“The Reformation achieved great popular success because it satisfied, or promised to satisfy, the needs of many people who earnestly desired the consolations of the Christian religion…. they were sincere seekers after salvation who looked to the church for succor, and, not finding it there, turned against the traditional religion and its representatives with all the anger of disillusioned love.” (Williston Walker, The History of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition, p. 421)
I first read these words 37 years ago during my ministerial studies at Calvin Seminary. They reinforced a belief that every once in a historical while, spiritually dead and misguided religion must reckon with the human soul’s unquenchable desire for peace with God. We are again in such a time of reckoning. As the world is collapsing around us, sincere souls are seeking succor from the church and are not finding it. I am one of the disillusioned and angry ones.
I decided to leave ordained ministry in the Christian Reformed Church over the course of two-and-a-half years, in three overlapping stages. First, I left my congregation to protest religious Trumpism, and, following that, found myself in a spiritual wilderness. Second, I fell into the arms of chaplaincy training, during which a Muslim family, a Hindu man, and an atheist banker helped me find Jesus again. Third, I studied the United Church of Christ, and was captivated by three spiritual concepts—including a story about barnacles—which have helped me find peace and spiritual direction.
If Donald Trump revealed the heart of white evangelicalism, he also altered the brain-chemistry of the Christian Reformed Church. It was like after Edmund, in The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, had eaten Turkish Delight. Mr. Beaver could tell from the look in Edmund’s eyes that he had been with the Queen/White Witch, eaten her food, and was no longer on the side of the fauns and the animals. Mr. Beaver said to the other children, “The moment I set eyes on that brother of yours, I said to myself, ‘Treacherous.’”
During Trump’s presidency, the evangelical church began to show his dangerous look, disregarding Trump’s racism and turning a blind eye to his moral degradation, misogyny, and shaming of immigrants. Under the sway of Trump’s leadership, hostility and aggression from the Religious Right became commonplace, even in the CRC. Church councils intimidated, manipulated, and persecuted good and decent pastors who dared venture the most careful and reasonable critiques of Trumpism. A church secretary read the emails and letters addressed to a pastor friend who had attempted a gentle word of biblical critique and implored him, “Please—you should step down and leave. I am afraid for your safety.” Elders of CRC churches sent threatening letters to denominational staff. Donald Trump awakened something deeply wrong in the soul of the CRC. Others, trying to be nice, trying to hold their churches together, trying not to poke the bear, or just trying to keep the budget solvent, tolerated or sought to appease the Trump-factions of their congregations.
The humble denomination of my upbringing was gone. In the past, my people suffered loss, if need be, for the quiet good of God. No doubt, we were stubborn. Yet, we freely confessed that we had sin in us and among us. We lived in fear and trembling before God. We believed, as Reformed people, in considering matters carefully and with biblical discernment. Now, retired pastors with respected names in the CRC are suffering depression from the state of the denomination they spent their lives nurturing. All those sermons, all those Bible studies…just for this rotten fruit? Active pastors knew their sanctuary platforms were powder kegs, and their congregational leaders were coming to church each Sunday with their tithes in one pocket and matches in the other. What could pastors do but sit on their hands and duct tape their mouths?
It is my unshakeable conviction that religious Trumpism is idolatry, openly racist, and a poisoning of the simple gospel of Jesus. Since there was a strong Trump-supporting base within my congregation at the time, there was no way to speak about or confront this large-scale toxicity in the broader church without hurting the congregation I was pastoring. Despite meaningful relationships with many loving and well-intentioned congregants, I initiated an amicable divorce following the rules of the CRC.
The bottom dropped out of my faith in “organized Christianity.” There was no truth for me in the church any longer. (This song by Dan Deitrich expresses how I felt https://youtu.be/WidUnxxovD8.) I didn’t know where Jesus was, but I was pretty dang sure where he wasn’t. Bereft, I went into the desert wilderness, and there beheld the bleached bones of my former beliefs, practices, and identity. I can tell you: Disillusionment sucks.
At the same time, I embarked on a two-year training process for chaplaincy. I worked on a suicide unit at a mental health hospital, and then for a year as a resident chaplain in a Tier-1 trauma hospital. From within the wilderness, I began to see signs of divine beauty in the depths of human suffering.
I remember weeping with a Muslim family at the bedside of their deceased loved one, with as deep a sense of fellowship as I had, over so many years, with my most beloved church members. Another time, I was present with a Hindu family during the death-process of their elderly mother. After she died, I escorted the family to the hospital exit, and there, in the dim and empty hallway of the early morning, suddenly one of her sons turned and hugged me, full-on, and we held each other. I believed, in that moment, Jesus was there, between us. Admittedly, this did not happen in every meeting with every person. Some days of chaplaincy were just normal workdays, and sometimes my heart remained unmoved. Yet at frequent and startling moments, as I met with all sorts of people, I regularly saw flickering images of Jesus in them.
