I expanded our secret garden this year, adding an enormous room filled with vegetable beds with a meditation platform in the center. “Are you sure you want that much garden!?” My husband half asked and half exclaimed. “That’s going to be a LOT of work to maintain.”
“Work? Nonsense,” I responded matter of factly. “Working our square inch, making it sing with flowers for the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds is an act of worship. Coaxing food from the ground brings me joy.” This is true. Most of the time. Sometimes when the weeds swell out of the soil in flourishing communities there’s grumbling under my breath—especially when the heat and humidity rises higher than a steeple.
Inspired with a vision as my daughter and I were reading The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgkin Burnett, our garden consists of several “rooms” divided by high neatly trimmed shrub walls, separated by arbor doorways with wisteria, trumpet vine, climbing roses, and clematis scrambling up and over, spiraling and tumbling down around them. Over the last few years, the more my eyes found chaos in the world, the more I began adding “rooms” to our garden. Something in me needed to create beauty and calm in an increasingly frantic stressed-out, chaotic world.
In my eagerness to fill the beds with soil and compost, to nurture an abundance of vegetables and flowers, I dropped my seeds in seed trays early, labeled them in my best penmanship, and laid them out like a well-ordered army in the greenhouse. Talk of a late Michigan frost meant keeping them in the seed plugs longer than I wished to, longer than they should have been, long enough that the roots began butting up against the small confining walls, preventing them from stretching into the deeper, roomier, and more diverse soil they needed to grow fully as the plants they were designed to be.
Held back from their potential, I feared their growth would be stunted.
Seeds planted directly in the ground after the last frost can flourish, but they have a greater chance of being damaged by various factors around them. Birds sometimes pluck them out of the dirt. Cats occasionally fling them away in their efforts to dig a hole to unload their waste. One hard rain can wash away the topsoil and the seeds with it, while a hot sun has the potential to roast exposed seeds, frying the life right out of them.
Seeds planted in seed trays in a controlled environment have a higher chance of making it from seed to seedling.
The safe space of a seed tray is beneficial. Until it isn’t.
Seedlings that never leave the tight confines of the seed tray rarely, if ever, reach their full potential. Their leaves shrivel in on themselves and their fruit shows up small and mangled, if it ever comes to bear at all. Roots ball and snarl around each other—gnawing and clawing, fighting for whatever simple nutrients they can find in the small circle of space they are stuck in, until finally they die.
My tomatoes were getting too close for comfort in their little seed plugs. I carefully and lovingly bent my body over the seedlings, transplanting each one into a larger container in the greenhouse to give them some additional space to grow while we waited for the threat of frost to pass.
In addition to my green thumb, I have a passion for beach stones. Some might classify it as more of an addiction than a passion. (Apologies if you’re one of the people who has helped us move over the years, but think how much stronger you are today because of all those boxes labeled “stones.”)
I especially love smooth stones. Smooth stones relax me. The weight and shape of them are a comfort in the hand. That smooth calm smolders with ease into my flesh, sinking perfect peace all the way deep into my bones. We have a lot of stones laying around—on window sills, on my desk, on the counter, on shelves, on tables, in candy dishes, in the garden. They’re everywhere. I frequently hold them. Frequently admire them. Gratefully accept the peace they offer.
Stones take millions of years to be pressed and formed, then they roll around in lakes and rivers and oceans where their sharp edges are ground and smoothed down, and, if I’m lucky, they eventually wash up on some beach I happen to be meandering down. Such a long arduous journey for these tiny little wonders plucked from the sand and tucked inside my pocket.
Stones teach me patience.
Stones remind me of process.
There was a time in my life when all I wanted to find was the official Michigan state stone, the elusive Petoskey stone. And find them I did. The longer I chased after them the more expertly trained my eyes became at spotting them. We were traveling around the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan one summer and my husband finally suggested, “We have enough Petoskey stones now, don’t you think? It would be nice to leave the rest for other people to find and move on to hunt for something else.”
