Is This the Future?

I think I just saw our future.

Last week I was attending an eight-week class on the eight major religions of the world. The group is studying Boston University professor, Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

god is not oneI missed the first week where the facilitators took time for each participant to introduce themselves and share a bit about what brought them to the class. I didn’t have to be there to discover what they shared. At this second class the subject was Prothero’s chapter on Christianity. The facilitator started the class by saying, “I am going to be interested to see how you all react to this class this week as it seemed that just about everyone here was either hurt by the Church or found Christianity wanting.” People chuckled in recognition.

As I listened to the participants I heard the usual stereotypical reasons for rejecting the Church,

  • “I don’t want to be part of something that has been the source of so much evil and violence in the world.”
  • “I appreciate the values of the Church, but I don’t see how anyone can believe in such things as virgin births and resurrections. It makes no rational sense.”
  • “I like Jesus, but I have no use for all the doctrines and creeds.”

Coming from the Christian tradition I actually felt that the class presented a very fair treatment of the subject matter. Prothero seemed to have a pretty objective and fair view of Christianity as he gave a simple overview of everything from Eastern Orthodox to Catholicism to Protestantism to LDS to Pentecostalism, among many others.

churchI really appreciated the class. There was room for presenting the subject matter and room for individual participants to respond from their own experience. It had the effect of both educating one on the broader Christian tradition and allowing people to share their own experiences with regard to the tradition. But there definitely was a feisty spirit among the group as the subject matter elicited a number of negative reactions.

Then something happened. The facilitator decided to close the class with a short quote by St. Isaac the Syrian, a Christian mystic from the 7th century. He read this:

“Be at peace with your own soul;

Then heaven and earth will be at peace with you;

Eagerly enter into the treasure house that is within you;

And so will you see the things that are in heaven.

For there is one single door to enter both…

The ladder that leads to the kingdom

is hidden within your soul.”

And the room melted. One person said, “That sounds like my spirituality.” Another person spoke up and said, “If that is what it means to be Christian I probably would still be in the Church.”

Hold onto this blog. We spend a lot of time wringing our hands over how we are going to reach an increasingly secular age. Yet this experience tells us something. It tells us that people are still yearning for spiritual nourishment. And it tells us that hidden within our own tradition is that spiritual food people are yearning for.

Studying the Christian mystics may be a stretch for many of our congregations. But the Christian mystics may be just the bridge we are looking for to connect with our “spiritual but not religious” neighbors.

It’s worth pondering. This just might be our future.

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

 

The Prophetic Fork in the Road–Pt. 2

“An excellent reflection. The real issue is: HOW?”

Human rightsThis was a comment on my last blog about speaking to the issues raised by the character and actions of President Trump. In that blog I explained that I am cautious about stepping into the political fray publicly, but that some of President Trump’s actions had finally crossed a line for me where silence seemed to carry more risks than speaking a prophetic word.

My reader’s comment pushed me to take the next natural step—to go from naming the need to speak publicly in our churches to the actual HOW. I will admit that I am often reluctant to get too specific about the “hows” of things. We have a large and diverse presbytery and what works for one congregation often doesn’t work for another congregation. That, coupled with the fact that we have gifted church leaders all through this presbytery, I tend to like to articulate the issues that are facing us and leave the creative implementation to our local congregations.

But this is one area where teasing out the HOW could be important. It is such a sensitive and potentially controversial subject that many church leaders likely want to address this issue, but don’t know HOW.

  • HOW to do it with sensitivity for the diversity of their congregations?
  • HOW to do it without jeopardizing the church’s non-profit status?
  • HOW to do it in a way that brings a congregation closer together rather than to tear them apart?

How, how, how…

Safe hereThe essential question for me is, “How does one create a safe environment to talk about things that matter?” That, at its heart, is what my last post was about. Not opposing President Trump himself, but saying, “We in the church have to be able to talk about things that matter,” and President Trump is having a deep impact on our relationships, our parenting, our communities and our nation. This stuff matters!

