When God is not Assumed

I think we need to take notice.

I regularly receive the weekly On Being Project e-newsletter, The Pause, by Krista Tippett. Many of the weekly themes mirror themes that regularly show up in our pulpits and our religious education programs—belonging, silence and solitude, humility, empathy, connection, etc.

Good graffittiI know we preachers and teachers are always looking for good material that can deepen our understanding of a certain Biblical text. We will use poetry, the lyrics from a song, an overheard comment on the bus, quotes from commentaries, a billboard message, and movie dialogue. Most of us aren’t all that concerned that the material comes from secular sources even as it reinforces Biblical and religious truths.

Certainly much of the material that is found in the The Pause would be good fodder for Sunday sermons. And I would recommend any preacher or teacher to take notice of what they have to say about a variety of topics. But that is not what I mean when I say “I think we need to take notice.”

What I think we need to notice is that it seems that On Being has their finger on the pulse of emerging trends around religion and spirituality. I know they would not advertise themselves as a religious organization or publication. But, regularly, as they explore basic human themes (like belonging, humility and empathy) they turn to religious scholars and writers, priests, pastors, rabbis, and spiritual leaders for insight and wisdom into their chosen theme. On Being is not a religious organization, but they highly value the wisdom of religious traditions. This is important and worth taking notice.

Just take a look at this list of religious figures who have been either quoted or interviewed in the last few newsletters. You likely recognize a few names from your own religious and spiritual seeking:

onbeing group
An On Being conversation

Here is what I want us to notice. In our churches we often start with God and make the connection to the human experience. God is assumed. God is the starting point. What On Being does is start with the human experience and then draws on many different lenses to understand those experiences. The religious lens is not ignored; it is one voice among many, and an important voice at that. Religion is more a resource for the human experience rather than an end in itself.

I have titled this post When God is Not Assumed. Certainly this title can be applied to the The On Being Project and their weekly newsletter. But I am also finding evidence that our churches are increasingly becoming places “where faith and doubt, belief and unbelief” are equally welcome. Like The On Being Project, many of our churches are starting to soften the “God is assumed here” message that seems to automatically accompany any perception that one has of church. I see subtle signs that our churches are less concerned with right belief than they are with accepting people where they are at—theistic and a-theistic, alike!

In our 1001 New Worshiping Communities we are increasingly finding that a belief in God is rarely a prerequisite for participation. Our new worshiping communities are places of hospitality and welcome for people who have questions, who share similar struggles, interests and lifestyles, and who may even flirt closely with agnosticism and atheism. The point is that God is no longer the obvious starting point. God is more of a question than an answer.

God is not the assumption. God is the gift!

Table conversationsSo here is an idea. The On Being Project has an initiative called the Civil Conversations Project. If you are interested in provided a safe and sacred place for people in your community to have important conversations around things that matter you might consider this. What I like about this is that they avoid the usual sacred vs. secular dichotomy that we often see.

You know what I mean. If you go to a church class you usually assume that God will be the starting point or, at least, the central point. If you go to a community class God might not even be welcome. I have seen this personally happen at meetups where all viewpoints are welcome EXCEPT religious viewpoints. Ugh…

Much of our experience is rooted in an either/or world. It’s safe, expected and assumed to talk about God in church. And it’s often dangerous to talk about God anyplace else.

On Being and the Civil Conversations Project breaks through that either/or thinking. In their world God is not assumed, but God is certainly welcomed as a gift.

Our churches are asking, “How do we connect with an increasingly secular community and at the same time not lose our religious identity?”

My friends, On Being is asking a similar question and showing all kinds of success. They may be showing us the way forward.

I think we need to take notice!

From Outlier to Forerunner

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

They are watching!

Before you skip this blog as just another one of those anti-government, Big Brother, paranoid diatribes let me assure you I am not trying to scare you. I am actually trying inspire you with an extra-large double-scoop serving of hope!

Last week I came across an article that confirmed a hunch that I have carried for many years. Those of us in the Pacific Northwest are being watched. When it comes to religious trends, spiritual entrepreneurship and hints at what is coming next we in the Pacific Northwest are on people’s radars. The title of the article simply stated, “The Pacific Northwest is the American Religious Future.”

