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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!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Round-Up

2014 has been a full year. In my 12th year at Good Shepherd, we undertook a sanctuary and youth building renovation project; I was fortunate to be invited on a ministerial trip to Scotland; I tried to establish some new patterns of regular writing and recording (music); I continued to try to incorporate regular exercise into my life. Challenges included two beloved church staff leaving (and trying to cover their vacancies for most of the 4th quarter), the renovation campaign (did I mention that already?), and maintaining regular health and exercise...did I also mention that? :)

Some highlights of preaching, writing, travel, health, etc... follow:

Sermon Series: "It is Written"
I don't always preach in series, but when I do, I often enjoy the cumulative effect of building on a theme or digging deep into a topic. Early in the year, having read an article about some "Red-Letter Christians"* who found Jesus' teaching at odds with other scripture (whether Paul or the Old Testament), I did an extended series looking at a number of places where Jesus quoted the Hebrew scriptures and used them as the basis of his own teaching and ministry. It was a fascinating study for me and the congregation seemed to get a lot out of it as well. (*Note: this view does not describe all so-called "Red-Letter Christians"; some, like Tony Campolo, simply want to take Jesus seriously and use this designation to point to all the things Jesus did say... turns out, though, for the critics of the Old that those red letters also encompass pretty much the whole scope of the Old Testament being spoken out of Jesus' mouth.) That study led right into Acts for Pentecost, and I just stayed there all summer with the "Into the World" series (link).

Individual Sermons: three sermons stood out as "most downloaded" as well as most meaningful to me. They all were part of the series mentioned above (and really framed that whole series), but did more even than track the theme of Jesus' use of Hebrew/OT scripture. All coming from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, these represent much pulling together of my own thinking and real-life experience (in ministry and as a human being). The accompanying graphic (included here) captures much of it, but I commend these sermons to get a sense of what developed.
Also, see the short overview of all three (also with links) on my blog HERE.

  1. "The Space between Truth and Grace" (Matthew 5:17-26)
  2. "Fulfilling the Word: Vows" (Matthew 5:27-37)
  3. "Fulfilling the Word: Neighbors and Enemies" (Matthew 5:38-48)
Testimonies: this was a year of meaningful testimonies shared in and with the church; some are included below; I started to note "this is amazing!" next to them, but they are all amazing and really significant testimonies of God's goodness!
  • Mark Katibah (audio link, 5 min) - "How have you seen the goodness or greatness of God through our church? (shared on Nov 9 for "Church Matters, pt. 1"; page link)
  • Shannon Klar (audio link, 23 min) - "What does it look like to encounter God's goodness and greatness and be changed?" (shared on Nov 16 for "Church Matters, pt. 2"; page link)
  • Ray Ball (audio link, 7 min) - as part of our Christmas "Behold the Lamb of God" concert, I asked Ray to share part of his testimony to illustrate God's deliverance
  • Bentley Ball (audio link, 12 min) - as part of our Christmas "Behold the Lamb of God" concert, I asked Bentley to share part of her testimony to illustrate what it is like to wait on God (both the faith and the struggle)
Scotland Reflections (index): a ministerial trip to Scotland proved to be one highlight of the year, particularly as related to theological/personal/ministry reflection. The main part of my blogging this year was thoughtful reflection on my time in Scotland, particularly around themes of change, culture, and community.

Music: one of the goals/habits I cultivated in 2014 was trying to regularly write or record music; I called this "Sundays for Singing," trying to post something each Sunday. I certainly didn't generate a post weekly, but it did get the wheels turning again. Here are a few unpolished examples:
  • "Temple Song" - about Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple in John 2; first guitar-arrangement of this original piano song with my friend, Gerrit Dawson; please excuse the "Christmas jammies"
  • "Say Something" - a radio cover my daughter wanted to do; it was a blast just singing/playing with her!
  • "Friend of Sinners" - a worship song by Red Mountain Music to a text by Augustus Toplady; another highlight because my daughter played drums with me
Health/Fitness - Just a few benchmarks to mark where I am. Still running and walking regularly, though I've put some weight back on this year. (here are last year's data)
  • Jan-Dec: approx. +20 lbs :(  ...but still down 30 from pre-2013
  • 340 workouts in 253 hours
  • 204,000 total calories burned
  • 655 mi. running + 470 mi. walking = 1125 total miles
  • Longest Run: 13.1 mi. (in 2:24:21)
  • Fastest Runs: gonna beat these all in 2015!
    • 1mi: 7:54 min/mi - a slight uphill... 7:27 going the other direction... so prob should average those together :)
    • 5k: 9:38 min/mi (not sure why this is slower than the 5mi except that I only tried the 5k route a handful of times and have run the 5mi course a hundred or more times)
    • 5mi: 9:02 min/mi
    • 8mi: 10:47 min/mi
    • 10mi: 11:10 min/mi
    • 13.1mi: 11:00 min/mi

