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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!

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