Their premise was that the rise of the Nones (those who claim no religious affiliation) continues to be a national trend that only seems to be gaining momentum. In 1970 5% of the U.S. population claimed no religious affiliation; today 23.1% of Americans claim no religious affiliation. In Oregon and Washington that number is 31% and 32% and it continues its regular and persistent rise.

The truth is that Vermont and New Hampshire actually bypassed the Pacific Northwest in the percentage of unaffiliated religious adherents a few years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the perception that the Pacific Northwest is unique when it comes to religious loyalty. That perception has probably been earned by the low religiosity that dates back into our 19th century pioneering days. The Northeast is only a recent arrival to this party.

OutliersBut I especially want to highlight that this article makes the point that Oregon and Washington are increasingly being seen as forerunners to the rest of the country. This is important because for most of our history we have been seen as outliers. Now we are seen as the folks who are standing in the front of the line.

Nobody is predicting that the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated is going to decrease. Any reputable religious futurist will tell you that America seems to be following the trends in Europe and Great Britain where only 22% of Europeans attend church at least once a month and 53% of Brits are religiously unaffiliated.

The growth of the religiously unaffiliated in our country is an established and accepted fact. It is no wonder that people are thinking of Oregon as less of an outlier and more as a possible forerunner to a new religious America. People are watching and asking, “What can we learn from how the Pacific Northwest creatively addresses and engages with the increasing percentage of “Nones” in our communities.”

Of course this is probably not news to most of you. And it is not a sudden realization to me as well.

I write this because we in Cascades Presbytery are searching for the compelling vision that will draw us all together on a shared journey of Christian mission, witness and ministry. I think this is part of our story and part of the emerging vision that is unfolding before us.

It would arrogant of me and of us to proclaim to our brothers and sisters around the country that we have anointed ourselves as the pioneers and the incarnation of the future church. I don’t think it is our place to claim that we necessarily are the forerunners of a new religious America. But I do think it is our responsibility to answer the call that has clearly been placed at our feet.

The fact of the matter is America is steadily seeing growing numbers of the religiously unaffiliated. And the fact of the matter is that this beautiful area of the country we call the Pacific Northwest has led the nation in that demographic for more than a century.

The rest of religious America is asking the question, “How are we going to address and engage with the increasing numbers of religiously unaffiliated in our communities?” As they ask that question they naturally turn their attention to Oregon and Washington and ask, “How are they doing it and what can we learn from them?”

puzzle piecesAt this month’s presbytery meeting the Presbytery Leadership Commission will be making their report. Part of their report is to communicate to the presbytery that one of two major mission priorities for the 2019-20 period is to nurture a culture of innovation in this presbytery in an initiative that we are calling INNOVATION LAB. Based on the parable of the talents and the ministry “to the least of these” both in Matthew 25 we are going to encourage our congregations and our presbytery to become a lab for creative ministries and spiritual entrepreneurship.

Of course, this is nothing new for us. What is different is that we in Cascades have often been seen as outliers—doing ministry a little differently and being not quite in step with the conventions of the rest of the denomination. We need to get used to the fact that increasingly the rest of the country may be looking to us more as forerunners and pioneers leading us to a new religious America. We are no longer just the weird ones in a state most of the country still can’t pronounce correctly (Ora-gone!).

Personally, I don’t care all that much whether the rest of the country sees us as forerunners and leaders in this emerging new time. What I do care about is doing ministry faithfully in our area and with our people. What I do care about is addressing and engaging with the community in which we find ourselves.

It just happens to be that who we are is what the rest of the country is becoming. And they seem to know it.

We have a responsibility to clear the path and pave the way. We have a responsibility to be pioneers.

Thank God, pioneering is a way of life for us here.

To Do or Not to Do

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

To do or not to do.

That is the question.

Mom Memorial 2
The memorial altar

As I write this, today is Tuesday. It is the first day back from Wisconsin after taking more than a week to attend to my mother’s last few days, clean out her apartment and gather with family to memorialize her and celebrate her life. It has been an emotional roller coaster of grief and loss, relief, and thanksgiving and gratitude.

My time sheet says that I was gone from the office with a combination of sick leave and bereavement leave. Today my time sheet will read that I gave the presbytery a full day’s worth of work.

