Several years ago a presbytery invited me to spend the last half of a leadership training day to introduce a leadership development process that I was thinking about but had not used. The invitation was open ended. I had been thinking about the subject of this book—connecting church stories to the seasons of the church year—but had not written about the idea nor presented it to any groups. Now I had an invitation to experiment and to see how a group might respond. The environment would be safe and the participants willing. The presbytery leaders who had invited me supported my proposal.
I divided the fifty participants into groups of four people and gave each group an assignment. They were to number off one through four based on the order of their birthdates. Then I gave the groups their assignment along these lines:
Number four, you are to tell the story of a significant event in your congregation, preferably within the past year. The rest of you are to listen but with ears tuned to particular messages. Number one, you are to put on the ears of the Christmas triad. Listen closely to the letting go of Advent, for signs of the presence of a loving and giving God in Christmas, and look for the light of boundary crossing in Epiphany. Number two, you are to put on the ears of the Easter triad. Listen for letting go in the tensions and difficulties of Lent, the grace and living presence of Jesus, and signs of taking hold to proclaim life-giving news in Eastertide. Number three, you are to put on the ears of the Pentecost triad. Listen for practices of centered prayer, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and for bold and gifted enthusiasts working together to grow the kingdom of God through the church.
When the story is finished, you who listened within the number one, two, and three roles can share what resonates for you. Together, try to select the most dominant seasonal application for this particular story. Does it lie within the Christmas cycle, the Easter cycle, or the Pentecost cycle? Come to consensus if you can. If you cannot come to consensus, then let the original storyteller, number four, make the selection based on your discussion. When you have finished telling one story and agreed upon its location in the church year, move the numbers around and repeat the process until all four participants have played out all four of the roles.
I observed the groups’ work with a great deal of interest. Most of the groups were able to connect all four of their stories to particular seasons in the church year and name the dominant expressions of God’s presence. But then something interesting and confusing happened. The more they reflected, the more intertwined their conclusions became. They saw aspects of all of the seasons coming together in a particular story. What originally seemed like a neat way to sort out the story became complicated, blended, and more confusing. The longer they talked, the more they felt that they had failed the assignment, had not understood it, or were not smart enough to sort it out within a neat rational framework.
At first I reacted with the same confusion, until together we realized that we had been drawn into mystery, into the very nature of a triune God and the heart of the story of the church. When we look at the Trinity we see separate and distinct “persons,” but they always point to one another rather than draw attention to themselves. The Father, Abba, points to Jesus and the Spirit. Consider the transfiguration of Jesus, where the Father says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). And the dove of the Spirit descended to rest on Jesus as well. In a pre-Christian setting, God points to the Spirit by saying through the prophet Joel that in the last days God’s spirit would be poured upon all flesh.
Jesus points to the Almighty One and tells parables to illustrate that God is like a loving Father, calling him “Abba.” He prays to his Father in heaven. And he promises that the Spirit will come as a comforter who will baptize with fire. This same Spirit will continue to remind believers of all that Jesus had taught them.
The Spirit points to the Father by illuminating Scripture. The Spirit functions as divine spectacles through which we more clearly see the truth of the Word of God. And the Spirit points to Jesus at the table where bread is broken and wine poured out.
Each pointing to the other would ultimately be confusing if it were not for the relationship among the three. The loving and trusting relationship creates a wholeness and unity that defies reason but projects a picture of God. When we refer to one person of the Godhead, we really are speaking of all three. In their relationship, we see love perfectly expressed in giving, serving while yielding, and empowering while enthusing. When looking at the three members in the Trinity, we see the mystery expressed in a complete package of relationships.
Just as the persons of the Trinity point to each other in loving relationship, so do the stories of particular church seasons. A story that seems to be dominated by one season is drawn into relationship with other seasonal stories. When that happens, we might consider moving it into a new space in the seasonal motif. When we root our stories in Trinitarian spirituality, we cannot allow those stories to be set in concrete but will allow those stories to be nudged and reframed for a new day and season.
This article is adapted and excerpted from The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories by Charles M. Olsen, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories
by Charles M. Olsen
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry .
Practicing Balance: How Congregations Can Help Support Harmony in Work and Life
by David Edman Gray
Work-life imbalance is a problem that has personal, national, and religious implications. Millions of Americans sense that they are rushing through life and that their work and non-work lives compete with one another. Many of us are harming our health through overwork. David Gray’s Practicing Balance demonstrates why congregational leaders should take work-life imbalance seriously.
Gifts of An Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend
This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation .
Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christiam Communities
by Cassandra D. Carkuff-Williams
In Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future .
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