A Theology of Presence

Somewhere toward the end of my college experience, I caught the theology bug. Believe me, it is worse than the flu bug. Lasts much longer!

MysteryI was already majoring in religion at the Presbyterian-affiliated college, The College of Idaho. As I neared upper class courses, the subject matter shifted from Biblical history to Reformed theology. I loved the shift. The study of God is a little different than the study of bugs as biology focuses on stuff you can touch and see and smell. Theology focuses on a mystery that continually slips through ones fingers.

After college I still couldn’t stay away from theology. Despite never intending to be a pastor I found myself enrolled in seminary with a plan to become a YMCA director. I know, it doesn’t make much sense, but it felt right to me at the time and studying theology was so much fun. “Why not spend tens of thousands of dollars and three years of my life having fun!” was my sentiment.

rainbow handsI have to be honest—my love and study of theology has never gone away. It only morphed into something more nuanced, more personal, and more universal over time. I have provided spiritual leadership in a number of settings over the last thirty years. Each of those experiences has shaped my understandings of God or the Sacred or that Mystery to which I have referred. Today, if someone were to ask about my theology I would say that I now practice of theology of presence.

The interesting thing about this theology of presence is that it is very consistent person to person and group to group, but its form and language shifts with each group I meet. This week a Presbyterian News Service article came out in response to the Gallup poll that revealed that religious membership dipped below 50% in the U.S. this past year. The article featured my thoughts on what it is like to be a church leader in “one of the least religious areas in the country.”

chaplainIn that article I talked about practicing ministry a little like a chaplain who moves from hospital room to hospital room. Chaplains shift their language and approach to meet the needs of the particular person in the bed before them. And they often only have twenty seconds and thirty feet in which to make that shift. A chaplain is often faced with talking to a devout Catholic in one room and then having to immediately shift to scientific rationalist in the next room. And in each room the chaplain must find the right words to provide a healing presence.

If my thirty-year ministry has been a little like moving from hospital room to hospital room meeting with all kinds of people with different beliefs, values and life experiences this what those individual rooms looked like:

  • In the 90’s I worked with an emerging church model called “The Questers.”—There I learned to share Biblical themes through movies, children’s books, poetry, and music.
  • In 1999, I helped found a Unitarian Universalist Church—There I learned to use the language of the stages of spiritual and faith development that were shared by various religions.
  • In 2006, I started working with a Presbyterian church nearing closing—There I interpreted the Biblical scriptures through the lens of the stages of grief as I moved the congregation to a place of graceful acceptance.
  • In 2007, I started a Movies and Meaning group—With a group made up of JuBu’s (Jewish Buddhists), spiritual but not religious, agnostics, a woman with a dance spirituality, a spiritual visual artist, and mystical Catholics I discovered that my place in this group was as an “agnostic Christian mystic.”
  • In 2015, I starting working with a Presbyterian church that had a conservative/progressive split—There I found myself using the language of the mystics (without using the word itself much) as a way to heal the divide between the two. The mystics provided the common language of experience that both those who were reading Mary Oliver poems and those who had a personal relationship with Jesus could relate to.

chameleonIt may appear to some that I am like a chameleon switching my spiritual identity to whatever group I happen to be with at the time. But that just isn’t true. What I am consistent about is to make sure that I show up all the time with a “theology of presence” and then use whatever tools and experience I have to be the Christ presence in that particular setting.

Why do I share this? Because I believe most of our churches are in contexts where the faith that they espouse on Sunday looks and sounds very different from the values, language, beliefs and experiences of those peeking in through our stained glass windows.

I often have churches ask me, “Pastor, how can we share our faith with the people in our community?”

My answer is simple:

Just learn to show up and be authentically and fully present.

God will take care of the rest.

See, isn’t theology fun!

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Poet Preacher

In 1054 C.E. (Common Era) the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church split in what is often called The Great Schism. There were many reasons for this including issues over theology and ecclesiastical power and organization. One of the theological issues that was at the core of the schism was over the issue of how they validated the theological claims of the Church. The West tended to value scholasticism and rational philosophical discourse as the basis for theological claims. The East valued experience through ascetic spiritual disciplines in a concept called theoria.

history of XtntyIn the third episode of the PBS special on The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Oxford scholar, Diarmaid MacCulloch, framed it this way: In the West religious leaders tend to be theologians and philosophers. In the East religious leaders are seen more as poets and artists.