We often hear people say, “In our family the one thing we don’t talk about is religion and politics.” Why is that? Because religion and politics are two of the areas of our lives that are closest to our hearts. They are the areas that really matter and we don’t like to take the risk that the people closest to us might reject us for what we believe.

Of course, there is a problem with that approach. It means that our relationships are based on a version of us that is not our deepest, most authentic self. “I want to be accepted, so I won’t share my real self.” “I want to be liked, so I will only share the parts I think people will like.” You can see the fallacy of such approaches. How do we know we are really accepted if we haven’t even shared who we really are.

Silence and tapeThis is one of the reasons that I wrote that we had reached “a prophetic fork in the road.” The more controversial our political environment has become, the more we have been tempted toward neutrality and silence, and the less our church relationships are based on our most authentic real selves. What we really feel is either limited to those who think like us or is kept to ourselves only. And our congregations eventually learn to stay together through avoidance rather than honest engagement. Not a good reflection of the body of Christ.

The question for me is, “How does one create a safe environment to talk about things that matter?” In this case—the relationship between faith and politics.

So here are some actual HOWs:

  1. First, start building a reputation for yourself as “the church that cares about community issues.”
    1. Host community forums where city council members and community leaders can hear from their constituency.
    2. Invite a panel of experts on important issues like immigration, just war theory, “Medicare for all,” affordable housing, gentrification, homelessness, racism, etc.
    3. Host community forums during election cycles where the community can hear from candidates from all parties.
    4. Host a Better Angels event at your church to practice how to talk to each other across the political divide. Our own, the Rev. Cynthia O’Brien, works with them now.
  2. Reinforce that dialogue is more important than agreement.
    1. Try a few dialogue sermons in your congregation where the preacher sets the context and then facilitates the message rather than preaches the message;
    2. Schedule regular “Sermon Talk Backs” after the service where members can engage with the preacher and with each other on the content of the sermon;
  3. Do an adult study or a preaching series on scripture texts that address the relationship between faith and politics, church and state:
    1. Romans 13: 1-7
    2. Acts 5: 29
    3. 1 Peter 2: 13-17
    4. Matthew 22: 21
    5. John 19: 10-11
  4. Do a book study with one of the following three books:
    1. Dare We Speak of Hope: Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics by Allan Aubrey Boesak;
    2. Progressive Christians Speak: A Different Voice in Faith and Politics by John B. Cobb, Jr.;
    3. The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America by Jim Wallis

How do we address this prophetic fork in the road in which we find ourselves? We nurture environments where we can talk about the things that matter. And we trust that the Christ who unites us is stronger than the beliefs that differentiate us.

We live in a precarious and dangerous time. Silence is not the answer. Someone we know once said, “Speak the truth in love.”

Speaking and loving.

Now that is the Presbyterian way.

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

The Prophetic Fork in the Road

crossing lineI almost wrote this post three weeks ago. I am cautious about stepping into the political fray given the diversity of our presbytery, but that day I felt like a line had been crossed. At a Michigan rally President Trump had insinuated that the late Representative John Dingell might be looking up from hell rather than down from heaven as the impeachment hearings unfolded.

I am a pastor who has officiated at hundreds of funerals and memorial services. His comment violated just about everything I know about showing respect for the dead and for those still grieving difficult losses. The comment was not illegal, but the cruelty of it left me stunned and shocked…again.

But I did not write the post. It was the post that would have been published on Christmas Eve and I wanted to honor the sacredness of that night and, for at least 24 hours, put aside the reality show that is masquerading as national politics.

Now, however, it is time to write this post. The assassination of an Iranian military leader and government official on foreign soil and the follow up threats by our president call for a response from those of us who have a religious voice. Many say that the church should stay out of politics, but we do have a responsibility to call our elected officials to ethical and moral leadership, whether or not we agree or disagree with their policies.fork in the road

In that regard, I believe that we have reached a prophetic fork in the road. There is no room left for neutrality or trying stay in the middle. There are no risk-free choices any longer. Anything we do will have risks. Anything we choose not to do will have risks. Anything we say will have consequences and anything we choose not to say will also have consequences.