These people were sent to me while I was still in the desert, and it was as if God showed me a little stream, or had uncorked within me an overflowing fountain. I found myself lavishly distributing Jesus in ways that were outside the limits of my church teachings and practices. I splashed water for baptisms in ways that stretched and broke my previous definitions. I rummaged around in staff break rooms for crackers and sugary grape juice, offering these bargain-basement elements as holy sacraments to people with only the slightest impulse of faith. I helped organize spiritual rituals for people of completely other faiths. I flung God’s love around like the wild sower in Jesus’ parable, trusting that God would grow things anywhere God wanted. I saw that so many of these people were like seeds trampled underfoot already, stripped and beaten by hell. It anguished my heart to see, especially, that many of my suicidal patients had been abandoned, cast out, and rejected by harsh, authoritarian, and law-based religions of all sorts. In those moments it came down to this: here, the water. Here, the saltine cracker, and the grape juice: the gifts of God for the people of God—for any humble, suffering, desirous soul. Oil and wine for their wounds. My hands, my heart, promptly offered up, and touching the flesh of humanity.
On the suicide unit, and in the hospital, I encountered people from many expressions of Christianity. I observed that the hyper-religious, loud-mouthed people who proclaimed themselves to have mighty faith, patriotic morals, and essential truth actually possessed only distortions and twisted imitations of Christianity; on a few occasions their faith manifested as something resembling mental illness. In vivid contrast, the simple, pure, rugged presence of Jesus was evident in the weakest and humblest human beings.
Increasingly, then, all the profound and precious gifts my family and forebears gave me in my upbringing and training were no match for Jesus, revealing himself this way. All that I had believed for a lifetime and preached across three decades of ordained ministry could not keep up with what Jesus was teaching me on that suicide unit, and in that war-zone of a hospital. It must sound grandiose, but I did wonder if this was what the Apostle Paul described: how all of his life’s efforts, all of his fire-breathing religious exertions, had been overtaken and swept away by the sheer, simple, sweet, surpassing greatness of Jesus. This, in my own small way, is how it felt for me. I was both crushed and liberated.
I used to think, as a Christian, that I had something unbelievers didn’t. Especially as a pastor, I had some eternal truth people needed to hear, something I needed to press upon them. Serving as a chaplain, the spiritual house of my construction crumpled like wet cardboard. I began to see Jesus was already within other people—in fact, flowing from them to me. I was cut to the heart with the realization that, largely, in my earlier life and ministry, I had been missing Jesus. Passing him by.
In a hospital room one day, I met a retired banker who welcomed me but told me upfront that he had given up on God long ago. I listened for a long time as he shared the very real and painful reasons for his blend of agnosticism and atheism. I presented no argument. Silence surrounded us for a few moments, and then I ventured to tell him my heart: “Yeah, I get it. I feel those things, too. It’s just—I just can’t help it—it seems to me like I experience God right now, just with you and me, right here.” It was quiet again, and then somehow we went on and talked about other things. Eventually, I had to leave, but right before I crossed the threshold of his door, he said, “Hey Chaplain…just so you know, about ten minutes ago, I started believing in God again.”
After oh-so-many moments like that, with so many vibrantly diverse people, it struck me with undeniable force that God does not abhor our fallen, human condition, but is already present within people’s souls, and is, just as Jesus described, already, and always, working. This was true long before I showed up with my evaluation of the person’s spiritual condition or my pulpit-words to say.
I had stumbled from the wardrobe and there was the lamppost. This was divine joy, and it saved my lost and fallen soul.
Meanwhile, the CRC was taking a jaggedly different attitude, with Machiavellian vigor and punitive intent. By approving the Human Sexuality Report and locking it in as confessional, and by initiating attempts at church discipline for those who believed differently, it elected to play Religious Whack-A-Mole with a Bible-mallet. The mindset which had overtaken the Christian Reformed Church was thoroughly contrary to the flow of my heart.
In our human misery, suffering, and searching, Jesus is our friend. He demonstrated this with his open, safe, non-violent, and protective presence. He travels “the highways and by-ways,” and welcomes wild humanity to his feast, without distinction. His feast, his people. Rhapsodize all you want about belonging, but if the “unworthy” people I am meeting every day, who are friends of Jesus, are barred from your table, then I would rather go over to their house, and ask if they would allow me at their table.
Williston Walker follows the chapter on the spiritual awakening of the Reformation with “Separations and Divisions.” This includes accounts of the Reformers drowning people they considered doctrinally impure. Leaders in the current CRC speak of “cleansing the church,” too. Though I am still Reformed (the Heidelberg Catechism is one of the founding testimonies of the UCC), I decided to oblige their desire for cleansing and transitioned away from the CRC. The United Church of Christ met me on the road.
You can’t just get a quick ticket to ride in the UCC. It requires a year of discernment. I took a class, studied, and wrote papers. Three spiritual concepts stood out in the discerning process, and irresistibly beckoned my soul. I hope these three related concepts may be as uplifting for you as they are for me:
First this, from Daniel L. Johnson and Charles Hambrick-Stowe: “While some denominations establish their identity by inspecting the walls for breaches and requiring those persons inside to conform to essential standards, the United Church of Christ characteristically has held the gates open wide and cultivated diversity.” The authors continue: “To recognize this posture as characteristic is to see that love for those who differ, desire to learn by dialogue, and tolerance of ambiguity are important parts of our identity in Christ.” And then: “This is by no means an excuse for doctrinal laziness. Indeed, the work of theology becomes more challenging as we hold lovingly to our own history and faith expressions while in fellowship with those who, inspired by the same Bible, express the faith differently in their lives and with words other than ours.” (Daniel L. Johnson and Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Theology and Identity, pages xi, xii, italics mine).
