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!
I 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.
I 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.”
In 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.
It 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