But it isn’t true. My time sheet is lying.

I arrived home late on Sunday night and knew well enough not to schedule work the next day. I knew that I would need time to shop for groceries, do wash, read through mail and simply settle in once again. I gave myself a full day to recover from my mom’s death and all the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional effort that went in to taking this journey with her and my family. I knew that I would need a full day of recovery before settling back into presbytery work.

As I planned my first day back I filled my calendar with promises to reschedule all the appointments I had postponed when I suddenly flew out on a few hours’ notice. I had a list of things to do that was at least twice as long as my usual, every day list. Which made sense, really. I had been gone for over a week and I wanted to use this first day back as an opportunity to get back up to speed–as if my mom’s death was just an inconvenient interruption to my real life.

walking through mudBut I will be honest. I feel like I am walking through emotional mud. Small tasks feel gargantuan. On my keyboard my fingers are typing out all the right words, but my heart and my soul feel like they never quite made it back from Wisconsin and my mom’s bedside. I am here in Portland, but I am not really here. I have flown my body back, but my soul is still hovering somewhere between my mom’s bedside and the funeral home where we celebrated her life.

I came into the office today prepared to get back to the tasks I had put off. I came in ready to do, but all I really feel capable of today is to be. To be present to the loss of my mother. To honor the heaviness in my heart and soul. To be honest about how much energy it takes just to mourn and to feel. To allow myself to be realistic about how much I am capable of doing so that I can make room for the work of just being.

It is interesting that we call ourselves human beings, yet most of us are hard-wired to be human doings. Our sense of identity and self-worth is often tied up more in what we do than in who we aim to be. In many cultures the first question asked of a stranger is, “Who are your people?” We all know that one of the first questions we Americans ask  is, “What do you do?” It would not be okay for me to simply answer that question right now, “I am my mother’s son and I grieve.” No, that is just a temporary interruption to my real identity as a human doing, seems to be my misguided assumption.

I arrived back from Wisconsin intent on picking up where I left off. I had lots to do before I left and even more to do when I returned. I was ready to get caught back up as if my week absence and my mother’s death would have a negligible effect on my life and my schedule.

Mom Memorial 1
Collage of my mother’s life

But the truth is my world is different now. I don’t think I even know what I mean when I say that, but my heart knows it is true. My mother’s absence changes my place in the world. I can’t yet tell how it will change or what this new world will look like, but my body seems to intuitively know that with my mother’s passing a world also passed away. I am in a new world today and I don’t even know what it is called.

I write this today because I want to be honest with you. I am not being paid to grieve. I know that. I am paid to work. When I walk into this office I expect myself to get down to the business of doing. But the truth is, at least for the moment, I am going through the motions of doing while my soul steals precious work time in order to be, just be, truly be.

My time sheet says that my bereavement is officially over. My souls says that it’s only just begun.

Yes, there is lots to do. But right now I am called to just be.

When Serving Is Just the Beginning

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

Eek! That language needs to be changed!

I was having a conversation during the fellowship time after worship with one of our more involved ruling elders in the presbytery. In the middle of the conversation, she quickly apologized and abruptly left saying, “I am kind of a stickler for language. I need to catch this man while he is here.” Five minutes later she came back and showed me what had felt so urgent. She was holding the draft of a brochure that had on the front in bold letters, “Serving the Community.” She had crossed out the words “Serving” and had inserted “Engaging with…”

She went on to explain that the word serving carried with it a subtle patronizing attitude. We in the educated, mainline Protestant, middle to upper middle-income churches just assume that we are the ones who should be serving as if we have something that those “less fortunate” than us desire, yearn for and even deserve.

white churchThis is tricky business. Because the truth is most of us in our Presbyterian churches have been blessed out of proportion to the rest of our society and certainly our world when it comes to material security and educational opportunities. I am reminded of the statistic that even the poorest Americans are still richer than about 90% of the rest of the world. Which means the typical Presbyterian is sinfully rich by world standards.

So I understand this almost automatic assumption that it is our duty, our obligation, our Christian calling to “serve and not to be served.” To be as well-off as we are without a sense that we owe some of our time, a portion of our resources and our compassion for others less well-off would be sinful and shameful.