Reading this, I was smitten. I wanted to think in this expansive way about the body of Christ. In contrast, the “inspect the walls for breaches and require conformity” approach seemed small and pathetic. I no longer wanted anything to do with it.
Second, from the same book, an illustration about barnacles from Sharon H. Ringe captivated me. She describes how believers like her (a feminist theologian), or from other people groups, may be welcomed into the church as “add-ons.” She writes, “As with barnacles on a ship, there is usually room for one more.” The “welcoming” seems so nice, but becomes problematic when it is only “apparent openness,” and when these add-ons are not allowed to “affect the core structure of the vessel or its course.” Ringe calls this “overt hospitality” with “minimal influence.” (Theology and Identity, p. 119).
Ringe’s barnacle story helped me imagine how female pastors in the CRC may feel. The barnacle story also made me think hard about how I have welcomed people. I’ve known a lot of people, but only a few have made it into the main cabin of me. The same people have always stood with me at the helm and have had all the influence—people who look like me and think like me (or, sadly, I have always thought like them). Same demographic, same governance, same “important people,” same clique. “Outreach” was for barnacles.
As I see it now, there is only one captain of my soul. He doesn’t just superficially accept or tolerate barnacles. He takes everyone in, and doesn’t put up with preferential treatment, entitlement, or power games. He has his benevolent eye on a communion of saints, a vast gathering. This means I need to be open, curious, and adventurous. God’s people are as numerous as the stars in the heavens. It’s high time I navigate my journey by them and with them.
Third, I witnessed a panel discussion with three UCC pastors: an older white male from the conservative/traditional wing of the denomination; an African American male; and a Queer woman who is married to another woman. The discussion was wide-ranging, but at one point the white conservative pastor said: “I want to make clear that all three of us love each other in Christ. We are in a weekly Bible study together. We pray together. We deeply disagree on our views, and we are deep friends in Christ.” The other two panelists warmly affirmed his words.
It took me a moment to realize that my eyes were stinging and I had forgotten to breathe. I felt like I was standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon—the “book stuff” from the UCC study materials was actually being lived out and expressed, with color and majesty, right in front of me. To be clear, there are Trump voters in the UCC. Not every congregation is Open and Affirming. But they can talk and discuss and disagree without anyone trying to kick anyone else out. And they stand decisively for human dignity and justice. “Well now,” I thought, after the panel discussion, “look at that! The love of Christ is actually possible for believers who live and think differently.” I haven’t gotten over it.
I am 62 years old. When my kids were babies, I tried to get them to eat lima bean paste from a glass jar, using a plastic spoon like a crowbar against their pursed and spitting lips. Is this how God has felt all these years while coaxing me to open my heart to humanity? I only have a short while, now, to learn, and to function differently.
I refuse, anymore, to spit at God. I refuse to see anyone as a barnacle. I long for everyone to be fully and joyfully on deck and 100% in the conversation about our destination. I find this vision and attitude exemplified in the particular UCC church I attend. The Spirit has given new skin to my bones and has breathed fresh life into my soul. It is my re-formation.
There are many in the CRC—pastors, elders, deacons, and congregants—including dear friends and mentors of mine—who are giving their best intellectual and spiritual gifts to help the CRC find a more Jesus-like way. They have valiantly stayed, and are risking their jobs to resist Religious Trumpism and to promote a more beautiful Gospel. With all my heart, I admire and love them. We have taken different paths, yet our tie still binds.
It is always about the Spirit, “binding in covenant faithful believers of all ages, tongues, and races.” (UCC Statement of Faith, the Moss translation). Christ calls us into peace with God, unencumbered by earthly agendas and liberated from human judgments and bullying. If your soul yearns for that, by all means go after it with all your might. It may be that you are called to stay and carry this light and this vision in your current congregation—and if so, go for it with joyful abandon and bright confidence. Or, it may be that you are called to a transition to a new journey—a re-formation in your own soul, spirit, and practice: Jesus, unlimited.
My pastor expresses this in our church every Sunday morning: “No matter who you are, how you identify, who you love, or where you are on life’s journey: know that you are welcome here, and that you are loved by God.”
Every Sunday, this sounds like Jesus to me. In this spiritual attitude, I have found peace in my soul and the freedom to live it. So may it be for you.
Thanks so much, Keith. So much of this resonated with my own experience. It was very cathartic to read.
This is a powerful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it during this season of Lent.
I often feel the word “powerful” is overused. However, that would not be the case in this instance.
Keith, thank you for this. I will be thinking about this paragraph, in particular, for a long time: “I am 62 years old. When my kids were babies, I tried to get them to eat lima bean paste from a glass jar, using a plastic spoon like a crowbar against their pursed and spitting lips. Is this how God has felt all these years while coaxing me to open my heart to humanity? I only have a short while, now, to learn, and to function differently.”
