An Open Letter to RiverTree Community Church

I still remember the very first contact I had with my RiverTree church family. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was privileged to sit down with our very own Christian Shearer at a Biggby coffee place in Byron Center. At the time, I was engaged to my wife and entirely anxious about the future. Gently, Christian shepherded me through the details of my potential role leading worship and guiding a ministry team. He talked about the potential for continuing to discern my vocation and learning how a small, missional church operates, how relationships matter so deeply and community involvement drives vision. He has consistently supported me at every point of life, as long as I have known him.

Before I knew it, I was hired and we were swept up in our new community. We received so much grace as we transitioned; we must have missed five or six Sundays that first summer alone. Granted, we were engaged, then married; but regardless, we are so thankful for the flexibility we experienced.

abstract_tree_art_by_naitsirhc_nitsuj-d4tjj0r
photo credit: Naitsirh Nitsu

We cannot say enough about the generosity and grace that mark the community we call RiverTree. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor are not catchphrases; they are the deepest sense of mission and identity, the truest marks of every aspect of the purposes directing this faith community. These spacious concepts, breathed through Scripture, are the signposts for evaluating everything RiverTree pursues.

Our Grove grasped this reality. The Birds and the Sischos walked with Kaile and me over the bulk of our time at RiverTree, encouraging us and respecting us in our journey. Our Grove met us where we were, but gently prodded us forward in love and faith, carefully helping us to humbly yet boldly practice our faith. When we were at our financial low point, our Grove cared for us in a very practical way: they purchased a high efficiency washing machine for cleaning our cloth diapers. Tangible and spiritual needs alike were, at all times, our Grove’s priority.

The whole of the church did, in its own unique way, what our Grove did in its particular way. We have received friendship, encouragement, and grace. Russ Roseman plumbed the majority of our house for a pittance. Mark Kershner and Alan DeBoer have made my job a thousand times easier with their consistent work ethic and careful feedback. Heather Shearer has gladdened my heart with her humor every last time we have interacted. Jesse Byker has been ever-present with humor and willingness to serve. Mark and Janna Hasselbring have extended kindness and grace to both Kaile and me as long as we have known them. Gary Bird and Bruce Rhoades have listened to me and encouraged me. Paula Roseman, Sherry Bird, and Maria Kelly have encouraged and spiritually supported Kaile and me with gentle candor. Candace Carey has faithfully [and often humorously!] led our congregation in worship throughout every season of her life journey. Ken DeHart has given me feedback and grace and honest encouragement at every turn. Amy DeBoer has sung beautifully every time we have led together. Dan Pletcher and CJ have laughed with me and given my heart joy. Dan Vanderlaan Jr has been a friend and support while his father has given me new insights in many areas of life. Chris Lock has worshiped God with me and stepped forward in his faith journey, allthewhile befriending me. Jennifer and Bryan Pickett have been incredible friends both to Kaile and to me. Eli Shearer has been a companion to me and to Silas, always willing to throw his football with me, and his sister Shiloh has done the hard work of caring for Silas in the nursery. Fred DeJung has given me incredible insight and helped guide me in the ordination process. Dan Lehman has been a friend to me, and at times even asked for my perspective on things. I could list many more relationships that have encouraged my heart if space allowed. Each and every person in the RiverTree community has been of great value to me.

Ok, here is a tough piece of this letter. Would you permit me to leave each of you with a small piece of parting insight? Please, please, receive this with affection. Alright. Here goes. For the grand journey of humanity, life experience often proves an excellent teacher. As we gain years, we often gain massive insights. Sometimes we believe, however, that this process is somehow automatic. As middle aged people, we can fall into a belief that we have “more” than those who are younger, that we know better because we are older. My friends, age does not necessarily equal wisdom. Have you learned from someone younger than you recently? Have you met an older person who graciously listens to a child? In all sincerity, there have been times when I have felt personally diminished because I am younger than some. For a church to deeply embrace people of all ages, respect and curiosity must be the glue between generations. In a church that consists of many in the 30s-50s range, remember what it meant to be 13, and remember that you do not yet know what it is like to be 94. And remember that each of us experiences life differently! Telling someone, “you just wait!” is not helpful insight. At every life stage, we have no choice but to wait.

