Preparing for Summer and Synod
January 26, 2016
Updated December 5, 2017
5 comments 552 views
Summer is coming. Okay, I admit, it’s only January. But summer is coming. Summer camps are already posting their registration forms online. I saw swimsuits for sale in the mall last week. Hoffmaster State Park (near Muskegon, Michigan) is taking reservations for mid-July (when our family usually camps with extended family and close friends). Though the snow is still falling, summer is coming.
I am always surprised by how much preparation is required for these family vacations. Three families coordinate schedules. Someone makes the reservations. Someone else puts together a schedule for our shared meals. First Aid kits need restocking. Air mattresses and tents require minor repairs and occasionally replacement. Somehow, every year, we need new rope.
Synod is Coming
Around the CRCNA, the approaching summer also means synod is coming. There are logistics to coordinate, agency reports to compile, presentations to finalize, and an agenda to publish. Our denominational staff and leadership are gathering stories about God’s faithfulness, even as they discern ways in which the Spirit is leading us into another year of ministry together.
Our congregations and classes are planning for synod as well. If they have not done so already, many of our classes will soon choose delegates for synod. Some of our classes are discerning how to respond to study committee reports. Others are drawing up overtures that will encourage us to pay closer attention to the whats, hows, and whys of the way we engage ministry. It is only January, but the countdown to summer–and to synod–is certainly underway.
As preparations are being made through official overtures and communications, through informal gatherings, and even by some politicking about whom we want as delegates at synod, this summer’s gathering has a weighty feel to it. The stakes feel higher; the concerns more pressing. A few conversations sound as if plans are being made to set up tents at opposite ends of the campground. Others have wondered if there will be room for them in the CRC campground after this year.
This phenomenon is not new for us, of course. We have been in these spaces where coming together in the summer does not seem possible, much less desirable, because of the tensions between us. The very birth of our denomination emerged from disagreements about how to remain faithful in worship, educational, and social practices.
Praying for Our Unity
Particularly with our anticipated discussions over pastoral care and same-sex marriage this summer, I feel a strong need to pray consistently for our unity as part of our preparations for synod this year. Such an emphasis on prayer is not intended to sweep away the complexities before us, nor is it an attempt to diminish the disagreements between us. These are weighty and complex matters.
Rather because of how complex and weighty our conversations feel already, it seems to me that our most pressing and perhaps even our most time consuming preparation for synod this year needs to be prayer for our unity.
I wonder what impact a season of praying for each other and for our unity as God’s people might have on our congregations. What if we started praying now that the Spirit would strengthen our “unity through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? How might our delegates to synod be impacted by hearing repeated prayers over the next several months that all of us would “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19)? I pray that, through such a season of prayer, we will witness God doing immeasurably more than we have asked or imagined.
What about you?
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I think prayer for the single goal of unity is incomplete. Unity alone, which as a practical matter sometimes means compromise to the extent required to achieve unity, even if faux, is not what God requires of us.
No, I not suggesting compromise can't be good. See Acts 15 for that. But compromise can be bad even if it is not always bad. No, it's not easy to discern which is which, but still I think prayers for unity must always be accompanied by equal petitions for faithfulness, lest whatever the process prayed for start with the false premise that only unity matters in an institutional church's deliberations.
Certainly, seeking unity is part of being faithful, but only "seeking" and only "part." Sometimes, I think we believe that institutional unity is required, for ourselves at least, to be one holy catholic church, as if Paul and Barnabas were no longer brothers in Christ because they disagreed to the point of separating in one of their trips and taking different companions. Wasn't the case then and still isn't now.
I would go so far as to say that institutional separation, done well, is sometime necessary to organic unity. But if we only pray for unity, we can't get to that truth, and separation is much less likely to be "done well."
Thank you for this reminder about faithfulness, Doug. You are right: We also need to pray that we would be faithful.
I fully agree with you that we can and often do idolize unity, particularly when doing so can give the appearance that "Everything is fine. There are no problems here." As with all idolatry, that type of unhealthy unity ends up celebrating events, institutions, and relationships that have no more depth or substance than a desert mirage.