Monday, December 22, 2014


Sorry for the hiatus! We've been without a music director or admin assistant since September and writing blog posts is one of the things that got squeezed out of my schedule.  :(

I hope to do an end-of-year round up and then be fully staffed sometime in January and back to posting! I'll be on the road teaching and leading in several retreats and conferences in January and hope to reflect on those.

In the meantime...

MINISTRY OPENING: We are looking for a Director of Music Ministries. Please take a moment to read this description of our very special and unique church and share the link with anyone you think might be a good fit. We are looking for the right person of faith to share our vision for worship and music - we'll work out all the other details! E-mail music.search@gspc.net with resumes or for more information.

Monday, September 15, 2014


The trip to Scotland was not only enjoyable and wonderful in and of itself; it also occasioned significant reflection, as demonstrated in a number of blog posts. Here is an index of those posts.

Friday, September 12, 2014

family connections

It took going to Scotland to fully realize a vision back home.

A couple of years ago I I overheard a wistful conversation in the restroom between two older pastors. They were talking about the "old presbytery" and how everyone knew each other better. And not only each other, they also knew each other's families - spouses and children. I remember pondering at the time what that might look like in our large and spread out metro presbytery, and what effect those kind of relationships might have on the character and challenges of our particular group.

As I reflect on my 12 years in this presbytery, I think I have done a good job at seeking out and cultivating relationships with other pastors. But that takes intentionality (and reciprocity); getting to know each other's families is another order of relating altogether. So, while I had once imagined it, I had not experienced such a thing or its blessings.

And then I was invited on this Scotland Connection trip: 12 pastors, mostly from NC and the region. And we were encouraged to invite spouses, not only for the week-long conference, but to plan time before or after. While my spouse was not able to come, the great majority did come with husband or wife. One couple even rounded out their honeymoon with the time in Scotland!

What I did not anticipate (and if I had, I probably would have worked very hard to make it possible for my wife to come) was how meaningful it was to get to know my colleagues in the context of their family relationships. Over the course of the week, I think I had meaningful conversation with just about every person on the trip, and the glimpse you get into a person's faith and life in family relationship is so much richer and complete than the typical sighting across the presbytery meeting or committee table. Even those colleagues whom I know fairly well are known primarily in our role as fellow presbyter and pastor.

To interact with those same colleagues as husband, wife, father, or mother - was an unexpected treasure. Even those of us who came 'single' shared photos and stories of families and loved ones back home. To share in meals, travel, jokes, weather, and much more in the shared context of faith, ministry, and life was so wonderful. To share in one couple's 10th anniversary with a time of worship and prayer together was profoundly moving. To share deep stories of faith-formation and even rekindle old friendship was surprisingly poignant. All of it was, as one friend put it, sacred.

...which brings me full circle to the presbytery. At least 6-7 of the colleagues from the Scotland trip are in my presbytery. I know that whether we work on committees together, worship together, or debate one another - we will do so in the context of a shared experience and deeper relationship. I light up when I see them across the room. I want to hear how their families are doing. It seems to me that this is how it should be in the church, whether our local churches or the large connected gathering we call the presbytery.

I wonder if there are ways we can cultivate those kinds of experiences and relationships in the presbytery moving forward. I think it would significantly refocus our conversations, our ministry and mission, and our life together. That's a vision I plan to hold out and hope for!

Friday, September 05, 2014

just get over it

A few weeks ago I arrived in Scotland in the middle of the Fringe Festival - a super-enormous art/music/drama/more street festival (claims to be the largest in the world!) that sprawls all over downtown Edinburgh for the month of August. After meeting my host, Michael Mair, and dropping my bags off at his home, we ventured back into the city to take in a bit of the festival.

