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Welcome! The primary purpose of this blog is to explore and encourage around what it means to be winsome and sent into the world for God's glory. If you are new here, the definition of "lighthouse-searchlight" or our missional journey is a good place to start. Come peruse the blog and add me to your RSS feed!

Monday, September 01, 2014

the human touch

The beautiful sanctuary at St. Columba's
On the last night of the Scotland visit, our group was invited to a Ceilidh (pron. 'kayley'), put on by our host pastors and their congregations, and hosted at St. Columba's church in Glenrothes.

From what I understand, a ceilidh is at least a folksy group dance kind of "emceed" by a Scottish band (this is my description, not the technical one). In more traditional ceilidh's, there can be more of an open mic kind of thing, with swapping of tunes, stories, and more. It's pretty much just awesome folk culture. It bears a strong resemblance to American "square dancing" - I would not be surprised to see that square dancing has some roots in the ceilidh!  It is mostly group and partnered dancing, with instructions called out and a standard set of steps/moves (i.e. "swing your partner round and round"). In fact, one of the ceilidh tunes was a medley of American folk tunes and the dance was the "Virginia Reel."

And of course there was traditional Scottish fare served: haggis with neeps and tatties, and a side dish of stovies (you can Google those things); and a generous table-full of desserty goodness.

That's all just background to what was the most meaningful part of the night for me. Members of the various host congregations came out for the ceilidh, and all (except maybe the Americans) were keen to get out on the dance floor. And we quickly warmed up to it as our hosts pulled us out onto the floor. The nature of the ceilidh is not that you spend the evening dancing with the one who brought you, but that over the course of the evening, you dance with pretty much every person in the room. There is hand to hand contact, lots of patience and good cheer, and lots of "one more time!" after learning a dance.

Some familiar faces dancing in the ceilidh.
Photo: Lori Raible
What stood out to me at one point came when a new dance was introduced for groups of threes. Men were invited to find two ladies, or vice-versa. I found one older lady who had been patient enough to teach me a step earlier and invited her and the lady next to her to join me (acknowledging to them that I had no idea what I was doing). In this case, the three of us did stay together for the whole dance, but progressed through pairings with other groups of three until we had danced with everyone... twice; then we did it again!

I remember seeing the delight in the two ladies' eyes when I asked them to dance. I remember that feeling from middle school and being asked to dance. I remember it from being alone later in life, and being included. I have seen it time and again as someone reaches out to another or chooses to welcome and sit with someone alone at church. And I have seen it most poignantly each week when one elderly widow in our congregation finds her way slowly to me after each service to kiss me on the cheek. Her husband of more than 50 years died a few years ago and she has lived alone since then. He was also a pastor, and she has told me how much human contact means to her at this particular stage in her life.

All that flashed through my spirit when the two ladies smiled and came to dance with me and I thought, "What a beautiful picture of the community God desires the church to be!" 

In ways similar to my reflections about bluegrass music community, the ceilidh has much to teach (or at least remind) the church about humanity and community. May we have ears to hear!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

participating in real worship

I was looking through old e-mail for something else this afternoon and ran into an old exchange with a friend. He had asked the question and I responded below:

What is the most surprising thing you've learned about worship?

It isn't difficult to find a Biblical basis for saying we were made for worship.  And that is plenty to try to wrap our minds around.  But what completely boggles my mind and continues to humble me is that God has chosen to allow us to participate in the eternal worship of Heaven and the inner life of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  We are not just spectators to divine worship, but are invited through Jesus to add our voices to the chorus, yield our hearts in loving submission, and carry forth the life-giving news of God's gracious love.  And even where, in our humanness, our worship falls far short, the Holy Spirit binds us to Christ, through whom our feeble acts of faith, hope, and love are presented lovingly (and perfectly) to the Father.  It is no wonder that Paul gushes without pause through the first chapter of Ephesians, for while life from death is far more than we deserve or frankly could imagine, God has poured out grace after grace in an unimaginable overflow of love.  The more I glimpse all that worship signifies, the more profoundly humbled I am.

Friday, August 29, 2014

can you spare some change?

As a postscript to the three previous posts on change, I want to add one further observation prompted by a side-question during our Scotland conference. As Diana Butler Bass was sharing statistics about the shifts in religious affiliation across the generations (builder, boomer, GenX, millennial) and focusing on the "Rise of the Nones" among the millennial generation, one of my friends and colleagues, Christopher Edmonston, commented that GenXers (to which he and I belong) are always getting overlooked.