Wow. So good.
Welcome to the UCC, Keith! As a UCC Pastor with a Dutch Reformed family heritage, I enjoy going to Worship Symposiums at Calvin but also feel like a stranger in a strange land. One CRC Pastor didn’t think the UCC was Reformed. I had to remind him that the Puritans and Pilgrims were our Reformed spiritual ancestors. We just take “Semper Reformata” seriously.
Thank you, thank you.
Wow! Keith you found the words and the emotions to express what few others can say. Poignant piece of writing. As a fellow chaplain and friend, I choked back tears when you shared the comment from the patient who said “I started believing in Jesus ten minutes ago,” as you were leaving his room. Awesome work my friend!
Thank you for this. I too have joined The Congregational Church after spending most of my life in the CRC. I did not consciously reject The CRC (we moved to an area where there was not one) but I found in the Congregational Church a sense of welcome, openness, and room for questioning that I had never before known. Our pastor welcomes “wondering wanderers, faithful skeptics, doubting believers, and all those who love and seek to follow Jesus” to every service. We come from many denominational backgrounds, and from many different political views, but all feel welcome and respectful of others. It feels like an honest-to-goodness family in Christ.
As I read your story, Keith, and remember our connections from days at Calvin, I very much appreciate the reflections on wilderness, barnacles, Trumpism, and chaplaincy. As many, many people said when CRC women left to pursue ordination elsewhere, the CRC’s loss is the gain of other denominations. I hope the CRC folks see (soon!) the damage that’s been done and that continues before there’s no core left. Thank you for writing and sharing this.
This piece reflects a journey many of us have taken. My pastorally gifted wife chose not to fight the CRC attitudes in the 1970s and 80s, finding a home for her fruitful ministry in the UCC. Though the CRC still has a firm grip on me, it is my tribe of birth and formation, I grew in the UCC along with Glenda. The story of the relationship between three pastors on a panel is an exemplar of an openness grounded in faithfulness. To follow this example we must all be careful about demonizing the people and congregations some of us have left. God does love us all. I pray that love will overcome division.
Salve, cousin Tom! Glad to note that you too receive daily inspiration(s) from the RJ Blog! jb
I feel this article to the core of my being. Thank you for this!!
I can hardly breathe from the truth of this. Thank you, Keith.
So good to see your response and know you are still “alive and kicking.” We should find a time to reconnect sometime before we meet in heaven.
Thanks Keith. I confess I seldom read to the very end of long RJ articles but I did yours and it seemed to articulate my thoughts. Reminds me of Luke 16 where the shrewd manager is commended for wasting the masters’ possessions. May we all be so “careless” with the Masters grace! T
Thank you, thank you, Keith. You speak for me and to me. If it were not for the small, local, and affirming CRC congregation I attend, which practices a UCC-like faith, I would have left the CRC by now. Your eloquence and passion arelike water in a parched land to me.
Thanks, Keith. You are speaking for me and for many others feeling rejected by the 81%. Thanks for the link to Dan Dietrich’s song. It says volumes.
Rodger Rice :My mentor and friend ? Lou Okma
Much appreciated, Keith!
Thank you for these words of wisdom. Your quote, “While some denominations establish their identity by inspecting the walls for breaches and requiring those persons inside to conform to essential standards” especially spoke to me. Gratefully, my congregation within the CRC does not fit that description, but we may soon be disciplined for our openness to believers outside of the walls.
Thanks Keith, I needed to hear this testimony of God’s leading, his grace, real humility, and a desire for truth in our inmost parts.
For forty years and more, I’ve contributed to the life of the CRC–essays, devotionals, history, stories and plays. Today, when people ask me to explain what’s happening, I tell them I no longer understand how a majority of the denomination thinks and feels. You say, “If Donald Trump revealed the heart of white evangelicalism, he also altered the brain-chemistry of the Christian Reformed Church.” Sadly, I can’t help but agree.
Please re-read your comment from 1/19/19 about N Sandmann.
Trump certainty altered your brain chemistry. Or at least revealed what is in your heart.
I go to a CRC church and I haven’t gotten this message AT ALL! It’s all about Gods Word and His message! With ANY church – look at their values- measure every teaching with Gods Word- the Bible- Not what people/religions say!!! Also. ITS NOT ABOUT DONALD TRUMP! Which has never been highlighted at our church- ITS ALL ABOUT JESUS AND WHAT HE DID!
This was a great read, Keith. I believe we were in that class together last year where we saw the 3-pastor panel. I’m a Presbyterian pastor from California now serving in the UCC in Michigan (Grand Rapids and Northport), and have watched CRC friends grieve the direction their much-loved tradition has taken lately. The Presbyterian Church suffered similar losses of gifted and called pastors who went to the UCC where they would be welcome. Thank God the PC(USA) has discerned a new direction – may the same happen with the CRC someday.
Thanks so much for this article. It speaks volumes.
Keith, Your article oozes grace and truth. I resonate with your love for people who stay in the CRC—sometimes at great risk—who are trying to promote “a more beautiful Gospel” there. I left ministry in the CRC when I was 50 and, after a few years in the RCA, found a new home in the PCUSA. Now retired, we attend a UCC in Seattle where our daughter is the pastor! I’m happy to be on the same journey with you to “catch up with Jesus!”