Please receive this insight with grace. Let it sit with you for a while, and please, please, search yourself and ask God if there is truth in my words that relates to you. For many of you, it may be general insight that seems helpful but not to you. For others, it may prick your spirit and lead you to a deeper examination of your attitudes and habits.

All of that said, I really sense that RiverTree will continue to flourish. I can just picture God continuing to do, through RiverTree, what he began to do many years ago. My little insight on a growth point for the community is only my little contribution. Surely there are other ways to grow as a community. But I would be remiss not to affirm the great strengths of RiverTree while also commenting on one blind spot.

During our journey as a community, all of you have seen my flaws, some much more than others! Some of you have been kind enough to provide me with insights on how to serve the church more effectively. If you have been around me enough, you will have noticed the difficulty that administrative details present me. Curating the worshipplanning website and the song database did not come as naturally to me as other dimensions of my role. Even as there have been numerous opportunities to see my weaknesses, you have also [I hope!] seen my strengths. You have seen my passion and drive, my sense of purpose and God-given direction. You have seen my concern for bearing witness to the power of God made evident in Jesus, and my interest in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

As this season of discernment continues, please know that you are each in our prayers and thoughts, even as we adjust to a completely new area. San Francisco has been kind to us thus far, and we are growing greatly as a family. Our faith is enlarged and our compassion for the lost and the least is also expanding. From our hearts, thank you for everything. We miss all of you and ask God to be close to you in and out of season. In Jesus Christ, grace and peace to each of you.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#1] [Final Post in Series!]

Theology has teeth.

This is what I’ve learned throughout seminary. Here’s why.

Having graduating seminary, I have continued reading books within the world of theology. But I have also ventured into new territory. Recently I finished Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before that, I devoured Eric Metaxas’s eponymous 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer.

My college chaplain, Ron Kopiko, always said that we say what we believe but we do what we value. If one is interested in finding someone who genuinely did what they valued, look no further than the unassuming Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer

Born early in the 20th century, he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men just as a then-obscure Austrian man grew in hate and anger and favor not with God but with a few nationalistic henchmen. As Adolph Hitler carefully assumed control in a debt-laden and politically compromised Germany, Bonhoeffer pursued his vocation in pastoral ministry and professorship.

Before it dawned on most of the elites in Germany, Bonhoeffer sensed Hitler had the worst of intentions. Wooing over the clergy in Germany who were willing to pay a high tax for a very fragile peace, Hitler did his best to spiritually legitimate his actions by subverting Christian beliefs. Attempting to obscure the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish, the Hitler-subservient Reich Church of Germany tossed out essentially the entire Old Testament. It simply didn’t fit with their current goals of destroying lives and calling on the German people to denigrate and destroy the Jewish people. Jewish theology, to them, had no place in their version of “Christian” practice.

True, many leaders in the church bowed to Hitler’s increasingly uncompromising demands. But there were many brave clergy who said no to Hitler. Risking income, status in the community, and their lives, Bonhoeffer carefully coordinated a resistance plan to Hitler’s grab for spiritual power. He leveraged his influence in various international church councils while petitioning his fellow German believers to practice a bolder faith. Bonhoeffer helped sift out the true disciples, the true Christians whose faith meant coordinate action.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer realized Hitler was politically unstoppable. The way he had managed to leverage nationalistic fervor through propaganda made any kind of resistance futile. Begrudgingly and with great fear for his soul, he became a part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. This was for the sake of the Jews, the disabled, the homosexuals, and all other people groups Hitler sought to exterminate, but it was to him a duty to God.

Bonhoeffer’s beliefs were strong enough that he risked everything–even his standing before God, the way he saw it–to live out his discipleship after Jesus.

There are few people who, like Bonhoeffer, have taken Jesus literally when he said, “take up your cross and follow me[1].” He was imprisoned for several years and eventually hanged on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s no to Hitler meant a yes to the call of Jesus Christ.

May we, as Christians living in the 21st century, search for ways to take up our own crosses. Theology is not abstract or distant or irrelevant; at its core, our theology informs how we act in the world. And whether or not we talk about theological things, we say what we believe then do what we value.

Bonhoeffer valued Jesus.

That’s the start. Then comes the taking-up-our-cross part.

*

[1]Bible, New Testament, Matthew 16:24.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#6]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This is the fourth post, and one of the meatier ones.