We moved on to all of the conversation about change, but his comment kept rolling around in my mind until I had this thought: as the generation that has one foot in what was and one foot in what is emerging, GenX leaders are just now coming into the places of 'power' to let go of the structures that have been and welcome new vision and structure.

My earlier post with the three illustrations from the Presbyterian Church may be a good example of this. The General Assembly is still largely governed by older generations (reflecting it's avg-age-of-62 demographic), seemingly not yet ready to dismantle or release what has been so effective and dear for so long. NEXTchurch was effectively "blessed" by some older leaders handing off direction and control to younger leaders, and seems more of an empowering outside the realm of the PCUSA institution. (I rejoice in that!)

My particular experience in the Presbytery of Charlotte seems to be one good example of GenX leadership, not particularly tied to the old institution and structures (though thoroughly trained and understanding of it), willing to let it go. And to the credit of those involved, it was the willingness of an older Boomer generation of staff and leadership that was willing to put two GenXers in a place of leadership in the first place.

All meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive.... for what that's worth.  :)

I recognize, at 46 years old, that I have only been "given the reins" of leadership in the PCUSA in the last 3-5 years... and there is some sense of something... loss? disappointment?... to realize that the best act of leadership I may now face is to more quickly than slowly give that leadership away to those younger than I. But that would be real leadership, wouldn't it?  :)

See also:

Thursday, August 28, 2014

change is... what you need to ride a scottish bus

The danger and lure of change is that it become the thing in itself.
My previous two posts - "Change is Death" and "Change is Life" take a look at some of the dynamics of change. Hopefully, it became clear that my titles were meant to point to a range of meaning from: "change feels like death" to "change involves some things 'dying'" to "change can lead to new life" to "change feels like life" and more in-between.

There is much written about change, from "managing change" to "surviving change" to differentiating types of change (technical, adaptive, etc...). And all of that language can be helpful! But it can also imply that change is our savior. Rather, I have found that even the best teaching about change is better understood as descriptive (here's how one person/group/institution navigated change) than as prescriptive: "Here's what you must do."

Said another way, it is vital to distinguish between authentic change (what is needed) and imitative change (what worked for someone else).

Scottish Buses 

On my recent trip, my host, Michael Mair, arranged most of my transportation, but on one occasion it looked like I would need to take public transportation (a bus) to get back to his house. Not only did he tell me which bus line, route number, and stop I needed to take, he also mentioned that I needed exact change (or at least that the bus driver would not make change). And indeed, there were a few occasions where we both were waiting on a bus and he stopped into a small store to buy gum and break a larger bill in order to have exact change. Good to know!

Change is...

To be sure, people and institutions facing change (precipitated, voluntary, unexpected, or other) are well-advised to know enough about change to board the bus in the first place. But to over-focus on the change process MAY leave some folks an expert on how to ride the bus, yet no clear indication of where they are headed or if they are even on the right bus.

I've heard it said that "leaders lead" - in other words, they know where they are headed, whether by bus, car, foot, or windswept night. All things being equal, they will do well to have "exact change," but that ends up not being the most important thing.

I keep coming back to the conviction that there are deeper and more important questions at stake, questions that do not dismiss the change process or diminish their value, but questions which ultimately tell us more about where we are and where we are heading. Again, from the "Change is Death" post:

As those created, loved, redeemed, called, and sent by God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit...
  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What are we doing and why?
  4. To whom is our allegiance?
To that I would also add my best question from the past 5-8 years of ministry: What is God doing in and around us and how can we be a part of that?

Change is important, to be sure. Some days it can feel like death and other days it can feel like life. But at the end of the day, change is just what you need to ride a Scottish bus.  :)


The metaphor has been rolling around in my head all night since I wrote the post yesterday and it also strikes me, in the language of the metaphor, that change is what it takes to get where we are going... no more and no less.  That's another way of saying what I'm trying to say: it's important, but it's not the thing itself.

See also:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

change is life

In "Change is Death" I wrote about the process by which dying institutions and structures are transformed and new life and vision are birthed. While this change process is important to understand (especially if one is going through it), I proposed that there were more important underlying questions that must be asked. In this post I want to come at the same dynamics of change through stories, by sharing three narratives in which I participate.