After surveying some of the options listed at the "Half-Price Hut" and the phone-book size listing of shows for the month (unfortunately listed alphabetically instead of by time/location) and the phone app (more helpfully by time/location, but with a spotty connection), we settled on a show called "The Onion of Bigotry" that was showing at St. John's Episcopal as part of their corner on the festival, sub-titled the Just Festival. Just about every public open area had Fringe acts and just about every church, club, building with any group meeting space had Fringe acts. St. John's had decided to offer their sanctuary space, but line up shows that were all justice-oriented.  Check out this packed calender for only the St. John's venue during August!

Photo by Sandrine Cazalet
We watched The Onion of Bigotry, a dramatic-musical survey by the John and Gerry Kielty of political and religious sectarianism in England and Scotland over the last 500 years. Anticipating something much more depressing and somber, it was actually a respectful (and delightfully enjoyable?!; semi-Monty Python-esque) race through a significant amount of upheaval, intrigue, and fighting. Four actors, without set or even many props, represented historical figures as well as the Catholic or Protestant Church, and any other number of people and entities. It was an ingenious crash-course in that regions stake in Western European history. As one reviewer said, "This would be brilliant as a presentation to school-children of any age." (I'd agree, including adults of any age!)

BUT... having created so much education and buy-in to their presentation, the clever group got to the end and asked this question: "What shall we do?" And the answer: Just get over it.

It was cute; people sang along to the final song by that name. We left entertained and captivated. But as Michael and I rode the bus back out to his house and I began to process, I thought, "What an unhelpful and disappointing answer to a very important question raised after such a well-done education and engagement with a group of people!"  I've heard that line quipped by friends on both sides of an intense issue: "Why don't they just get over it!" The sub-text is either "their position is so ridiculous that surely they will come to their senses and just let that pointless view go"; OR, "the whole argument is so ridiculous that surely we just need a grown-up to come tell these kids to move along." The latter is the sense I got. These artists had summarized the whole era of political and religious fighting and were saying, "We're more enlightened than that now; just move along."

What "just get over it" misses - and to me this is a critical miss - is that NO ONE just gets over something, not an emotionally-charged stance, not a wounded-response counteraction, not an adult OR childlike opinion, not grief or loss, and especially not a deeply held conviction. In each case, feelings must be confronted or reconciliation sought or forgiveness extended or beliefs examined. And that kind of work is necessary and difficult, especially in relationship (close or broken) with another. I would even go so far as to suggest that "just get over it" creates barriers, animosity, and hurt rather than removing them!

The kind of questions and actions that invite real change (interesting that we are back to change) are ones like these:
  • Can we get together and talk? I'd like to understand your beliefs and viewpoint better.
  • How did you arrive at your position? Do you ever feel misunderstood?
  • Would you be willing to hear another viewpoint and help that person clarify any misunderstandings between you?
  • Are there things we can agree on and do together despite our disagreement on _____?
Just a start... it's not a magic formula and it's not easy. But I believe it's a far better approach than "just get over it." A few years ago, when folks in my home state (and congregation) were debating a controversial amendment to be voted upon, I wrote this: listening and understanding the other deepens community, and that is of benefit to everyone. (more)

While I appreciate the education and information I took away from The Onion of Bigotry, I think there was a real missed opportunity to challenge listeners to something more than "just get over it."

Addendum: prompted by good feedback in the comments

A completely different illustration comes to mind: someone facing an obstacle (something to get over). If I laugh at them, yell at them, ignore them, (get the crowd to sing a song about them!), etc.. - it doesn't help and may hinder. If I actually go with, push up, pull up, lead around, (pray for!), or remove the obstacle - literally or figuratively... that's helpful and relational and community building.

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.

See also:

Monday, August 25, 2014

change is death

For three days in lovely Kirkcaldy, Scotland, 12 PCUSA pastors and 12 Church of Scotland pastors met with authors and practical theologians, Diana Butler Bass and Douglas Gay, to talk, think, and share about changes in church and culture. Three days is a lot of content, especially with two theologians and 24 pastors, but here is my biggest takeaway...

Change is Death

We talked about whether what we are seeing in Scotland and U.S. culture is "secularization" or "transformation," but I think we agreed it was change. We talked about the process of groups undergoing change and I recognized much of the stages of grief, not unlike what one might experience as one approaches death, not least of which is the realization that "this is the end of _____ as we've known it" (or more short-sighted, just "this is the end of ____.")