I write this because in recent years I have heard a number of church leaders tell me something to the effect, “We can’t afford to be prophetic in our church. If we lose even one or two more key members we will likely never recover.” I understand the position. Many of our churches are in a fragile position concerned about their ability to maintain a building and support personnel. “Preach what you want, just don’t offend anyone,” can, unfortunately, become the unspoken assumption.

But I believe that we have reached a point where our silence is more likely to be the death of us than speaking up and taking a stand. We do need to remember that we follow a Jesus who spoke truth to power, who became a threat to the political and religious establishment, and who risked his personal safety for the cause of life, redemption and justice.

pulpitWe need to remember that at the very center of our worship is the proclamation of the gospel. If we can’t call our own leaders to a higher standard of ethical conduct we diminish the power of the pulpit. And if we diminish the power of the pulpit the Church might as well write her own obituary.

This past weekend, President Trump threatened Iran with the destruction of 52 sites including key cultural sites. He has since backed off that—quite honestly because people like us reacted in horror at the prospect. But his natural inclination was a Taliban-like reaction that not only flexes one’s political muscles but attempts to destroy the spirit of a people. Such acts are not attempts to wrest military power, but to destroy cultures. We did it to our Native American brothers and sisters and now our president doesn’t have the moral restraint to keep from threatening the same.

Why are we at a prophetic fork in the road? Because we have reached the point where our silence about immoral, dehumanizing decisions is as destructive as direct support for those decisions. At one point we might have been able to rationalize that silence was neutrality. No longer. Silence is now complicity.

sunriseI believe we are at dangerous point. As citizens we have the power to vote. We have the power to write our senators and representatives.

But in the church we have the power of the pulpit.

We have a gospel of life.

We have a Jesus whose life shines like a light in the darkness.

John reminds us:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Let us be the light. Don’t let the darkness win.

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

2020 Resolution: Travel Lighter

I am writing this just over the threshold of a new year. By the time you read this the Rose Bowl will have been played and we will know whether our beloved Ducks (sorry Beav’s, maybe next year) came out on top. This is especially fun this year as my sister and her family are in Wisconsin and so we have a friendly family rivalry going on.

gift to be simpleDespite the distraction of New Year’s Bowl games I have been noticing as I enter a new year that a single mantra keeps traveling across the neon sign of my mind: Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Of course, this is not coming in the form of a New Year’s resolution, as it is a continuation of a process that demanded my attention this fall. In the course of a few short weeks, I moved to a more affordable two-bedroom apartment, dropped out of the doctoral program that was overly complicating my life, replaced my stolen car with a smaller, more affordable and environmentally friendly car, and am lowering my expectations about how much I can cram into one lifetime. Lots of simplifying going on in my life right now.

2020At a worship service last Sunday I participated in an end-of-the-year fire ritual where we were invited to write one word that represented what we were going to leave behind from 2019. The question was asked, “What will you NOT be taking with you into 2020?” The answer appeared immediately for me. “Reaching” was what I wrote down on the little slip of paper that would end up in the common flame.

Part of being a “visionary” is my ability to see the future and act as if I am going to get there. But there is a downside to it. It can also lead me to “reach and overreach” and yearn for things that are just beyond my grasp. I know how to work for a future payoff. What I haven’t nurtured well is to enjoy the payoffs right in front of me.

I have been feeling it for months—something significant is changing in me. I still feel a deep pull toward “all things visionary,” but something tells me that vision in this time is not about reaching higher, but going deeper. 2019 was the year where I was forced to admit that I can’t just add more to my life.

The two clear messages are really mirror images of each other. If I am being led to let go of a long pattern of reach and overreach then it is no wonder that the mantra “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” keeps shouting at me from the recesses of my soul.

ContemplationI feel like this message has something to do with our life as a presbytery as well—even though I can’t quite put my finger on what it is and what implications it might have. I do remember that when I interviewed for the position I had written in the essay portion of the process that I felt that the person in this position would have to learn to embody the soul of the presbytery as much as be the executive manager of the ecclesiastical system.

