Encounters with the Unexpected

From August through October I’ve been away from writing. A brief sabbatical.  In September Jane and I journeyed for the month around the UK and Ireland then I travelled to Korea. Jane and I ambled about London returned to old haunts (a favourite book store, the best cider bar, a speciality store for a new diary and journal), saw a play and connected with friends. In Belfast we enjoyed the hospitality of Heather Morris’s home. Heather provides strong leadership to the Methodist church in Ireland. We drove up to the Giant’s Causeway beguiled by the Irish story about giants who shaped the land long ago. A quiet train ride took us to Dunlin to reconnect with a good friend, Julian Hamilton. Jools is the Methodist Chaplain at Trinity College where we stayed and I had the privilege of giving a lecture and meeting some wonderful people through the Loyola Institute. We then headed off to Edinburgh. Visiting castles in the Highlands was fun but the best moments where reconnecting with Mark and Carolyn Johnson on sabbatical from Knox Center in New Zealand. We met their daughter, Kelsey who opened our eyes to ways the Spirit is bubbling in the city. From Edinburgh we drove through the breath-taking low countries, from where my family hailed generations ago, to spend several days in the Lake District, hiking and meeting up with a group of Canadians in an Italian restaurant – a serendipitous moment as people from Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and London found each other at adjacent tables in a small room. We then travelled to the Cotswolds for a week of hiking. At the end of September we travelled home and I headed to South Korea to work with leaders wanting to figure out the missional shape of their churches.

In all these travels the significant moments weren’t in the site-seeing or even the fine food (the unexpected Michelin restaurant) but the unplanned encounters with people. In Edinburgh we walked the “Royal Mile”. True confession – I was appalled by the crowded mass of moving humanity pouring into “Scottish” woollen shops to buy genuine items made China (it isn’t lost on me that I was one of the tourists). I wanted to get out of Dodge as quickly as I could. I was shaken by an unexpected parade of the “Orange Circle” a version of the Orange Lodge with its stern, angry, para-military-like groups parading down the Royal Mile to the banging of virulent drums, pipes and brass. They aroused in me memories of a young boy on the streets of Liverpool as the Orange Lodge marched by. Whenever that happened I knew I needed to get off the street because a pitched fight was not far off. After all these years I was suddenly face-to-face with this old, nationalist anger.

The blessed unexpected also came in Edinburgh through the hospitality of Mark, Carolyn and Kelsey. Around their table we were transformed from sightseers to table guests receiving hospitality and discovering a completely other side of Edinburgh. Our quickly made conclusions were transformed in conversation. We heard unexpected stories of how the Spirit is shaping Christian life in a local Baptist congregation that chose to re-locate into their neighbourhood. We didn’t hear strategies on how the church was going to get “hospitable” but something different. We heard about how people were connecting with and receiving the creativity and the craft skills of others in the neighbourhood. Around a meal we received the gift of hearing the Sprit’s ferment in the local.

Korea kept me busy from morning to night. I’ve grown to love people who are now friends in Korea. The church there is dealing with a lot of anxiety about its future as the country moves through massive culture change. Leaders wonder if the NA “missional” conversation can help. I’m clear that “missional” has had its day in NA, that its not a word I tend to use. That said, the NA “missional” conversation has got into the blood stream of Korean churches. Leaders want to talk about it. We’re working with some learning communities of pastors as well as cell teams around practices of “joining God” in their neighborhoods. As in Edinburgh, I was struck by the unexpected ways the Spirit is fermenting a desire among both lay and clergy to “join with God” in their neighbourhoods. In the eagerness of cell members to connect in their neighbourhoods I saw again the bottom up ways the Spirit works.

I was reminded of Michel de Certeau’s observation that culture change is not about the strategies of leaders (adaptive, innovative, agile, missional, neighbourhood and so on) but the everyday tactics of regular people working things out on the ground. I thought about all this on the flight home. I wondered what might happen if clergy laid down their strategies and became open to the unexpected ferment of the Spirit among their people?