The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, one of the key sites
where John Knox preached to incite the Protestant
Reformation in Scotland. Thanks to a friend for sharing
this unique photo vantage point with me - it is taken
from the 3rd floor men's room of the St. Andrews
Ph.D. building overlooking the cathedral ruins.
We also talked about what was on the other side of institutional/structural death, including whether to call that "new life, revival, awakening, or transformation." And we recognized that, like it or not, we and our churches and our neighbors and communities are facing the change.

We talked about institutional failure and innovation out of community; we talked about letting go, carrying (some things) with, and letting come... all parts of the journey, not TO death, but THROUGH death. We also touched on the extreme resistance to that reality of death (of something).

Today I'd like to highlight one observation I had in response to this thought-provoking content. Tomorrow I will share three examples from life in the Presbyterian Church (USA) that illustrate three different approaches to the reality that change is death.


Even as we think in the mist of crisis about institutions failing, new visions being envisioned and lived out in fresh expressions of community, and a transformation on the other side of the change-which-is-death, I believe there are underlying questions we must ask ourselves. And perhaps these are the "bits of tradition we carry with us" that Diana Butler Bass mentioned, though I don't think "bits of tradition" quite gets at the root importance of these questions. 

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?
I am drawn to questions like those because institutions are just place-holders, structures that have for a time sustained us in asking and answering questions like those.

New visions, if they are anything more than clever human novelties, are fresh understandings of old, old questions.

And communal innovation and transformation (whether of church or culture) is new life at work answering those kinds of questions, eventually in search of new place-holders and structures to sustain the asking, answering, and living out of questions like those.

Or so it seems to me. Our stimulating discussion of the transformation process and even historic realities like the Great Awakenings leaned toward the WHAT, WHEN and the HOW... good points, important points. But we must also take notice of the WHY (and the One the biblical witness recognizes as the WHO behind the WHY).

Said another way...

Of course change is death. Everything we make and touch is dying, encased in the only structures and shells we humans know to construct to house what is from God. But we should also not be surprised to find God at work, bringing life from death and hope from ashes. That's the good and hopeful Word to which we cling in faith.

See also:

Friday, August 22, 2014

when the floor is a ceiling to ministry

As one example of far exceeding the "minimal hospitality threshold," I was deeply encouraged and challenged to hear the story of St. Bryce Church in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Framing the floor/ceiling
Original layout
The Rev. Ken Froude is the minister of St Bryce Kirk. With no precipitating crisis other than a 1200-seat sanctuary "that was always too big and only used once or twice a week," he had the vision more than 25 years ago to redevelop the building. Under his leadership a floor was put in the old three-story sanctuary was at the level of the gallery (balcony), creating a large auditorium upstairs (still seats 400) used for worship, conferences and concerts. The downstairs, where the old sanctuary floor once stood, was converted into office space, group meeting rooms, and a lounge and a coffee bar for the community.

The sanctuary at St. Bryce, Kirkcaldy, Scotland
w/floor brought up a story to the level of the balcony
That downstairs community center - the St Bryce Kirk Centre - is open Monday to Friday for people of all ages (toddlers to senior citizens), organizations of all kinds, charities, public services, activities and help-groups. The building is totally handicapped-accessible and equipped with up-to-date technology for conferences and concerts, with full in-house catering options (which our pastors' conference enjoyed throughout the week!).

I have two further observations on which I will elaborate in other posts:
  1. This kind of transformation of an institution and community does not come easily or quickly. In fact, one of our two lecturers (Diana Butler Bass) spoke to this very process that Ken and some others of us have lived through (more on that coming). Ken led the congregation (and community) through very intentional transformation, facing resistance and pushback. And the new life flowing in and out of St. Bryce is unmistakeable and inspiring. I applaud this pastor's courageous leadership and faithful pursuit of where the Holy Spirit led him.
  2. Related to #1, the purpose of our pastors' conference was to get together a group of U.S. and Scottish pastors and share stories and ideas with the assumption that Scotland (as much of Europe) may be some 20-25 years ahead of the United States in terms of Christianity moving out of the center of cultural and community life. Many of the churches in the Church of Scotland are aging and dwindling (as are many in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.); but we were privileged to meet a number of pastors and congregations that are nonetheless thriving in 2014 (whether you want to call it post-Christendom, post-Christian, secularized, etc...). One of the key features I noticed of the thriving churches were the move from being a church for those inside the walls (sometimes even for the sake of the walls!) to being a church for the community. Rev. Froude and St. Bryce made this shift early on and the difference it has made is palpable. (I shared some of this story and reflection in the sermon [audio link] on the Sunday after I returned from Scotland as a closing illustration of the text of Jeremiah 29:1-11, about God's people finding faithfulness in exile through praying for and seeking the shalom of the city.)
At my own church, we've had a similar transformation of perspective to open our facilities fully to our neighborhood. We have invited and welcomed any community group from our "parish" (ok, we don't have parishes, but we called the 1-mile radius around our church that) and have seen the facilities used by multiple girl scout groups, a 12-step group, several neighborhood associations, the Hospice/Palliative care organization, a Foundation related to the nearby elementary school, and several others. We also welcomed some neighborhood sports teams (little league baseball and rugby) to use our sizable ball field which had sat unused for a number of years.

