Shift Happens

Robert K. Tschannen-Moran

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

April 21, 2002

Prayer: Good Shepherd, we come again to this time of speaking and listening for your word. We seek to know you and to be known by you. Shepherd us back into the fold of your grace. Amen.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here this morning. It is both a blessing and an honor to stand in this pulpit again, on Choirs Appreciation Sunday, in this the 150th anniversary year of a great church. You have much to celebrate and remember. Hopefully the return of your senior ministers from the past forty-two years is making a positive contribution to the process.

Our sermons certainly serve as a window to history. From Chal's neo-orthodox interpretation of the Exodus event, to Dale's evangelical affirmation of the church's rough-cut goodness, to my iconoclastic, in-your-face, what's-he-up-to-now sermon title, one can almost capture the drift of what's happened here during the past four decades - whether you've been attending all that time or just for the past two weeks.

I, for one, am glad that it's Tim, next week, who has to answer the question, "What Then Do We Say to ALL This?" I'm also glad that Tim had the confidence and the courage to invite us all back. That's no small leap of faith, particularly when it comes to me. Everyone knows that the two worst pastors in the world are the ones that come immediately before and after you. This, at least in theory, makes my presence here the most problematic of all.

It no doubt helps that Tim and I knew each other and were friends before he accepted your call. Tim's openness to sharing this pulpit with his predecessors demonstrates a largeness of spirit that will serve you well in the years ahead. I hope you appreciate what's happening here and what this month represents. You've truly been given a gift to have this man as your pastor.

When I took on that mantle in 1993, almost nine years ago, if anyone had told me that I would leave this town in 2002 as the Founder & CEO of LifeTrek coaching I would have been most surprised. For one thing, I had never heard of coaching - apart from athletics - and would not have had a clue as to what they were talking about. For another thing, I was confident back in 1993 that my calling as your Senior Minister would take me well into the new millennium.

But, as I say in my sermon title, shift happens. Sometimes we're the proactive drivers of shift; other times we're the reactive passengers. But either way, the results are often the same: we end up in a very different place than where we started. And it doesn't always look pretty or feel good.

That was the place many of us were at when the shift happened in 1998 that led to and resulted from my sudden departure. More than once I heard mention of "shift" without the "f." It was a difficult time, as most of you will remember, regardless of your point of view.

Unfortunately, that's how shift often happens - with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It's often messy, confusing, and chaotic. A few weeks ago I was on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where I had the opportunity to visit the ancient city of Paphos. There I saw and took a picture of St. Paul's Pillar - the stone that St. Paul was allegedly tied to while being flogged. That flogging resulted in the first recorded conversion of a Roman governor, thereby setting a precedent as to the lengths ministers will go to make shift happen for the sake of the gospel.

Given that shift happens frequently over the course of a lifetime, and given that it usually doesn't feel very good, it behooves us to find a basis for rapprochement with shift. That is certainly all the rage in business today, as leaders come to appreciate "who moved their cheese" (to borrow a book title). It is also the prime directive in the church, in every generation, as we seek to honor both the contemporary movement of God's Spirit and our 2,000 year-old tradition.

Fortunately, as difficult as it may be, the church of Jesus Christ has great resources for coming to terms with shift. Our theological framework, in particular, invites us to believe that shift never happens aimlessly and that it may even be the very sign of God with us. Life without shift is death. Life with shift is the abundant life Jesus' promised to deliver.

That, as it turns out, is also a core concept in the coaching toolbox. Indeed, coaches sometimes refer to the shifting life as the perfect life. No matter what or how shift happens - whether proactively or reactively - coaches believe and work with their clients as though shift happens perfectly.

This does not mean that shift always happens without mistake, injury, or injustice. These too are part of life and they can infect the momentum of shift as well as the inertia of the status quo. Progress is not inevitable. Believing that shift happens perfectly does not mean that we can abdicate our responsibility to make a faithful, social witness. On the contrary, it means we can do so with great boldness and conviction.

That has certainly been a tradition here at First Church for the past 150 years. It is, in fact, the legacy of Washington Gladden that would have you include and embrace homosexual Christians as full partners in the life of this church or that would have you join an organization like BREAD. Tomorrow night's Action Meeting on Healthcare Justice at Veteran's Memorial Hall, with a strong delegation from First Church, is just one more instance of how you make shift happen for the common good in Columbus. I hope that as many of you as can be present for that meeting, will be present.

But even when shift happens for ill, coaches believe that shift happens perfectly. It may not be pleasant or desired, but it does happen for a reason and with perfect timing. When the student is ready, to borrow a phrase, the shift happens. Regardless of how it leaves us feeling, shift can be received as the gift of God for the people of God. It can be embraced as the sometimes harsh and dreadful but always beneficent way of Spirit in the world.

This understanding of shift is what led the apostle Paul to write that he had learned how to be content in every circumstance and confident in every change (Philippians 4:11f). It is also what prompted him to compose his now famous and always comforting affirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord - nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable (Romans 8:38f).