I have been wondering aloud in recent years if what is taking place in our society and in our religious institutions is the awkward attempt to heal this nearly 1,000-year split and bring the two great traditions back together again.

Heart and mind. Art and science. East and West.

I know that my own heart and soul is yearning for this. In seminary, I lapped up every theological course that I could. Every one of my electives was dedicated to the study of some angle of theology. But about fifteen years ago I noticed a shift in my preaching and in how I framed my statement of faith. I desired less to get a message across during my sermons and desired more that people had an experience. I found myself wanting to appeal more to people’s hearts than to their minds.

dancer in smokeMy statements of faith also shifted. Rather than a long treatise precisely defining my beliefs about God, Jesus and the Church I shifted toward the imprecise language of imagery and adjectives. My last two statements of faith (2005 and 2015) were written in the form of poetry where I could leave plenty of room for Mystery and Sacred Presence. I didn’t want to pin God down!

I am noticing this among our pastors as well. Over thirty years ago, we preachers used poetry in the pulpit, but I sense a shift in purpose. Those of us from that generation would often share a poem as a way of making a deeper point. Our sermons had a message and a well-placed poem often made our point for us. But, now I am noticing that poetry is often the point itself. The poems aren’t being used to point to something else, but to provide the language for an experience in itself.

Dancing WomanIt reminds me of a story that Joseph Campbell tells in his interview with Bill Moyers for the wildly popular series, The Power of Myth. He tells of visiting a Shinto priest in Japan. Campbell asks the priest, “What is the meaning of your religion?” The priest answers, “Meaning? We have no meaning. We just dance.”

What is the meaning of a rose? A snow-capped mountain? The aroma of baked bread? A first kiss?

That is the difference between the East and West. In the West we attempt to know God through rational philosophical and theological thought. In the East they attempt to know God through experience.

Thesssaloniki 033
A shrine in Greece

I experienced this difference when I rode my bike through Greece in 2014. I stepped foot in many Greek Orthodox churches and roadside shrines. I was overwhelmed by the sensual experience of icons, crosses, burning candles and incense, and bold evocative colors. I can’t tell you what it all meant, but I can tell you that I felt surrounded by God and humbled by a Presence that defied words.

I am thankful that we have good theologians among us. I am also thankful that we have poet preachers.

Maybe the Great Schism is slowly coming to an end.

We can hope.

We can do our part.

A Haiku:

Artists, poets ask

Thinkers and theologians

Can I have this dance?

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

“I Surrender”

What takes most of us a lifetime to learn Jesus seemed to embody in one night.

prayer prostrateThat night, that we call Maundy Thursday, commemorates two essential events in Jesus’ final days on earth—the Last Supper with his disciples and his retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is the latter, those sobering moments that Jesus spent in prayer that I want to turn my attention to today.

I am struck by the brevity and simplicity of Jesus’ prayer and yet the lifetime that it takes most of us to get there. He simply prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42)

For those who spend Sundays worshiping in a pew the words are very familiar. In the weekly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer worshipers repeat those familiar words, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

AgonyBut as often as we say those words, I wonder if the profound impact of them ever sinks fully into our souls. There are so few words in the description of Jesus’ retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane, but there are just enough clues to know that Jesus must have experienced a visceral and profound sense of fear and trepidation. Three of the gospels briefly mention the event and two of them say that Jesus “threw himself on the ground and prayed.” Emphasis on “threw.”

Have you ever thrown yourself on the ground? These prayers are not the safe prayers that get recited before bedtime or the Sunday prayers of the worshiping faithful. These are the prayers that get poured out when you get the news of a loved one suddenly being ripped from your life. These are the prayers that cry out from the depths of your soul when a lifelong dream is suddenly shattered. These are the prayers that leave us in a heap of tears when we aren’t sure we can face another day.

These are the prayers of absolute and terrifying surrender.

