Monday, May 21, 2012

The Joy of Belonging

Last week I announced my intention to resign from the ministry in the Christian Reformed denomination. That also means I’ll need to leave Grace Christian Reformed Church, in Cobourg, where I am the pastor.

I resigned because I’ve drifted away from the teachings of the Christian Reformed Church. I never intended to. I was hoping to finish well in about ten years. But over time, small gnawing doubts about my denomination’s official teachings grew—sometimes slowly, sometimes with surprising swiftness. The kinds of issues I changed my mind about are contentious in many denominations: gay marriage, evolution, the inspiration and authority of scripture, and so on. I don’t really want to get into all that stuff right now. I won’t be able to say much about any of these issues that is helpful in five hundred words or less.

The decision to resign is painful for me. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, was loved and nurtured into faith, and even today it feels like the home I will always be welcomed back to, even if I’m now something of a prodigal son. The Christian Reformed Church is the skeleton around which I’ve built my life. Leaving it is going to feel like an out of body experience.

The decision to resign is especially painful because I love my congregation. They have been kind and gracious to me for the entire time I’ve been their pastor. While I can’t say I’ve never heard a harsh word, I heard such things from no more than one or two people. Grace members visit their sick, bring meals to the shut-in, volunteer around the community, and try hard to imitate Christ’s love. Most people at Grace laugh easily. They’ve kept an eye on my wife and I, to make sure we were doing okay. They’re easy going, willing to try on change, willing to invest in their church, and generous to a fault for all kinds of causes, religious or not.

The irony here is that if I was not the pastor of this church, if I was just another member, sitting in the pews from Sunday to Sunday, I’d probably never leave. I’d be able to keep my intellectual doubts to myself. Non-leaders have much greater latitude to have differing sentiments. But as a leader, my deepest convictions are supposed to find expression in my preaching. I’m supposed to define the benchmarks. I can’t do that anymore. And if I I tried to do so, I would end up rocking the boat badly. That wouldn’t be good or fair to the congregation. I wasn’t hired to be a loose canon.

But there is a second, perhaps deeper, irony, here. Remember, my pain at leaving Grace Church is in direct proportion to what a wonderful experience it has been to be a member of that church. So what the pain of leaving leads me to think about are all those people out there in my little town who do not know the joys of belonging to a church community. Many people who profess, for example, to be spiritual but not religious, are missing out on the concrete mutual love and support that a church offers, and don’t realize it. They are lonelier than they need to be.

My suggestion? Give church a try. Instead of the pain of leaving, you may well discover the joys of belonging.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Time to Put the Confessions to Pasture?

So the backstory goes something like this. The denomination I am a pastor in, the Christian Reformed Church, is what theologians call a confessional church. That is, as a denomination, we say we believe certain very specific things, summarized in three documents we call the Confessions, written mostly in the sixteenth century. These are the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and the Belgic Confession. The doctrines found in the Confessions are supposed to be the reasons we give others for why we’ve chosen to be Christian Reformed.
Well, actually, the vast majority of Christian Reformed people are so because they were born that way, and enjoy the community benefits of staying that way. Rodney Stark can explain the sociological reasons why that is so. And unfortunately, most Christian Reformed people have only a passing familiarity with the Confessions. Among those who actually know the Confessions, I run into more and more people—mostly fellow pastors—who are not convinced that the Confessions get it mostly right.
It gets more complicated. Whatever reservations pastors or other official office bearers in the Christian Reformed Church might have about the Confessions, we’re supposed to “subscribe,” to them. That means we’re supposed to publicly affirm that the doctrines (if not how, exactly, they’re formulated) are true. Some people, some time ago, thought that such subscription was too tough, and that many people were signing the Form of Subscription with their fingers crossed, so to speak. So we needed a new form.
Well, years later, Synod (the annual meeting of the Church) is being asked to approve a new Form of Subscription. But it isn’t much of an improvement over the old one, if at all. When office bearers sign it, I’m guessing there will still be a lot of people who do it with crossed fingers. Loosening the form of subscription has proved nearly impossible because many in the church see that as caving in to liberalism (as if that would necessarily be worse than caving into modern Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism).
Now, I've always thought that a confession, in its plain English sense, was something that lived in your heart and thus needed to find expression on your lips. Our Confessions—in spite of brave attempts to rewrite them in contemporary English—don’t do that. There is too much there, too linear, too certain, too abstract, and so on—for people to actually be able to confess the Confessions anymore. They fail as expressions of piety, unless you are talking about short snatches in them, like the Heidelberg Catechism’s description of our only comfort in life and in death: “That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.”
What the Confessions are good for is defining orthodoxy and theological boundaries. That means that their main function in the church—other than being used for educational purposes—is coercive. They keep people in line and keep the church pure (theologically, of course, though they also help keep us mostly Dutch and Korean).
What I wish is that we could find some new category for the Confessions that would give them some educational prominence, but take away their coercive edge. We could create a category of documents "even more important to our tradition than Berkhof's Systematic Theology" (another touchstone of real scholastic Reformed orthodoxy). We could, in other words, honor them, learn from them, but not be bound by them. The only official confession we really need anymore, as far as I can tell, is the one scripture suggests in Romans 10:9: Jesus is Lord.
Giving the Confessions some sort of status as teaching documents in the Christian Reformed Church would allow us to have a traditional Reformed anchor without presuming that they got it all right 400 years ago. Of course, that isn't practical, some will say. If we change the Form of Subscription, people will be angry, they’ll leave the church. They'll make threats. They'll make judgments. There will be schism. People who say so are probably right. Remember, after all, that the main function of these Confessions today is coercion. They make great clubs. We're in a pickle.
It all sort of reminds me of how some "Old First" churches plateau at a certain level. Change becomes impossible with its present membership because too many people have a stake—in the organ, or the pews, or a coffee break program that is only working for retired women, or whatever. So some members leave and start a new church where they can get with the times, and it flourishes. You know, unless a seed dies . . .
Well, as a Confessional church we're stuck with Old First's great memories and all of its problems, too. Meanwhile, our plateau days are past and we're actually in slow decline. Change has become impossible, unless it is change that sanctifies the language of modern commerce, such as Home Missions foisting "Enterprize Zones" on us. That's almost blasphemous! 
Sure, some traditional Reformed congregations are flourishing. But anecdotal evidence is very unreliable. After all, many traditional Reformed congregations are dying, too. Maybe it isn’t the Confessions that explains either trend. And anyway, if you look around, there are at least a few churches of all stripes (including more than a few liberal ones) flourishing somewhere. Ironically, the Mormon denomination, interestingly enough—is usually growing fastest of all. And they don't have confessions--they have a whole other Holy book!
No, I fear we're stuck. The Christian Reformed Church will muddle on. But the Confessions will never live again in this denomination the way they did when they were written. We'll just keep on pretending, though, that they might. And we'll keep using them as a means of last resort to make people sit up straight and behave. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor Emigrants