Coaches do not, of course, always use such explicitly biblical language to interpret their notion of how shift happens perfectly. But it is not far from the mark to understand perfect shift in terms of divine providence. Shift happens for a reason and with perfect timing because God is active and alive in the world today. God didn't just make the world, so long ago, only to leave it alone. God infused the world with a Holy Spirit that exercises influence even through the worst of times.

This truth comes home to me over and over again as I coach people, all around the world, to achieve their personal and professional best. Shift cracks open the door to wisdom, truth, justice, and love. People often come to coaching in the midst of a full-blown shift that they neither understand nor appreciate. Through the coaching conversation and a different way of being in the world, these same people - often more quickly and easily than they ever imagined possible - open wide the door and go on through to both success and fulfillment in life.

I know coaching works. It was a First Church member who coached my wife and me to open wide that door in 1998, upon our departure from this community. Later that same year, it was another First Church member who coached me to take up the coaching profession as my calling. Coaching has enabled me and my family to take what appeared to be a damaging blow to both ourselves personally and to this church and turn it into a tremendous blessing.

That's how shift happens, if we can see and follow the movement of God's Spirit which threads its way through every shift. Once we absorb the initial impact, we can either spiral down in despondency and despair or we can spiral up in ascendancy and hope. Those choices are always available to us - even in the face of unspeakable world events. No shift happens apart from the tender mercies of God. Whether it is personal or professional, individual or organizational, ecclesiastical or political, military or civilian, all shift happens under the watchful eye and careful shepherding of God.

So I ask for your indulgence as I make a shift that at times I wanted to make but never actually made while I served as your senior minister. I want to step down from this "high and exalted pulpit," as Dale described it last week, and finish this sermon on the chancel steps and in the transept. Not because there's anything wrong with using the pulpit, but because I want to stand with you, in your midst, as the most appropriate place from which I can address God's word today.

I say most appropriate because my moving from the pulpit to the pew graphically presents the shift that happened in the wake of my departure from First Church. Most Sundays I now sit where you sit. This shift has given me new perspective on the preaching life as well as new freedom in my own life. Although I decried and lamented the shift at the time, I now celebrate its having happened.

One reason I celebrate my shift to the pew and to coaching is because it has introduced me to the person and poetry of David Whyte, an English-born poet who uses poetry to coach corporate America into new ways of working together. When David recites poetry, often in very secular contexts, I am touched.

In the mid 1990s, the Boeing Corporation commissioned David to write a poem marking the introduction of their new 777 passenger jet. It speaks to the mystery of shift.

We shape our self to fit this world
and by the world are shaped again.

The visible and the invisible
working together in common cause,
to produce the miraculous.
I am thinking of the way the intangible air
passed at speed round a shaped wing
easily holds our weight.

So may we, in this life trust
to those elements we have yet to see or imagine,
and look for the true shape of our own self,
by forming it well
to the great intangibles about us.

This poem does much to enhance our understanding of how and why shift happens. Like dance partners who hand off the lead, we and the world shift positions - back and forth - until we find ourselves made over into the very image and likeness of God. Visible and invisible. Tangible and intangible. Evident and imaginary. Ordinary and extraordinary. "Working together in common cause to produce the miraculous - the true shape of our own self."

That, it seems to me, is what shift - and life - is all about. Discovering the true shape of our own self. A discovery that's nothing short of miraculous, as often as it happens over the course of a life time.

It certainly happened many times to the David of scripture. Chances are none of you will remember that when I left this church in February of 1998 I was in the midst of a sermon series on the life of David. We were exploring the connections between the life of David and the life of Jesus. Because of the timing of my departure, we never had the chance to make the connection we can now make this morning: when shift happened, both David and Jesus put on the mantle of shepherd.

In today's first lesson, when the northern tribes of Israel decided to shift David into the position of King, David shifted the position of the capital, from Hebron to Jerusalem, in order to rule from a more central location in the midst of his people. In doing so, 2 Samuel 5:10 tells us that David became "greater and greater." Eugene Peterson observes that in Hebrew this phrase can also mean that from the moment the shift happened David proceeded "with a longer stride and a larger embrace."

Isn't that just like a shepherd? To take "a longer stride" for and "a larger embrace" of the flock. I love that turn of phrase not only for David as a shepherd but for each of us, whenever shift happens such that we discover the true shape of our own self. We come into new maturity and experience life as never before.

This theme of the Good Shepherd comes to fruition for Christians in the life of Jesus, as he shifts position not from Hebron to Jerusalem but from Jerusalem to Heaven. Talk about shifting position to a more central location! Talk about taking "a longer stride and a larger embrace!" When Jesus shifts from the cross of Good Friday to the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, Jesus becomes a shepherd for all people. In heaven he discovers the true shape of his own self as he participates anew in the mystery of life eternal.

Fear not the shifts of life. See them for the opportunity they represent. Progress is not inevitable - but it is achievable. Trust the elements we have yet to see or imagine. Even the worst of times can be redemptive.

Shift happens. Of that we can be certain. But so too can we be certain of God's unfailing love, whether we stand in the pulpit or sit in the pew, because our God stands with us - like a Good Shepherd - and does not run away. In every circumstance and shift, we too can learn to take "a longer stride and a larger embrace." It's happened to me. It's happened to you. To God be the glory and the power, forever and ever. Amen.

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