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Reaching A New Shore: Reflections From Iona
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RENEWAL LEAVE UPDATE #11

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The St. Columba window in St. Margaret’s

Chapel at Edinburgh Castle

In the year 563AD, an Irish monk named Columba set out in a wicker boat covered with leather across the treacherous Irish Sea in search of a new place to establish a Christian community. Columba’s reasons for leaving Ireland appear murky through the lens of history, but the general legend has it that he left (or was kicked out) of Ireland after a dispute over some psalm texts that he copied from another monk—a dispute that led to a war in which Columba backed the wrong side, leaving him to bear some of the responsibility for the resulting deaths. There are other versions of the story that suggest that Columba left Ireland of his own accord to simply go on a pilgrimage and mission to the Picts, but the more salacious versions of the story capture the imagination. 

 

The legend is that Columba focused on setting up his new monastic community on the first patch of land to which he came that provided no views of Ireland. After a couple of landings on small islands in which he could still see his homeland and remember his disgrace, Columba landed on the Isle of Iona in the outer Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. From this little island—just three miles long and a mile and a half wide—the disgraced (or at least misunderstood) monk began a new movement that would launch the spread of Christianity into Scotland, much like Patrick had done for Ireland a little more than a century earlier. 

 

The 12th century Abbey on the Isle of Iona.

We landed on the shore of Iona this past Sunday on a ferry which dropped a ramp on to the dock more like a D-Day landing craft than a wicker boat. It was my second time here, the first being a three-day visit in 2006. I was so impacted by that visit that I vowed to come back and stay longer, this time bringing Jennifer with me. An old Gaelic saying says that if you go to Iona you will visit not once but three times. I thus have at least one more visit to go which I would enthusiastically make.

 

Iona is widely known in much of Celtic Christendom as a “thin place”—a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is quite thin and porous. I have always experienced that here, walking the island’s hills and open spaces, strolling its beaches, and worshipping in the restored 12th century Benedictine Abbey that eventually replaced Columba’s monastery. The Abbey is now administered by the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian movement focused on ministries of justice and peace. They hold services there twice a day, and that daily rhythm of prayer echoing off the stone walls and in the cloisters feeds my soul in powerful ways. 

 

Jennifer and I were both pretty tired after our long hike on the West Highland Way, so the island became for us a place of hospitality and rest. Her feet were really bothering her after the walk (she did the last 26 miles in extreme pain but refused to quit) so she took it easy on our first day. Despite my own sore feet, I decided to take advantage of the good weather and hike to a part of the island I didn’t get to on my first trip—Columba’s Bay, where legend says the Saint first landed. On my first trip here I started to hike out that way but had to return after getting caught in the kind of rain storm that can only happen in Scotland—the kind where the rain goes horizontal. I was totally unprepared for it then with little rain gear and got soaked to the bone while fearing the prospect of getting sucked into a peat bog and never being seen again. This time I had a full set of rain gear including waterproof hiking shoes and gaiters tucked in my daypack and, of course, the weather was gorgeous.

 

Sheep on the Machair.

They let me play through.

The hike back toward Columba’s Bay takes you across a large grassy area called the Machair where your only companions are sheep and cows grazing. There’s actually a golf course out there, too, which I played later in the week. You have to share the space with the sheep, which means that “chipping” has a very different connotation out there. The gallery following my game could only bleat and their evaluation of my game was, “B-a-a-a-a-a-d.” 

 

Crossing the Machair you climb over a series of small rocky hills until you see Saint Columba’s Bay spread before you. It’s a remote spot on a small island and you can imagine places where Columba might have climbed up to get a look to the west to see if he could spot his homeland. I climbed up on one of those rocky hillocks to sit and do some looking of my own. 

Overlooking Columba’s Bay, Isle of Iona

I imagined how Columba must have felt at that moment—far from home, a questionable past dogging him, but with the prospect of a new start in a new place. That rocky beach was a real place of transition for him, a kind of crossing of a spiritual Rubicon. He couldn’t go back to his old life (though he would visit Ireland again from time to time), but spread before him was an open slate of possibility on this beautiful and yet foreboding piece of land. It was a new shore and a new season of life and ministry. He took full advantage of the opportunity, and an entire people would not be the same. 