This week the Toronto Globe and Mail is running a series of articles on immigration. The premise of the articles is simple. The Globe argues that, for economic reasons, Canada needs more immigrants. You see, lots of boomers are retiring, and so the number of working Canadians for each Canadian who is retired has been declining, from 6.6 workers per retiree in 1971 to 4.2 today to a projected mere 2.3 workers per retiree in 2036. The stress on Canada’s pension provisions will be enormous. What is more, and what I didn’t find mentioned in the article, is that with so many Boomers now retiring, it will also be the case that medical costs for retirees are also likely to keep increasing over time. Who will pay the taxes to keep our medical system top quality and universal?

Well, says The Globe, immigrants are the solution. Bring in 400,000 of them each year, and the too-many-retirees crunch will be solved. What is more, says The Globe, we need to bring in skilled immigrants like computer scientists, engineers and chemists, and we’ll be in even better shape. Such immigrants are projected to have a disproportionately positive effect on jobs and economic growth.

So what do I think about this perspective? Well, I have some concerns. My family is working with Columbia University and the University of Zimbabwe to establish a medical clinic in Zimbabwe that will help keep trained physicians in that country. You see, Zimbabwe needs doctors even more than we do. While we complain about the difficulty of getting a family doctor, many towns and villages in Zimbabwe have no doctors at all. Why would Canada go after Zimbabwe’s medical professionals, or engineers, or chemists when that is the situation?

I used to teach in Manila, the Philippines. The number one contribution to that country’s Gross National Product is the remittances sent back to The Philippines by its overseas workers: nurses, caregivers, teachers, and so on—many of them highly skilled. Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, these oversea worker families are split apart, kids are being raised by one parent or by grandparents, and the sense is growing among those left behind that there is no future for them in The Philippines. How could there be, when all their best skilled workers are moving to Australia, or the U.S., or here?

So an immigration system on the prowl for other country’s skilled workers is basically viewing other countries as prey. It is another case of assuming that our national interests trump anyone else’s interests, including the needs, hopes and dreams of those who don’t have the skills or resources to immigrate to Canada or who choose to remain in their home countries. This policy is economically devastating for the countries of origin and those left behind. It is almost as if the official policy of the Canadian government with respect to such people is, “we need your best and brightest; the rest can rot.” Scripture, on the other hand, always starts by putting the interests of the poor and oppressed first. We, like God, are called to "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy” (Psalm 82:3,4). 

For Christians the poor, the marginalized, the alien, and the sojourner ought to be at the center of our moral concerns and universe: the villager in KweKwe, Zimbabwe, who needs a doctor; the refugee who has lived for years in a camp in Lebanon or on the Rwandan/Congolese border; the gay man in Uganda who will go to prison if he comes out of the closet. Our national immigration policy ought to reflect something of the compassion and vision of that wonderful poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I life my lamp beside the golden door.”

Unfortunately, this poem lost its allure for Americans long ago. Hopefully we can do better, here in Canada. And sure, I understand that if skilled people really want to emigrate here, we need to respect their right to apply along with everyone else’s. But making those skilled people stand in line with the tired, poor and huddled masses who are waiting to enter Canada would be a good thing. After all, most of our ancestors came to this land not on account of their skills, but simply as economic migrants, seeking peace, liberty, and the opportunity to raise a family. They worked and paid their taxes, and all Canadians benefited. Most of their children who wanted an education got one, and learned skills their immigrant parents were often amazed at and Canada also benefited from. Canada was built on the backs of these huddled masses. Let’s keep the door open wide for them now.