Posts Tagged ‘humility’

I have been reading Alan Roxburgh‘s new book, “Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church“. He asks some tough questions in it. One question he says that every level of the church needs to ask is, “What are the challenges we currently for for which we presently have no answer but must address if we’re to live into God’s future for us?” When churches are anxious about the future, they have a tendency to rush to find a solution and slap a ‘fix’ on the problem. It’s a way of maintaining the illusion of control. It’s a way of sidelining God. We find a way forward as we wrestle together with the question deeply enough that we are confronted with what only God can and is doing for us and among us.

Another question he asks is, “What is the originating story around which your denomination/church was built?” I think that he means for us to get past the official party lines. What is the real story, among the local congregations or communities of faith? I was reminded of a talk Douglas John Hall gave over thirty years ago at the Annual Meeting of London Conference (1983). He encouraged us to remember the originating story, or dream, which motivated our ancestors. What kept them going? In Canada, they were largely history’s victims, poor oppressed people who were driven here by persecution in Europe. They came here looking for new possibilities because they faced impossibilities in the Old World. They were victims of famine, persecution, social and political and economic revolutions. Because they were displaced persons, their dreams were modest and humble, born of necessity. They were the dreams of the wretched of the earth and so were firmly rooted in reality.

They didn’t see themselves as masters. They saw themselves as recipients of unwarranted grace and favour. They were not in charge of the process but they also had a sense of great responsibility — as stewards of this land, not as owners, masters or possessors.

He said, “Where have we come from? Poor and unremembered people who were nevertheless the bearers of a beautiful and very human vision. We shall have to recover it if we are not be victims of the greed and destruction of this age. Those who are in charge of things are prisoners of a success story in which simplicity, contentment no longer has a place.”

I wonder if a similar story could be told about the people and congregations who made up the United Church of Canada in its beginnings? What were their dreams and hopes? Not the dreams and hopes of the political types who led the governance structures into union, but of the ordinary, local people who kept the congregations going week after week. They believed in the union enough to find a way through the upheaval and disruption that it caused in their communities and families. What motivated them? What sustained them? What was their faith in God that shaped them? What was the life formed by that story?

It would be good to know. Then, we could wrestle with the question, “What would it look like to improvise that story into our own time?”

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A sermon by Christine Jerrett. The worship service in which was first preached is available at Reformed Worship, week 7.

Scriptures: Proverbs 30: 18-19, 24 -28; John 3: 1-17

Did you know that the turkey used to be a sleek and beautiful bird? It had a rather odd head, but its body was so streamlined that it could fly up to sixty-five miles per hour. Today’s turkeys can barely stand, much less fly. Sixty percent of a turkey’s flesh is in its breast and wings. North Americans, apparently, prefer white meat, so turkeys have been genetically engineered to meet consumer wishes. (Douglas John Hall, The Steward, p. 104)

Most of the tomatoes that you can buy in a Canadian grocery store in January have been picked while they are still green. That way, they will not bruise while they are being transported. When they get to were they are going, they are blasted with ethylene to turn their exteriors red. Tomatoes, too, have been genetically engineered so that they have thicker skins. This, too, helps with transporting them over long distances. They also have approximately thirty percent less vitamin C than tomatoes that were cultivated in the 1960’s did. They have fourteen times more sodium. One third of them come from Florida, where there are regulations about their size and shape and quality. An arsenal of over one hundred chemicals is used to combat insects, bacteria and diseases.

Technology has changed our lives in many amazing and wonderful ways. Tomatoes in January are not among them.

Not that long ago, most people in the modern world had great faith in technology’s power to save us. If we had a problem, we believed that someone could and would develop a technology to fix it. If the technology we used to fix the problem caused other problems, surely we could develop more technology to fix those problems as well.

We are not so sure any more. There is chaos in the Middle East and famine in Africa; there are dead zones in our oceans, and deserts where there were once fertile plains; two hundred species disappear every day; superbugs that are resistant to our best antibiotics are emerging in our hospitals; terrorists elude our most sensitive security devices; our young people drown their increasing sense of despair in binge drinking and hard drugs. All of these events have been resistant to our best, most advanced technological solutions.

Over thirty-five years ago, Douglas John Hall observed, “We are a nation of full shopping carts and empty faces.” Asks Wendell Berry, “How does it happen that we can know so much and do so much and live so badly?” We know a great deal. We can do many things. What we lack is wisdom. we lack the wisdom to use our knowledge well so that humanity flourishes and so that creation is preserved not only for ourselves but also for generations to come. The good garden God gave to us to tend and to keep groans, waiting for us to develop such wisdom.

The book of Proverbs is part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. Proverbs 30 says that wisdom is knowing that there are things we do not know:

There are three things too wonderful for me;

four I do not understand:

the way of an eagle in the sky,

the way of a snake on a rock,

the way of a ship on the high seas,

the way of a man with a woman.

Proverbs is not trying to examine, explain or measure such things. it is drawing us in to wonder, awe and reverence before the mysteries of creation. The eagle, the snake, the ship, the couple in love are in motion with an energy from beyond themselves. There is more going on here than we can account for.

In each instance, we come up against the limits of our knowing. Our relationship with them is not so much a matter of comprehending them as realizing that the only way to know them is to delight in the wonder of them. It is a way of knowing that comes from the heart. It is a way of knowing that comes from living in reverence toward that which we cannot use and manipulate and control. Instead, we learn to love and cherish and protect them as part of God’s precious creation. It is a way of knowing that the weary creation desperately needs.

Leonard Sweet says that what we need more of in the church is ‘kangaroo theology’. There is an urban myth that ‘kangaroo’ is an Australian aboriginal word for ‘I don’t know’. When the Europeans first came to Australia, they asked the people who were already there, “What are those things hopping around the countryside?” The people would shrug and say, “Kangaroo.”

That is what we need in the church — kangaroo theology: the capacity to say, “I don’t know”.

We deal with deep mysteries: the mysteries of a marvellously complex creation; the mysteries of being human in relationship with each other; the mysteries of being invited into relationship with the Triune God.

Nicodemus was a religious leader and yet, when he encountered Jesus, he knew he was faced with someone who defied the usual categories. Jesus spoke truth that mystified and surprised. In his presence, people felt the very presence of God. One night, he approached Jesus, saying, “We know you a teacher from God. But there is more. I am trying to get my mind around who you are and what you are doing. Explain it to me.”
Jesus said to him, “You don’t know. God is making a new creation before your very eyes. The only way to get in on it is to let go of what you know and what you think you know and what you think you have grasped. The only way to get in on the new life God is bringing to birth is to take a risk beyond what you know. You have to enter into it . . . not with all your adult know-how but like a new-born baby. God is at work in your life and mine, but it is the invisible moving the visible. The new creation that is taking shape is being formed by something we cannot see and touch — by the Spirit. You know how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it is coming from or where it is going next. That is the way it is with everyone born of the Spirit of God. You don’t know.”

We do not know. We do not know how the Spirit is at work among us, moving this weary, aching creation toward new possibilities. We get in on it only as we learn to live in this complex and beautiful creation with humility and reverence. When we lose wonder and awe, it gets easy to act out of greed or carelessness or self-concern. Then, all creation suffers. More than that, when we act out of greed or carelessness, or self-concern, the very survival of human life is threatened.

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to say that we are not. We are not Lords but servants of the one who is Lord. We are answerable to another. We are creatures of a good, gracious, creative God who loves us and who calls us into a life of loving: loving God; loving others; loving the beloved creation. The wisdom to love as Christ commands begins with the humility that stands in reverence before that which we do not know.

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This is the seventh in a series of posts about the differences between a pastoral and a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.


The sixth difference is described this way:

The pastoral church seeks to avoid conflict at any cost.
The missional church knows that conflict is the price of progress.

It is not an easy time to be the Church.  Radical shifts in the culture stress congregational life in multiple ways. That stress often gets played out in anxiety about finances, declining attendance at worship, and lower levels of participation in the governance structures and in programmes. It sometimes get played out in disagreements with other members and with the clergy. As congregations experience the stress and anxiety that change brings, conflict is going to happen. 

When it does happen, congregations have different ways of dealing with it. Pastoral churches often respond to conflict from an overriding desire to maintain a ‘cult of harmony’ (Tom BandyFragile Hopep. 28). In such congregations, a lot of energy is spent in avoiding painful realities and difficult discussions. Nobody wants to cause a disturbance by speaking up. Serious disagreements get shut down as quickly as possible. They get driven underground where they fester and turn ugly. When they do erupt, somebody inevitably says, “We are Christians. We are supposed to love one another”, as if loving and disagreeing are incompatible. 