Keith so exciting to see your name in the comments.Think about you from time and time and wonder what happened to my dear old friend. Beth and I have been on a similar journey as you and Keith Mannes. I’d love to reconnect and hear more about Emily’s ministry.
Would like to know which UCC church that is. Can you post the name. Looking for a church in Seattle
Thank you Keith,. Please continue to pray for us who have chosen to stay, who look for a better way and who are regularly warned by others to watch what we say. Your words help us to be brave. I’m glad you’re in my big reformed tent.
Excellent article. God is still speaking.
Thanks for this well crafted reminder that God’s common grace is alive and well. Happy too you have found a new spiritual home. I have never seen someone use a quotation from one of the driest textbooks ever crafted to begin a powerful and well crafted article. Thanks!
I savored every word and phrase of your story. As someone who also made a switch –RCA to ELCA because it’s the best local option– I especially appreciate your experiences as a chaplain, as I have also served. It all comes down to Jesus. He’s everywhere.
Thanks so much for this post. As someone else mentioned, I don’t always read the longer posts to the end, but I was riveted and inspired by your post. My hope is that my own progressive CRC church will also be inspired by your journey.
My mother was Pentecostal. At 102, she became disillusioned with AG. Her pastor was treated badly by the denomination because of his stands on social issues. The tipping point for the horrific treatment of the families at the border.
As she lay in hospice at 103 she was visted by a host of people, agnostic, AG, Muslim. Her church did not and could not speak for her.. Neither could her country in a rapidly changing world. She clung to one thing only. The love of God. As her friends exited she expressed her faith which had really been the anchor of her life: God loves everyone. God loves everyone. God loves everyone.
I resonated with much of what you said, but I felt it long before Trump triggered it in this present day. I became Presbyterian before I turned thirty, and pretty much fresh out of Calvin. I later was ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The struggles to support genuine faith over culture are much the same over all. Thanks, Keith
May I add a “hi” to Ron Calsbeek.
Hello, Marty! What a joy to hear just a bit about you.
I’ve had the opposite experience. I’ve been associated with a UMC church for six years where basically the only message is “you belong” along with social justice. My husband and I both started a Bible study here, using the “Discover Life” (Coffee Break) Materials. Both of our groups are growing and want to meet all summer because they can’t get enough of the indepth teaching. You might find this out, too. Also, I think you just needed a change. You are thriving because you are expanding your ministry base, some new people to reach. But, give your new people more than just ” You belong and are loved,”. They are probably ready and eager for a change just as you are. Your anger is is unwarented. You are not in the right frame of mind to appreciate our rich CRC heritage of standing on God’s word.
LOL -Lena, I am sorry but you’re part of the problem.
Thank you for this long but insightful story of your journey. I too left the CRC for the UCC over 50 years ago, but still occasionally attend a CRC service and read The Banner. I remember being totally amazed at how open UCC members are and the concept that they do not look at all the rules we grew up with. I continue to be very disappointed and troubled, but it does entirely surprise me, at what has happened to the CRC. Growing up there was always the attitude that we were like Kellogg’s cereal “a little bit better.”That did not mean including others, but excluding. I could go on and on.
One more thing. The day ( at least 15 years ago) the woman pastor at the UCC church we belonged to “came out” from the pulpit, many congregants embraced her.
Keith. Thank you for putting your struggles with the CRC so succinctly. I have been a chaplain my whole career after having served a congregation. I can truly identify with the grace which is so present in our interactions with others to whom we minister and who, in turn, minister to us. Thank you for your ability to verbalize this well. In my case, I worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons as a chaplain. When we were struggling within the structure of the CRC, we wrote an article, called “The Place of Grace” which outlined where we came from as chaplains and that being placed within Home Missions was an ecclesiastical disaster. We survived. As chaplains, we believe that all our interactions are ultimate, that our connection is grace-filled and that, somehow, God will bless our interactions. Our interactions were never penultimate. Crudely stated, it means in practice “We love you, but we love you a lot more if you become one of us.” I have always wanted to formally study and articulate a pastoral and personal theology of religious accommodation, but have not been able to do so.
Thank you for sharing your journey since leaving your congregation. Although painful, it has brought you to a place that is so profoundly different than our beloved CRC. You have put into words the profound disease that has enveloped so many of our friends and relatives within and outside of the church. These words: “there is only one captain of my soul. He doesn’t just superficially accept or tolerate barnacles. He takes everyone in, and doesn’t put up with preferential treatment, entitlement, or power games. He has his benevolent eye on a communion of saints, a vast gathering”. That is more than enough.
I just can’t decide. That’s the trouble with growing up in Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. Every time ya make up your mind, along comes a difference.
As the James Tate poem “Good Time Jesus closes:
“I think I’ll go for a ride on my donkey. I love my donkey. Oh hell, I love everybody.”
Thank you for naming Religious Trumpism. It drove us from our church as well.
