Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.

I’m adding my voice to a chorus of grief over the decision of the Christian Reformed Church to pass the Human Sexuality Report, elevate the non-affirming position on sexuality as confessional, and discipline my home congregation. I know this is CRC inside baseball, our favorite kind, and it might not matter to a lot of readers—but it matters very much to me right now, and I don’t have much time left to take up space on this site. I’ve got to say it all soon.

I could start with my bona fides, an account of all the ways generations of my family have been tied up with this institution. That’s how a lot of these laments start. And maybe that would be worth doing, because it matters very much; it matters that I am embedded in this institution in so many ways, that the life of so much of my family and community is bound up in it, all of which makes the heartache more acute. But I think I want to start with something I am working hard to practice even when it’s very, very difficult: gratitude.

When I was ten years old, my family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we found our way via the invitation of old friends to Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church. It is not an exaggeration to say that I am a Christian today because I was raised in that church. I hope they know how grateful I am.

I am grateful to be a daughter of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, because I grew up watching Ruth Boven preach. It is impossible for me to articulate exactly how much it mattered that I saw women in leadership—Ruth and so many others who served as elders and deacons and Sunday School leaders and Pastoral Care Assistants and youth group leaders and committee chairs. I am grateful because I never had to wonder if there was room for women at the heart of that community. I am grateful that the people who raised me in that church made so much room for me. I was invited into the life of the community even when I played the piano off-key or was so self-conscious I couldn’t stand to read up front.

I am grateful to be a daughter of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church because it is impossible, too, to articulate how much it mattered to know church people—old people, even!—who were deeply knowledgeable and deeply curious, who valued expertise and understanding and scholarship, who met new ideas with care rather than fear. It mattered that my twelfth grade Sunday School teachers took our class to different churches each week and then out for coffee to talk about the many ways that people worship and understand and pursue life with God. It mattered that my questions were not treated as threatening. It mattered that even when I was too shy to ask them, I saw that curiosity modeled by the people around me.

I am grateful to be a daughter of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church because it matters still, to see so many people—old people, even!—who care about the things that so deeply trouble me in the world and in the church. It matters that I have seen them learn to care about new things. They have failed, of course, and repeatedly, and they have failed other people more than me. I don’t remember, as a kid or teen, much discussion about the experiences of LGBTQ Christians, and I know that the queer kids around me suffered for not seeing those experiences represented in church leadership until the very recent past. I know that they suffered, then and this week, to see their identities and loves made a subject for theological debate. I also know—I don’t say “but,” because it’s not a negation but an addition—that it matters that I have watched the church that raised me ask new questions about the expansiveness of God’s love and the story of the Bible. It matters to see them stand on their convictions when it comes at a terrible cost.

And more than all that, I am grateful for the LGBTQ Christians in my life who have invited me into their lives and experiences and questions, who have expanded my ideas about what God calls us to and how to live it out, who have modeled lament and hope and a faithfulness that absolutely awes me. They have challenged me to reimagine what the Gospel is. I am very grateful to have learned this about that Gospel: if it’s not good news for the suffering, it’s not good news at all. And at the risk of being very cringey and sincere, even more than I have been, here’s what I pray for: that I—that we, like the saints of Neland Church—will have more of that same courage to every day set aside our small ideas about what and who is most important and spend all our lives deeply curious about the irrepressible love of God. And above all, that we will have the courage to let that irrepressible love change us, over and over again, whatever the cost.

Photo credit to Stephen Nooregaard Photography, courtesy of the author

13 Comments

  1. Leah Ivory

    Thank you for writing and sharing this, Katie. My heart was broken open with gratitude as I read your eloquent testimony. I, too, am grateful for the Neland community.

    Reply
  2. Kathy DeMey

    Thank-you, Katie. My life has been deeply shaped by my Neland faith family, too. You mention that some of your influencers were “old” when you knew them. Yes, that resonates with me. I think of Steve Vander Weele, Henrietta Ten Harmsel, Clarence Vos, Andy Bandstra, Nella Snapper, Jeanette Sikkema, Ruth Hoekema, Harry Boonstra…Such a long list. Saints who led the way. Who weren’t afraid of seriously engaging tough questions and living in the tension of both/and, and were humble enough to know that now “we see through a glass, darkly.” Andy Bandstra was a very early supporter of women in office (professor at Calvin seminary). Oh, that some of these seasoned, wise saints were alive today to help us find our way. But, we have people like you, who are leading now. And I’m grateful to God for you!

    Reply
    • Katie Van Zanen

      And I am grateful for you, Kathy!

      Reply
  3. Helen Hoekema Van Wyck

    Katie, thank you for this. I, too, am a daughter of Neland Avenue CRC, and also a daughter of the above-mentioned Ruth Hoekema. Ruth Boven preached at my mother’s funeral in 2007. I grieve with you – and with so many- about this short-sighted and exclusionary decision by Synod 2022. I am an elder in my current church (Hope CRC, Oak Forest IL) and this will have enormous implications for our welcoming and grace-filled congregation. My favorite line from your column is this: “if [the Gospel] isn’t good news for the suffering, it’s not good news at all.” I will quote you often!

    Reply
  4. Henry Baron

    It’s healing to my suffering spirit to read your fulsome expression of gratitude.
    Thank you, Katie!
    And yes, let’s celebrate the ways in which we at Neland can bless the lives of others.

    Reply
  5. Dean Ward

    Thanks very much, Katie. This essay was a warm hug in the middle of a harsh and bitter week.

    Reply
  6. Jeff Bouman

    I’m grateful I also “grew up” in this faith community that is Neland church. That I can still learn from those -even young people! – who are on the journey with me toward a more beloved community. Thanks for once again digging deeply into your gifts and your well of courage and writing this love letter.

    Reply
  7. BD

    Thank you, Christian Reformed Church, for wise and biblically sound leadership on this important topic. This provides needed guidance for congregations such as NACRC who have elevated/affirmed false (LGBTQ) identity’s above our true (Imago Dei) identity.

    All are welcome and all are loved by God. By affirming false identities in this way, you are only further confusing the confused. The world already offers this, the one true God offers so much more.

    Reply
    • Katie Van Zanen

      This is not the place, BD.

      Reply
      • BD

        Katie-

        An authentic pursuit of God’s truth welcomes challenges/insight that are different from your own (if the goal is truly seeking the unchanging heart of God and not our relative truths). It seems you want an echo chamber…

        Reply
  8. Patricia L Bloem

    I would like add my thanks, Katie, for addressing what so many of us– current or former Nelandites –feel today. Oof, it’s so hard to tune out the self-righteously closed minded! Yet you did. Thank you for articulating gratitude even as we grieve.

    Reply
    • BD

      Patricia-

      “Tune out the self righteously close-minded”? Do you see the contradiction?

      Reply
  9. Margaux

    God gave unto his people the law out of his love for them. God is the all-seeing, all-knowing Creator of the Universe. He knows what is best for Creation and has devised an ultimate plan to carry it out.

    God’s Word supersedes all. Christians’ allegiance is first and foremost to the Lord and His desires for Creation.

    The Word of the Lord is constant, unchanging, standing firm forever.

    John 14:15 is explicit and indisputable: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.”

    Reply

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