Jesus throws himself on the ground in a moment that probably contained grief, terror and a heart pleading for mercy. And then, then when the terror had subsided he prayed the words of absolute surrender, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”

white flagI have been thinking a lot about surrender these days. In fact, every day it seems like I spend part of the day trying to hold onto a life I once I knew and the rest of the day surrendering to a future that I have little control over or say about. Half the day I insist on my own will and the other half I give myself over to God’s will, to the unfolding drama of Life, and to spiritual forces much stronger than me.

I remember during the years of working in hospice how important the act of surrender was. Many people associate hospice with death, but I don’t think that is quite right. My experience of hospice was that the transformative moment wasn’t the moment of death, it was the moment of acceptance and surrender. It was the moment the potential patient threw herself on the ground with visceral terror and turned her face skyward and cried, “I am not going to fight this anymore. I surrender to God, I surrender to Life, I surrender to death.”

Family albumThat was the Big moment. Because after the moment of surrender the forces of Life took over. Families worked through age-old disagreements. Fathers and sons reconciled. Mothers and daughters clung tightly to each other. Stories were shared. Laughter replaced anxiety and fear. Repressed memories suddenly found their way to the surface. Albums of weddings, graduations, and vacations became the center of conversations.

The energy of the family shifted from fighting off death to celebrating life and love.

There are two events of Maundy Thursday. The second event in the Garden of Gethsemane is that gut wrenching moment when Jesus surrendered all of his personal dreams, deepest desires, and human wants to the greater forces of Life and the will of God.

The best modern illustration of this is the late Leonard Cohen’s song, “If It Be Your Will” sung by Antony. Listen to it and imagine Jesus pleading and praying at the Garden of Gethsemane. It does not take much imagination to think that Cohen’s words might have been very close to Jesus’ words.

Click here for the YouTube link.

Some will say this pandemic is about death. But it is not death that transforms us. It is the act of surrender.

Maundy Thursday blessings to you…

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and MIssion, Presbytery of the Cascades

Post-Pandemic Pastoring

This post comes after having several conversations with pastors both within and outside of our presbytery in recent weeks. It seems that pastors are very aware that whatever it is that is coming is going to call them to deepen their skills, shift their focus, and learn to be a new kind of pastor. Quite honestly, this is delighting some and making others more than a little anxious.

First to those who are delighted.

Activist NunsThe pattern seems to be that pastors whose sense of call extends beyond Sunday morning worship are almost giddy with enthusiasm at the prospect of the “reinvention of the church.” In recent years, NEXT Church and church consultants have hinted that the pastors of the future will be as much community organizers as preachers/teachers. In a denomination that is in a membership free fall this makes sense. Community organizing takes pastors out into the community, whereas preaching and teaching (especially in a denomination not known for evangelizing) largely assumes the community will come to them.

Now to those who are anxious.

But for every pastor who seems delighted by what is coming, there are at least two or three who are anxious, to put it mildly. One pastor, who retired a few years ago, confided in me, “It looks like I got out just in time.” He shared with me how the prospect of trying to lead a church through a structural shift puts the fear of God into him, so to speak. His gift was always his deep scholarship and he wondered aloud if his gifts were now too dated for the church.

A number of other pastors have expressed nervousness as they have peered over the horizon of what the church will need post-pandemic. More than once I have heard, “I don’t think I am the right person to lead the church through this time.” A common theme seems to be emerging. Those of us trained in the seminary at a time when preaching and teaching was the central focus are feeling increasingly sidelined. Many of us were educated when the pastor expected to be the “theologian in residence.” Now that often feels like a luxury.

The world has shifted. The church has changed.

church booksMy bookshelf reflects this shift. During the first decade of my ministry my books primarily centered on theology, preaching, Bible commentaries, and historical reference books. But those books looked increasingly lonely as I had to build new shelves for books on family systems theory, adaptive change, organizational development, church growth, generational theory, American religious trends, cultural studies, and demographic studies.

Believe me this was not necessarily by choice. It felt imposed on me as I realized that my love of preaching and teaching would have no place if there was no church. Increasingly, issues related to institutional survival took as much or more time than the time I focused on the actual mission of the church. Simply put, the vehicle for sharing the gospel begged for more attention than the gospel itself.

