unity, justice, and reconciliation, and makes a strong statement against racism.  The Christian Reformed Church has been asked to adopt this statement as a confession.  Although most agree that this document makes a valid statement against racism and Apartheid, there is concern that it should not be adopted as a Confession.

As Synod unfolds, I will post some of my reflections on the deliberation and decisions that are made regarding these two issues.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

To Be Reformed

What does it mean to be Reformed? 

In recent years, many churches in America have faced drastic changes, which can cause church members to question the identity of their church.  Organs have been replaced by guitars and drums.  Songs that were once familiar have had their lyrics changed.  We don’t recite the Apostle’s Creed as often as we once did.

Occasionally, I will hear someone comment that they don’t recognize their church anymore.  They question how many changes we can endure and still be truly “Reformed.”

One of the reasons we face that question is because we have identified the idea of being “Reformed” with certain practices, rather than the truths we embrace.  Traditionally, Christian Reformed Churches have had many common practices.  We worshipped twice every Sunday.  The Ten Commandments were read every Sunday morning.  The Apostle’s Creed was recited every Sunday evening.  The pastor prayed a long prayer before his sermon.  We expected parents to send their children to Christian Day schools.  High School students memorized the Heidelberg Catechism and went to class on Wednesday nights.  We celebrated the Lord’s Supper exactly four times a year.

As time passes, many of these practices have changed.  Attendance at the evening worship service has dwindled.  We don’t use the Apostle’s Creed and the Ten Commandments as often as we once did.  The long prayer is shorter than it used to be.  High School students go on service projects and attend conventions.  Parents send their children to the public schools.  We have communion more frequently than we once did.

Sometimes we like the changes we see in our churches, and sometimes we wonder if the church is changing too much and losing its identity.

While practices in our church may change, the truth we proclaim is unchanging.  Every Sunday we gather to be reminded that Jesus is Lord.  We hold onto the claim that we are saved by God’s grace because of the work of Jesus.  We believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – even if we do not use the words of the Apostle’s Creed every week to confess that belief.  Our practices for proclaiming these truths may have changed, but the truths are constant.

Maybe it would be helpful if we thought of our “Reformed” identity in terms of the truth we believe, rather that our traditional practices.  That truth can have a lasting influence on each of us personally, and on our world.

We believe that God is working to reclaim His people, to renew and “re-form” us into His likeness.  We believe that God uses the people He is “re-forming” to have a transforming influence in the world for His Kingdom. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The End Times

On Sunday Evening (September 11), our worship service is going to have a slightly different format.  We are going to begin a series of sermons on the book of Revelation.  Before we start, I want to spend an evening giving an overview of the Bible’s teachings about the End Times, and help us understand the general story that is told in the book of Revelation.

If most Christians are asked about the book of Revelation, they can probably tell you two things.  First, it has a lot to say about the end times; and second, it is very difficult to understand.  In Revelation, we read of signs and seals, beasts and horses, trumpet calls and bowls of wrath…it can become a pretty confusing picture.  On Sunday night, we are going to put those pictures into a single framework to get the overall picture of Revelation’s message.

While we do that, we also want to acknowledge that Revelation speaks about the End Times, which can also be a confusing picture.  We know about Judgment Day, the Millenium, tribulations, the antichrist, and other images that the Bible mentions about the final days, but we aren’t sure how they all fit together.

Even if you don’t normally come to the evening worship service, you might find this time helpful.  Bring your best questions about the book of Revelation and the End Times, and we will spend time helping each other grasp the Bible’s picture of God’s plans.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Using the Bible

I have to admit I cringe a little bit when I hear people boldly proclaim that the Bible has the answers to all of life’s questions.

I don’t cringe because I think the statement is false – I do believe the Bible offers insights that affect every aspect of our lives.  I cringe because I am concerned about the way Christians utilize the Bible.

Many people treat the bible like the owner’s manual to their vehicle.  When I have a problem setting the radio stations on my stereo, I get out the manual, look up stereo system, and find the appropriate section to learn how to program the radio buttons.

If I am having trouble as a parent, where do I turn in the Bible to find insights that will affect my parenting techniques?  Should I leave my kids at the temple like Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1)?  Should I give them their inheritance and send them on their way like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15)?  Do I think that David or Noah or Abraham set a good example for me to follow as a father?

The problem with this approach is that the Bible was not written to be a “life fix-it” manual.  Although God’s Word will affect our parenting, financial management, career choices, political preferences, and just about every other area of our lives, it is not a reference guide to give us quick advice.  It was intended to teach us about God, and to draw us into a life-giving relationship with Him.