Keith, you declare yourself angry and disillusioned with the CRC. You lament, “The humble denomination of my upbringing was gone.” But the CRC of your upbringing remains. The CRC never affirmed sexual revisionism or universalism of the sort you advocate. Don’t blame the CRC for not changing to suit you. It is appropriate for you to join the UCC, since you embrace its views. It is not appropriate to rail against the CRC for not becoming like the UCC.
Perhaps the mistake was made in the beginning by calling it the Christian Reformed Church instead of the Christian Reforming Church. I was always taught sanctification was a process. There is arrogance in the certainty that we don’t need to change.
Hi Keith – you have my utmost respect.
I think the railing had to do with the people who are eager to play Whack a Mole with their Bible/mallets with anyone in the CRC who disagrees with their rigid views, – the “Machivalians”, or did you miss that part?
Like so many have already expressed, I find your words to be filled with grace and truth and integrity, those of a courageous follower of Jesus. It’s that last part, the courageous part, that I don’t quite know what to do with. Not because of you, but me, the one who after 37 years has not walked away from the institution. Am I simply one who sits on his hands, who allows duct tape on his mouth? Have I ignored too much, not challenged enough? That’s not a criticism of you or your writing, but an affirmation–that you have challenged me in ways I need to keep hearing, however hard. Blessings to you, and thank you.
You wrote powerfully from a “crushed and liberated” heart, Keith.
And we are grateful – for its honesty, its hope, and its fuller embrace of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Thanks Keith. Been there and done that (left the CRC, that is), years ago. Still love it, still have many friends there, but just can’t stomach where it was headed, even then.
Thank you Keith. The CRC has changed. Your comment about Trumpism altering our chemistry is so obvious and undeniable. I can’t believe anyone would deny it.
I deny it!
I’m a committed Never Trumper. Never voted for him! Never plan to. He’s wicked.
The CRC **DIDN’T CHANGE** and then you blame it on Trump?? 😂
Trump unveiled that political idolatry is rampant on both sides! But the way Trump broke the brains of democrats is so fascinating. Not everything is about Trump…
Thank you. Vulnerability speaks to my soul.
I found my heart echoing and affirming so much of what you write here.
You are not alone brother. Thank You for putting your heart out there.
Thank you for sharing and opening the conversation ….that some of us even have within the UCC as we try to invite our members into Jesus’ Call of liberation and love and forgiveness and compassion. Especially after a Bible Study this morning where we were discussing much of the shift from head to heart and relationships here and now. 😉. Peace, Lee
Thank you for this! You write with courage, honesty, and vulnerability. Your experience mirrors so much of mine, as I have long had one foot inside the CRC and the other outside—whereby I have seen rivers of grace and love and flowing in many places, both inside and outside of the CRC.
Reading this, I am filled with gratitude for my own (non-Trump) inclusive and progressive local CRC congregation. I am also grateful for having met Jesus in other cultural and religious settings as well.
This is confusing. On the one hand, the author calls out wrongs he sees in his former CRC denomination, namely religious Trumpism (a “poisoning of the simple gospel of Jesus”), and church discipline for opposing beliefs (after the Human Sexuality Report was approved by the CRC). The author felt that these wrongs — and the spirit of those who advocated them — were so sinful that he left the CRC.
Then a few pages later, he advocates the way of his new UCC denomination, because they represent a lack of judgment. He’s impressed with a panel of pastors who “can talk and discuss and disagree without anyone trying to kick anyone else out.”
So which is it? Does he approve of those who part ways for serious doctrinal disagreements, as he did, or does he not? The article feels like a double-standard.
Thanks for sharing your story with us. It is heartfelt, beautifully and eloquently written and powerful. My story isn’t too different from yours. I was raised a United Methodist in a very conservative, yet loving congregation. I became a musician by profession, singing opera, oratorio, classical art songs, and serving churches as either Choir Director or as a paid soloist and section leader. I’ve served many different denominations: United Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Unitarian, even Jewish Synagogues. It was my 9 years as a Choir Director in a UCC Congregation that opened my heart and mind the most, and led to a re-formation of my faith.
I am now back in a United Methodist Congregation that is open and loving as a paid soloist and section leader, but am grateful for my time in the UCC. While I am saddened that we in the UMC could not agree to disagree lovingly and remain in communion with each other as the UCC does, I think the split is for the best, as it takes willingness on both sides to agree do disagree in love and keep open minds, and we simply did not have that from those who are leaving.
It saddens me to no end that so many Christians today can be so blind to whom Trump and the Republican Party are, and they can’t see that they are missing the boat and are not followers of Jesus. Just as you could not stand to remain within the CRC, I can no longer stand to be around those who are hard hearted, lacking in compassion and love, and who are more intent on being modern day Pharisees and Sadducees, than they are followers of Jesus, so I’m glad that those congregations and people are leaving the UMC, and I earnestly pray that within those who remain that we can achieve the same kind of spirit and practice that the UCC has. I pray that your experiences and your story will help to open many minds and hearts, and cause a spiritual re-formation within them.
Where is the link to the song that Brian McLaren mentioned?
I don’t share any of this history, didn’t grow up in West Michigan, and have been at times perplexed by the tribalism here. But what I personally understand, relate to, and read simply in your words, is that Love, as God, lives in the heart. We can’t think our way to God, we seek to feel God in every opportunity and connection with another soul.