ThresholdI write all of this to you because the conversations I am having are telling me that we are at a threshold moment. The looming portent of the post-pandemic church is holding a mirror up to the presbytery and the calling of its pastors. Quite honestly, we have some who are discerning whether they have the skills and the energy to lead the church into a new time and new form. We have others who are relieved that we are finally at this moment. We have still others who are tired, but trusting that God will give them what they need when they need it.

My message to the presbytery is this: Trust the shifting that is taking place in our churches and our leadership. Each pastor and each church will need to be honest with themselves about their sense of call, their energy and the resources they have available to live into the post-pandemic church.

Some pastors and churches will bow out. Other pastors and churches will step up. Still others will show less intentionality and neither bow out or step up, but will allow God to transform them one important decision at a time.

But, together, as a body, we will survive.

We will thrive.

We will look different.

We will be different.

And Easter will have worked her magic once again!

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Too Many People?

What are our churches going to do with all the people who have suddenly connected to our churches through online worship?

While the people problem is not universal, many of our congregations are reporting that they have a large extended community through online worship, Bible and book studies and prayer meetings.

MC church
Mill City Church

One such church is First Presbyterian, Mill City, located about 30 miles east of Salem toward Detroit Lake. The Mill City church is currently being served by the Rev. Carol Swanson. I interviewed her and the Clerk of Session, Becky Hilkey, last week to find out about their not-so-unique experience after discovering they had seen a 750% increase in “worship attendance” since the pandemic began. Yes, that is not a typo! A 750% increase.

As reported by Carol and Becky their congregation typically averaged about 35 people in worship before the pandemic. Following the decision to stop in-person worship they began recording their services and uploading it on two platforms, Facebook and YouTube. In a typical week they now have between 200-250 viewers and have seen as many as 390 viewers. Asked about when people are “clicking on” to view they reported that some view it as soon as it is uploaded on Friday or anytime over the following week. But many people still click on exactly at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning in order to maintain their Sunday ritual as much as possible.

mapTheir software allows them to track the location of their viewers. Based on the statistics of their most recent service about 40% of the views came from people in the Mill City/Gates area most proximate to the church. Another 20% were tuning in from communities that could be considered driving distance (Stayton, Sublimity and Salem). After that it appeared that a small group of people in Las Vegas were regularly tuning in and then a smattering of people all across the United States as well as Nigeria, Germany and Poland.

Asked about the profiles of these people they responded that a certain portion were either extended family members of regular in-person attendees, former members who had moved away and then a large percentage of “unknowns,” just people who found the service and the community attractive, at least for one Sunday.

Like many of our congregations Mill City is just starting to think about what worship will look like when the pandemic passes and they are able to return to in-person worship. At the minimum, they anticipate returning to their former worship in their sanctuary and continuing to offer the online presence that they currently have.

Asked about the extra resources that doing a hybrid worship would require they felt that it only required an additional technical person who could handle the taping of the service and the uploading of it to their platforms. They are already doing this so why not just continue it, they implied.

Mill City smoke
Mill City Church during September, 2020 Wildfires

More importantly they noted the benefits of continuing to provide an online presence. First, they said, it has given extended families a way to have a shared experience. Former members have been able to stay connected to their church community despite the distance and, often, membership in a congregation close to their new home. One distant member has resumed pledging and others are sending in one-time donations.

Most importantly, the Rev. Carol Swanson reported that it gives the church a chance to answer its calling, stating, “In this difficult time people need to hear a hopeful view preached. It seems important that we bring people under our wings.”

All of this leads me to think about what comes next. We know that hundreds, even thousands of people, are taking advantage of our online church presence that weren’t before the pandemic. Here are questions that are on my mind that your church might want to ponder and pray about:

  • What needs for community and spiritual resources do these people have?
  • How will the church survey online participants to find out what their spiritual needs are?
  • Can the church structure itself to provide more than just a viewable worship service and actually provide ways for people to connect and care?
  • If these people live all over the country and world might the church provide opportunities for mission, education, and spiritual development not tied to a location?
  • Can the church not only provide hybrid worship, but a hybrid community made up of people geographically connected and people connected through the internet?
  • Might the church become a hybrid between local church and retreat center with offerings for regular attendees as well as annual pilgrims?
  • Many have spoken of the future of the church as learning to become “buildingless.” Is this the right opportunity for your church to build a bridge to that future?
  • If you plan to discontinue an online presence what resources will you provide to help people find other spiritual communities and resources once you return solely to in-person worship?
  • Finally, as always, what is God’s invitation to you in this time?