But I think my friend, our faithful ruling elder, is on to something. This issue was important enough to her that she almost ran away from our conversation mid-sentence to make sure that she made the point that her church’s messaging to the community was not about “serving,” but “engaging with the community.”

Sunnyside HouseI immediately got what she was saying. The night before I was participating in the Annual Spring Concert of the Portland Peace Choir, a group I joined this last November. Our theme this year was “Home.” One of our members staffs the Sunnyside Warming Shelter in SE Portland and she suggested that with the theme of home we should consider partnering with the Sunnyside Community House (A United Methodist Ministry). Look at the language that she used. Not serving the clients of Sunnyside, but partnering with.

Last Saturday the Portland Peace Choir and the Sunnyside Community House performed together a repertoire of songs about home and belonging. PPC sang a set, then four of the houseless Sunnyside clients performed solo pieces on various instruments, and PPC sang another set of songs like “You Inspire Me” and “Show Me Love.”

Then came the finale.

The Sunnyside clients joined us up front as we sang together “Home” by Greg Holden and Drew Pearson—the thirty members of the PPC choir rocking and singing on risers and the four Sunnyside clients accompanying us on piano, guitar and drums (or should I say that they were playing and the choir provided the back up voices!). There it was, “engaging WITH the community.” I know our choir was served just as much as we served them. Together, the housed and houseless, performed a concert about what it meant to “be home.”

homeless guitar player
One of the many “Matt’s” on the street.

It was especially poignant for me because a few days before our performance I was forced to accept what a gift we had been given by the Sunnyside Community House clients. “Matt” was one of the guitarists who accompanied us at our Wednesday night dress rehearsal. It was clear that given his circumstances that getting to a rehearsal was no easy task. He came in on a bike with a guitar over his shoulder and a little ragged from making the transition from street life to starring musician.

The next night I was on my way to a meeting when I came around a corner and saw a tent tucked neatly into the side entryway of a NE Portland business just a few feet from a busy thoroughfare. Next to the tent was a guitar in its protective black case. And emerging from the tent was “Matt” preparing his space for another night hidden in the shadows of Portland’s urban landscape.

Two nights later “Matt” and his friends and the Portland Peace Choir were singing together in a performance dedicated to the theme of home, belonging, connection, justice, and love.

Here is what I want to say.

MLK DreamThat night we all became preachers. We all became bearers of the message of home and belonging. That night we were all equals. That night no one was more fortunate or less fortunate. That night we were all brothers and sisters trying to find our way in this crazy, screwed up world. That night we all sang about home—some of us who live comfortably in our 4-bedroom houses and some of us who emerged from tents only hours before. We were a community—if only for a night.

I love that I am in a denomination committed to serving the community. But serving the community often carries with it an attitude of who is in and who is out, of who has all the goodies and who doesn’t, of who should be serving and who needs to be served.

Serving the community is wonderfully honorable.

Engaging with the community is a sign of God’s radically inclusive kingdom.

We are all God’s people whether we live in houses or tents.

We often serve out of our excess and abundance. We engage when we are ready to share our common humanity.

We are all in this together–everyone! I mean EVERYONE!

Cascades, you rock!

The Presbytery of the Cascades is especially a source of pride for me right now!

fuller center houseA few months ago the Fuller Center contacted me about one of their major fundraising programs. Their mission is to “build and repair homes in partnership with families in need.” This particular fundraiser is called the Fuller Center Bike Adventure.

This year they will sponsor two events—a 3,500-mile Seattle to D.C. trip and a 4,000-mile Parks and Peaks ride that begins and ends in Portland and includes the Redwoods, Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, the Arches, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone an Glacier National Parks in an ambitious counter-clockwise circle through some of the most rugged terrain in the West. I took an immediate interest since I did a similar 4,000-mile bike ride in 2011 in the clockwise direction through much of the same territory. Like them my pedal pilgrimage began and ended in Portland.

This first week of their ambitious adventure travels completely within the bounds of Cascades Presbytery. When I talked to Connor, the tour organizer, I had this crazy idea: “What if Cascades could accommodate the twenty-five riders and their support team all eight nights that they were riding through Oregon?” At our March presbytery meeting I reported that four Cascades churches had already stepped up and I encouraged our churches in the remaining communities to consider hosting the riders.