#6

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

I used to wonder why it was that so many Christian denominations exist. I thought to myself and to others, “are we not divided against ourselves?”

Well, I suppose in some ways there is some division. The church is filled with redeemed rebels, people who God is gently leading toward right living. No doubt, there latent tension between followers of Jesus.

But this is what I learned at my interdenominational seminary: God is really big.

The map below illustrates well the diversity of faith in the United States.

us.map.of.denominations

The concept of God’s vastness may sound simple. And in a sense, it is.

The more I have learned about the enormity of our expanding universe and the tiny, intricate complexities of cells and atoms, the more I have begun to understand that God is really, really big. During the earliest days of God making himself known to humanity, people quickly realized this.

Ancient scribes tried their best to record everything they understood about God and write it all down. Have you ever read the Pentateuch? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are not exactly light reading! There are some literary snags, some difficulties, some overlaps, some confusion to be sure. But at the heart of the Pentateuch we see God’s strong covenant to redeem and restore humankind through a people group, Israel.

Various tribes did their best to respond to God over long periods of time, falling away and coming back. The prophetic class called the people of Israel to repentance, over and over again pleading on God’s behalf and on their behalf to be faithful to their calling. Kings rose and fell, with only a few truly loving and serving God with their whole hearts.

So it is, it seems, within the Christian church.

Over the twenty centuries since Jesus, the Son of God, revealed himself in the Ancient Near East, the church has sought to follow his directives. Evangelism, spiritual formation, and the slow building of the church has ensued since the days of Jesus’s physical presence, and the church leans readily into an eternal future where heaven eventually meets earth. The people who have responded to Jesus seek his grace for forgiveness and also his justice to roll down.

But amidst all of this, people groups have conflated their beliefs with the tenets of Christianity. Sometimes this wasn’t a bad thing at all. Paul, a Jew, and many of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus, continued many of their cultural practices: food laws, circumcision, sacred ritual habits. These things continued, and for the most part it was a question of how to integrate new believers into the church. The church’s conclusion was that newcomers did not have to adopt Jewish practices to follow Jesus. Many Jews held on to their practices, which was totally ok. Surely some slowly let go.

Fast forward to 1095. Western peoples, who had come to understand much of what Christianity meant, conflated their own feudal belief system with the religion of Jesus. The Apostles, who had gotten to know Jesus, would be thoroughly confused to meet European people calling themselves Christians. These Europeans conflated Christian principles of salvation and repentance with their tribalism, their honor culture, and their desire for conquest. To the chagrin of billions of Christians who would follow, this relatively tiny group of warriors and leaders forever caused confusion. But the church reformed and repented.

And so goes history. Just because someone takes up the exterior mantle “Christian” does not mean that person is walking in step with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and close to God the Father. It means, quite simply, that they call themselves a Christian. The same goes for groups of “Christians.” Scripture teaches that God evaluates the heart [I Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 17:10, and others]. God perceives the actions of people, and he alone judges.

Because God evaluates the heart, it can sometimes be difficult to know which groups of Christians are genuinely walking in step with Jesus. Jesus himself teaches his people not to judge. The term in Matthew 7:1 is krinete, a Greek term translated accurately as “judge.” Isn’t this the Bible’s most-quoted verse? Isn’t this why so many people say “don’t judge me”? Later in the chapter Jesus says something else. He says that his followers can recognize [epiginosko] people, bad or good, by the deeds they do, the “fruit” they bear. That is not to say Christians should judge [krinete] bad people; instead, we recognize when people are not to be followed.

Thus, the history of Christian faith becomes more complicated!

Richard Foster wrote a book called Streams of Living Water in which he talks about the variety of denominations within the Christian church. Masterfully, he explains the contributions of various worshiping traditions who have done their best to faithfully know, follow, and serve Jesus. But no one group, in my opinion, has arrived. Each group of Christ-followers must journey forward, revealing the largeness of God and imitating the world-transforming Son of God, Jesus.

God is really big. When we read about different groups of people trying to serve God-conservative, liberal, traditional-we are to recognize them by their fruits. Most Christian denominations that come to mind-Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Catholic, Reformed-are examples of groups of people who have done their collective best to be sensitive to the teachings of Jesus and to respond accordingly.

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.