That is what we are- each of us a soul in a human suit. If we could think of each other as less “the saved” (which our human psychological interprets as worthy), and “the unsaved” (seeing eventual unworthiness in others), then maybe we would be able to focus more on what really matters- love and connection. And to me, that is the heart work of God.
Thanks for this courageous, engaging article. I say “Amen!” to it all. Your stories and truths echo a piece by William Sloane Coffin I read just this morning: “The church is surely not dogma in search of obedience but love in search of form.”
a good word! thnx for the quote
Zealots for a religion of therapeutic pluralism, a sexual ethic of permissiveness, and a politics of leftism find it hard to stomach the CRC. They had high hopes that the CRC would follow their lead, but those hopes are shattered. The UCC fulfills their hearts’ desires.
Wow David. Glad to see you have it all figured out. And the denomination wonders why people are leaving the CRC.
New International Version
30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”
New International Version
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.
Whatever religion, sexual ethics, or politics aligns with these requirements is what Christians should be advocating.
Those who hear “The CRC is deeply infected with idolatrous MAGA-worshipping Christian Nationalism that has hurt countless people, poisoned the witness of the church, and continues to divide the church” and reply with “But the leftists and the gays!” are deeply missing the point.
(See Mannes’ point about how there are conservatives within the UCC: one can hold to a traditional orthodox sexual ethic, for example, and still abhor and condemn rigid political dogmatism and the idolatry and divisions that are its fruit.)
You are correct. The difference is, the CRC will no longer allow anyone to sit shoulder to shoulder with someone who doesn’t agree. The UCC allows its believers the freedom to live with the tension. I, for one, have appreciated that.
David you are so wrong. That is a shameful description of the UCC and I can only say, be careful how you speak in generalizing ways about part of Jesus Body, the Bride of Christ!
“Zealots for a religion of therapeutic pluralism”?? Boy, you sure do know how to describe people in your church who disagree with you.
Thanks for sharing. The article and these responses are a healthy dialog for the church. I am ELCA and always appreciate spirited discussions regarding the journey of faith. Thanks for the courage to share your faith journey.
Captures so well so much of my own journey out of the CRC.
An honest and heartfelt piece of writing. It echoes the stories women, people of color, those in the LGBTQ, and all the “others” have been telling for years. I’m sorry it took a rise in fascism for so many to see the truth that many have been feeling and preaching for decades. It’s good to see so much support for your position.
Thanks so much, Reverend Keith! Your journey sounds like mine in so many ways; 10 years ago, I tore down to walls of conservative evangelical Christianity, and was amazed at how Jesus went right along with me, encouraging, guiding, blessing every step. I asked for illumination, and it was given freely with no condemnation. Good luck on your continued path—good luck to both of us!
If Mr. Mannes now aligns better with a more liberal church, he is better off there. His pretending to be a victim is a bit much though.
Victim? No. For someone to devote 40 years of their life to a system that they totally believe in, only to find that the emperor has no clothes would be devastating. I felt that way and I wasn’t a pastor. God bless the work he’s doing.
Ah, the journey. And the conversation about it, inner and outer. Here’s a poem of mine from 25 years ago. With respect for dynamics embedded in the texts, plural, of Sunday School songs.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot
A story is told
of one door—and only one,
inside and outside
As a youngster I was told
I was safe inside the door,
superior to those
outside the door:
One door and only one
And yet its sides are two,
inside and outside,
on which side are you?
One door and only one
And yet its sides are two,
I’m on the inside,
on which side are you?*
Strange to say
but true enough,
with quietly revolving doors
I circle in and out
gently pushing my way through
revolutionary, merry-go-round doors
Whistling softly in the dark
whee, wee, we
all the way home to
this little light of mine*
© Emily Jane VandenBos Style, 1998
*traditional Sunday School songs
Hi, Keith. I served on staff at Willow Creek Church for 25 years…most of that as the Worship Director. Your journey sounds very similar to mine and you are definitely someone I would deeply love to learn from. I live in Grand Rapids these days and would gladly drive in to Holland to buy you breakfast or lunch! Please let me know if you’d be willing to get together!
It seems quite odd to me that a wealthy playboy from New York City could have such an effect on us all.
Thank you, Keith. You have eloquently expressed thoughts that are reflective of many of us raised in the CRC and who are troubled by the issues that you’ve outlined. I also am headed for the exit door. At age 75, I’m the last remaining CRC member in my immediate family that represents four generations of loyal, faithful commitment and service.
Amen. Raised in a CRC parsonage, I’ve found my home as an older adult in a Presbyterian Church USA for some of the reasons you express. Thank you.
What you described about an alarmingly large percent of Christians embracing Trumpism is what has kept me away from church free for a very long time. What you described about your personal disillusionment and journey has me encouraged to find a proper church home and try again. Thank you
Thank you! This article has been the best article I’ve ever read, ever. It speaks to everything in my heart right now. Everything I’ve ever wanted to say and much much more. Thank you Lord for giving the writer such a gift to give to this world that is so so broken. His will not ours be done! Now go forth and love!