Lower Yellowstone Falls
Lower Yellowstone Falls, 2011

I am pleased to report that the Presbytery of the Cascades will be hosting the Fuller Center Bike Adventure tour EVERY night that they are in the bounds of our presbytery! I am especially pleased because as a touring cyclist myself I know how much I have appreciated it when churches and their members have hosted me after a long, sweaty day of cranking out 80 miles on the bike.

This is a shout-out to our congregations who will be hosting the Fuller Center Parks and Peaks Bike Adventure.

May 24               Colonial Heights, Portland

May 25               First, McMinnville

May 26               First, Salem

May 27               Chapel by the Sea, Lincoln City

May 28               Church of the Siuslaw, Florence

May 29               First, Bandon

May 30               First, Gold Beach

August 10           Westminster, Portland

But more than just a self-congratulatory note to us I want to use this opportunity to wonder out loud about whether we might be seeing the emergence of new forms of Christian community. I know what you are thinking, “How does a fun bike ride around the country qualify as Christian community?” But don’t dismiss this too quickly. There may be more to this than first meets the eye.

Think about it. This group of twenty-five riders will, for a limited window of eleven weeks and 77 days (which is like 1 ½ years of weekly church attendance!), do many of the same things that we do in our churches.

They are involved in MISSION. Every rider must raise a minimum of $1,500 that will be sent directly to different Fuller Center sites for the restoration and building of homes in partnership with families in need.

natures sanctuary
Nature’s sanctuary

They WORSHIP. Every Sunday they are encouraged to worship in the congregation where they have just spent the previous night sleeping in Sunday school rooms and on padded pews. But the bulk of their worship will be cycling through God’s country, enjoying the beauty of oceans and the grandeur of mountains, crossing desolate deserts and stripping down to wash in a frigid stream. Remember, God created the Garden of Eden before God dreamed up steeples and narthexes! Nature is God’s sanctuary.

They EVANGELIZE. At every stop they ask for an opportunity to share their mission with their host churches of how they are called to help families in need restore and build homes for themselves.

They are involved in a deep expression of FELLOWSHIP. It’s one thing to enjoy Christian fellowship around cookies and coffee on Sunday. It’s another thing to spend 24 hours/day for eleven weeks, cycling with, eating with, sharing sleeping quarters, and learning to be a community that tolerates each other, supports each other, and learns to appreciate and love each other over 4,000 miles of glorious and gut-wrenching cycling. These trips are like an intensive in community-building!

And to top it off the Fuller Bike Adventure tours are open to everyone. The cyclists are dedicated Christians as well as those who just want a great adventure while supporting an important mission. But all (Christian and non-Christian alike) are asked to honor the reason for the ambitious tour—to support families in need of homes all in the name of Christ. This is Kingdom of God stuff!

blessing of the bikes
Blessing of the bikes, Portland,

I want to thank Cascades for stepping up and supporting the Fuller Center Bike Adventure. I love that this honors our traditional Presbyterian mission and does it in a particularly Pacific Northwest style. Christian mission and bikes go really well together in Oregon.

But might it be even more than that? Are we also seeing the emergence of a new style of Christian community? People coming together to live together, cycle together, learn together, struggle together for a temporary experience rooted in mission, worship, evangelism, and fellowship.

Sure sounds like church to me.

Well done Cascades. I am proud of us.


The Community Bandwagon

I am still on my “community first, church second” roll from the “Re-Designing Church for the 21st Century” article that I posted two weeks ago. One of my readers wanted more than just a good theory; he wanted specifics. His comment ended with this challenge to me: “Now. What. Do. We. Do. About It?!?”

Cascades logoGiven that we have 96 churches in our presbytery and a broad diversity I often don’t give specific advice knowing that what will work for one church won’t work for another. Better to offer a general concept and unleash the creativity that is specific to each individual congregation, is my thinking. Besides that I have often favored being the one to simply ask the question and pose the possibility giving God as much room to enter into the dialogue as possible.