This blog courtesy of the internet to all my readers, wherever you are.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Do Less. Go Deep.

“Do less. Go deep.”

Those were the words I read in an article a couple of weeks ago about organizations that successfully navigate cultural tsunamis. I tried to find the article again and just couldn’t locate it, but those words have been working on me for nearly two weeks. Every morning during my prayer journaling they show up.

EmailsI think I first noticed how deeply the words resonated with me on a day when I was feeling overwhelmed by the number of small tasks I felt I had to accomplish. It was nagging at me because at the same time, I feel this great weight (a calling perhaps) to make sure that we “get this right” when it comes to successfully emerging from this pandemic transformed and ready for God’s next new old thing.

I could feel the pressure coming from both sides—the tyranny of the urgent competing with an equally strong voice to make sure I keep the presbytery pointed toward spiritual north. Like a competitor at a Whack-a-Mole game, I sometimes feel like the sheer pace of whacking at the most urgent will eventually defeat me.

compassSo, the words “Do less. Go deep,” not only feel true and wise. I also hear them as a relief. I have a very trusted friend who reminds me, “Brian, at this stage of your career I don’t think you are being paid for how much you can get done. You are being paid for your ability to set a direction.” I know that it is true and I know that fits into the best of who I am. Yet, some days when forty emails beg to be answered, I find myself falling into the trap of saying, “I will go deep as soon as I clear all the clutter out.” The urgent first, the important later.

The article I read (dang, I wish I could find it) reminded readers that organizations that think they can get through a paradigmatic shift by working harder and doing more are the ones who don’t make it. They tend to just exhaust themselves. It is the ones, writes the author, who go deep, who return to their core values, who focus again on their essential mission who often survive and thrive on the other side of a cultural tsunami. They actually slow down when things are the most critical.

solitudeI remember encouraging this approach to clients when I was a grief counselor twenty years ago. I often met with individuals who described that the way they were coping with their loss was to stay busy and distracted. Never insisting, but gently offering, I encouraged them to slowly trust the wisdom of their grief and the new life that their loss was inviting them into. Eventually, they did ease up on the distraction of busyness and just settled into the rich soil of their grieving soul.

“Do less. Go deep.”

It’s a mantra made for our time.

I do know this truth about getting through tough times. Yet, recently I had to be reminded of it again as I had convinced myself that the world would come crashing down if I didn’t get to every email in a timely fashion or tackle all the issues that come across my desk on a daily basis. I felt like I was just running a few paces ahead of a tidal wave of doom.

Hands reachingIt reminds me of the brief scene in Luke 6: 15-16 where Jesus modeled this theme of “Do less. Go deep.” The text reads, “Now more than ever word about Jesus spread abroad and many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

There it is. The tyranny of the urgent showing up in crowds of people who wanted to hear a good word and to be cured of their ailments. There it is. Showing up in the very real needs of people. Shouting for help. Begging for grace. There it is. The clamor of life and a thousand different voices demanding our attention.

Yet, despite the temptation to do more, to meet every need placed at his feet, to answer every email, to address every issue, Jesus walked away, withdrew to a deserted place, and went deep (prayed).

Brave man, this Jesus!

I know this is something we all already know. But, I figure if I needed to be reminded of it recently then you probably did too.

We aren’t going to get through this by doing more and working harder. We are going to get through this by going deeper and remembering who we are and whose we are.

Remember, we don’t work for the crowd.

We work for God.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Arlington Story

Last week I wrote on the theme of “right sizing” and how important it is for our physical, spiritual and emotional development. As best we can as we move through life our external world should match our internal world. The point in that blog was that as we mature in the first half of life we often outgrow our spaces. The reverse is true as well. As we age, our spaces often become more of burden than a blessing. Thus, we spend much of our lives deciding how and when to “right size.”

