By The Rev. Donald Schell

Part two of two
After 40 years of asking people to try and reflect on new ways of practicing church, I’m still loving helping our gathered communities discover fresh ways to do this, to be church, to gather openly in Jesus’ presence inviting all in, but this visit to Scotland, seeing how my daughter is making her life without church community, sensing how common that is among her friends and colleagues, seeing Britain’s empty or repurposed churches (a bar, a warehouse, an urban club, subdivided into housing), I sense an inkling of a future of loss; so much that we love and hope to hold on to is dying.

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Of course we see a comparable secularity around my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle may have the highest proportion of “nones” in the country. Recently one of our San Francisco papers ran an extended story in the Style section on imaginative repurposing of unneeded church buildings. The article celebrated imagination that saved these “no longer needed” handsome buildings from demolition.

Here, on this visit to Iona, while I’m delighting in the integrity of this community’s hospitality and clarity of mission, as I’m loving praying twice daily in the Abbey chapel, I also feel a grieving. There are young people here in our gathering of 80 or so people, but they’re few. The faith of fellow pilgrims my age, the majority of our group are people in their 60s, touches me deeply. Hearing their stories, I hear depth and integrity and generosity. These are people who have taken holy risks. Their questions are alive. They’re here because the Spirit is still grounding them and still making them restless for more.

The Spirit is here and it’s my joy to be present to her. But even here I keep wondering whether our little fragment of North American and European Christians will find a grace to navigate the precipitous losses we’re experiencing. Will we re-find our integrity as communities and people following Jesus? It’s not a new question. Philip Newell (who with his wife Ali is leading this Iona gathering) tells us George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community — and a distinguished Church of Scotland minister — enjoyed asking people he’d just met, “Are you a Presbyterian or a Christian?” MacLeod wasn’t just offering a provocative jest, though he was known for his wicked sense of humor. He was asking a real question from his experience working with the poor of Glasgow, people already outside the margins of the church in the 1930s. Will you follow you Jesus? Do you know where he leads us?

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I wonder what Darwin’s friend Fitzroy would make of Philip Newell asking us to hand ’round a stone from an Iona beach that he informed us was 2.8 billion years old. The rock came to me last, after 80 of us had held it before. It felt warm from being passed from hand to hand, and knowing how old it was, it felt alive, as though it were speaking to us. Later I talked to a young, open, evangelical earth scientist who explained to me what told us that rock was that old and why we don’t find rocks older than that (though we know how much older the earth is). What would Darwin and Fitzroy make of her and me? Read More…


By The Rev. Donald Schell

The Rev. Donald Schell

The Rev. Donald Schell

Part one of two
Quite early this morning I boarded the train at Stonehaven (near Aberdeen), crossing Scotland east to west to Glasgow. In Glasgow I’ll catch another train to travel up the coast to Oban. From Oban, I’ll take the ferry to Mull, then board a bus for Fionnphort, where the day’s last ferry to Iona will be waiting for us. Tonight it will be dinner, prayers, and sleep in Iona Abbey.

I hope to hear and feel something of how George MacLeod’s creation-centered, Christian humanist vision of community and service claimed and rebuilt the ruined abbey church as a place of renewal for his work with Scotland’s urban poor, a place where he could continue to explore Celtic creation-centered spiritual traditions going back even beyond the great, maligned teacher Pelagius, because, as MacLeod liked to say, “Matter matters.” And I hope to feel and hear how the community and rebuilding the Abbey changed George MacLeod.

I first hoped to visit Iona in 1971. Today my half-remembered reasons that visit did not happen, and whatever else kept Iona on my “someday” wish list so long fly like dry leaves before the train’s forward rush.

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I’ve just completed a good visit with my older daughter. Visiting her was the other reason I made this trip to Scotland. Since she came to Britain to do her graduate work, I haven’t seen nearly enough of her. Nearly two decades have passed, she finished her doctorate, did an exciting post-doctoral fellowship, got a good university appointment, and now an extraordinary new appointment. She’s nearing mid-career and has accomplished big things. Yes, this is her dad speaking, but it’s all true. Meanwhile though, I notice that my fullest acknowledgment of this adult woman’s accomplishment pushes me to noticing my own impending transition – moving life and work and vocation through retirement to whatever lies beyond. Seeing her confident performance center stage fills me with joy – she belongs there! But, to stick with the acting imagery, I also feel like someone who once played Hamlet and who now is cast as Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The good path of life inevitably leads to grief, loss and death. The commonplace truths we’ve heard lifelong begin to mark real boundaries. Read More…


Dear friends,ATT_VerticalLogo

The call for reform is double-edged: It contains a critique and an affirmation. The call wears the mantle of hope and optimism and it wears the mantle of change — hope and optimism for the future and change of the status quo. At the Threshold never wants to lose sight of both confidence and change. From moment to moment what is to be said will focus on one instead of the other, but everything said is part of the dynamic between the two mantles. It is, if you will, dialectical, always within the context of driving deeper into hope and change, change and hope.

For the next few weeks, At the Threshold will focus on what may be termed “Easter thinking,” that is, on the way resurrection can only come out of the difficulties and struggle that produce and even require death. Read More…


By the Rev. Donald Schell

The Rev. Donald Schell

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year. Our San Francisco hilltop is untypically quiet. Guests may sleep in, but my wife and I begin cooking early and we enjoy sharing the work, as much a part of the day as the feast that will follow. Time seems to slow. Or is it expanding? Simple tasks like peeling roasted chestnuts for stuffing or chopping onions (with the inevitable tears) take our whole attention. A few at a time, family and guests appear, some coming early to complete preparations of a salad, vegetable or dessert in our kitchen. The old silver candlesticks and cranberry sauce dish are all shined up. We set every place at the table (and sometimes an extra table too) with good China, crystal, candles, flowers, or a centerpiece someone has made as their ofrenda.

More often than not Thanksgiving dawns cold and clear. Late autumn light caresses our cooking and feasting. After “dinner” at our special Thanksgiving mid-afternoon hour, some will stretch out for a nap and others go for a walk and conversation. The house has been alive in a festival way, but now indoors is quiet in this pause. Outdoors, we’ll see more people strolling than usual. Our walk will let us glimpse near empty freeways down the hill from us, and to the east a handful of sailboats out on the San Francisco Bay. Read More…