It was something worth considering. But what would I do on a Leelanau beach if I wasn’t hunting for Petoskey stones? I had no idea. I sat on shore with all these thoughts moving through my head. Lake Michigan licked my toes as I ran my hands over the stones scattered around me and sifted my fingers through them to see what other interesting things I could find. Beach glass was interesting, I uncovered a small agate. Those are pretty. There were lovely striped stones and smooth round stones in a variety of solid colors: black, white, red, green. Plain and simple. Gosh, they were gorgeous. I picked up a chain coral fossil and studied its intricacies. Incredible. I found a couple Charlevoix stones too. And then there were stones that resembled the color and texture of Brach’s caramels. There were so many gorgeous little treasures rolling around I was a little disappointed that I had missed them for so long, only ever having trained my eyes to see and search for Petoskey stones.
My stone world opened wide, and I decided to follow this new curiosity and see where it led. I learned that while walking the beach, the brain and eyes have a difficult time searching for more than one type of stone. I had to decide if I was looking for beach glass, or agates, or the caramels. One kind at a time, not all kinds at once.
In order to really see what was at my feet, I had to sit down and make a thorough study of all that was washed up on shore. It required curiosity. It took a little bit of work and time to pause and carefully dig and sift through one small pile of stones to see and appreciate the variety.
Looking back, I can see how my faith had been so much like my tomato plants, stuck in the plugs too long, with an inability to grow to its potential. I stayed in place long enough to feel the tangle of roots beginning to squeeze in, blinding my vision, choking out my purpose—worse, binding up the power of God in my life, tying God’s hands behind God’s back. God was only allowed to move in my world by the rules and interpretations of one tiny seed pod. And that made God very small.
Those rules were shaped by a very particular way of reading the Bible in a very particular culture, that was built by a very particular set of doctrines written by very particular people in very particular times, responding to very particular historical events. My particular seed plug was only one out of thousands of denominations. One out of hundreds of thousands of ways of understanding and defining the mystery of the Divine. My tiny container provided one pair of dim glasses through which I read and understood the Bible.
For me, it was beneficial to be in the seed pod. Until it wasn’t.
Like my long habit of hunting only for Petoskey stones while ignoring the richness scattered at my feet, I was only able to search the depths and layers and piles of wisdom in the Bible by looking for affirmation of the singular narrative I believed to be true. I didn’t have eyes to see the richness outside a singular way of understanding. I was trained to see “other” as bad. What was acceptable and “good” in my container was lacking in curiosity. It feared discovering something different, more beautiful, and more expansive. The Holy Spirit was only allowed to move the length of my strung up leash.
One of my vocations over the last decade or so has been in nurturing civil political dialogue among people of faith. I have led workshops and seminars, and spoken in a variety of contexts, about how to model Christ-like attitudes and behaviors as we address complex, controversial topics. There are three primary movements I encourage people to shift away from in the pursuit of moving towards something more life-giving. One of those shifts is to move away from toxic tribalism towards communal belonging.
Both toxic tribalism and communal belonging meet an important need by providing a sense of belonging and purpose. However, there is a significant difference between them. Toxic tribalism requires an enemy. It craves a sense of self right-ness and it needs to demonize, dismiss, and condemn anyone who doesn’t get in line with the beliefs of the tribe. People who participate in toxic tribalism experience a hit of dopamine in the brain, which acts as a kind of high and can have addictive qualities, leading to even deeper toxicity.
Within toxic tribalism, those who are the loudest in their condemnation of others tend to be the most rewarded and celebrated (more dopamine!). Those who question the tribe are punished–typically shut down into submission by having privileges removed or perhaps kicked out altogether.
Communal belonging doesn’t view everyone who isn’t in precise alignment as the enemy. It expects questions. It embodies curiosity and carries a willingness to exchange ideas. It acknowledges nuance and complexity and is hospitable. It knows that no group of humans has ever had everything exactly right, including their own group, so there is care about what kind of words are put in God’s mouth—particularly when those words harm people.
Communal belonging acknowledges the vastness of God and humanity’s inability to precisely pin God down in formulations and theologies. It acknowledges how deep and wide and mysterious is the love and mercy of God—beyond anything we can imagine or comprehend. It errs on the side of embodying that love and mercy as a reflection of who God is, as Jesus himself taught and demonstrated.
Communal belonging requires deep inner humility (not false public humility)—something that does not come easy and requires constant nurture. Toxic tribalism, on the other hand, is so certain of itself it will harm others in the name of God, which, I would argue, is a severe form of blasphemy.
