RSSinclude - Feed

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Good News from Three Willows

There is a lot of stress and anxiety in our congregations these days. Sometimes that stress and anxiety hides the fact that there is a lot of creative and energetic ministry happening in our churches. 

As author and community builder John McKnight points out, we're conditioned to see deficits and not see assets. We see problems that need to be solved, rather than capacities waiting to be released. We see the glass half empty rather than half full. 

So it was a delight for me to be at Three Willows United Church in Guelph last Saturday morning for their congregational planning day.

Three Willows has done something that would be unthinkable in many congregations. They've scrapped all their committees!

The church is guided by what their call their Core Group (equivalent of the Board.) Ministry is undertaken by small groups who are empowered to use their gifts to serve the church.

The planning morning started with a thoughtful time of worship led by Eric McGillis, a young man who is part of the Core Team. Eric based his devotion time on the Beatitudes, especially Jesus' expression "the poor in spirit." That phrase, he said, means "humble before God." "One reason I love three willows so much is the humility of our people.... a place where people CAN be themselves and ask tough questions. And being a humble people is a big part of that." 

There were eleven tables set up around the meeting room. At each table was someone with an idea, a passion or a project. They included nuts and bolts things like ideas for fundraisers, to more experimental things like prayer walking, to ongoing tasks of community engagement, refugee sponsorship and worship. 

The twenty folks in attendance were set loose to go to the table of their choice where they heard about the idea, brainstormed possibilities and talked about how they could contribute. After about 20 minutes, everyone switched tables. Throughout the morning, people were able to go to five different tables. 

The energy level remained high throughout the morning, with the buzz of conversation reverberating around the room. 

For about 20 minutes, each table reported on what they had been talking about. 

At noon, Mary Elliott, who along with John Lawson form Three Willows' ministry staff,  checked to make sure that for every idea there was someone committed to following up. Then Mary said, "OK, you are empowered to pick this ball up and run with it. You don't need to ask anybody's permission. You need to check the calendar to make sure you don't conflict with something else that's going on, but you have permission to develop this idea." 

Three Willows is an amalgamated congregation that has had its share growing pains and challenges over the years. They face the same stresses as most congregations. 

So how encouraging to see a community with a strong sense of who they are working together to craft a shared ministry. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Not So Good Old Days

I have two top favorite songwriters. One is Paul Simon. Everybody has heard of him. The other is Pierce Pettis and I’ve discovered that hardly anybody, at least in Canada, has heard of him. Which is a pity because Pierce Pettis is one of the finest songwriters of our time.
Pierce Pettis
A great songwriter is able to capture powerful experiences in a few simple words. A songwriter doesn’t have a whole book in which to tell his or her story.  A song has to get to the point, and get to it fast.

Pierce Pettis is a master craftsman. His song “Alabama 1959” is an example. It’s about the longing for the lost world of childhood and youth. The song describes the wave of nostalgia that comes over him when he watches his father’s old home movies. 
Chicken wire floats in the big parade
Marching bands and the prom queen's wave
From an old home movie fading with time
Alabama 1959

Daddy had hair, mom was thin
Look at the silly clothes they wore back then
Studebaker truck parked in the drive
Alabama 1959

A bittersweet elegy for what once was. Can you relate? I certainly can.

Emotionally, this song reminds me of what we spend a lot of time doing in the church – looking back wistfully to an earlier time. The core membership of our churches were deeply shaped and marked by their experience of the church in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It was a different world, and a different church. Even as we accept the need for change, we mourn what we have lost.

“Alabama 1959” is more than a trip down memory lane, though. We all tend to idealize the past. Filtered through the lens of memory, the past seems like a golden age compared to the present. But the old home movies remind Pierce of another, more shadowy aspect of that world of his childhood.

Football games beneath the lights,
No one ever dared to cross the color line,
Black faces watched through the fence outside,
Alabama, 1959.

"Don't use that word," my mother said,
"It isn't Christian, call them colored folks instead,"
So I learned to be polite in Alabama, 1959.

Those old home movies record the shadow side of that polite, genteel world of the Old South. It was the terrible reality of segregation and racism. Pettis Pettis is one of a generation of white southerners who have taken the painful journey of coming to terms with their past. And in a few subtle, stunning words, he lays bare the role that even well meaning Christians played in perpetuating a situation of oppression.

So the past is not always everything that our filtered memories tell us it was. It is filled with ambiguity. The good old days were not as good as we would like to think.

Every generation thinks things better when they were young. It’s a trick that our minds and hearts play on us. So it’s always a challenge to be grateful for the past without romanticizing it, and to embrace the present as a gift. Every generation has mourned the loss of precious and beautiful things; but every generation also needs to live faithfully and courageously in the reality of the present.

What those of us who grew up in the church of the 50s and 60s forget is that younger people don’t remember that golden time. The church experiences that mean so much to us are a world of which our children and grandchildren have no knowledge.

If a new generation is going to find the place in the church that we say we want them to have, those who are older have to stop talking like it was perfect when we were young and it’s been all downhill since. Because, as “Alabama 1959” so eloquently expresses, it wasn’t perfect when we were young, and while we mourn the loss of some things, in other ways, we’re a lot better off.  

Memory is a great gift. We need to celebrate our roots. But the hold the past exerts on us is not always completely healthy. The past can linger in the form of ghosts which bind us and keep us from moving on.

These old home movies, well, they make me cry,
Still I bring them out and watch sometimes,
And all those ghosts come back alive,
Alabama, 1959,
Alabama, 1959. 

The challenge God gives to us all is to live faithfully in the moment we find ourselves, thankful for the past, but serving God in the present and hopeful of God’s future.

Explore the music of Pierce Pettis at or on YouTube.