I promised the story of a church who in the process of discerning a downsizing ended up upsizing their mission many times over. Their story is nothing less than inspiring. The scope of what they accomplished is staggering. But this shouldn’t be seen as a rare exception—just the story of one amazing church who seemed to defy the odds.

empty roomThe fact of the matter is that we Presbyterians have incredible assets at our disposal. I think we have forgotten that because we are so used to looking at membership numbers and attendance. We have grieved over the losses we have experienced the last five decades forgetting that fewer people has meant more space. That empty Sunday School classroom is both a reason for grief and a reason to celebrate new possibility.

What if we shifted our question from, “How do we get people into our buildings?” to “How can our buildings serve the community around us?”

One church that did that beautifully and faithfully is Arlington.

Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia had seen its membership decline from 150 to 65 over a seventeen-year period. They owned a large piece of property on what is considered the Main Street of Arlington. As they struggled with the uncertainty of their own future they asked the question, “For whom are our hearts breaking?

 In order to find that answer they set out quizzing waitresses, teachers and store clerks who bought from the food truck in the church parking lot or shopped at the nearby farmer’s market. They met the people in their neighborhood. They heard a consistent response from the largely working-class, immigrant residents, “I work here, but can’t afford to live here anymore.” The congregation prayed and talked. Then they prayed and talked some more.

affordable housingAs they discerned God’s call for them they finally heard, “The call to create affordable housing was bigger than the old building itself—so the walls came down.” Now, in partnership with an affordable housing developer, they are building a 173-unit affordable housing complex on a site that once served 65 church members. The site also will be the home to a culinary job training program.

It had to be a tough decision as the old building carried memories of weddings, memorial services, baptisms, potlucks and Christmas pageants. The decision meant the loss of a congregational ministry and also a renewed commitment to a community mission. Sometimes the decision to downsize opens up great possibilities for upsizing in a renewed way.

Read more of the story here THE ARLINGTON VISION

Questions for your congregation as you consider how you return to your buildings in coming months:

  1. Is your building being utilized at its full capacity? Does it sit nearly empty six days a week?
  2. “For whom are your hearts breaking?”
  3. Who do you need to hear from in your community?
  4. Who are your neighbors? What are their physical, emotional and spiritual needs?
  5. What agencies and businesses have a deep investment in your neighborhood or town?
  6. Besides Christian fellowship and worship what is your mission in the community?
  7. What help do you need from the presbytery to help you discern your mission to the community?

The Arlington story reminds us that preaching and people are not our only asset. Sometimes our buildings and property are the best way to carry out Christ’s mission in the community.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Right-Sizing

Do you remember when right-sizing meant moving from a dorm room to a small one-bedroom apartment? Or from a small one-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house? Or even from the three-bedroom house to the five-bedroom house on the half acre lot?

Quaint houseThose were exciting times, weren’t they? In this ideal American narrative right-sizing meant allowing for the growth of family and increasing financial security? It’s just plain fun to imagine needing more room, a bigger house, and more yard for children to play and dogs to run around in.

Right-sizing can be a lot of fun when it is upsizing.

But, I would submit that right-sizing is a life-long process that equally includes upsizing and downsizing. In a typical life cycle our bodies grow, our energy increases, and we need more room to match our expanding horizons.

But, the reverse is also true. As we age, our worlds begin shrinking again. We have less energy. Our attention becomes more limited to the things and people closest to us. Eventually that five-bedroom home often feels more like a burden than a blessing. You began asking, “Do I really want to have to rake all those leaves. Wouldn’t I rather have more time to read, sing in the choir and play with grandchildren?”

tiny homeRight sizing is important for our emotional, spiritual and physical health. Being physically cramped can stunt our growth and keep our souls from growing. And having too much room can leave us so burdened by physical responsibilities that spiritual expression can’t seem to find any traction.

We spend our personal lives right-sizing often expanding our living spaces and broadening our horizons during the first half of life and then contracting in the latter half of life as energy diminishes and our souls seek deepening more than broadening.

Right-sizing is important our whole lives long. It just happens to be that upsizing is a lot more fun than downsizing. But from a spiritual perspective they are equally important. Right-sizing is about honoring the seasons of life and God’s sacred rhythms. Right-sizing is about getting our external reality to mirror our internal reality.