This is where I was when I realized I had stayed in the seed tray too long. The roots of my faith had become stunted, my world view small, tight, and certain of itself to the point of blasphemy. I was only willing to read the Bible looking for one thing—affirmation of what I had been told was true in my small seed tray. I was willing to condemn anyone who didn’t see and understand as my tribe did. And I felt wholly righteous and justified in doing so.
I had lost the gospel plot and was doing harm to God’s precious created ones in God’s name.
I grew up in a tribe where, for the most part, everyone looked like me, thought like me, believed like me, and saw the world like me. I was certain my tribe had the truest understanding of everything, truer than anyone else ever had. Looking back, it’s easy to see now how absurd, ego-centric, and unChristlike my attitude was. God’s image-bearers exist everywhere. They are beautiful and broken and precious and beloved, same as me. I only need to open my eyes, sit where the deep water licks and laps at my toes, and sift my fingers through God’s abundance and beauty to see it.
I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church. I attended Christian schools, was enthusiastically involved in Calvinettes (our tribe’s version of Girl Scouts) before heading to Calvin College and, after working for a Republican congressman on Capitol Hill, eventually attended Calvin Seminary. In seminary, I met my husband, Bryan, whom I was drawn to in part because he was a proud generational CRC guy. The CRC was our core identity, stitched in our skin and thick in our bones. I would have given up all my precious Petoskeys before I would have given up my membership in the CRC.
We planted churches in the CRC. We were passionate about following Jesus, studying the Bible, and inviting others to join us. However, the more we studied Jesus alongside moving deeper into the complexities of the world, the more God’s Spirit began opening us up to the limitations of our singular understanding. We saw the need to open our eyes and hearts to broader understandings and biblical interpretations.
God began renewing our minds and transforming our lives. It was exciting. It was terrifying. We had never stepped outside those walls, never seen the need to be transplanted into unfamiliar soil, and thought the soil outside was “dangerous.”
The deeper we went into the Bible, the more difficult it was to drop every biblical story down the slippery funnel of a very specific theological lens. We struggled to squeeze every word of God until it was tight and tidy enough to fit through a simple little spout while ignoring an unnamable richness and vastness of God that couldn’t be contained and controlled. As we studied the life of Jesus alongside people from differing theological perspectives, we began to experience the movement of the Spirit
My faith was coming alive in a way that was incomprehensible to me. A fire had been lit, and I wanted to fully taste the richness of God’s love. My faith was no longer something I had simply inherited, it was something I was pursuing, something I was exploring with open hands.
But alongside of the joy we were discovering in Christ came the bitterness of near-constant biting and nipping from the gatekeepers within our tribe. We were questioning, and questions weren’t allowed. There wasn’t space for discussion unless we came back around to the conclusion of the tribe. We were celebrating rather than condemning people outside our walls, and this was grounds for punishment. A handful of pastors came together to berate and beat us down for questioning tribal assumptions, condemning us for extending welcome to the LGBTQ community, for allowing them to join us around the table of God’s gracious feast, publically admonishing us for anything that smelled of political liberalism, expending energy to try and get us kicked out of the denomination.
This was almost two decades ago.
It was exhausting.
We were exhausted.
But we stayed.
We stayed because we had experienced so much beauty and wisdom there. We stayed because it was a robust seed pod to start in. We stayed in what for us had become a toxic tribe, wanting to embody the values we had come to associate with God and his invitation to communal belonging.
We stayed because we wanted to say to all the questioners and doubters, to all those who were trapped in the closet of expectation and identity, “God loves you. You belong.” To those who were being excluded, demonized, dismissed, we wanted to be part of throwing open the doors of the denomination. We didn’t want to give up on an institution that had been so intimately a part of our lives and our history. We didn’t want to rip our skin off. Couldn’t bear to cut out our bones.
We didn’t want to lose our identity.
We didn’t want to lose our identity.
There it was. We didn’t want to lose our identity. Our CRC identity.
It came to the point where about half our time was spent in actual ministry and the other half of our time was spent explaining ourselves to a handful of loud, zealous pastors who, by all appearances, understood themselves to be not just the gatekeepers of the denomination, but the gatekeepers of God himself. They were God’s bouncers, keeping people out of a club which had been created in the image of their own hearts. It was a small group. But it was enough.