I think when I wrote that in my essay I was saying something similar to what I see emerging in my life right now. Our call may be to go deeper rather than to reach higher. Our old models of ambition and hard work may need to be replaced by even older models of prayer and contemplation.

A persistent mantra has been nagging at me for a number of months: “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” I think the message has something to do with clearing away the clutter of my life, attending only to that which is most important and most central to who I am and my call, and being honest about my actual capacity for taking on the world.

BuberInterestingly, I am reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou right now during my morning meditation time. The reading a couple of days ago reinforced the message I have been hearing in my “simplify mantra.” Buber often takes four or five read throughs to understand him, but despite the obfuscation of his language his message pierced me right to the heart.

In this short section, he is speaking of call and that sense that our souls demand something of us that can’t be ignored. He writes,

The deed involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one’s perspective has to be exterminated.

Simplify. Clear away anything and everything that does not serve your call. Go all in.

I share this with you because, if I am experiencing this, I have a hunch that many of you are as well. We all live and serve the same system, the presbytery of the Cascades. We all swim in the same ecclesiastical waters. My life serving the presbytery is probably not that different from your life serving your church and your community.

backpackI don’t know that the call to simplify has to be there all the time. But I do wonder, in our time, if we no longer have the luxury of reach and overreach, blind ambition and working harder and harder to get what we want. I wonder if this nagging mantra “simplify, simplify, simplify” is a reminder that we are about to take a journey and we had better pack lightly.

  • What do you plan to leave behind this year in your congregation?
  • What is no longer serving you well as you think about the journey ahead of you?
  • What weight do you need to unload so you are free enough to carry out God’s mission?

My 2020 New Year’s blessing for you is this:

Travel lightly.

Travel with God.

Hold hands and stick together.

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

When a Candle is More Than Enough

“Silent Night. Holy Night.”

candle lightingThe Christmas Eve candle lighting service has always been one of my favorite observances of the Christian liturgical year. Of course, like everyone else those quiet moments when we are first lighting the candles one by one and row by row seems to fill us with a soft expectation. And the darkness of the night being pierced by dozens (or hundreds) of flickering lights seems to give our souls hope for humanity as the light of Christ pierces the darkness of evil.

As a pastor, however, the Christmas Eve candle lighting service was always my favorite because as I looked out upon the congregation there were familiar faces and people that were new to me. With the exception of Easter it was the one service when I felt like our worship was as attractive to the community as it was to our members.

campfireMuch of what we do on Sundays can be difficult to translate to the larger community. Memorized prayers and responses, passing of the peace, and talk about “body and blood.” But, not so, with the Christmas Eve candle lighting service. Something about lighting candles in the dark while singing Silent Night speaks to all of us. Light and fire seem to point to a more universal language.

Secular and spiritual, the faithful and the skeptical all love to sit and watch fire burn. Rock concerts often end with an invitation for thousands of people to ignite their lighters and sway back and forth. Even the language of romance knows that dinner by candlelight is better than dinner by spotlight.

The language of sacred space. Creating environments for the soul to find softness. Nurturing an atmosphere of gentleness and goodness. Appealing to the heart more than to the mind.

This is one thing we in the church seem to get right at least once a year. On Christmas Eve we tone it down a few notches. We invite people to look inward. We abandon big and splashy for soft and silent. We preach less and reflect more.

candlesAnd people come. Strangers ask, “Are you doing a candlelight service again this year? Can we bring our whole family? It wouldn’t feel like Christmas without the candle lighting service.”

I remember being drawn to this magical night as well as a teenager. On the three Christmas Eve’s after I learned to drive I doubled up on my Christmas Eve experiences. After our Presbyterian service concluded I drove to our local Catholic parish where their service was even more shrouded in mystery and ritual. I didn’t understand everything that was taking place and I couldn’t keep up with when I was supposed to kneel and when to stand, but I remember how much I yearned for and enjoyed the sacred mystery of this service. There too we lit candles, sang Silent Night, and prayed in a language that only my heart recognized.

