Anne Bokma and I have some things in common. We both have Dutch ancestry. We both belong to the first generation born to post-war Dutch immigrants, though she was probably born about a decade before me. We both grew up Canadian Reformed. We’re both no longer Canadian Reformed. But we also have some differences. I suppose chief among them would be the fact that I’m not Canadian Reformed because I moved to Australia and became Free Reformed. She remains in Canada and is now a Unitarian.
I learned about Anne’s experiences from an article she wrote for the United Church Observer, “The Holland I Never Knew.” You should read it. It’s well-written and provides some good insights into the thoughts and story of someone ex-CanRC. It doesn’t strike me as being bitter or angry — more matter of fact and reflective. Let me add some of my own reflections upon reading it.
I’m saddened by it more than anything else. I find it particularly sad because in this story the gospel of grace is absent. One might instinctively say that you could expect that from someone in her shoes. Hold on. Could it be that a regular, clear, sound communication of the gospel of grace was actually objectively missing in this story? Isn’t it at least possible? Yes, I know there are other possibilities, but we should be open to this one.
I look at my own upbringing and I shudder to think that I came so close to Anne’s story. I grew up in a community where a church split happened in the 1980s. One week some friends were at our Christian school, and the next week they weren’t. Ostensibly the split happened over some points of doctrine, but there were other — ugly — things simmering beneath the surface. There were other things going on too, things best left unsaid, I think. I grew up being rather spiritually indifferent and not a little cynical. I was going to join the Air Force and quietly slip away from the church to pursue my own life by my own standards. The Air Force was my ticket out. Until it wasn’t. One day the recruiting office phoned and gave me the bad news that saved my life: I was a bit near-sighted in my right eye and therefore disqualified from the pilot selection process. I washed out after barely beginning. That was a major crisis for a young man who had only ever dreamed of turning and burning in CF-18s.
Into that time of crisis stepped some people from a neighbouring CanRC who ran an annual youth camp. This was a special group of believers, folks who took the gospel seriously and who also made discipleship of young people a priority. I’d been to this camp before, but it was in 1991 that something finally clicked. I was confronted with questions of ultimate importance: why are you here on this earth? Who are you living for? What’s this life all about? Who is Jesus Christ to you? There’s no doubt in my mind that God worked in a powerful way through these sincere, spiritually-minded CanRC brothers and sisters to bring me to a deeper and more meaningful Christian commitment. To this day, I praise and thank God for them.
When it comes to national life, there have been patriots (or better: nationalists) who look at their country and no matter what side it takes, it’s right because it’s their country. Some take that approach to the church too. They will never admit that their church/church federation has done anything wrong or has ever dropped the ball on anything. Ecclesiastical pride is something that I’ve never understood or encouraged — it runs totally contrary to what the Bible teaches. The church is made up of sinful people and, as a result, there’s going to be a lot of messy stuff going on. We should be able to openly acknowledge our brokenness, both on a personal level and on an institutional level. In the past, I’ve written blog posts that have been critical of some aspects of CanRC church life. I caught some flack for doing so — not just disagreeing with what I was saying, but the fact that I was saying anything negative or self-critical. I don’t regret it. We should be able to talk about these things. There are two things we need more as Reformed people (wherever we are, Canada, Australia…): 1) the humility to admit our failures, lacks, weaknesses, and yes, even outright sinfulness or toleration of sin; 2) the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed unambiguously and clearly as our only hope.
Yes, ultimately we all bear personal responsibility for the bad choices we make. I was personally responsible for my cynicism and spiritual indifference as a young man. I was personally responsible for seeking freedom (call it “redemption” if you want, but it’s pretty skewed) in the cockpit of a fighter jet. We can say the same for Anne Bokma and the choices she’s made — personal responsibility is there too. Yet, does the church always get away scot-free? Does the church never bear any responsibility for her gaffes or failures? Can’t we be honest about that and admit that we have much to learn about being a church of Jesus Christ? We are not only individually disciples of Christ, but also corporately. We’re disciples together, disciples who yet have much to learn from their Master. The greatest danger is when you prematurely conclude that you’ve graduated. Think about that.