While this didn't create an immediate influx of new members, that wasn't the point. We determined to be "good neighbors" and what we have seen is a tangible increase in awareness that our church sits at the heart of the surrounding neighborhoods, cares about the people and children of our neighborhood, and over time, we have met and even welcomed into worship some folks that probably would never have darkened our doors before. We've had neighbors who don't go to our church (or any church) recommend us to other neighbors.

All this is to say that I think one very important move the Church needs to make as Christianity moves away from the center of American culture is to rediscover (because it is an OLD value - think not only Jesus, but the Abrahamic covenant!) this: the church does not exist for its members, but for it's Savior, whose very mission was to come and make a home out in the world.

Upcoming posts will begin to explore the both/and of not only being more hospitable in the church, but also getting out of the church buildings and being the church in and for the world (perhaps an even more crucial task!).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

insider language addendum

Inspired by travels abroad, I wrote previously about insider language and behavior, often unintentional, that stands as a barrier in so many of our church settings. In case that needs a little more fleshing out and specificity, let me offer just a few examples off the top of my head (I really could probably come up with 50 in short order):

We don't need new cribs in our nursery - they were good enough for my kids 25 yrs. ago... they survived; plus, we don't have any babies in there right now.  

==> Do I really need to deconstruct that?! In fact, yes, I have had to deconstruct that in a very real conversation some years ago.  De we really want the bar for nursery care to be "they survived it?" I mean, in the 70s, my mom let me stand on the front seat of our VW Bug and hold on to the dashboard as she drove around town, and I survived (and liked it).  If you tried that with my small child today, not only would I never let you take my child anywhere again, I probably wouldn't leave her alone with you.  And as far as not having babies in there now... does that not suggest something to you?

Let's all stand and proclaim what we believe using the Apostles' Creed.

Post-apocalyptic worship in
"Return to the Planet of the Apes"
==>  I mean, I LOVE the Creed. I love theology. I think it's important to state key beliefs together. But do you have any idea what that sounds like and feels like to someone for whom church is new? I remember a scene from "Return to the Planet of the Apes" that brought that point home to me some 25 years ago. The music was choral, the people were lined up... at one point singing "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small... the BOMB made them all." And the centerpiece of worship would be was a nuclear warhead.  At the time it was nonsensical; what was this group chanting, this group singing? I caught a glimpse of how weird, awkward, and non-sensical worship could be to an outsider.

Will the ushers please come forward to collect the morning's tithes and offerings?

==> I'm not sure even churched Christians really grasp "tithes and offerings"; it's just something we do... the old passing of the plate. What if you are from outside? What's the point? What's the expectation? Is it like tipping at a restaurant? And is that tipping based on how good the preacher's sermon was? A good chuckle and I'll toss in a fiver? 

[Angry shush your children look]

==> This is so common it's disheartening. Do we really NOT want children in worship and then complain about not having children and young adults in our church (the ones that just might be starting to have children?)  Combine the evil-eye shushing with the 1963 metal crib in the nursery (see #1 above) and you have a sure recipe to the exit door. 

We should only use the church building for church events...

==> When I came to my church in 2002, this was the default policy. Outsiders would mess things up. There would be security issues. Someone from the church would need to be present. In 2003-2004, when we first started thinking in terms of being a church-for-the-neighborhood ("parish church"?) we decided to open the facilities to ANY group from the neighborhood at no charge. (Charging was the second conversation after opening it up, but we decided it was to be a ministry, not a fund-raising effort.) I'll write some more on that in the next couple of posts, but it has made a HUGE difference in connecting with our neighbors.  