 

Sitting there on that rocky hillock with the waves crashing around me, I thought of the parallels to Columba’s story I’ve been experiencing in this renewal leave. This time of travel and reflection has felt a lot like journeying spiritually from one place to another, leaving behind an old way of being and doing and landing on a new shore with all kinds of possibilities. Taking out my journal, I jotted down just a few of those shifts and transitions that I feel like I’ve been making internally: 

 

1. The shift from leading an organization full of people to leading people who are part of an organization. A successful long-term pastorate is not about creating a more efficient and effective organization, but about building up people in Christian character and making space for God to work. Since my Army days I’ve been pretty good at focusing on tasks and getting things done; now I am feeling the call to lean more deeply into developing people, especially those who will carry on a legacy of ministry long after I’m gone. As David Rohrer says in his book The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, the best pastors do not “direct the steps of people’s paths but entrust them to the God who will guide them in the way of peace.” It’s the difference between leading and shepherding, and it’s no coincidence that the Bible talks a lot more about the latter than the former. 

 

2. The shift from doing what is expedient to doing what is meaningful. Much of what happens in ministry is designed for expedience. Worship must be completed in an hour; meetings must get things done; programs must be planned because we have always done them. We’re always watching the clock and trying to figure out the best way to move things along. But one of the things I’ve noticed in spending some time in Scripture and away from the tyranny of the clock is that real meaning is often found in the unplanned spaces. In the prayer services on Iona, for example, the readings are slower, the pace more spacious, the prayers more thoughtful. I found myself adapting to that rhythm and, as a result, I became much more in tune with God’s voice. I want to explore ways to make our worship, our meetings, and our gatherings more meaningful rather than simply grinding out the schedule from week to week. That will take more time for planning and prayer, but I believe it will be time well spent. One way I’ve thought about this is looking at our weekly worship services as a launching point for our people to have their own daily prayer rhythm during the week, reflecting on what we have experienced together on Sunday in the power of the Holy Spirit. I imagine something like a redesigned bulletin that can be taken home and used during the week to guide one’s devotional life and prayers, with sermon notes, readings, and sample prayers to help along the way. I imagine my role in meetings being more of a spiritual leader, calling us to focus on God’s presence in any task we’re trying to accomplish, rather than acting like a corporate CEO directing business. I imagine spending my weeks more focused on listening into the lives of people than checking off a to-do list. These are just a few of the things I’ve been imagining as I feel God calling me to a deeper level of ministry. 

 

3. The shift from carrying the load to sharing it. I touched on this briefly in my last post, but I am realizing more and more that I have long been driven by the old Army adage that a leader is responsible for everything the organization does or fails to do. I still believe that to a degree, but I also know that good leadership breeds a shared ownership and vision for the work. One of the reasons I have often felt tired in ministry is because I have failed to ask for help when needed. In doing so, I have often stunted new growth and the development of new leaders. We have an excellent staff team and gifted and highly competent lay leaders at TLUMC, and I want to (and need to) do a better job of investing in them and their success. The best role of a pastor is to be an equipper of ministry in the lives of those who have the best capacity to reach the people within their sphere of influence with the gospel. Columba was successful because he trained up a cadre of missional leaders who launched from that tiny island into the world. I believe that TLUMC can be a similar kind of island for changing the world around us, rekindling the fire of a new kind of Methodist movement. To do that will require me to become more of a coach than a decision-maker, more of a spiritual leader than a corporate one. 

 

These are just a few of the shifts I’ve been thinking about. We’ve come a long way together in the last eight years and I can’t express enough my excitement about returning to TLUMC and seeing where God will lead us. Wherever that might be, it begins with landing on a new shore together.

 

As I sat on that rocky outcrop on Columba’s Bay, I noticed that previous visitors had taken some of the smooth stones from the beach and outlined shapes with them on the grass. There are labyrinths and crosses, and other symbols that meant something to the pilgrims who put them there. I decided to add my own symbol to the others. I arranged some stones into the shape of an arrow pointing inland off the beach. It symbolizes to me the idea that Columba must of had when he first walked up that stretch of land in his new home—it’s about moving forward. 

 

That night in worship at the Abbey, we sang a chorus from a Mexican hymn that was certainly a God thing that only he could have planned. It seemed like a message from God directly to me: 

 

O Lord, with your eyes set upon me,

Gently smiling, you have spoken my name.

All I longed for, I have found by the water;

At your side I will seek other shores. 

May we seek those new shores together! 



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