I wonder, though, if the potential of embracing a false unity can get in the way of us praying for and working toward a more robust experience of our unity as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
At the same time, I also see a danger around the pursuit of faithfulness as well. We can idolize our determination to be faithful just as easily as our pursuit of unity. We can use our convictions as walls that isolate ourselves from the rest of the body of Christ. Under the flag of being faithful, we can separate ourselves from others to the point that the only voices we listen to, the only people we associate with, and the only ones we are willing to covenant with are those who reinforce our particular understandings.
Though the desire to be faithful is right and good, we can pursue that desire with such attention to where we disagree that we lose sight of our unity in Jesus Christ. We describe faithfulness with such a tight boundary that we no longer see each other brothers and sisters in Christ.
That is not to say ditch all have boundaries. Quite to the contrary, the creeds and confessions serve as boundary markers helping us understand parameters for faithfulness and unity outlined in scripture. I am, however, suggesting that we can dig our own definition of faithfulness so deeply in one particular spot that we lose the capacity to celebrate the acres of common ground that we have in Jesus Christ.
So, yes. I would agree: let's pray that in seeking unity we might not ignore faithfulness; and I would add, that in striving for faithfulness we might not lose sight of the unity we already share in Christ.
Prayer, absolutely. But to pray for unity suggests up front there is disunity. Let's make sure we are all clear on what we believe. To Doug's point we also need to understand what we are faithful to! The first two lines of the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles Creed would be a good start. James R Payton wrote an interesting article in the December 2015 /January 2016 Convivium magazine. The key phrase in the lead of the article "..the Orthodox Church offers Western Christians the treasure of celebrating mystery rather than explaining God". I am not enough of a theologian to grasp all the details but it has to do with what we believe. " At beginning of the 21st century Western Christians had more than 26,000 denominations" he explains further. Praying for unity appears in that light to have had little success. .
My sense is to be very careful to craft (more) actions/motions/departments/appointments in support of study reports. The CRCNA is famous for that with its 1,000 pages of Acts of Synod.
Thank you for your comment, Harry. You are right: there are lots of Christian denominations and, at least on the surface, the presence of so many denominations could suggest that unity is next to impossible. But before I would say that unity is impossible, I would want to talk about what we are using to measure our unity.
In Hamilton, Ontario, where I am currently pastoring, our congregation participates as a covenant partner in the TrueCity movement. (You can read about TrueCity here.) There are currently sixteen core churches involved in the movement from multiple denominations, including Baptist, Assemblies of God, and Christian Reformed. We certainly disagree on multiple points of theology (women in office being one of those areas) and we have different approaches to preaching, different emphases in preaching, and reach different demographic groups in our city, we also experience a great deal of unity with each other.
Our unity as TrueCity churches does not depend on conformity with each other in any of these areas. Rather, our unity in Christ Jesus - the foundational reality that we are saved by God's grace in Jesus Christ - makes room for a great deal of diversity between us in how we respond to that God news. In our unity we collaborate together in serving this city of Hamilton. And in our unity, we also spend time talking with each other about our different perspectives on a whole host of topics, including how we read scripture, how we respond to persons in same-sex relationships, and what discipleship looks like in each of our congregations. Unity is possible even when we have different denominational orientations.
I am also struck by your comment that praying for unity implies that there is already disunity. More than disunity, I see and hear a certain level of distrust within our denomination. I am convinced that distrust (whether of leadership's priorities, of each other's motivations, or of each other other's decisions) leads to disunity. Though I would be hesitant to suggest that we are experiencing complete disunity right now, I would suggest that encouraging us to pray for unity is important considering the distrust and skepticism that is apparent within our conversations.
Thank you for your comments. They are helpful.
I have spent a lot of time in the last few weeks reading the various reports and overtures that are coming to synod. It is actually overwhelming. We have to let scripture speak. Using a metaphor here might explain how I feel. "The symphony of some of the reports to synod appear to be a out of tune with scripture." The 200 plus folks at synod will have great difficulty getting the harmony back! From this you will be able to know how I will pray for this synod.
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