Is this not what so much of our culture yearns for these days? Advertising blasts at us all day. Deadlines keep us pushing. Our self-worth is based on how much we do, how much we produce. We seem to want to outshout each other to get attention. We push, push, push—so much so that many people say they don’t come to church on Sunday because they need a day of rest! Silent, soulful rest.

chapel for prayingI remember many years ago doing a community survey of the neighborhood around the church where I was serving. We gave them a list of twenty things to rank of what they might want in the church. I was surprised when number two on the list was “We wish the church could be open 24 hours a day.” In follow up conversations I discovered that many people wanted a silent place to come and sit and pray and listen to soothing music and light a candle on their time—on the way to work, during a lunch break and even late at night.

It just makes me wonder. Are we supposed to be doing more be attractive to the people around our churches? Or are we supposed to be doing less? Are we supposed to preach better? Or are we supposed to just make room for silence?

Sometimes lighting a candle and singing about a silent night is more than enough for those yearning for a taste of the divine.

“Silent Night. Holy Night.” Nothing else may be needed.

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

Crisis? What Crisis?

“The old mergers were fueled by survival; the new mergers are driven by mission and vision.”

Christianity Today published an article last week titled, “The New Math of Mergers” where they described a shift in how church mergers are being seen. Thirty years ago they described how mergers were usually seen as a sign of failure—two or more churches that felt forced to join together to ward off a potential closure. “ICU mergers: the last stop before death” is how the article described them.

Today, MultiSite Solutions, an organization that works with congregations considering merging have said the narrative appears to be shifting. While some congregations still feel forced to consider merging in order to survive, they said a shared sense of mission and vision is driving the majority of today’s church mergers.

This naturally caught my eye. Partly because my role is as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission and anything that uses those two words together will get my attention. But more importantly I think this shift represents a real hope for our time. When mission and vision are the driving forces behind what we do just about anything is possible. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about initiatives for survival. We do them, but begrudgingly. Vision and mission, however, are the catalysts for energy and passion.

moneyWhen you think about it we Presbyterians in this beautiful Cascades region are blessed with an abundance of resources. We have nearly 14,000 members and own a hundred pieces of property and buildings. Our leaders and members are some of the most educated and engaged people of our communities. We have influence on community boards, in government, and with hundreds of non-profits.

Our issue is not that we don’t have resources; our issue is that we often allow ourselves to be burdened by a narrative around declining resources forgetting that we still have an abundance of resources!

glass half fullI believe our curse is that we have a memory of how it used to be. In the glass half empty/glass half full image we can’t help but see the glass as half empty since we still remember when it was full and overflowing!

But what if we erased the memory of what was and just focused on what is. What if we didn’t worry about whether we were declining or growing and just said, “These are the resources we have to work with for the mission of Jesus Christ in our world right now.”

I remember a beautiful moment nearly a decade ago when I was working with Eastminster in NE Portland. Eastminster had experienced what we now consider the normative decline of a mainline Protestant church. At one time, their small church was bursting at the seams with children. When I arrived they were still bemoaning the fact that they didn’t have children to fill the four spacious Sunday school classrooms.

Then one day it all changed.

eastminster garden
Part of the Eastminster legacy, a 100-plot community garden on vacant land

They shifted their narrative and instead of focusing on the lack of Sunday school children they focused on the presence of four empty classrooms. They asked the question, “How could we use the resources we DO have for the mission of Jesus Christ in our community?” Within ten months of asking that question, in partnership with non-profits, the city and the county, they opened up a winter family homeless shelter serving sixty people per night for the coldest six months of the year. When they quit focusing on what they didn’t have and started focusing on what they DID have mission and ministry took off like wildfire.

I think the experience at Eastminster fits what the consulting group, MultiSite Solutions, is discovering about church mergers. No longer are church mergers seen as a failure of ministry; increasingly they are being seen as the right strategy to deepen mission and ministry in the community.

empty crossI think the fear that often paralyzes us is that many of our churches are going to become increasingly empty. But maybe emptiness is more an opportunity than a crisis. Maybe emptiness is an asset rather than a deficit. “And Jesus emptied himself on the cross…”

I encourage you to ask two simple questions—no more, no less:

  • What is the mission that God is calling your congregation to in your community, and
  • What spiritual and physical assets do you have to carry out that mission?

