People of God at St. Stephen,

Disappointment can be our finest teacher, and surprise our best friend.  This was true of my time with Sara in the Iona Community in Scotland.

Their reputation for good and innovative worship drew me there.  Just open a red worship book to the index on page 1,189, and you’ll see five songs from pastor and musician John L. Bell.  A leader in the Iona Community, John Bell travels the world collecting and sharing music and teaching his distinctive method of encouraging congregational song.  Having heard his fresh and simple melodies with poetic but down-to-earth words, our expectations for worship soared.

But we were sorely disappointed.  We worshiped each morning and evening, with anywhere from 50 to 250 other visitors, many who came only for the day.  Many of the hymns we sang were lovely, like this one, which we sang as both an acclamation and response to the scripture reading:

Listen to the word which God has spoken, / listen to the One who is close at hand, / listen to the voice which began creation, / listen even if you don’t understand.[1]

Many of the prayers prayed and words spoken were moving, like this opening response at our first Iona worship service:

Creator of the world, eternal God, we have come from many places for a little while.

Redeemer of humanity, God-with-us, we have come with all our differences, seeking common ground.

Spirit of unity, go-between God, we have come on journeys of our own, to a place where journeys meet.

So here, in this shelter house, let us take time together.  For when paths cross and pilgrims gather, there is much to share and celebrate in your name, three-in-one God, pattern of community.  Amen.[2]

But the liturgy itself fell short of our expectations.  “Liturgy” comes from the Greek for “work of the people,” and it is that.  In English, it also refers to the order or agenda for worship: how it starts and ends and moves in between.  Good liturgy isn’t about music in a style I prefer or about a charismatic pastor.  Good liturgy is liturgy that works, that flows, that indeed carries us ever deeper into the mercy of Jesus and sends us back into the world Jesus loves.

Worship at the Iona Community was missing that flow.  Elements intentionally out of order left worshippers uncertain whether to stay or leave.  Night prayer’s elaborate confession and forgiveness prayed in the morning felt out of place when the day’s sins were still ahead.  An ancient logic, a human and holy logic, is at the core of the liturgy, and “creativity” inattentive to this logic is not wrong.  It simply doesn’t work, and we the people can’t work with it.

This disappointment taught me what a gift we have to offer: good liturgy.  Not lectures or meetings or shows, but worship done well.  It can be accompanied by organ, piano, or guitar; it can be spoken or sung, elaborate or spare, festive or somber.  Familiar with many kinds of worship, we are, above all, well experienced with worship that works and that we work together.

But even while the Iona Community’s worship disappointed us, the community of pilgrims who gathered surprised and amazed us.  Sara and I stayed in the MacLeod Center with about 60 people.  (About 60 others stayed in the Abbey, but we didn’t see much of them.)  In MacLeod alone we came from Scotland, England, Germany, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, and the U.S.  We were together but a little while, with all our differences, but God made us into true community.

Not many times have I sat with near-strangers and had conversation that simply sang.  But at Iona, I did.  Everyone arrived expecting community, setting out straight away to build it.  We talked—a Dutch priest-in-training, a Californian pastor, an English university student, and me—for hours: deep, meaningful conversation in which we felt powerfully God with us.  I expect to be in touch with these fellow pilgrims for a long time.

This surprise taught me many things.  First, God always asks more of me than I am prepared to give.  But, second, the gift God gives is never the place and its comforts but the people. And, third, miracles happen when, in hopeful anticipation and in Jesus’ name, we open ourselves to give and receive love.

Thank you for the gift of this time in Iona.  You gave the time away and a portion of the money.  On Sunday, October 24, I’ll show photos and talk about my time there.  Mark your calendar.

And remember: Jesus has made most rewarding the simple journeys we take toward one another.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith


[1] Canadian original, adapted, from Church Hymnary, 4th ed., Canterbury Press: 2006; #780.

[2] From “A Service of Welcome,” in Iona Abbey Worship Book, Wild Goose Publications: 2001; page 57.

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