Minimal Hospitality Threshold

At the VERY least, we have to discover a "minimal hospitality threshold" that doesn't offer visitors the perception of dangerous childcare, arcane weirdness, awkward pandering for money, and unwelcome stares. Yet many congregations... sincerely well-meaning... have lost touch with what today's minimal hospitality threshold entails. Compare your church to a moderately successful restaurant - heck, compare it to McDonald's in terms of hospitality.

Compare your childcare to the YMCA or what you might look for in a babysitter. Put yourself in the shoes of an outsider - it's hard, but you can do it! (Or if you are really having trouble, go visit the place of worship for something really different from you - a Jewish temple or a Catholic or Orthodox or Pentecostal church... see where you are uncomfortable or lost or wishing for help.) 

And then...

Then, take a deep breath and ask this question:
Is the MINIMAL hospitality threshold really what you want as your standard of hospitality... to represent Jesus Christ to your neighbors and to the world?
Or is there far more in terms of welcome, hospitality, openness, inclusion, invitation, participation, and community?  [Hint: yes, there is far more. For just one example of that, check out this article on racial insider/outsider dynamics in church.]

And then!

And that is just the inviting, welcoming, including part of being the church that I like to call LIGHTHOUSE church. There is another whole realm of reaching out, going forth, venturing beyond the walls, loving neighbor, brushing shoulders, and being the church-for-the-world that I like to call SEARCHLIGHT church.  More on that to come...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

i know those words but don't know what you mean

I had just arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland and was supposed to meet my host at the airport. I didn't know what he looked like or where to find him, and though he had given me his phone number, my cell phone didn't have an international plan and the airport wi-fi wasn't connecting. I saw a few familiar things when I came out of customs into the waiting area: a coffee shop, some public computers for internet access, and even some phones. But I didn't (yet) have the currency. My host and I eventually found each other - it was a good portent that he had been in the coffee shop!

One of (seriously!) 1000 shows, acts, venues going on
for the "Fringe Festival"; Edinburgh Castle in the back
After a stop at the house, we ventured out into Edinburgh for an ENORMOUS month-long arts festival in the heart of town. As we navigated through to find something to watch and buy tickets, I kept noticing that I had to ask him to repeat himself and explain what he was saying to me. There was his accent (which, really, was pretty mild), but more difficult for me were so many different ways of saying things. Whether it was the boot of the car (I actually knew that one) or the "queue" to buy tickets or something costing so many "quid" (I thought it was pounds?!)... I recognized the words as existing in the language I speak, but sometimes I had no idea what he was saying. I would have been prepared for this in a culture that spoke a foreign language, but, you know, I watch Dr. Who and Sherlock and didn't figure it would throw me so much.

People ordering food and drink before returning the their table.
We went out to eat for lunch - at a legit Scottish pub. We sat down at a table and discussed what we would order, then he pointed at a number inscribed on the table top and said to stay here and he would go order. He went to the bar (with 50 other people arrayed placing their order) and left our table number there. Clearly, I knew what restaurant, table, table number, bar, menu, ordering, and all the rest were, but it was not a way of ordering food that I had ever seen.  Glad he was with me or I might have been waiting a while for a server to show up at the table!  :)

Surely you can see this person urgently
needs to get to the restroom?  :)
As we were finishing, I indicated that I needed to find the restroom. He gestured across the fairly large restaurant and said it's over there down some stairs. I set off across the restaurant and noticed some well-lit green signs of a person at the head of some stairs, so I followed the signs down two flights of stairs to a single door and went through. The door closed behind me, locked, and I found myself on the street! I went around the block, back into the restaurant and found my host at the table. He chuckled and went with me through the restaurant and pointed out the word "Toilet" at the head of another staircase. It turns out the little green running man (I thought he just really had to go!) is used throughout the country to mark the emergency exit. In the U.S. we use words for EXIT and pictures for restroom... and though I know the word "toilet" - it was not what I was looking for. All in all it was a great lesson in cultural expectations and differences. (It was also not my last bathroom mis-adventure.)

Why share all that here, as mildly humorous as it might be? It is because...

Church can also be a confusing and mis-leading culture of different language and expectations that "outsiders" have difficulty navigating.