Don’t worry about what you don’t have. Concentrate on what you DO have.

Let God do the rest.

“Will You Come Out and Play?”

Work and PlayDid you know that Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, Slack, and Groupon were created as side projects by Google employees? Google allows 20% of their employees’ time (one full day every week) to be dedicated to side projects—anything that feeds the creativity, innovation, and fun new ideas that their individual employees might have. No approval by the higher ups is necessary to start working on a project on company time. (Note: Google has also faced an employee revolt in recent months over their alleged cooperation with federal agencies to crack down on immigration. Just because they may have something to teach us doesn’t mean we don’t have something to teach them!).

But, their creative work environment got me thinking. Our churches typically have a number of committees—Mission and Evangelism, Stewardship and Budget, Worship and Music, Justice and Peace, Education and Fellowship, and Building and Grounds. But I have never seen an actual Research and Development Committee in the church. Of course, if doesn’t mean that innovation isn’t happening within the present ecclesiastical structures of our churches, but it does reveal that innovation is not so important that it gets its own special committee!

bubblesRecently our presbytery has adopted an increased emphasis on creativity and “trying new things” in something I am delightfully calling our Innovation Playground. We are encouraging a culture of innovation by shifting our presbytery away from the role of gatekeepers and more toward being permission-givers. It doesn’t mean anything and everything goes, but it does mean that we want our congregations and our leaders to think more about what might be possible than about what might be too far-fetched and outside the bounds of acceptability.

In a quick search of this topic I discovered an article that stated that for-profit companies assume that R & D has to be part of their business plan if they are to remain competitive in the market. That same article stated that non-profits and churches rarely placed the same emphasis on R & D. Phil Cooke, a Christian consultant and TV producer said it well when he stated:

If the marketplace feels innovation is important for something as trivial as laundry detergent, shouldn’t we experiment when so much more is at stake?”

I can imagine the arguments against innovation. “If we already have the perfect product, isn’t it more about marketing our product better than it is about changing our product?” If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13: 8) then why would we need a Research and Development committee? Would we not be better served by a Public Relations Committee.

But I would suggest that while “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” the structure that has been privileged with bringing Jesus Christ to the world must change. Jesus Christ is the same; the form of church can’t be.

lute
Ancient lute

We no longer speak in Greek or Latin or German or even in King James’ English. We went from depending on priests to read God’s Word for us to being able to read it for ourselves. At one time, we worshiped God with “lute and lyre” and now we worship God with organ and guitar. Our musical offerings have shifted from Gregorian chants to hymns to contemporary praise music to Taize. We have gone from paying our pastors with pigs, pies and parsonages to pledges in the plate and now to PayPal.

In other words, without innovation, Jesus Christ would be the same and so would the church. Without innovation, the gospel of Jesus Christ would remain locked in our 2,000 year-old buildings and in our ancient tradition as the world’s best kept secret. Without innovation, a remnant people would still have Jesus Christ and the world wouldn’t.

  • Where is research and development placed in your congregation?
  • Where is innovation honored and nurtured?
  • Do you make room in your congregation for your most creative, out-of-the-box, far-fetched, radical idea people?
  • Do you have an Innovation Playground where your members are allowed to just go out play, dream and imagine?

Google, one of the world’s most successful technology companies, allows their employees to dedicate 20% of their time to side projects.

I am sure Google doesn’t get everything right as recent media reports suggest. But on this issue, they just might have something to teach us.

Side projects, Innovation Playground, and R and D committees.

Is God inviting us to come out and play?

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

Gratitude is a Way of Life

Ok. Here is the deal. Three weeks ago my car was stolen. From the presbytery parking lot. During work hours. Geez! (Not quite what I said, actually).

GMC
In Memoriam, 2017-2019

It has rattled my world. Not because my car was stolen, but because this particular car was stolen. I have always bought cars based on what I could afford and never purchased a new car. This was the first time I bought a car because it had everything I wanted—enough horsepower to pull a 16’ camper, drove like a car, room for two grandchildren and all their goodies, and AWD for those trips over the mountains in the middle of winter to visit churches or stomp through the forest on snowshoes. And it was new! How fun.