But this is one area where congregations often feel stuck. Some churches will want some assurance that if they put their efforts toward community first that it will result in a stronger, more vital and growing congregation. Other churches are willing to give up the expectation that there has to be a direct tie between community-building and church growth. But they still wonder, “How do we do it? How do we go about building community in an institution based on membership?”

I want to tell you that it isn’t as hard as you may think. The hard part is putting energy into something that may not directly result in membership, church growth, and more support for the budget. In churches where there is already limited energy it is natural to expect that any efforts at reaching people in the community will result in the strengthening the membership of the church. Letting go of that expectation is the much more difficult hurdle than actually building community.

meetupThere are signs all around us that people are desperate to build community and to form into shared networks of mutual support and learning. If I Google Meetup.com it will show me that there are over 2,000 groups within a 25-mile radius of Portland with groups ranging from as few as ten people to over 2,000 people. There are people meeting to hike together, study sacred literature, learn to line dance, travel around the world, and even explore nude beaches (this is not an endorsement, by the way, only an observation!).

More and more we are experiencing churches who sponsor community-building events not for the sake of enticing those attendees into membership, but simply for the sake of providing a safe, nurturing and rich environment for people to connect, learn, develop relationships.

My two previous articles highlighted the need to think about “community first, church second” as we live into this this 21st century as the Church. My reader stated strongly, “Now. What. Do. We. Do. About It?!?” Here are some ideas that come from my experience and exploring.

  • Start a Meetup.com group in your area initiated by someone in your church who has a particular interest or passion’
  • Look through the meetup.com list and choose one or two groups that you would be willing to sponsor either by the use of your building, paying the minimal monthly fees, or partnering with the group on select activities;
  • Partner with your neighbors to organize dinner parties somewhat along the lines of The Dinner Party, that caters to young adults who have experienced loss;
  • Scour the list of community events and groups on Craigslist to see what activities and groups you could add additional support for and partner with;
  • Work with Oregon-based “The Hearth Community” to sponsor community story-telling events. My experience at Bethany, Grants Pass tells me that despite people not attending church they are still deeply interested in a community drawn together by stories (we live out of the Biblical story).
  • Check out the following emerging communities that should give you more ideas:

For more information and background on the emergence of spiritually-based communities that are forming beyond the church read “How We Gather”

I will repeat: The hard is work is accepting that building community won’t necessarily mean membership.

But building community is not all that difficult.

It’s what people want.

And what people want happens–either with us or without us.

My Little “Aha” Moment

I can’t wait to share with you my little “aha” moment I had this past week. You might recall that last week I went easy on myself and forwarded an article to you titled “Re-Designing Church for the 21st Century.” I was in Wisconsin visiting my mom who is in end of life care. I had a great deal on my emotional plate and just didn’t have the mental or emotional space to sink into a thoughtful blog. I came across this article and knew that the content would do my work for me.

Campfire communityThe article highlighted four assumptions that feed into the successful “re-designing of the church,” but it was the first point that really caught my attention. “Community first, church second,” was listed as the most important assumption. I right away attached myself to it as it reflected my own experience in ministry over the past 25 years and also felt right for our time.

But the “aha” moment came when I reflected on one of the common themes I highlight when I am consulting with churches about our changing communities and the shifting religious values of our society. I almost always frame my comments in the broader context that what is happening is that we are moving from being the church in the middle of Christendom to being an outpost in a mission field.

The difference is this.

In Christendom, there was enough homogeneity between the church and our community that we could assume that people would come to us as long as we unlocked our doors on Sunday and smiled as we shook their hands. In the mission field we acknowledge that the values and lifestyles between us and our communities are different enough that we need to go where the people are and meet them where they are at. We can’t expect them to come to us; we have to go to them!

And this is where I had my “aha” moment.

missionary schoolFor decades we have done amazing mission work in countries all over the world ranging from teaching good farming practices, promoting clean water policies, digging irrigation canals, collaborating on issues of reconciliation, providing emergency medical care, building schools, and on and on and on. Really good, remarkable, Christ-embodied work!

What all of these mission projects have in common is that they seek to meet the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the people where they are at. Rather than demanding that people look like, pray like and believe like us we do mission work in a way that embodies the living presence of Christ in their context, their language and their culture.