For example:
  • Does your church have an unspoken dress code? Behavior code? Food in the sanctuary?
  • Can someone unfamiliar with church easily figure out words and practices like "passing the peace," "fellowship hour," "doxology," "confession," "hymn of praise," "creed," or any other number of things churched folks probably take for granted?
  • What about the more cultural/sub-cultural things like "ladies' circle," "covered dish dinner," "special offering," or even "youth group"?  I mean, do people outside of church ever "take an offering" for anything? At least "collection" would be a little more understandable.
  • What about standing and sitting, singing from a hymnal (or a screen), and so many of the things we do?
  • Do we sometimes, unintentionally, show people the exit door? 
I am a life-long church-goer and I have even found myself lost and confused visiting another church... even in my own Presbyterian tradition! Think about how that might feel for someone new to church and questioning the faith.

Where I'm going with all this is THIS: Are there ways we can open up insider language to better welcome those who come from outside the church or the faith?

Now there is also a fine line between opening up insider language and practice and retaining the MYSTERY that can be an important part of a worshiping community. So, in my examples above, I didn't need or want my hosts to "speak American" to me; what did work well (which we all quickly learned) was how helpful it was for them to anticipate and recognize where I might have trouble and help 'translate' or 'interpret' things that might be unfamiliar.

I'd love to hear some ways folks have done this kind of "opening up" of insider language and practices, particularly where you also have been able to maintain some of the uniqueness of Christian worship and community!

More coming...

new posts a-coming!

So in late Spring I realized I had been blogging in the areas of technology and music, both off-topic for the original intent of this "Lighthouse/Searchlight" blog.

I took some time to separate out the technology and music from the missional and moved them to the site I had created under my name when I stood for moderator of the Presbyterian Church. That took up most of May and then summer quickly filled with General Assembly, vacation Bible school, family vacation, and other things.

One of those other things was a week-long trip to Scotland with some other area pastors. Not only was it a wonderful and rich experience, it has stirred up a number of thoughts and reflections I'd like to share over the coming days and weeks, particularly around the missional church, or as I like to call it these days: church-for-the-world.

So come back, or bookmark it, or sign up for e-mail updates in the sidebar.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

ash wednesday - the "hands" service

In 2011 we were experiencing what I called blessed pandemonium on Wednesday nights. This year Wednesday nights are a bit tamer, but they are still multi-generational and include the men from the group home in our neighborhood. So, with the multiple attention levels and learning style needs present, we re-used the format from our Ash Wednesday service in 2011.

Our Ash Wednesday liturgy is about sin, death, and repentance and (as in 2011) is taken from the wide-ranging and weighty words of Psalm 44.  That Psalm has a number of references to "hands," so we decided to have a more kinesthetic learning-style service in order to really engage the children, youth, and group home folks alongside our adult members.

We used Psalm 44 as the structure for the whole service, and we used our hands (literally!) to understand and work through each part of it.  Here are the basics, and I will link to the order of worship below.  When I realized we'd be using our hands throughout, we did away with the bulletin and projected all the scripture and music on the screen.

Psalm 44:1-8   We opened with a Call to Worship and time of thanks and praise these verses, which celebrates God's faithfulness in times past.  We saw a visual of a strong hand.

We sang "Give Thanks" to express our thankfulness to God for that faithfulness.
Psalm 44:9-14    We talked about anger and blaming God for our circumstances and read these verses together while tightly clenching our hands into fists and holding that through these "God, look what you have done to us" verses.  (After 2-3 min of tight clenching, that's an interesting feeling and we talked about what holding on to anger does to us on the inside!) For blaming God (or self) we pointed our finger towards ourselves.
Psalm 44:17-19    The Psalm moves into more of a pleading tone, saying, "but we have not forgotten you (Lord)."  We clasped our hands into a child-like prayer gesture and prayed these verses together.  I then spoke briefly, asking whether Israel (and we) might have forgotten God, despite these words.
Psalm 44:20-22   We continued with "extended hands" (as if grasping for something), focusing on the words about "extending our hands to a strange god" - and I spoke briefly on sin and idolatries we sometimes reach for instead of God.

And with that move from anger to pleading to self-examination (which reminds me of the stages of grief!) led us into a prayer of confession.  I had been looking for a time in which we could join hands.  This didn't seem the obvious time, but we did and I reminded the congregation that though sin isolates, we are never alone - indeed, scripture reminds us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" - and so we prayed a prayer of confession together - eyes open reading screen - and holding hands.  Very interesting...