After four decades of living with what I could afford I finally claimed my place in the world and said, “This is what I want!” And the Universe shot back, “Too bad! You don’t get what you want.” I will admit that this minor injustice stung.

runningBut a surprising thing has been happening. I am becoming strangely grateful for this cruel interruption to my life. At the time of the violation I was in the midst of considering whether I would drop out of my DMin program with Portland Seminary. My life was flying along at a pace that was clearly unsustainable. I was showing signs of mental and emotional fatigue.

The lyrics to Dan Fogelberg’s song Better Change kept traveling across my mind. I found the words nagging me like a divine voice trying to get my attention:

I can see you in the distance

And you’re heading for a fall

Sinking deeper by the minute

You’re about to lose it all…

I was already starting to heed the voice when my “dream car” got stolen. It was like the last straw or the final nail in the coffin to get me to admit that I was racing along at a pace that could only lead to one eventual outcome—an emotional crash and burn.

Was the stolen car a bad event? I don’t know for sure. It certainly has been a disruptive event. It has been troubling and unsettling. But was it bad? I can’t say that it has been bad. In fact, in many ways it has been good. It may have been the one startling, shock-and-awe moment that I needed to wake up to how hard I had been pushing myself. I haven’t liked having my car stolen, but I can also say that I am becoming strangely grateful for this sudden needed rupture in my life. I did drop out of the DMin program and am slowing things down considerably.

TurkeyI realize that this is not your typical Thanksgiving message about being grateful for all the blessings God has bestowed upon you this year. Gratitude for children and grandchildren and marriages and graduations and new jobs and a bumper year for grapes or hops or hemp or whatever you grow.

We often split the world into good things and bad things giving thanks for the good things and hoping that next year will have fewer of the bad things. We think of some things as good events and other things as bad events and pray that God knows the difference between the two when God hands out annual blessings.

winter and red treesBut I wonder if it isn’t quite that simple. I wonder if the actual reality is that there are some things that we prefer more than others; there are things we like and dislike; there are things that bring us more satisfaction and less satisfaction. But to actually call those same things good and bad may be trampling on God’s territory. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” begins Ecclesiastes 3 before running through a list of apparent opposites and calling them all good in the seasons of God’s life. To prefer something is just plain human. To call it good or bad is to make a divine judgment.

I will apologize if you were hoping for a more traditional Happy Thanksgiving blog. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t wish you Happy Thanksgiving for all the “good” things in your life while at the same time resenting this moment when I am still a little pissed off that God gave me a blessing I didn’t ask for.

I really do mean it. I want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. No matter what you have experienced this year—new life and births, deaths and losses, new possibilities and dying dreams, buying your first new car or losing your first new car, enjoying your first kiss or lingering over your last kiss—I wish for you a grateful heart.

Gratitude is a way of life. We can’t control what happens to us or doesn’t happen to us. But we can control how much gratitude we feel for it.

Happy Thanksgiving, my good people.

Life is good. All of it.

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

Endure or Enjoy?

The Reverend Michelle Olson made a well-planned slip during her sermon to the commissioners of the presbytery this past weekend. Preaching on Isaiah 65: 17-25 about God creating “a new heavens and a new earth” she was quoting the 22nd verse regarding God’s chosen ones “enjoying the work of their hands.” Instead, what came out was “My chosen ones shall long endure…oops!” Whether it is was planned or not the message was crystal clear—how often do we endure the unfinished work of our lives rather than enjoy the journey of working and creating?

“Endure or enjoy,” that is the question.

ASUS 4 282
Entering the 450-mile Nevada desert, 2011

I smile when I think of this revealing dichotomy. Those who know me best will tell you that I have an unusual capacity for endurance (I crossed the Nevada desert in the heat of August on my bicycle eight years ago and cycled up to Everest Base Camp two years ago). But, I am a neophyte when it comes to simply enjoying what is right in front of me.