The advent of social media made this public. Emails began rolling in from people from across the country and from a variety of denominations who had been burned by the church, shunned by the church, and thrown to the curb of hell by the toxic closed fists of their former tribes for not believing the right way, not worshiping the right way, not voting the right way, and for questioning their tribe’s norms. At the same time an abundance of leaders, professors, pastors, and teachers in our tribe began emailing to encourage us, grateful we were saying things out loud that needed to be said, though publicly they remained silent because… too much to risk… we need silent allies within… pensions and benefits…. etcetera, etcetera.
I was standing on a crowded Washington DC metro one morning, nauseated from all of this bouncing wild like a tennis ball inside of me. I glanced at the faces around me—a mixture of beautiful colors and cultures from around the world and no doubt carrying unseen burdens. Each believed a variety of things about God, and each had been brought to this moment down a long path I knew nothing about. I realized that likely not one of these people had ever heard of my tribe, the CRC.
Something became clear to me.
For all the benefits of belonging to a denomination, my identity was not and should not be defined by a single denominational institution. My identity should be in Christ. Denominations are beneficial when held in proper perspective. I began to realize there was no need to expend my energy trying to open the arms of a denomination that seemed bent on crossing its arms to me. I was called to focus my energy on living out the love I had encountered in Christ, the love and abundant grace Christ had bestowed on me. Period. That was my calling. The world doesn’t care what denomination I am part of. Only I cared about that (along with others tangled up in their various little seed pods who can’t imagine a reality outside of it).
My denominational identity had become an idol that I clung tightly to as I poured out my energy defending it. My faith had become shuttered rather than Spirit-led. Stepping out of what was familiar was terrifying and involved a good deal of tears and sadness and grief. But as I allowed the roots of my faith to inch deeper into the rich, vast soil, the love and joy of God became alive in abundance. This love was almost always found in the most unlikely places—places my tribe would have said we’re not of God, and could not be of God, because some of them looked different from us.
There is no perfect denomination, each is tainted by the hands of humans. After much prayerful consideration we felt called to transfer to the United Church of Christ. It’s not perfect, but we appreciate its roots in the familiar Reformed doctrines. We also appreciate that those doctrines are understood to be historical documents, not infallible, but a collection of interpretations that responded to the chaos of their times and pointed the church in a more Christ-like direction than it had been heading. Questions are welcome and expected here, because we should always be learning, always experiencing renewal, always expecting God to surprise us with something we hadn’t known or understood before. The UCC encourages this kind of growth and exploration rather than seeking to smother it or give it a quick pat answer.
In a world of constant splitting and splintering of denominations, the UCC has embodied something special and refreshing. It was formed by the coming together of various denominations with the understanding that there are different ways of interpreting things and that not only is that okay, it’s cause for celebration. None of us has the whole truth. No one. We trust that each other’s desire is to be faithful. We learn from each other and pray for wisdom. My experience of the UCC has been one of a denomination that embodies communal belonging in a truly hopeful way.
Witnessing some of what has happened at CRC Synod this past year has been triggering and at times left me openly weeping. Knowing so many faithful lovers of Jesus are currently facing into the wind of the same kind of struggle we walked through all those years ago brings a groan of empathetic ache. Some folks will choose to stay and boldly push for a spirit of love and inclusion, some will remain and quietly whisper words of affirmation to those who are dying in the shadows of the denomination because of who God created them to be, while others will decide to leave. My prayer is that each of us will know what and when and where God is calling us, and that God will give us peace, strength and courage for whatever that path may be. My hope is that wherever we are we will be able to recognize that we’re all seeking to be faithful to the Divine.
Every morning I rise early with the sun, head to the quiet kitchen, put a pot of water on and gently touch each of my rocks on the windowsill over the kitchen sink. I bless them for the many long and varied journeys they’ve taken towards being the unique beauties they have become. I am grateful for the peace, the curiosity, the wonder, and the sense of calm they bring me. Then I head out to the garden with a steaming cup of coffee for some silence and meditation. Looking out over my plants, I call them by their names and consider how best to care for each one that day. Could it all be that simple?