Psalm 44:23-24    These verses literally ask some questions of God - "Why do you sleep?  Why do you hide your face?" - so we raised one hand like a child would at school if asking a question, and we read these verses together.
Psalm 44:25    I noted that this verse is the next to last in the Psalm and is where we end up without God intervening to save.  "Our soul has sunk down into the dust; our body cleaves to the earth."  And at that point we had the imposition of ashes.
Psalm 44:26    Then the Psalm ends with a plea for help and hope: "Rise up, be our help, and redeem us..."  We read that, sang another song: "Give Us Clean Hands."
The benediction was from Romans 8:35-39, which quotes Psalm 44, which we had just read: "For your sake we are being put to death... sheep to the slaughter," but which surrounds that with one of the most hope-filled declarations of the Gospel in scripture: "Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ..."  I asked the congregation to hold out their hands in a receiving gesture as I spoke these words of blessing over them.

If you are interested in my notes or the PowerPoint slides just e-mail me at robert@gspc.net.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

this is grace

I was wowed today after church to see this description of today's service posted on Facebook. I'll also include my follow-up comment and another... to be sure there are days when we don't get it right, but then there are days like this where we catch a glimpse of God's purposes in the Church... and it's pretty glorious if you're looking!

PRISCILLA: One of the many reasons I love having the opportunity to celebrate communion Sunday with all of you is the kids. For whatever reason, even the youth seemed to be sitting with family today, my own daughter sat with me. As service progressed and I would glance around I saw so many children being physically loved on in the pews. This was not just the little ones either. Teenagers were getting and openly receiving love all around the sanctuary. Middle-schoolers ended up on someone's lap or holding a hand. One family's 3 elementary aged children all ended up on the 2 parents laps. These visuals added so much to the service this morning. Thank you all for sharing your precious children with this community of believers!
ROBERT (me): I also heard babies cooing, giggling, and fussing (and wouldn't trade it for anything); I saw our good friend with the stroke pat a young boy on the back as they arrived at the Communion Table to leave something in the Ten Cents a Meal basket; I saw a couple of guys from the men's group home worshiping all-out; I saw some new faces eagerly engaged in worship; I saw some folks I know are struggling with the whole idea of faith, but are there checking it out because someone they love is there. It is a very beautiful thing and I am beyond blessed to pastor this flock.
RUTH: For here is Jesus, welcoming all into HIS family - the young and the old, the strong and the weak, the puzzled and the calm, the grieving and the peaceful, the lonely and the scared. All looking so diverse on the outside, yet all made in HIS image, all with eternity set in their hearts by HIM. And this is what LOVE is - this is GRACE.

Monday, January 27, 2014

monday musings: truth and grace

Monday Musings are reflections on things I've been pondering lately. They may be a result of the previous day's sermon or come from my own life or the ministry I'm involved with. As with any of my posts, I invite your comments, questions, or further reflection. Thanks for stopping in!

A year or so ago I was preaching on truth and grace and one of the dear members of the church was led to create a grace and truth banner for our sanctuary.

I used that banner as a sermon illustration a few weeks ago and it grew into this graphic, which spelled out a little more of what I think Jesus was teaching.

The gist of the idea is that real grace and real truth are inseparable. There is a false grace ("license") and a false truth ("legalism"), but the real thing is held together in Christ (literally, IN Christ - embodied in as well as taught by).

Further, in that space between grace and truth there is FREEDOM, specifically two freedoms. There is FREEDOM TO FAIL, which is an important freedom. It is the freedom to hear the truth of God’s Word and be found both guilty and still wanted and loved. We settle for believing we are not guilty or for finding others who look worse than we are. Yet we are not righteous before God. And here’s the Good News: we are not cast out, but we are chosen, wanted, and loved.

And in understanding that, accepting that, and rising in that, there is the FREEDOM TO LIVE. That’s also in that space and tension between grace and truth, in the presence of Christ. It’s a freedom to obey God’s Word, not because we have to, but because we want to. It’s the freedom that comes from failing and experiencing forgiveness. It’s the freedom God has designed us for. And it exists there in the middle space.

That's the main idea I'm continuing to muse upon. You can read more in the three sermons linked below (especially the second one, where I first used this graphic).

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