Before change, letting go

We all know “people don’t like change”. Of course they don’t. I don’t like it either. Change causes stress and it feels like an extra burden, because it often is. Organisations should really stop talking about change as a starting point. Something else needs to happen first.

Change basically means adding something new to what is already there. Since both individuals and organisations live and function by using 100% or more of the resources available to them, adding something new on top of already stretched resources is bound to cause resistance and headaches. It is bound to fail even when the change is good and necessary.

I believe the first step should be to assess what is currently not working and needs to stop. Before change can happen, before new things can be added, old things must be ended. This applies to individuals and to organisations: if you want to do something new, you have to first decide what you are willing to stop doing. After the space is created and resources thus become available, only then something new can be added.

One should not underestimate the difficulty of stopping old things that aren’t working anymore. Human beings and organisations have a bad habit of confusing hope for wishful thinking, as Dr. Henry Cloud aptly points out in his fantastic book “Necessary Endings”. Ending old things can be very hard, but without this essential step, any new thing will fail.

 

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Conversation with Natan Mladin: “Of work and ‘Christian work’”

Natan Mladin writes on his blog:

Below is another attempt to immortalise and, at the same time, paradoxically, carry forward a conversation about the relationship between Christian work (what I here call ‘Word-ministry’) and all other types of work.

Feel free to join the conversation:

My initial question was: from a theological perspective, is Word-ministry (the study, exposition, explanation and application of the Word of God in ecclesial, para-ecclesial, academic settings) a more important type of work that all others (e.g. writing software, banking, plumbing, knitting etc.)?

It was initially highlighted (by Daniel Manastireanu) that the answer would be affirmative only if the Kingdom of God and the Church were identical, but since they are not, all vocations are important. The question however is: Are they equally important? Before answering that question we honed in on the relationship between Kingdom and Church – a difficult and controversial topic.  Daniel pointed out that, “the Church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. The church is the visible body of Christ in the world, setting an example of what the Kingdom could be for the whole world. The Kingdom is a wider concept. It is basically whereever God’s will is done, wherever God’s justice prevails, wherever there is obedience to God’s vision for life. Sometimes it happens in the church. Sometimes outside of it, sadly.”

Read the entire article here

A new church? Embracing diversity

After my article on “The Future of Victorian Worship,” I decided to go into more depth regarding the three underlying values (conformity, compliance and standardisation), but this time looking at them from the point of view of new ways of being church, rather than just new ways of doing worship. This is first of three articles to come on this subject. The next two will be tackling the issue of stimulating the imagination, and then encouraging creativity.

1. What we take for granted

If you grew up in the church – depending on the variety of contexts you were exposed to – you will probably have a set of ideas about church that you take for granted. For instance, you may take for granted that a church needs to have a building, a membership roll, a board of elders, a pastor, and of course a Sunday morning service where we sing songs, say prayers, and listen to a sermon. These are only some of the things we take for granted. All these things are important to keep in mind when we set out to imagine new forms of church. Continue reading

The future of Victorian worship

For a time I was fascinated by traditional Presbyterian worship. There was just something majestic, dignified and deliciously predictable about it. That fascination slowly wore off, and for a time I could not tell why that was, and I found that troubling. I’m referring to the kind of Reformed Presbyterian worship on a typical Sunday morning in a 19th century traditional stone building, with uncomfortable pews, strange smell, pipe organs, massive communion table, elevated pulpit and sometimes a choir.

Coming from an Eastern European context where order is an exotic word, this type of worship was like a magnet to me. It is beautiful and dignified. It has a lot going for it. If I were to build a new form of worship, that’s where I would probably start. But it is not where I would end up. Not anymore.

It took me awhile to figure out why it just failed to satisfy. It just wasn’t buzzing for me anymore. What I initially regarded as different and refreshing soon became restrictive and oppressive. Trying to tinker with it as a minister lead to backlashes that shocked and disturbed me. That also contributed to my disenchantment. Continue reading

Make me a seer

Make me a seer! Not the kind that sees the future, but kind that sees the present. One that really sees the present. One that sees under the surface of politics, niceness, neatness, coverups, the games people play, the games I play, the things people say that they don’t really mean, the things I say that I don’t really mean, the discrepancy between the saying and the doing etc.

Is this not the primary role of the spiritual leader in a community? Is this not the source of all spiritual leadership? Is it not true that without seeing the spiritual leader becomes a mere religious functionary? What else does ‘the blind leading the blind’ mean? To me, it suggests that seeing is kind of a big deal for a leader! (It also suggests why we don’t want to do that very much: once you see, you can’t un-see.)

Of course I’m not talking about merely engaging your visual cortex. That should be obvious from the first paragraph. It is also about seeing with your ears, with your heart, with your hands, with your mind, with your whole body. It’s really about wholeness, which is actually the goal of Christian spirituality. Or so it should be. It is about integration.

Continue reading

A short (fictitious) conversation with an 80 year old

“I’m worried…” John said to me, his eyes fixed on the carpet after we talked about the weather.