But here is the really cool thing.

empty pewsUpsizing is a process of making room for growth that we can see and expect. Downsizing is no different. Downsizing is also a process of making room for God to show up. Except that unlike upsizing where the evidence is often apparent, downsizing takes a bit more trust. God seems to wait until we have fully committed to the downsizing to show up. That’s sort of scary like falling backward with no guarantee that someone is going to catch you.

Does your church building represent the actual energy in your congregation? If not, do you need to upsize to make more room for the untapped energy? Or do you need to downsize to unburden yourself from physical responsibilities in order to make room for more spiritual expression.

God doesn’t care what size your building is. All God cares about is that your building is more of a blessing than a burden.

Next week read about a church that downsized and ended up upsizing their mission tenfold and a hundred fold.

Right-sizing is a way of making room for God.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

 

Lent 2021: Pondering the Pandemic

Dear Readers,

ash wednesdayAs I write this, our churches are observing Ash Wednesday as we move into the traditional 40-day period of Lent. Lent is historically a time for repentance, reflection and “getting right with God” in the language of our revivalist brothers and sisters. This year Lent coincides with an increasing amount of information from church consultants who are tracking trends in the church during the pandemic period. Lent forces us to ask the question, “How do get right with God in this time,” or asked in a more Presbyterian way, “How do we align ourselves with what God is doing in this fragile and fertile time?”

I decided to use my blog space this week to offer a way for your church to observe Lent and take an honest look at how this pandemic may be affecting your church and inviting you into something new. Below is one question for each Sunday through Easter where you can reflect on some of the questions and trends that church consultants posing as the church is experiencing a radical transformation.

I hope you find this helpful.

February 21       The body as truth-teller?

Floating bodyWhat messages is your body giving you in this time? Intuitive people will tell you that they often know something in their body before their mind can articulate it. What is your body telling you right now? Are you like a horse in the starting gate which can’t wait to hear the gun and get to the work of coronavirus recovery? Are you like the car accident victim shell-shocked and emotionally paralyzed? Are you like the grieving spouse who simultaneously is experiencing loss even as she anticipates a new life?

February 28       Adopting or Adopted?

adoptionChurch consultants who are studying trends expect a wave of “church adoptions” in coming years. Churches with a higher degree of long-term sustainability will be in a position to adopt and take in churches with a low degree of long-term sustainability. Is your church more likely to fit the profile of the adopting church or is your church more likely to fit the profile of the adopted church? (This is not the only choice, but it helps the church to see whether it has resources to offer other churches or will need to be the recipient of resources.)

March 7              Small and strong? Small and fragile? Large and uncertain?

Church consultants are seeing three patterns emerge. 1. Smaller churches with a high percentage of engaged people don’t seem to be as impacted by the pandemic. 2. Smaller churches which were already feeling fragile before the pandemic are reaching the point of crisis. 3. Larger churches (over 250 in attendance) may experience 20-30% drops in attendance as those churches typically have higher proportions of nominally engaged members. Do you see your church in one of these three categories? If so, what does it mean for you and your ministry as you plan for the future beyond 2021?

March 14            Permanently changed?

In what ways has the coronavirus pandemic changed the face of the church permanently? In other words, what practices and approaches have you adopted in this time that you now believe need to be carried on beyond the pandemic?

March 21            In-person? Online?  Hybrid?

OnlineMost of our churches have learned how to “be church” digitally. When we emerge from the other side of this pandemic what percentage of your church life will be in person, what percentage will be online, and what percentage will be a hybrid?

March 28            Want and Need?

In what ways would your answer to these questions be different? What do you WANT your church to be post-pandemic? What do you think the church NEEDS to be post-pandemic? This is really the God question.

April 4                 Easter Sunday!

Our most essential Christian narrative is the one of death and resurrection. In this time, what do you believe is dying? What do you believe is being born? How will your church live into the death and resurrection story?

Note: Some of the trends were gleaned from the blog “12 Major Trends for Churches in 2021” by Thom Rainier

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

“I’m Out!”

“I’m out!”