Thank you so much Pastor Keith, for expressing exactly how I have been feeling as part of the CRC my whole life. I have not yet decided whether to leave or stay. But if I stay, I know I cannot sit silently while injustice against the marginalized takes place. I am not a Biblical scholar but I know that many, many, many of the Biblical passages where God is condemning Israel and Gentiles of sin… is the sin of how they unjustly treated the “least of these.” That should give all of us pause when we see those in the CRC who want primarily to make issues about LGBTQ+ confessional or wish to discipline those who do not share what they call a “traditional stance”.
Thank you for capturing what is on my heart. I am still deciding whether to stay or go from the CRC. But if I stay, I must not stay silent while this group in the denomination continue to advocate for “purifying” those in the church who are God’s well-loved souls
As many who’ve commented above, we left the CRC quite some time ago, and are now even more affirmed that we did. I can see how some choose to stay with it and respect that choice, but it’s not lost on me either that well over 90% of the comments here are in support of Keith’s article. That statistic is a pleasant surprise.
Well written piece; thanks so much for taking the time to write and share it.
This article blessed my church-weary heart. I’m encouraged by the number of people who are on the same road of figuring out how to survive or have already found another way.
me too. the thoughtful comments have been a great encouragement!
I suspect that a form of Religious Trumpism was always there. It now has a name and has been made “legitimate”.
oh, how the Lord comforts his people! thank you for speaking to the heart of the issue. your story is great encouragement.
I remain with my own ex-RCA church after the recent split. these are the people I love, though they bewilder me. I thank the Lord we hear no trumpism from the pulpit, but it’s still present in our dividing. 🙁
how it has wounded the Church, as well as our witness to see it overtake so many. but here too there is opportunity for both weeping and rejoicing, and resurrection.
Thank you so much Keith. Wonderfully written. I, too, have found the Spirit of Jesus to be present in my neighbours and in so many whom I have been privileged to have the opportunity to meet in the hospital, from all walks of life and representing different religious backgrounds and countries of origin. We are all connected as humans and as dwellers on Mother Earth. There is so much mystery and non-linear learning that we are just beginning to embrace. Be blessed in the freedom of the Spirit.
As a recovering CRC “infidel,” this article punched me in the gut with its honesty. My husband and I left the CRC ten years ago and wandered, unknowingly, shell-shocked, into a worse situation in the RCA, and then into 5 years of peace in the UCC. I thank them for the healing they provided to help melt some of the ice that encased my heart. We are now in an affirming RCA congregation, just having survived a denominational schism. The congregation we are now in invites questions and doubts and doesn’t require everyone see everything the same way. Instead of arguing over theology and doctrine, its members are feeding the hungry and helping the stranger. For the first time, the verses, “Taste and see that God is good” resonate for everyone who walks in the doors.
I find it telling and perplexing at the same time that Christians these days fixate so much on the 7th commandment. Maybe if more of us all realized we have all broken this commandment (at the very least in our minds) we wouldn’t be so judgemental.
Thank you for this. Heartfelt and articulate. The power of this Trump phenomenon in our churches is still not fully understood, but it has always been deeply violent and cruel. Trump himself has always openly expressed this, most notably in Sioux County and also in the Access Holywood tape. This violence expressed itself in your congregation and also at your Synod. I am so sorry. I saw it expressed in a very different but ultimately parallel way in my own RCA classis in New York City. Power, fear, leadership–violence.
Thank you so very much for this, Keith! Once again, I appreciate and have been encouraged by your honesty, openness, and vulnerability.
YES. This is so beautiful and powerful–thank you for sharing.
Grateful that along this journey you’ve decided to leave some breadcrumbs for those of us still locked into toxic and abusive systems and looking for a pathway to freedom. I’m currently in the Evangelical Covenant Church and this paragraph describes my current reality. “Meanwhile, the CRC (ECC) was taking a jaggedly different attitude, with Machiavellian vigor and punitive intent. By approving the Human Sexuality Report and locking it in as confessional, and by initiating attempts at church discipline for those who believed differently, it elected to play Religious Whack-A-Mole with a Bible-mallet. The mindset which had overtaken the Christian Reformed Church was thoroughly contrary to the flow of my heart.”
Because I’ve been so locked into the battle for my LGBTQIA+ siblings within I’ve been isolated from other like-hearted individuals in other traditions but this gives me hope!
Keith: As I read this, my heart was filled with grief. I enjoyed our time together at the lake the summer after you left East Saugatuck. Thank you for your ministry in the CRC, from church planting in Orlando to established congregations in farming communities in Michigan. You are a genuine man of God, and have been a blessing to me and the CRC. So I believe grief at learning of your leaving is appropriate. One sentence especially hit me: “The mindset which had overtaken the Christian Reformed Church was thoroughly contrary to the flow of my heart.” That is true for me as well. I went through a very painful depression last summer after Synod. I have chosen to stay if at all possible. I’m blessed to be a part of a vibrant CRC congregation, which helps. Of course, we are still brothers in Christ, and we are both part of God’s Kingdom which is (fortunately) much broader than the CRC. But I still grieve the loss.