“What are you worried about?” I asked, shifting in my seat, struggling to find a comfortable position on his sofa, moving cushions and tucking them behind me.

“All my grandchildren were born in the church… went to Sunday School… and now they left the church. It’s just us old folk!” he replied, his face darkening.

I nodded silently, trying to be respectful to his grief even if I had 100 explanations in my mind as to why that is happening everywhere in the church. For an instant, I felt the clerical collar choking me. I know why they aren’t coming. Let me tell you!! I thought.

“Have you ever asked them why they don’t come?” I asked him breaking the silence.

“It’s not just my grandchildren… We don’t have any young people in the church!” he added.

“Yes, that’s true… to a certain extent… we do have some…” I attempted to correct him. “But have you asked them why they don’t come?”

“Yes, I did. I don’t remember exactly what they said… Oh, yes, they said it’s boring!” he recalled scoffing.

“Boring… yes. My children get easily bored too… The bored generation…” I said, enjoying a wee laugh with John.

“When I was their age I was in Sunday School, and then Youth Group and Boys Brigade, I was in church every Sunday, and I never stopped…” he told me emphatically.

“Were YOU ever bored in church?” I asked him looking for his gaze.

“What?” he asked, taken aback by my question, as if saying ‘What’s the point of that question?

“Were YOU ever bored in church growing up?” I repeated, looking straight at him.

“I… I think so… I mean… There was a lot that went over my head… I didn’t understand everything… But I still went. I didn’t give up!” he said.

“I was the same, John. I don’t remember ever not going to church. But here’s a question for you: Were you ever given the option to not go?” I asked him tilting my head.

“Huh? No… no…” he shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to say. You’re saying I didn’t have a choice!” he said with a grin.

“Did you?” I insisted.

“Of course I did!” he said with a higher pitched voice. “All my friends were there!” he justified.

“Mhm. Yes… it really does help to have your friends there, doesn’t it? I was the same. All my friends were church friends!”

“Exactly!” he said with some relief in his smile.

“Do you remember your parents ever asking you if you WANTED to go, or if you liked it?” I asked, taking him back to the initial rub.

He thought in silence, trying to jog his own memory, scratching his head. He shook his head.

“I can’t remember…” he said softly and sighed.

I nodded silently.

Pain is my teacher

“Pain is my teacher.” Say what? I said, pain is my teacher, not my friend. There’s a difference. A few days ago I woke up with a sharp pain in my neck, running down my spine, preventing me to turn and bow my head properly. Yeah, prayer was almost impossible! So was humility.

This is not a post about S&M. I will leave that for later. I don’t like pain. Pain is not my friend. I fight pain. I try to kill it. Give me paracetamol and ibuprofen, and anything else I can throw at it, especially the strong, funky stuff.

I went to a massage therapist who asked me to sit with the pain and learn from it, as she was guiding me. Pain is an indicator, a signpost to many kinds of disfunction – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – that I am not paying attention to. Pain invites me to pay attention and learn from it. Killing it is useful only because you need to function – I didn’t take time off work – but that is not enough.

That is so counterintuitive. Sit with the pain? Learn from it? Pay attention to it? No, no, kill it! Give me the big guns, kill it dead! And if we can’t kill it, distract from it. Right?

Well… no. The therapist’s invitation reminded me of several sermons I preached about the cross – namely about the requirement to pick up our cross daily if we are to follow Jesus. There is something about being a disciple that requires a different approach to pain.

I noticed my first reactions to that pain. I was angry and upset. “Why is this happening to me?” Notice I said it’s happening TO me, not that I did anything to cause it. No responsibility there. I rebelled against it, got angry with it, wanted it gone. I turned my pain into suffering, and not the good kind. I think we do that a lot with necessary pain: We turn it into unnecessary suffering by bitching and moaning about it, and refusing to take any responsibility for it or learn from it.

As part of the therapy, I was invited to sit with the pain, to pay attention to my body, to what it’s saying to me, to regain control over my muscles. That requires presence, and in this case it was painful. But only when I accepted the pain and began to pay attention did it begin to subside; not immediately, but soon after. When I realised, after paying attention, that I was doing all sorts of things that caused that pain, the pain began to make sense. On top of that, our bodies are depositories of emotion. Often we have to work very hard at being present to figure out the source of unaddressed pain. (Physical pain doesn’t always have a physical cause.)

Then I realised that a good minister, a good preacher will invite people to do the same with the pain that comes in their lives. They will teach and invite people to listen to their pain, to pay attention, to not run away from it or distract themselves from it. It is not enough to say to someone in pain that Jesus loves them. People may demand spiritual pain killers, and a minister may have to administer some of those. But that is not enough. They also need to be taught and lead sensitively in learning from their pain. Is this what Jesus meant by ‘the way of the cross’? I think it is, in an existential sense. We made the cross to be about setting ourselves up for being killed or victimised, as if we are actually looking for pain as an indicator of spirituality. That’s masochism, and not spirituality.

Pain is my teacher. Pain is not my friend. I’m not looking for it. But when it comes to me, it comes for a reason, to tell me something. “Have a seat, pain, let’s have some tea…”