A few years ago I heard the story of an African pastor who had come over to America. This pastor was meeting with an American pastor and the American pastor immediately launched into a query about how his church could be most helpful to the African pastor and his community. The African pastor quickly cut him off and said, “No, no, no! You don’t get it. We have economic impoverishment in my country, but you Americans have a deep spiritual impoverishment. I am here to do mission work with you; not the other way around!”

This was my “aha” moment.

The great spiritual need, the deep spiritual impoverishment of our culture is around connection and community. We have AWD cars, air conditioned homes, flat screened TVs, pension plans, and more technology than our little brains can assimilate.

luxury and isolationBut we also suffer from social isolation and from a deeply concerning alienation from each other and our own deeper selves. We often don’t even know the names of our neighbors and are more likely to call road side assistance than our own family when we are in trouble. We have so much abundance, yet we suffer so greatly from a deprivation of connection, deep belonging, and old-fashioned Amish-style community.

This was my “aha” moment.

When I placed the article last week right next to my constant reminder that we now live in a mission field, the lights went on. The article advised us that in “Re-designing church for the 21st century” it is community first, church second. Suddenly it wasn’t just good advice from a church consultant; it was like getting marching orders from our Presbyterian Mission Agency: “If you want to do mission work in America, it is community first. Go out and address the deep spiritual impoverishment of a people who have everything, but who lack basic connection, belonging and community.”

In some countries the mission work is to build schools and irrigation canals in deeply connected communities. In America we have the schools and the canals. What WE need are relationships, connection and community.

We are now in a mission field, my friends. And our neighbors desperately need us.

Community first, church second.

Go out.

Is This Your 10-Year Plan?

Dear Readers,

I am currently in Wisconsin assisting my sister in the care of my mother who has been put on end-of-life care. I came across this article during one of my freer moments. Not only does it allow me to post a blog without much effort; it also gives our congregations and their leaders a peek into the possible future of our churches, Christian community, and whatever new old thing God seems to be doing in this time.

CommunityI wanted to forward it to you as it contained many of the elements that I am watching emerge in churches who are successfully engaging with their changing neighborhoods and community. I can think of at least thirty churches in our own presbytery that are already employing these principles in new creative ways. We are ready for this!

The article is “Re-designing Church for the 21st Century.” This is definitely worth the read and a potential discussion at Session or with a Vision Team. Their four key points are below, but I would especially emphasize the first and the last as they mirror basic starting point assumptions I am carrying into this “Vision and Mission” work that reflects my title.

  • Community first, church second;
  • Partnerships that matter;
  • Incremental design;
  • Sense of adventure and creativity

I won’t say anything more about this now except to just encourage you to read the article and ask yourself, “Is This Our 10-Year Plan?”

When I return from Wisconsin we can talk about it more! Save me a place at the table. I like my coffee black and bold and my beer bitter and cold!


Taste and See

“O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34: 8

I am reading Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now during my morning meditation practice. He teased his readers with this reminder that Psalm 34: 8 reads, “taste and see” and just to make sure his point was not missed he added, “It doesn’t say ‘think and see.’” He knew who he was talking to—largely Western rationalist people who have cut their teeth on scientific inquiry and who come to know God through the intellectual rigors of systematic theology. Although I would say that we are more “think and do” people than “think and see.”

I know I am guilty. I loved theology in seminary. In fact it was the intellectual rigor of the classes in the Reformed tradition that drew me away from the more emotionally fed Baptist Sunday services of my college days.

Committee meetingSo I will admit that this language of “taste and see” in the psalms has me a bit stumped. I have been around Presbyterian circles and Presbyterian people long enough to know that if you want to explore a new idea or imagine a new ministry the first thing you do is create a committee. We are “think and do” type people. Get a few good heads together, share ideas, think about the possibilities and the drawbacks and then put the plan into action—think first, then do.

What do good Presbyterians do with the psalmist’s advice to “taste and see.” It doesn’t sound like a divine plan; it sounds like a divine sampler. It doesn’t sound like a whole-hearted commitment to do something; it sounds like a stick-your-big-toe-in-the-water, wait and see, half-commitment.