Strangely enough, I do recall when I was crossing the Nevada desert that the first answer in the Shorter Catechism kept showing up in my brain—“The chief end of man is to glorify God and ENJOY Him forever.” It seemed like while I was proving my remarkable endurance to the world my soul was needling me saying, “Any chance you are going to just enjoy the ride too?”

My children often pressure me to not take life so seriously and just enjoy more. I reassure them, “That’s one of my goals this year–to work at having more fun!” I am a lost cause, I know.

But I think this issue of “enjoying God” or “enjoying the work of our hands” is more than just a reminder to not work too hard or approach every challenge as if it is something to be endured. I think there is a deeper God-thing going on here.

Buechner quoteI am reminded of my favorite Frederick Buechner quote about vocation where he writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” He uses the word gladness, but I wonder if the words delight, joy and even enjoyment are worthy synonyms.

I write this because many of us have fallen into the belief and practice that ministry in this time is about working harder and enduring longer. “If we can just hang in there a little longer God will turn this ship around,” we unconsciously say to ourselves. The Bible tells us that patience is a virtue and with patience often comes the belief that endurance must follow. In tough times we tend to turn toward endurance rather than fun.

DelightBut what if patience and enjoyment lived as comfortably with each other as patience and endurance? What if living with the “not yet” of life actually frees us up to have more fun along the way rather than feeling like we need to buckle in and buckle down for the long haul? What if doing those things that bring us delight and enjoyment are exactly the things that God wants for us when things are toughest?

I will be honest with you. I am a worker. I have an unusual capacity for endurance. If I believe that a problem just needs a little more effort and determination that is what I am going to do. I don’t have a problem working harder to solve life challenges. It’s in my psychological DNA.

But, as I have repeated to our staff and our presbytery leadership many times, “I don’t believe we are going to get through this time simply by working harder.” We need to think differently, act differently and believe differently.

That’s what I heard in Rev. Olson’s lovely and wise sermon.

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” states the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession.

“Endure or enjoy?” Rev. Olson asked us.

We Presbyterians know how to work hard. Maybe our growing edge is learning how to play, have fun and just enjoy simply for enjoyment’s sake.

Or maybe I am just preaching to myself. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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

In Christ We Meet

Dear Friends,

Cannon beach
Arriving at Cannon Beach for October doctoral intensive retreat

More than two months ago I reported that I had enrolled in and begun a Doctor of Ministry program at the Quaker-based, George Fox University. In that blog post I invited you on a transformational journey. I said that I expected that in order to lead and walk with our presbytery in this time I could not expect the presbytery to take a transformational journey unless I was also willing to open myself to transformation as a leader as well.

After a month of many conversations, prayer and reflection I have decided not to continue the program. I have reinforced in the presbytery that we live in a time of experimentation and innovation. My stepping into the program was based on the belief that I needed to invest in a structured and disciplined transformational program. As with all experiments one steps out boldly in faith and then trusts the process of unfolding. All decisions teach us something in this process.

It quickly became clear to me that committing an extra fifteen hours a week to reading and study was not going to serve my goals toward spiritual transformation. It became clear that my investment did not need to be in more study, but in more relational contact with presbytery leadership and churches and more self-care (read as more time with my grandchildren!)

Cannon Beach hike
View from cliff at Cannon Beach during a Mary Oliver silent meditation hike

I am sure there will be more to share down the road about this decision and what it means for me and our presbytery. But for now I just wanted to share the poem that I wrote the night before I reported this news to the other fourteen colleagues who had become close companions on this journey. For more than two months, we have shared ourselves in raw and vulnerable ways and I needed some way to reflect on what these fourteen loving souls meant to me. Here is my parting poem written to them (slightly edited):

In Christ We Meet

In Christ we meet
Our lives are but a moment
Our love is but a gift
Our time is God’s alone

The thread long or short
The window clear or foggy
The path unknown or revealed

Like waves we come and we go
We share our truth and we listen
We open our hearts and we trust

We were together before we met
We knew each other before we spoke
Our destinies were already colliding

In Christ we meet
In Christ we shall remain