Those were the first words in an email of the Rev. Matt Gough when I reached out to him to see if he would be comfortable having his sermon shared in my blog this week. I was checking to make sure that he was comfortable with his vulnerability being shared beyond his local congregation. He thanked me for checking, but assured me “I’m out” as a recognition that he wouldn’t be able to control the narrative now.

Matt shared a deeply touching and vulnerable sermon (link here) about being diagnosed with autism and social anxiety while serving as a minister where being a “social butterfly,” as he put it, is often considered a prerequisite. I promised not to make him the subject of my blog this week, but to share his story as another example of a blog topic I had already planned for the week.

Woodburn 1Last week I taped a sermon (link here) for the whole presbytery titled, “Just As I Am,” as I reflected on the hymn of the same title and my own experience of learning to love myself “just as I am.” Quite honestly, the church does not make it easy to love ourselves just as we are. We preach a good sermon on it. We have a deep and wonderful theology that affirms it. But, in practice, the church has an unconscious way of reinforcing a more narrow narrative that doesn’t easily allow for the diversity of our human experience.

Matt’s “coming out” was especially important for First, Corvallis as they are going through a process to make a declarative statement to be an “open and affirming church.” But in a brilliant flash of wisdom and courage he told the congregation this last Sunday, “I was asking the church to do something that I have not allowed it to do for me.” He was referring, of course, to the years of masking and hiding his social anxiety afraid that if people knew the real him he wouldn’t be accepted or respected as a pastor.

Matt’s experience is not uncommon. The sermon that I preached this week is part of my long process of coming out to myself and to the church. I came out to myself over two decades ago, but coming out to the church has taken much longer as I constantly assess what is safe and what is helpful for the church to know.

be yourselfMore of the information is in my sermon, but I have been slow to let the church get to know the real me because it often feels that my narrative doesn’t fit, or it makes people uncomfortable, or people just don’t know what to do with it. I am a child of a teenage mother who left our family. My parents have been married eleven times between them. I am divorced and living the life of “discreet dating” that unmarried ministers feel obligated to uphold.

This week I had a monumental event in my family, but you would have never known it—because like Matt I haven’t allowed you into my personal world. After many years of my second child working through gender identity issues, Jules and I had a conversation where he (formally she/them) informed me that he was ready to be called my son. This is monumental for me and our family. This has been years in the making.

Why haven’t I shared it?

hiding faceBecause what I need is for people to celebrate with me and my fear is that I will spend more time educating you and defending my child and I don’t want to do that. I just want to celebrate this moment and enjoy it. So I don’t take the risk to allow the church to accept me as I am. I hide my real self and my real story and, in the process, give you no opportunity to love the diversity that is right in front of you.

Over the years, this issue of people hiding their real selves has become scarily apparent to me.

  • I have heard members tell me the week after missing a Sunday, “Sorry, pastor, I just didn’t have the energy last week to put my church face on.”
  • I have spoken with dozens of people who have said, “I like the people of this church, but I would never share my real beliefs with them.”
  • Members have shared with me, “I enjoy this church, but my real spiritual community is my AA group where I can be honest and authentic.”
  • After sharing parts of my story from the pulpit individual members have confided in me, “I too have a gay or lesbian child. I wished I felt safe to tell my friends in church.”

Why do I share this now? Because in recent years the presbytery has been focusing more efforts on mirroring the diversity of our communities in our churches and leadership. Our presbytery is 97% white. When I came up for election for this position one of our commissioners half seriously and half in-jest said, “I was hoping for a black lesbian woman for this position, but seeing that we didn’t get that candidate, you will do.” It wasn’t a jab. It was a way of affirming my call to the position while also making a statement about our “diversity deficit.”

My point today is this. We want more diversity, but first we must learn to acknowledge, accept and celebrate the diversity that already exists within us. We all have to quit hiding from ourselves, from each other and from God. It’s time to get real with each other. It’s time to act more like AA and less like a country club.

Matt, thank you for giving us that chance.

And thank you to all of you who are willing to take the risk to say, “God loves me just as I am. I want you to love me that way too.”

Matt’s Sermon link: “Silencing the Demons”

Brian’s Sermon link: “Just As I Am”

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades