Saturday, July 7, 2012

Its a Long Way To Iona

I'm a bit sad today because my children and grandchildren are moving to Ireland.

Trish and I have another daughter and granddaughter in Phoenix. When we visit them a couple times a year, it is always difficult to say goodbye again. The years have not lessened the pain of separation. Now, to think of day-to-day life without any of my grandchildren around, has upped the ante.

I know: this is how modern lifeworks. This is how millions of Americans experience family.

It’s still difficult.

My son-in-law is enrolled at the university in Galway. He will do graduate studies there in classical languages as he keeps preparing himself to serve in ministry. As a fellow language nerd, I am happy for him. Besides, I want my children to carry out their call to ministry in ways that will not force them to work at a church. The times have changed what many congregations expect from their pastors, and this makes marriage and family difficult for church workers.

I don’t mean that I never want my children to work for a church; only that I don’t want that to be their only option. I want them to have the dignity of knowing that they have freely chosen their line of work. I don’t want them to be imprisoned by it. I want them to minister to others out of a healthy sense of dignity.

Nonetheless, they are moving. I don’t know if we will be able to live close to one another ever again. I have my palce of work, here in Nashville. My family is somewhere else. I realize that the Roman Catholic requirement of celibacy doesn’t make sense – biblically, morally or practically. But I also know that church work places a considerable strain on marriage and family life. At least, if the statistics are reliable, this is the experience of a huge percentage of church workers. Most of us believe that leading churches creates challenging family situations.

I am called to do church work. I carry that call within my heart every day. I doubt that in my entire life I have missed more than ten Sunday services. I certainly do not regret following this call. But my wife and family have often carried the weight of this work as much, and perhaps more, that I. It makes the medieval Catholic decision to forgo trying to care for both a family and a church understandable, at least at some level.

As a young man, I fell in love with the church; as deeply in love as any man ever felt for a woman. I saw in the ordinary congregation a germ of greatness. It could transfigure people, if they truly believed. And, I saw many evidences of that hope. People stumbled into our doors weary and broken. Some of them found healing. They discovered some passion for service that seriously altered their lives and the lives of others.

I also caught a glimpse of that transcendent glory in the universal Bride of Christ; a global body that transcended time and space. I saw it in contemporary stories of transformation and grace, to be sure. But I really saw it in history. And, for me, no place or time epitomized that glory better than the Island of Iona. Some of my ancestors lived on that Island, but I didn’t know that back then. It was something else that caught my attention.

In 563, St. Columba founded a mission there. He and his spiritual descendents evangelized the western islands of Scotland and finally the mainland itself from these. Columba was seeking forgiveness for a few things in his past. However, part of his past was the Celtic Church of Ireland, where Patrick, arguably the greatest apostle since Paul, had converted pagan Druids into Christian saints and scholars.

When I first read about the crazy, God intoxicated Irish of those centuries, my heart beat like an adolescent who has just seen, really seen, for the first time in his life, a beautiful woman. I wanted whatever it was that calling me from that ancient place.

It’s probably a kind of madness. It is certainly impractical. The real Island of Iona is nothing more than a small Island. But it is not really Iona itself, it is Iona as an icon that works magic on my heart.

All these years, I have been walking toward that image. I have tried to ignore all the squabbles about worship music, church and national politics, what pastors should wear when they preach, and tons of other real issues that are the actual experiences of church life. Some people think I am hopelessly idealistic. But I can’t help it. When I think about the church, my eyes are on something beyond what is and fix themselves on what ought to be and actually can be.

A person once told me that the way to avoid getting disillusioned is to avoid illusions in the first place. But is that what Iona is; an illusion? Are there really thin places in the world, where the distance between earth and heaven is less; where one can taste of the powers of the world to come? Is that really a fantasy?

I heard an Irish priest once warn Christians about the dangers of making places into idols. Our hearts are the holy places where God dwells, he said. Our churches are the thin places. Worship, anywhere at any time is how we travel to the thin place.

He was right. And yet, we seem to need symbols, even exaggerated ones, to remind us that our churches really can be that if we can rise above the stuff that seems to sap our joy and batter our hearts. That priest, after all, talked about how he had once experienced God praying where Patrick had preached.

Well, I for one must have my visions. If I lose them, I will not care much about what other people call practical reality.

If church is about how much money is coming in, or how many people show up each Sunday, or whether the right people are joining it, or whether it is relevant, or whether the décor is up to par, or whether the pastor dresses correctly – or any of this other kind of practical stuff – what, really, pray tell, is the point of keeping it going? Who cares to come to a church where there is nothing from the beyond to touch?

If, however, there is an Iona behind all of this; if church can be a place of transcendent glory in which the poor are comforted, the weary find strength, the brokenhearted are healed; if the church can be the place where lost people meet the risen Christ – then any burden we bear is worth the cost of maintaining the thin place that makes all of this available.

So, I’m a bit sad today. I can’t bring myself to think about putting my children on the plane. I had hoped, really hoped, they would be around me as I got older; that they would working together with me in this church I serve. Evidently this is not to be. But they are doing the right thing nonetheless. They are following the dream that breaks our hearts but which nonetheless makes life worth living.

They are headed for Iona. My heart goes with them.

If you would like to know more about their mission as they study and afterward, please drop me a note.
We all have an Iona.  Pursuing it is what makes life work. And what makes life hurt.

It’s a long way to Iona

And the sea may grow wild and cold

The waves may rock and your ship may roll

Before you reach the shores of home.

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