But there has to be something to this. I don’t think it would have survived nearly three thousand years if people had not found some juicy morsel of truth in it. Taste and see. What is it we “think and do” people need to learn from this?

riding a bikeI wonder if this “taste and see” approach to experiencing God’s goodness has to do with those arenas of life where thinking doesn’t do much good. I am an avid cyclist and I can tell you that most people don’t learn how to ride a bike by reading a manual and thinking and coming up with a riding plan. No, learning to ride a bike is a trial and error endeavor where a child gets to taste both the dirt below them when they fall and the rushing wind that massages them as they fly.

Kissing is a “taste and see” activity (literally!). Whoever learns to kiss by developing a “think and do” plan? No, a good kisser is not usually the person who follows the kissing manual, but the person who, by trial and error, learns what they like and what they don’t like and perfects the art one kiss at a time.

strawberriesI know that that this “taste and see” line is just three words and I am spending a lot of words exploring the implications of a life of faith that emerges more out of this than out of our usual “think and do” approaches. I am doing so not only because it has puzzled my usual Presbyterian way of thinking (there, I said it again!). I am doing so because I think this simple shift from thinking and doing to tasting and seeing gives us an image for how we are going to negotiate our way through this uncertain time.

It is the reason that I have used the image of holy breadcrumbs as my blog title to describe the process of our unfolding vision. I am convinced that our vision is not going to emerge out of a set of well-thought out plans, but from a series of experiments and experiences that we learn from and grow from. Seeing the way ahead only one breadcrumb at a time. Trial and error. More failures than successes. We may have to “taste and see” our way into the future.

kissing“O taste and see that the Lord is good,” writes the psalmist.

I believe we are going to have to learn to become good kissers.

Good kissers don’t think and do.

They taste and see.

Today’s moral:  More kissing, less thinking!

More actual living. Less planning how to live.

Adaptive Change…made simple

Do you remember that touching tear-jerking moment back in 2008 when truth and goodness and grace and innocence came crashing through a women’s college softball playoff game? Sara Tucholsky, a 5’ 2” senior in college, came up to bat in a sport where she had never hit a home run in her entire softball career, high school and college combined. Click to see video here.

first baseThen the unthinkable happened. She hit a hard line drive that cleared the home run fence. Two players rounded the bases toward home before everybody realized that Sara was lying on the ground in pain just past first base. She had failed to touch the base, turned abruptly to correct her mistake, and tore ligaments in her knee making her unable to go any further.

Umpires advised the Western Oregon coach that Sara could not be touched by any team member without disqualification, but could be replaced by a player at first base, settling for a two-run single. Either scenario would have resulted in the erasure of Sara’s first and only home run in her life. Those, apparently, are the rules and rules are what make games work.

Then the unthinkable went to the unbelievable.

First base player from the opposing team, Mallory Holtman, the home run career leader for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference asked whether their team could assist Sara around the bases. The umpire was clearly puzzled, but had to admit that there was nothing in the rules that would prevent an opposing team from aiding the other team’s player to advance through the bases and record a home run.

Western OregonMs. Holtman grabbed shortstop, Liz Wallace, and draping Sara over their shoulders, carried her around the bases allowing her to gently drop a foot at each base along the way. As they crossed home base together Sara was handed off to a group of cheering, grateful and teary teammates.

There were less than 100 people in attendance that day, but the video of this “softball miracle” has reached nearly 300,000 people and touched thousands of others with the remarkable show of character, grace and the ability to “do the right thing” and expose the façades that we all unknowingly hide behind in our daily lives.

The big word these days in the church is that we are living in an adaptive climate where the solutions to our challenges are not going to come from our usual toolbox, from the rules and regulations that we already have in place, but through thinking in creative and experimental ways to play an old game in a new way.

Church coaches and consultants will warn us that adaptive change is not for the faint of heart. It requires a great deal of courage, risk-taking and is one of the hardest journeys any organization can face. But really it is not all that complicated.

It is as simple as carrying an injured opposing player around the bases.

It’s as simple as healing on the Sabbath.

It’s as simple as running to the aid of a struggling, young Rose Garden singer.

It’s as simple as “losing your life for my sake, in order to gain it.”

It’s as simple as “doing the right thing” despite how it looks.

It’s as simple as being willing to lose a game in order to bring someone home.

This adaptive change thing is really not all that hard.

All we have to do is act like Jesus—always.