Archive - August, 2011

Iona Reflections

I must confess that I came to Iona Abbey with a romantic notion of the Abbey Community.  Somehow in my mind it represented a modern representation of a heroic past involving courageous Christian witness and daring Christian service.  While still impressed and thankful for my time at Iona, I left Iona Abbey searching for something more.  Allow me to briefly (far too briefly to do real justice to something I have given much thought and prayer) explain.

George MacLeod started (or more properly restarted the Iona Abbey community) in 1938 out of a heartfelt concern to reconnect the church of his day with the working class people of the community.  He took young ministers (essentially ministers-in-training) and unemployed stoneworkers together to Iona.  As they worked together in rebuilding the Abbey, they shared together in the Christian faith.  Not all of the stoneworkers were Christian but the intermixing of the clergy with laborers helped the church reconnect with the working class of Scotland.  Following the ministry and model of Columba, MacLeod combined genuine conversion-oriented evangelism (witnessing to Christ as they worked side by side) with justice and mercy (helping fight the crippling unemployment of the depression).

From those early beginnings the Iona Abbey Community has emerged with a deep sense of justice and mercy ministry.  Though the historic island of Iona and the physical Abbey itself are the spiritual home of the Iona Community, the community’s main ministry is all over the world through the reach of its approximately 270 members and a much larger number of Associate Members.

Over the years it has been extremely active in the peace movement, ministry to the marginalized and impoverished, deep commitment to ecological sustainability and the like. Prayer, worship with liturgical and musical renewal has remained a central emphasis as well.  Members (capital M) of the worldwide Iona Abbey Community commit to fivefold rule of prayer and Bible study, economic sharing, planning of time, meeting together for mutual support and accountability, and working for justice and peace.  In many ways, the ministry is impressive and faithful.  And yet, there is  something lacking.  As the justice and mercy ministry has moved more and more to the forefront, a sense of evangelistic witness has faded to mere abstraction. The worship liturgy and prayer alone appear to keep the group from  drifting off into being just another agency of social activism.

In a discussion group, a layman from a church in Leek, England probed the Member of the Iona Community on their current connection to the original vision of MacLeod to reconnect the church to working class people.  The response to his probing was  polite but defensive.  The Member of the Iona Community acknowledged that they were essentially a mid-class (mainline) Christian movement that had lost connection with the working class.  Peace and justice were the predominant focus of their work.

Later, I sought the layman out to follow up on his thinking.  Perceptively he  commented that it was “hard for an institution to recover its original mission.”  As we conversed, it became clear that this layman did not disagree at all with the commitment to justice and mercy.  What he missed (and had come to Iona looking for) was a concomitant commitment to sharing the gospel in the way of St. Columba and Rev. MacLeod.  He spoke of a great commission commitment to share the faith with others in a way that led to committing one’s life to Christ.

The direct application for my ministry and for the Central Texas Conference was not lost on me. However good (and it is truly good, needed and a work of God) social justice ministry is, it alone is not enough.  The second major way the Iona Community is seeking to live out the mission and ministry of Christ is in and through authentic community.  Essentially they represent another attempt (among many) to re-engage the great insights of Christian community tracing a line from the original Christ followers (read the close of Acts 2) and the abbeys of old down to today.  This is a large subject which must wait for another day.  (Watch this fall’s The Wilderness Way.)

Camp Iona

As we moved through our week at Iona Abbey, our time and activity took on the aspect of a church summer camp.  One night as we watched the children (many
families had come to be a part of the Abbey retreat) perform in a talent show
(the word “talent” was very charitably applied!), I leaned over and commented
to Jolynn that we could have gone to Glen Lake and saved money.

I had come expecting more quiet meditative time.  I knew in advance that community was a central part of the Iona Abbey experience and believed that I would benefit
from being in community while I prayed, meditated, studied and reflected.  I failed to account for how “messy” community can be!

We have met and conversed with people from a variety of countries (though predominately from Great Britain – Scotland and England).  We’ve shared in conversation and learning what has not always been comfortable.

What holds the messy whole together is worship.  Twice a day at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., all in the Iona Community are required to be in worship. (The only other requirements are to participate in the common meals and share in the common work.)  I am not a
liturgist.  Most of those reading may be aware that I helped pioneer so called contemporary or “praise” worship.  But, the liturgy in the Iona community is marvelous.  I have found it deep and rich in imaginary; fresh and new in style; provoking and guiding in direction.  Much of this is, I think, from the great music leadership of John Bell and also from the great liturgical traditions of both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England.

At its heart, the liturgy is impressively and insistently Trinitarian.  “Holy one, holy three” is a common phrase.  The liturgy refused to settle on either the first, second, or third person of the Trinity.  There is a lesson here for us.  I find myself more convicted and determined to be deeply Trinitarian.

Columba’s Bay

There is a strong sense of “pilgrimage” in the spiritual raditions of Britain.  A “pilgrimage” is a spiritual walk (hike) of refection and prayer.  Today it is often a venture into the past history of Christianity as a way of getting in touch with the Lord’s ongoing work in today’s world.  For ancient Celtic Christians, the notion of pilgrimage had a distinctly future orientation.  A pilgrimage was (is?) venturing for the Lord into the unknown guided only by the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, August 2nd, we went on a pilgrimage to Columba’s Bay.  It amounted to a seven mile hike out to the place where Saint Columba landed in 563 A. D.  The weather was wet and cool (about 65 degrees F – this probably sounds like heaven given what Fort Worth and much of the U. S. has been going through this summer; it was!).  Mist and fog surrounded the crashing waves on the rocks of Columba’s Bay.  The sense of isolation was palatable.  It must have taken enormous courage to leave home, family and friends and sail into the unknown guided only by the winds of the Spirit.

Standing on the desolate beach I found myself deeply moved and inspired by the faithfulness and courage of those early Christ followers and; yes, love they had for those who did not know Christ.  They sought to take the gospel of God’s love in Christ through the Holy Spirit to wild and violent people.  I have trouble taking the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to my passive neighbor across the street.  Watching the waves pound in through the rock and onto the beach, I found myself convicted by St. Columba.

A number of different writers (including Rev. George MacLeod who founded the modern Iona Abbey Community) talk of there being “thin places” between heaven and earth.  I am not sure I wholly subscribe to the concept for it seems often used as a rationalization for preserving a building over engaging in ministry outreach.  Still, in the nature-filled music of Columba’s Bay those of us on pilgrimage become quiet.  The boundary between heaven and earth was stretched thin.

Community, Work and Worship

In 563 A.D. St. Columba set sail from his beloved Ireland to convert the wild druidic lands of what is today Scotland and Northern England.  Exiled from Ireland for a
conflict which he  helped start and which led to the death of many, Columba sailed east stopping a number of times until he came to a place where, after climbing the highest hill (and there are some high ones – think a green and wet version of the Texas Hill country), he could no longer see his beloved Ireland.  There on the isle of Iona with 12 companions St. Columba established a monastery with the express purpose of sharing the gospel. This great work of God was a combination of both penance and pilgrimage.  According to legend Columba was charged with converting as many people to Christ as those who had died because of the conflict that caused his exile.  Many of us (especially those with Scottish heritage) know life in Christ as extensions of the spiritual lineage of St. Columba.

We landed on Iona on July 30th to become (temporary) “residents” of the Abbey for their “Gathering Place” retreat.  The day’s rhythm quickly settled into 8:15 a.m. breakfast, 9 a.m. worship.  It is at the close of the morning worship that our common schedule shifts.  To be a part of the Abbey is to take place in its common work.  Rev. George MacLeod (who revived the modern day Iona Abbey in the pre-World War II depression) deeply believed that shared work built community.  So do I.  So do we.

The notion that work and community are welded together is no new insight.  This is a central part of the community framework which Jesus builds with his 12 apostles.  It is a crucial part of the spiritual growth and learning that takes place on our CTCYM trips.  My part of the common work for the community involved being “trash man” for the “east range” (a physical section of the Abbey).  Every morning after worship, I
went the 5 restrooms of the East Range and check to make sure they had toilet
paper, soap, sanitary napkins and emptied all the trash bins/cans and restocked
each restroom (the British would say toilet) as appropriately needed.  This is no new task for me; I’ve been the trash taker-outer for the last 34 years, 11 months and 2 days.  (Jolynn and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary on August 16th.)

What stands as distinctive is not so much that common work building community but the way the work & community are tied to worship.  There is no benediction, closing or sending from our worship service.  The worship service has a liturgical prayer (at what we would normally consider the end) that leads directly to our  common work.  At least symbolically work, worship and community are woven together.

As we moved to our common work, I could not help but recall with fondness and joy the closing CTCYM communion services I have been privileged to take part in.  Community, work, and worship go together.  God blesses the intertwining.

Blog on Hiatus until September

We are currently at the isle of Iona for a spiritual life retreat.  On the way we hiked along Hadrian’s Wall and spend time in Edinburgh (where I was a college student 40 years ago!). 

I will not be writing a regular blog in the coming weeks but may post notes if the opportunity presents itself.


Reflections on Worship at Hexham Abbey Church

Sunday, July 24, 2011 Jolynn and I worshipped at Hexham Abbey Church.  With people of good will around the world, we joined in lifting up the people and nation of Norway in our prayers.  Together we looked to God’s love and grace through our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hexham Abbey was founded by Wilfrid (Bishop of York), one of the great pioneers of Christianity in northern England in 674 A.D.  Among its historic great is included St. Cuthbert.  We soaked in the history and drank from the well of a deep piety on our Friday afternoon visit.  This brought us back for worship on Sunday.

Our Sunday worship encountered a moderately alive congregation with about 125 people present.  We were greeted with a friendly welcome.  The worship service was classic Anglican with modern phrasing.  Most active Methodists from Central Texas would have found the liturgy very familiar.

What was missing was any real attempt to help a non-Christian understand what was taking place in worship.  The service wasn’t visitor friendly or unfriendly.  It was visitor indifferent.  What leaves me intrigued is the contrast between a clergy who obviously understand that the day of Christendom is over and yet demonstrate no engagement with that knowledge.  They were genuinely welcoming and yet appeared to be without insight into the contradiction between the worship they were leading and the assumption that those attending were already committed, practicing Christians.  They may know they live in a modern mission field that is overwhelmingly non-Christian, but this reality has not yet brought about any real change in worship, how the gospel is shared, or their behavior.

What pains is me is how descriptive this is of many churches, including those in the Central Texas Conference!