Missional churches need to find faithful and healthy ways to deal with conflict because “the boundary-breaking work of the Holy Spirit . . . creates conflict, consternation and confusion” (Alan RoxburghMissional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood, chapter 8). “The patterns of Christian life that shaped and gave meaning to Christian life in North America for much of the twentieth century . . . are breaking apart . . . opening up to us a radically different way of being God’s people” (chapter 9).

Bandy suggests that congregations address conflict in the church through ‘adult spiritual growth, leadership creativity, and lay empowerment’ (p. 24). Congregations need to learn what words like ‘forgiveness’, ‘grace’, ‘letting go’ look like in the realities of actual relationships. 
Kayla McClurg suggests that adult spiritual growth needs to focus on developing people with humility  and an open mind: “It takes humility to hear each other, let alone work with each other, while seeing things differently . . . We hold in our hearts our sense of what is right, and we also hold those who oppose us” (“The Gift of Disagreement“).

Obviously, facing conflict openly will lead a congregation to deal with its relationships in deep, often painful, but also redemptive ways. Perhaps the first step is to create an environment where we do not run from conflict but face it truthfully, ready to learn important lessons from it, and looking for signs that the Holy Spirit is at work.


[Kathleen Smith has written a helpful book, Stilling the Storm, about leading congregations through difficult times of conflict related to changes in worship.
Jean Vanier‘s books The Broken Body and From Brokenness to Community are also helpful reflections.]


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A Wildly, Wonderful God

What a wildly, wonderful world you have given us, O God.

In all its complexity and beauty,

its chaos and order,

its delight and terror,

all creation sings a hymn of praise to you

and we would join the chorus.

What a wildly, wonderful salvation

you have made for us, O God.

In Jesus you come among us

with news of your love

that welcomes us and challenges us;

that comforts us and unsettles us;

that pulls us beyond our own selves into

the broad, open spaces of your truth.

We seek the humility that is the gateway into the mystery

of your gracious purposes.

What a wildly, wonderful mission

you have invited us to share, O God.

By the breath of your Holy Spirit,

you bring life where we can only see death.

By your Spirit-driven winds of change,

you sweep away our idols.

We are awed at your relentless push toward

life for all creation.

You are more than our minds can comprehend.

You summon us into realities beyond what we can explain.

Loosen our tight grip on that which we know.

Open our hands and our hearts to your newness.

Then teach us to will one thing — to follow you wherever you may lead us,

through Christ our Lord and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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One thing I have discovered in the process of leading a number of congregations through the process of change is that it is a lot harder than people expect it to be. Congregations SAY that they are willing to change, especially when a crisis hits and they face the possibility of having to close. However, when they get into the thick of it, they are able to put up a lot of resistance.
When new people start participating in a congregation, they don’t know all the hidden ‘rules’ and practices. They discover them as they start doing things differently and then, sometimes, encounter people who are angry and hurt and afraid because they weren’t consulted. New people start using equipment and spaces that longer-term members are used to having at their sole disposal.
If congregations are serious about wanting to welcome new people into their midst, they will have to be willing not only to make external changes but internal ones as well. Offering hospitality to ‘strangers’ means entering into our baptism in radical ways. In baptism, we embark on a life-long journey of letting go and being raised to new life by God’s transformative work.
On a practical level, this means that egos will have to learn a new humility. The way things have always been done isn’t necessarily the way that they HAVE to be done. Sometimes, older members will have to give up some activities that they have claimed as their territory so that there is space for somebody else to do something new. Patience and respect will be required as the new participants learn some of the practices and traditions of the community. They need to have the stories and traditions told to them. Criticism will have to be kept in check.
The creativity that is integral to change requires an environment of graciousness. Mistakes will be made. New experiments won’t work out the way it was hoped they would. New life needs to be celebrated and nurtured — lavished with praise.
Many of the changes are ones that existing members need to make in order to accommodate newcomers. This is not easy work. People need to be gentle with each other but also firmly committed to keep following the Holy Spirit as God leads Christ’s Church into a new creation. That’s where life lies.

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