As a backdrop I would note a convergence and seeming 'peak' of interest in the last six years or so (2008-2014) in which voices spoke and vision was cast for a church that understood itself to be missionally connected, locally contextualized, and increasingly set free from the massive structures that had been a feature of our mainline denomination for the past 40-50 years. What follows are three examples related to the PCUSA of how this kind of vision was received. 

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The Mid-Council Commission offered a long and thorough
report; I described what I saw at its heart HERE.
The 2010 General Assembly created several task forces to study change before the PCUSA and report to the 2012 General Assembly. I was particularly impressed with the significant work of the Mid-Council Commission, led by Tod Bolsinger. And yet, when that vision was brought to General Assembly in 2012 it was simply crushed. Though I would have called it change unto life, it evidently felt like change unto death. Here's what I wrote at the time:
I experienced great disappointment and sadness during the Assembly... I was not disappointed that some votes didn’t go my way...  I was disappointed that, as a whole, this Assembly seemed to choose the familiarity and “safety” of the old way of doing things over the admittedly risky possibility of something new.  The invitations were there from all four moderator candidates, from the community and example of the YAADs, from three significant two-year committee reports (Mid-Councils, 21st Century, Biennial Assembly), and from the stories and inspirational leadership of the GAMC.  And time and again, I saw or perceived the unwillingness of the body to relinquish any ground that could possibly be used by ecclesiastical opponents. [full post]
Summarizing a subsequent post on the same event, I wrote: "out of fear of losing people, congregations, or assets, the Assembly missed the truly missional and forward-thinking gift of much the Mid-Council report had to offer." [full post]

The Presbytery of Charlotte 

About the same time, my own presbytery was facing similar potential change. Younger council leadership had been recruited and had put a vision before the presbytery, perhaps most succinctly put as "equipping, resourcing, and connecting local congregations in ministry and mission." (more...) Our presbytery was struggling financially to maintain a large program staff and many centralized ministries, and financial crisis precipitated change. It went neither easy nor peacefully. For many, particularly those whose jobs and centralized ministries were eliminated, change felt like death and it was as unwelcome and threatening. As one involved in the change process, it easily measures among the most difficult years of relationship and ministry I have experienced.

And yet we are on the other side. Much did "die" but the ministry of Jesus Christ through local congregations did not. Indeed, change was unto life, and the Presbytery of Charlotte very much feels like it is on the other side of something many presbyteries are still choking on. All is not bliss; part of our change process resulted in naming some of our deepest divisions and distrusts. But, we named them and we faced them and they are before us in a way that they haven't been, perhaps in a generation. Time will tell, but it feels like a very hopeful and healthful place to be. The structures and institution of the presbytery (once the 3rd largest in the country) are now mobile, flexible, minimal, and focused on the congregations and relationships. 

NEXT Church

A third part of the story is NEXTchurch. NEXT began out of some of the same core values brewing all over the church: nimble, relational, mission-focused networks for ministry. Leadership was handed off early to younger generations and more diverse leaders. A conscious decision was made to not become another "issues group" of the church. In this case, the vision and the community of NEXT folks seems to have stepped out ahead of the denomination. While smart leaders are aware of NEXT and point to it as an example of future church, it remains (in my view as a friend and participant) somewhat out of the room. The church isn't ready to go there yet.

And similar things could be said of parallel movements: the Fellowship, ECO, 1001 worshiping communities, non-geographic presbyteries, and more. A significant number of groups and collections of people have envisioned different versions of this same nimble, relational, mission-focused church and simply don't have the crisis, power, or voice to pull the bulk of the church along.

And that's okay. I think the church coming along at this point would just mess things up. But I do hope the folks who are clinging to the institution and the old structures are paying attention. Life is springing up - not just in NEXTchurch, but in ECO, the Fellowship, 1001 New Worshiping Communities. And each of them is tempted and taunted by the old ways, the old fights, the old structures, and the old habits. But they are demonstrably showing change as life, and for that I am grateful.


Do note that I am not telling a story of failure, mediocrity, and success. Rather, I am trying to describe three different ways OUR CHURCH are struggling with change, death, life, and identity. I don't want to dissect it too much, but want to tell enough of the story for you to think about change in your own context.  Is it death? Is it life? Is it to be feared... or embraced... or maybe both?

And again, I am convinced that change is not the main point; it is just a feature of the temporary trying to share in the eternal.

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